Heartbreaking and nerve wrecking, even eye-jarring, Rough Aunties is an inconvenient documentary set in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a movie that explores the type of subject matter which has, somehow, fallen through the cracks of development-related discourse. Rough Aunties tells the story of a group of women (Jackie, Mildred, Eureka, Sdudla, and Thuli) from Durban South Africa who work for Operation Bobbi Bear, an organization fighting for the rights of child victims of sexual abuse. Coming from distinct cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, these women are relentless in their quest to bring child-rapists to justice. They provide counseling to rape victims, work closely with the police to have perpetrators arrested and trialed and collaborate with social workers to find new families for battered children.
What makes this movie different even if shot and produced by a westerner (the direct cinema documentary comes from British director Kim Longinotto, Sisters in Law, 2005) is that it makes no attempt to stylize, edit or censor the all too horrifying issues it is set to present. What makes this documentary exceptional is that the director has inserted herself in the background so seamlessly that, for the most part, we get to see people acting in their natural habitat, facing impossible choices, dealing with excruciating real-life situations, and somehow remaining sane in the process.
The documentary begins with flashing images of the city of Durban with Brenda Fassie’s famous Sum’Bulala song in the background, and a quote from Nelson Mandela who is credited for saying that “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” The rest of the movie deals with those neglected souls who seem to have been long forgotten by (or never acknowledged to begin with) by the South African state.
The director followed the five women for approximately ten weeks capturing on camera some of the most appalling cases they dealt with. In such a small period of time which for the usual viewer would pass without major, life-changing events, the workers at Bobbi Bear dealt with multiple rape victims (both girls and boys), a vicious murder, the drowning and funeral of Sdulda’s only child, the brutal beatings of a 12 year old, and the rape of an adult woman by multiple family members (brother and grandfather). How can anyone work in such extraneous conditions and not go completely mad? The women work together, side by side, united in their despair and anger. They find comfort in each other, assist one another and through compassion and dedication they literally made the world a better place.
With very little editorial input, viewers are expected to simply catch up with what is happening in each scene. For the most part, the documentary almost unfolds like a daily diary. One which, unfortunately, seems to start in the middle of the day. This strategy is both a blessing and a burden.
It is a blessing because the main protagonists get the opportunity to speak for themselves, as they see fit, without any scripted screenplay to fall back on.
It is a burden because at times, the protagonists – especially the white folk – seize the camera in order to produce and disseminate their own guilt over the past and the present. Something even a masochist even a myself seems to lose interest in after a while. Especially Jackie Branfield, the owner of the organization, seems to dedicate every other speech to either apologizing for white oppression under apartheid or to inform and convince African women that they too fought for independence. Those who have been to South Africa, however briefly, know that such words very rarely come out of white people’s mouths. But when Jackie continues to repeat the same message again and again, one could only wish Longinotto had, at times, exercised some editorial discretion.
For Jackie not only comes off as liking to listen to herself speak in front of the camera, but at times she seems blatantly racist, albeit without knowing. In a particularly telling scene, she gives one of her employees some relationship counseling. The person in question is separated from her husband and Jackie wants to introduce her to another man who appears to be fond of her. It all goes well until Jackie drops the bomb: “He is an African male. And it doesn’t matter what color they are and what language they speak, they always like their women barefoot, pregnant at the kitchen sink.” Given the fact that Jackie’s own husband seems to be very much invested in her work and that he is indeed assisting her with the organization, one could only wonder if the color of the skin really did matter to Jackie, even if she doesn’t realize that. A similar head shaking instance involves Jackie literally demanding forgiveness from one of her employees regarding an instance in which the organization could not help her when she was in need. All these scenes really seem to suggest that at least some protagonists are more aware of the camera’s presence than others.
Another uncomfortable segment of the documentary has to do with one of the tough aunties, Sdulda and her son, Shababa, who had just drowned. First, the director chose to include in the movie the discovery of the body, the mourning of the mother and the child’s funeral. Together, it seems this episode takes the largest amount of screen time of all the case studies presented in the documentary. Watching this is simply unbearable. But even more disconcerting and morally troublesome is the very inclusion of this passage in the movie. First, this has nothing to do with the overall message of a group of women fighting to bring child abusers to justice. In fact, in many ways, this is a distraction from the main plot. Second, there is nothing more intimate than the morning over the loss of a child. Having that played on screen again and again for millions more to see just seems unfair. Third, even if the point of this segment is to show that the five women are united, and supportive of each other, I see absolutely no value in showing a frantic woman squirming on the ground as she attempts to make sense of the unexplainable. That is just unacceptable.
This is not the only instance where there seem to be some double standards and, well, editorial discrimination. And this relates to what seems to be the fundamental tension with what we see in this documentary. On the one hand, the director puts together a complex story of hope and despair, of camaraderie and joint destinies which, on its merits, is a superb and encouraging sign that a racially-divided country can pull itself out if its own tormented history. On the other hand, I cannot stop thinking of the very women, girls, boys and, yes, even perpetrators that we get the chance to take a glimpse at. For the one thought that continues to haunt me after watching Rough Aunties is that this sort of documentary can only be made in South Africa. Or any other third world country. If images and the identity of a 12 year old girl or a three-year old boy talking about being raped by a neighbor or family member belonged to, say, American subjects, then the documentary would have been met with public outcry by the audience. If a young woman with clear mental problems were to be on TV, people would scream of the wrong that has been done.
Protecting the identity of these victims in the Western world would be of paramount importance for we would automatically think of the stigma that would accompany these people for the rest of their lives. But when the same victims are Africans, we don’t even think of them in the same terms. Showing the scars of a girl abused by her uncle is just as acceptable as providing close shots of the three year old boy and the adults waiting to see whether he tests HIV positive. Which brings me back full circle to the fact silent dehumanization that might very well be at play here.
My last criticism with Rough Aunties is that it is, par excellence, a synchronic movie. There is almost no attempt made to suggest or look into how things ended up where they are today. We get almost no information about the historical context in which these tensions and social injustices occur (name-dropping apartheid really doesn’t cut it), or who the five women that are the heroes of this story come from. How and why did Jackie start this organization? What was her personal motivation for it? How did the organization manage to stay afloat over the years? How did the women manage to work closely with the police? Better yet, what is the extent of this collaborative relationship? How did the three Zulu women end up working at Bobbi Bear? Sometimes, getting just a slice of life served to you can be exactly what you need. But I really don’t think that’s the case with this documentary.
For all its flaws, I actually did enjoy Rough Aunties quite a lot. Even if not directly, the image of South Africa emanating from this movie is that of a mosaic of unfitting pieces. It’s not that the right pieces aren’t’ there. It’s more like the matching of the pieces is a work in progress, one where the pieces need to polished, realigned and restructured. I loved it because it truly shows a world that continuously makes and remakes itself. There is a certain dynamism, interdependency and cross-cultural cooperation that this movie manages to capture which I find utterly refreshing. There’s an inescapable mélange of empathy and despair this movie emanates. Rough Aunties provides a welcoming and much needed dose of realism and idealism which most of us rarely get to experience.
Rough Aunties trailer