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Chameleon: The blurred line between safety and authenticity

CHAMELEON (Change-couleur) (2021) is a 35-minute short fiction film by Stéphane Olijnyk, a French director and screenwriter. In French with English subtitles, it was shot in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire and it is one of the very few LGBTQIA+ fictions shot in West Africa, where most of the countries have laws that criminalize homosexuality.

Change-couleur opens with an erotic scene between two black men in close-up shot, but this moment of intimacy is immediately cut off with a warning of the risk that comes with such a relationship. Through their conversation, the viewer understands that outside of this room, there is a different world that neither understands them nor accepts them, so they have to find ways to blend in, like chameleons.

Saint (Cédric Djédjé) chooses to seal every suspicion regarding his gay agenda with a heterosexual marriage, and Ali (Franck O’neil Servain) Saint wife’s nephew is compelled to attend and dance at his wedding. After a traditional dance performance, Ali comes in voguing, gazing into the eye of his secret lover, and the moment is intensified with the music and reddish intimate lightning. He gets noticed by Saint’s invitee in the audience, Maël, who lives in Paris and does import-export like Saint. This encounter would led to Ali’s ousting.

Although vogue has become a dance that is globally embraced by the queer community, its place in this film is questionable, particularly performing it in a weeding, dressed casually. The choice to put the two performances together in one scene, traditional and voguing dance with different musical instrument, to have Ali and his young brother learn it from the internet videos, raises questions as to whether queers in West Africa have a ball culture or a place for voguing in their daily lives.

Scene of the film, source: filmfreeway.com
Scene of the film, source: filmfreeway.com

Maël invites himself into Ali’s life and started offering his young brother toys, not out of generosity, but to instill fear into Ali about what he is capable of doing. With Maël’s menace to expose him and his relationship with Saint, Ali accepts to comply with his demands and meet him at the hotel. As opposed to other pro-LGBTQIA+ fiction films that portrays solidarity and support among the queer community, this film depicts a layered element that we rarely see on screen, Ali is blackmailed by his fellow gay man, Maël, a man from an outside world where a man and a man can constitute a family, a concept that Ali was yet to understand: “A family, you call this a family? A man with another man. I had a real family, now there’s nothing left because of you.” Ali tells Maël blaming him for ruining his life and his relationship with his parents. With this script, was the intention to show that Ali is homophobic, despised gay marriage and did not aspire to be in one some day? “I will never get married, i’ll never become a chameleon” Ali also whispered in Saint’s ears as he was wishing him happy marriage, in another scene, at the wedding. The two scenario and the ending of this film that i won’t spoil show the cognitive dissonance that comes with being young, queer, muslim and member of a homophobic society.

Notwithstanding that Maël’s sexual blackmails and Ali’s attempt to revenge exposes the past and present flaws in our system and the cycle of violence that haunt our collective liberation as human beings, Stéphane Olijnyk seems to have paid less attention to the direct violence and threat the homophobic society pose to queer folks in West Africa and put much emphasis on how much violence exists within the LGBTQIA+ community itself. How prevailing is this issue of gay-to-gay assault and blackmail in Ivory Coast or Senegal, are stories the filmmaker tells correspond to the experience of the queer folks of the countries he shoots these series of queer films in?

Change-couleur is the second fiction film addressing homosexuality in homophobic society that the Stéphane Olijnyk has made, the first one: Ursinho (2017) was shot in Rion de Janeiro featuring Digão Ribeiro as the lead actor. Stéphane Olijnyk initially intended to shoot Change-couleur in Senegal but because homosexuality is still penalized with up to five years in prison and a fine of between 100,000 to 1,500,000 CFA (about $2,500) there, he changed to Ivory Coast, where the law is still silent. There is no legal recognition of same-sex couples in Ivory Coast nor is there anti-discrimination law protecting LGBTQ people. “Homosexuality does not fit in with our cultural and moral values,” the president of the Ivorian National Assembly stated in April 2022, after a revised article of the penal code that no longer mentions "sexual orientation" as discrimination was adopted. This means it is not safe to express one’s queer identity in Ivory Coast either.

Despite the danger surrounding the two lovers, their scenes of physical intimacy were shot in all boldness, in close-up shots, a cinematographic choice that undoubtedly raises concerns about the security of the featured Ivorian lead actors. Cédric Djédjé, Franck O’neil Servain are based in Europe, but if they were Ivorian local actors, what would their lives be like outside the camera? As the poet Alok Vaid-Menon said, “the camera exposes, it does not defend.” But again, representation matters, especially in African countries where homophobia makes many LGBTQIA+ members choose safety over authenticity and conformity over community. But, is there something more ambitious than representation?

As far as representation is concerned, some details in this short film demonstrate the efforts of the director to authentically represent some of the cultural and religious aspects in West Africa: the setting, scenes involving siblings sharing a bed, Muslim families sharing a meal divided in man-women separate sides, waist chain as a lucky charm and its association witchcraft, nostalgic details like the small note with “Ps: Do not forget to tear up this note”, parents’ considering homosexuality as a case of indiscipline and lack of proper education, the traditional attire of the characters, to name a few.

Change-couleur denounces homophobia by depicting the extent to which queer people can go to obscure their identity to keep themselves intact in the face of a threat present in their society. How common is this issue of African queers acting like chameleons as a tactic for survival? For how long do they manage to keep their sexual orientation secret?

All in all, Change-couleur recognizes the existence of queer folks in West Africa, all the same demonstrating the strategies they use to survive in a homophobic society. The film initiates important conversations between those who are fighting for the right to embrace their queer identity, those obscure their identity for survival, the guardians of the “cultural and religious principles” that keep backing up the laws criminalizing homosexuality as well as those who seek to tell African queer stories in films.