Given our history, Vita, I’m aware you may decide not to read this. I turned seventy this past May, though I don’t expect you to care. For me this long-anticipated leap year (mmxx, as the Romans would have written it) has brought unwelcome news. The rest of humankind advances bravely toward its future while I stew in sickness, and in my own nostalgia, as everybody warned would happen at this time of life. It’s the craven need for absolution that has taken me by surprise. My thoughts are tuned ever more to Kitty, and to you. I am not a religious man, yet here I am, stuck in religious mode, coming to you as a supplicant.
I have something to propose, but I need to know you’re still there, that you might be prepared to hear me out.
Since I broke off contact, I’ve thought about you often. Mostly unkindly. But there – I have thought about you.
You’ve timed your latest entreaty well, which I’m sure is no coincidence. I’m crawling towards the abyss of early middle age myself. In a few months I will turn forty, as you would know. I read your email and was reminded that you’re one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me. I don’t just mean the money. It was the quality of your attention. The generous yet questionable nature of it. Nobody has ever been so invested in me making good on whatever raw talent I once possessed – not even my parents, for their love was always un- conditional.
Yours came with strings attached.
My dear, your reply is more than I deserve. It made me light- headed, poised somewhere between apprehension and happiness.
I’ll be clear about my proposal. Lately, I have begun excavating my memories of Kitty, a process that has been more than cathartic: it has been purgative, purifying. It has taken me a long time to look directly at all the images of her lodged in the undulations of my brain—for years I was stuck on a single, painful frame of her standing at the rim of Vesuvius, a fumarole within its core gently steaming behind her. That was the ending. In writing about her I am finally able to think instead of our beginning. All I need now is a receptive reader.
Perhaps you might like to do something similar for me and dig around in your own past, get rid of whatever it is that blocks you. Forgive me for saying it, but time is running out for you too. I have waited patiently until now for you to fulfill your early artistic promise. Under the right conditions, I believe it is still within your power to alchemize that potential into actual art. The rewards will be worth it; you know they always are with me. I am, if nothing else, an expert listener, something else we have in common.
My last voluntary contact with you, seventeen years ago—you could not have forgotten —was a letter saying I never wanted to hear from you again. A request you chose to ignore. I could not afford to vanish entirely, and risk losing those bonus cheques with your spidery signature that arrived every two years like clockwork. So there was never a clean break, you always knew where to find me. Once the cheques stopped arriving, exactly ten years after my graduation, the birthday cards continued, asking if I was flourishing.
You’re not of a generation to have these reminders automated. I imagine you still keep a paper diary, ordered from the alumni association of our alma mater, with a dark maroon cover and the crest discreetly embossed on the top right corner. Only those in the know would recognise it: three open books, the Latin for “truth” split into syllables across their pages.
These things mattered to you a great deal, I mean the signifiers of a person’s educational lineage. I recall your college class ring—class of ’71? ’72?—most clearly. I’d seen those clunky gold rings on the pinkies of my male classmates, markers of East Coast boarding schools, modern-day royal seals. They were useful as beacons of what kind of boy to avoid. On your hand the sight of the ring filled me with pity. Those boys were parading their power in the present, but you were still clinging to old symbols, old associations, to tell you who you were.
I understand what you’re asking of me. Mutual confession, the inside view.
I’m open to the idea, but for reasons of my own.
How wonderful to get you in stereo again, Vita. Rudely, I’ve not asked the basics. Are you well? Are your parents well? Are you still living in Mudgee, on the olive farm?
I write this from a very humid Boston. I have hardly left my air-conditioned townhouse this summer. Usually I escape to the house in Vermont, but the various commitments of dying— of what it does not matter—have kept me sweating it out here instead.
The only respite from the heat outside comes late in the evening. If my energy permits I go walking on the Common, past the illuminated softball fields, all the way up to the spray pool at Frog Pond. A breeze comes off the river, or from the sea, it’s hard to tell. Almost every night there’s music drifting across the grass from the Bandstand.
Yesterday evening I felt so revived by my walk that I decided to treat myself to a late restaurant dinner. Since it’s rare for me to have an appetite these days, I no longer mind dining out alone. The wait staff were extra attentive. The sommelier spent time taking me through the cellar offerings. I couldn’t manage dessert but I did have a glass of Sauternes, my favorite, as you know.
It made me think of our very first dinner together. Do you remember? I had ordered a bottle of Château d’Yquem to go with the warm pear sabayon. It was produced on Montaigne’s family estate in Bordeaux, though in his day they amassed their fortune not from sweet wine but from salted fish, similar to the local delicacy Kitty and I used to eat in new Pompeii.
You mentioned that you happened to be reading Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” in your social theory class, his reflections on a long-ago tribe’s tradition of roasting and eating their enemies, even sending portions of the meal to absent friends and family members.
“Jungle takeout!” I laughed, and you looked uncomfortable. Montaigne, you told me, was the father of cultural relativism and recommended we suspend judgment of those cannibals. You paraphrased him: while we quite rightly judge their faults we are blind to our own.
Even then it gave me a little chill of recognition.
The sommelier arrived at our table, and poured a neat spiral of wine for you to taste. I must have bored you to tears, going on about the two types of Botrytis cinerea infection in the grapes of the Bordeaux region. Gray rot, which ruins the grapes, and noble rot, which partially raisins the grapes and gives the dessert wine its concentrated flavor. Yet you made me feel as if it were the most interesting thing you’d ever heard.
Partially raisined is an apt description of my own appearance these days. I would like to think that, as with all humans who have not been blessed with good looks, my own rot is noble rather than gray. I have had less to lose to old age.
I’ve been thinking about how far back I need to go in order to understand how I ended up where I am, and have decided there might be some safety in chronology.
When I was given a place at our alma mater and a financial aid package, my parents were gobsmacked. An American teacher at my high school in Sydney had suggested I apply. I was an obedient immigrant daughter, after all; I’d done the work, had excellent grades, a fighting chance of getting accepted, she believed. I accepted the happy news blithely. Things went right for me all the time in those days. I didn’t quite realise my great good fortune until much later, on freshman move-in day, when I saw the Americans around me arrive on that campus as if they’d been allowed to see the Holy Grail. Many had three generations of family there to witness the rapture. I turned up alone, with one suitcase, so unprepared for college life that I had to borrow sheets on my first night in the dormitory. My roommates were friendly, and curious at my being almost a year older than them. I’d had to bide my time in Sydney, waiting for the American school year to start in September.
Most of the time, when somebody asked where I was from, I said South Africa, though by then I’d spent exactly half my life, in non- consecutive stints, in Australia, and had flown to Boston after four years in Sydney. It was interesting to test what new mantle I could draw around myself in that enlivening novel context, to see what I could get away with. It was the start of my obsession with my African roots, a phase that I believed would last forever. I had come to think of myself as a child who’d had no say in taking leave of a certain place, who longed to return to the source as to a womb. At first cautiously, then with growing confidence, I spoke about my passion for South Africa to anybody who would listen, and found that my new American friends generally believed anything I said about it, though I had not lived there myself for years. They were the brightest of the bright but not always well travelled, and some of them were a little shaky on the geography and cultures of the Southern Hemisphere. I was sometimes complimented on my English.
A second strange certainty coinciding with my arrival in America was the realisation that I wanted to be an artist, though I wasn’t yet sure what kind. I was in no rush. A liberal arts education, I’d learned from the glossy application brochure, allows the luxury of taking a nibble at a lot of different subjects over four brain- boosting years. I signed up for an introductory class on portrait photography, an abstract painting class, and a life-writing seminar; I would have a whole new roster of classes to choose from in the spring term, and every term thereafter.
Gradually, over the course of that fall semester, I was disabused of any notions of being a photographer or a painter or a life-writer. Each student in the photography class was loaned a stills camera and taught to develop black-and-white prints. I found I disliked taking portraits of people. It felt archival, like pinning something dead behind glass. I hated the darkroom, lit with a single red bulb like a brothel, and the chemicals, which burned the insides of my nostrils. Every time liquid splashed from the developing trays onto my skin, I imagined my flesh was sizzling.
In the painting class, I had no aptitude for making marks on paper. And it seemed to me an art form in which labour was irrelevant to outcome: the end result had no connection to the amount of time I’d spent on it. To another kind of person, that might feel like freedom. To me, it felt too unpredictable to pursue.
As for the writing seminar, in which a circle of eager first-years competed around a polished table for the professor’s attention, I discovered I had very little to say about myself and my past. Or more accurately, I could not trust that the things I had to say should ever be said, or that anybody would care either way. When I talked about South Africa to friends, it was with very broad brushstrokes: apartheid, Mandela, elections, democracy, flags, rainbows. But my childhood there was like a speech bubble floating above my consciousness. An empty bubble, containing exactly nothing. For reasons I was not yet prepared to confront, whenever I sat down to write about my personal experience of that country I literally could not produce a single word. I almost failed the class.
So in the spring, I was forced to expand my focus. I enrolled in a social anthropology class because one of my roommates’ mothers was an anthropologist. On a visit, she took us out for lunch and answered my many questions about her work by saying that anthropologists were professional outsiders, lurking at the fringes of other people’s lives, slipping in and out of circles of belonging and exclusion. Fieldwork, she said, was scientifically-endorsed hanging-out, for an extended period of time, in a place you found strange. Until you could begin to pinpoint why it felt strange to you in the first place.
It hadn’t been my first epiphany but it was still intense. The moving between two countries as a child, the strategies I had developed of wiggling my way into acceptance by a new group while still keeping a safe distance, the endless listening, the half- participating, my wait-and-watch approach. Maybe there was a way to turn who I was into what I did; maybe observing others could be an art form in itself.
Warily this time, I also signed up for a group filmmaking seminar, alert to the possibility of once again finding something about the medium that didn’t suit me. In the first class, we were sent outside to handle the equipment. When it was my turn, I balanced the big celluloid-film camera on my shoulder, looked through the viewfinder, heard the film roll start to turn mechanically as I recorded my classmates moving about in the sunlight. I felt a jolt of power and joy. With this machine I had the magical ability to capture time, place, light, movement: life itself, streaming into the aperture and settling on the rotating spool of film. It was like meeting my medium soulmate.
And in one of those satisfying symmetries that seem to happen all the time when you’re young, that same day—in the first meeting of the anthropology class—I discovered that film could be used as a research tool in ethnographic fieldwork, and that I could declare a double major in film and anthropology at the end of the year, hedging my bets between art and social science.
I hardly slept that night. I felt I had found it. The thing I was meant to do.
The film seminar was small, only ten students. Our collective assignment for the semester was to make a documentary. We brainstormed various topics and somehow settled on the BDSM scene in Boston, pleased with ourselves for our outré choice. We hung about in a local sex shop, asking permission to film people buying dildos and crotchless underwear and handcuffs. Most people, surprisingly, said yes. There were usually three of us filming – camera, sound-recordist, boom operator – a proper crew, which gave us some much-needed legitimacy, given how young we were. The staff at the shop began to pass on invitations to private BDSM parties and bondage events at clubs, and helped us negotiate permission to film, which was easier than we’d expected because people’s faces were often covered by masks or blindfolds, and these parties and clubs were, after all, filled with exhibitionists.
At our first party, held in the basement of a large house some- where in Boston’s south, I was assigned camera. I was still learning how to operate the complicated instrument and had only a limited supply of canisters of very expensive film. They had to be loaded and unloaded inside a lightproof bag, making me feel like a clumsy magician.
The point of starting us out on celluloid, our professor had explained, was to give us an old-school training in frugality as a guiding artistic principle. You couldn’t just let the camera run on and on as you could with video footage. Thought had to go into framing each shot so that no film was wasted. Capture the man climbing into the black leather cocoon strapped to the table. Cut. Follow the other man’s hand as he zips him into the cocoon, all the way over his face. Cut. A long shot of the table, the black lump unmoving, waiting in anticipation for the other man to begin to flick at his body with a whip. Cut. The whipping man looking at a stopwatch religiously between flicks, making sure the man inside the cocoon will not suffocate. Cut. The unzipping, the first gasping breaths.
At the end of each shot, I had to remember to pan over to my boom operator, who would knock the mic twice with her hand in a chopping motion to make synching easier later, while behind her people continued going about their leather-clad business.
A man at one of these parties invited us to film him alone in his own house. The class decided it would be an important scene for the film, something more intimate than the bigger gatherings, but only two students were available on the day of the shoot: Kate, on camera, and Agatha, who would do sound and boom.
They showed the rushes in class the next week with no sign of being traumatised. As I watched, I could feel horror welling somewhere in the region of my heart. The man had warmed up by crawling around naked, then asked Agatha to use her free hand to unzip his gimp mask and feed him grapes, and to whip his bottom with chains. Eventually he told Kate to film him masturbating on his knees, mask still on, until he came in a spurt towards the camera. When Kate panned after this to Agatha, who with a deadpan expression hit the boom, everybody laughed, even the professor.
To hide how disturbed I was by the footage, I enthusiastically offered to synch the sound and image reels. That night, alone in the film department basement, I ran the footage repeatedly through the editing carousel, clipping frames out with the tiny guillotine, marking the filmstrip with an oil pencil. The cum shot turned out to be difficult to synch, and I had to listen to his high-pitched whine backwards and forwards many times to get it right. It later became a class joke to mimic the sound he made while ejaculating in reverse.
The last time we screened the entire film for ourselves, before the public screening at the end of the semester, the projector jumped and trapped a single frame in front of the lamp. It was from the final scene, of this man on his knees, hand around his small hard dick. The frame went bright white and then began to burn from the inside out, as if he were being roasted in the fires of hell.
I have never forgotten the shock of the public screening. In some ways I’m still recovering from it. It made me tentative, too conscious that all art is eventually viewed in cold and critical light. I became afraid of the hubris of creation, of how seductive the wrong artistic choices can be. For our film proved to be terrible. Not because of the subject matter, but because we were so enthralled by the idea of making the film that we failed to make it well. The shots themselves may have been shapely, but taken together the film was nothing more than a meaningless montage of people looking like freaks, doing freakish things. It was a vehicle for cheap voyeurism, the kind of filmmaking we were supposed to have been immunised against.
I wanted to leave the cinema but I couldn’t, because Kate and I had thought it would be amusing to wear matching dog collars and handcuff ourselves together. So I remained beside her as the audience—other film students, professors, parents, roommates—went rigidly quiet. It was a hostile silence, the silence of an audience watching bad art. And it magnified the sounds of the film itself, every single sound all the way up to the climactic scene: the jagged shriek of an older man getting off on his audacity at engineering the participation of two young women, by letting them believe they have played him.
Along with my crushing fear of artist’s blindness, another insight came from that experience. I had initially assumed that people got into BDSM because they liked to break rules, push boundaries. In fact the opposite was true. The rules of engagement were precise, exhaustive, often set down in writing. Roles were strictly defined, pleasure and pain allowed only in prescribed amounts. Even the gimp-masked man had stuck to a script of sorts in his interaction with the girls filming him; he had not coloured outside the lines.
Until the night you locked me in your bedroom, Royce, I hadn’t feared you or what you might do to me. I’d intuited that you too had set yourself certain rules of engagement, and must have done the same with Kitty. But now I know the discipline it takes to keep unrequited passion obedient, that it must be tied up if it gets out of hand. How hard it must have been for you to let me go untouched back out into the cold air of morning.
Well, that took a dark little turn, didn’t it? No matter. Bad behavior always needs an audience. The temptation of any visitor to Pompeii is to look at the ruins as if they’re trapped inside a snow globe, an illustration of ancient Roman life as it always was, the ur-illustration. It was only thanks to Kitty’s guidance that I was able sometimes to grasp that Pompeii was not timeless but, like any city, always in flux, caught up in shifting currents of politics and style, opinion and preference.
An example of what I mean: at the time of its final destruction by Vesuvius, the city of Pompeii was still reeling from a devastating earthquake nearly two decades before, in AD 62. This earthquake had strongly influenced, of all things, home decoration in the years following. Some people tried to emulate the latest styles of Nero’s Rome when rebuilding their houses; on interior walls they had theatrical paintings done in vivid colors with fantastical images, what Kitty described as “illusionistic effects,” suddenly in vogue. Other families, unable to afford the new styles, or perhaps unaware of or unmoved by them, were left behind by the changing fashion. Little did they know that this minor failure of taste or economy would be documented forever.
There was something poignant to me in this detail; it seemed embarrassingly revealing. It was like me being caught today, if Boston were covered with lava, with my landline still in place— probably one of the few left in my neighborhood, a marker for all future observers of my antiquated ways. People would notice that I had not managed to keep up with the pace of change in the very culture in which I lived.
I hadn’t known about the earthquake of AD 62 until Kitty took me to see an excavated public temple, rebuilt after the quake, which showed an artist’s impression of what happened that day. Carved into the marble relief was a panorama of catastrophe: the Porta del Vesuvio collapsing, a cart pulled by two donkeys suspended in mid-air, the Temple of Jupiter already toppled. The inhabitants of the city who decided to stay and rebuild had created new shrines in penance for bringing the natural disaster upon themselves, and gave thanks for having survived it.
Seventeen years passed in peace. The people of Pompeii moved on with their lives. How could they have known what lay in store for them? They believed the very worst had already happened. Yet the earthquake held signs of the obliterating nightmare still to come. The ancients reported that a flock of six hundred sheep had perished on the slopes of Vesuvius, poisoned by the carbon dioxide emitted as the earth shifted, as the volcano slowly, slowly prepared for its next major eruption.
Clues to your own demise are more plentiful than you might think. The people who founded Pompeii had built their settlement on a prehistoric lava flow from the same volcano that was fated to bury the place forever. The city walls trace the edge of that lava stream, giving the hill town its oval shape and tilting aspect, starting high at the Porta del Vesuvio and sloping down to the Porta di Stabia. The founders chose to build their city as compactly as possible, so that it could be defended against human threats. Meanwhile, the real threat loomed above them, its reassuringly green slopes planted with vineyards in quincunx formation, pleasing to gaze upon.
Some years ago, there was a volcanic eruption in Iceland, which I watched on the news. No humans died, I don’t believe, but there was a mass extinction of birds, poisoned by the layer of carbon dioxide that settled just above the ground. All except the seagulls, who were taller than the sparrows and the snow buntings and could keep their heads above that thin layer of gas.
It seemed an important message about how to survive in this world. Keep your head up or suffocate. How random the judgment between those who are spared and those whose time has come.
We seem to be on parallel narrative tracks, like the nocturnal journey of predator and prey. Each creature leaving a set of prints in the sand, each experiencing the wind and the moonlight, the two bound together by a mutual awareness of death.
I could not stick to my pledge to focus on humans that winter in the Western Cape. I spent my days making images of every step in the wine’s production, from the planting and grafting of the vine stock to the pruning of the shoots and branches, and the fermenting of the wine in metal vats so huge that men in masks had to climb inside to clean them after each batch. I was seduced again into trying to capture the quality of the sunlight; it was nothing like winter sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere. In the tasting rooms, I left my camera off as I watched the mostly white visitors swirl and sniff and gurgle the wine.
Over the course of those weeks I began to wonder if suppressed guilt could be extreme enough to stunt a person’s emotional growth.
I tried to think of my most lucid childhood memory, and found that it was of grief and guilt bound together. My parents and I had returned home one day to find we’d been burgled. The burglars had placed our kitchen knives all over the house, to use if they were disturbed. A baby bird that my mother and I had rescued and installed in a shoebox had been decapitated. I knew, even then, when I could not have been older than five, that there was something right and fair in the bird having been killed. I understood the insult of my sentimental care of an animal when all around us human beings were suffering because of people who looked like me. For a while after the burglary I secretly hit our next-door neighbour’s cat, as hard as I could, anytime it came within reach of my little hand. (I can see now, with sudden clarity, why I was so fascinated by Luis Buñuel’s films in my first film class; why I used to wait with bated breath for his signature mad dog to appear and wreak havoc, a symbol deployed, as Ernest Becker wrote, to mess with the security of repressed living.)
One day on the farm, I spent a morning in the vineyard filming the hands of an elderly worker as he pruned the rosebushes planted at the end of each row. He had the pickled face of a heavy drinker and his hands shook as he clipped the stems. I zoomed out, stepped in. I didn’t ask him any questions, but at one stage he volunteered something about the rosebushes and why they had been planted there.
“The thorns made the donkeys do a bigger turn at the end of the row,” he said in Afrikaans.
“The donkeys?” I said.
“Before the machines, we used donkey carts for the harvest.”
So the rosebushes now had no practical purpose, only an aesthetic one, but in the past their thorns had forced the donkeys to make a clean, wide turn as they trudged around the end of one row and into the next, leaving the vines undamaged.
“With that thing,” he motioned to my camera,”can you see through people?”
Maybe I had misunderstood his Afrikaans. I was alarmed that he thought the camera might be like a portable X-ray machine. Or did he mean that I could see the truth with it? Was he afraid I would show the footage to the farm manager, who might find fault with his work?
I stopped recording, pulled out the display screen, rewound, and showed him the footage I’d just taken.
“It’s not safe,” he said—I don’t know if he meant for me or for him—and he turned back to the rosebushes.
We didn’t exchange words again.
A month into my stay, the big wine boss from Switzerland visited the farm. He was a confident, paunchy man in his late forties. One afternoon he offered to drive me to the company’s bottling plant in Worcester.
He drove too fast through the Huguenot Tunnel, talking about what a bastard the man who previously owned the farm was, how he hadn’t paid the workers a wage in decades, but kept them dependent on him by meting out alcohol on the weekends. He told me the first thing the company did was install flush toilets in the workers’ houses.
To pierce his self-satisfaction, I asked what the company charged for a bottle of Seeds of Hope wine in European supermarkets, where I knew they were sold at a high price to consumers wanting to make an enlightened choice. He raised an eyebrow, retook my measure. The subcurrent of air in the car shifted.
At the plant, I was happy to film the bottles being filled with wine from rotating spouts, the corks being pushed into necks one after the next with a hiss and a thud, the labels being smoothed on at the end of the line before the bottles were plunked by a machine into a partitioned box. Each image felt more satisfying than the last, but it occurred to me that I had stooped even lower in my artistic dissociation, that I wasn’t even filming live creatures anymore. I consoled myself by thinking that maybe machines could say things I didn’t yet dare. A metaphor, after all, is only a vehicle to transfer meaning from one thing to another.
On the way back to the farm, the Swiss boss wanted to know what it felt like, making a film. I thought he was asking about the ethics of it, and launched into a speech about implied consent, afraid he was going to revoke my permission to roam about the farm with my camera.
“No, what does it feel like physically?” he said, his eyes on the road.
Nobody had asked me something like this before, not even you.
It turned out to be a question I’d been waiting to answer, for the details poured out of me. I told him about the ache in my right arm as I held up the camera, how the muscles around my left eye sometimes went into spasm from all the squinting in order to see more clearly with my right eye through the viewfinder. How smooth the rubber of the eyepiece felt against my skin.
I described trying to get the bubble into the circle of the spirit level at the base of the tripod, and how the name made me think that if I could get it perfectly level, my own spirits would lift, or the spirits of the filmmaking gods might be appeased and grant me good footage. The coin I used to clip the camera into and out of the tripod’s head, and how it felt to slide the hairy boom cover onto the microphone protruding from the camera—as if I were preparing it for hibernation—to help dim the sounds of nature, of weather. What it was like later, in the editing suite, being able to erase wind noise from footage, elastic-band the audio track to fix accidental pops.
I told him of the challenge of knowing what raw material I had, since it was trapped on multitudes of tapes that I could only watch in real time, or skip forwards and backwards in, inevitably losing my bearings. That the only way of taking stock of my footage was to describe it in words, shot by shot, timecode by timecode, in language that was by necessity flat, reductive.
Sometimes, I said to him, when I watched my footage after the fact, it looked dead, as if the images had been murdered by being sucked through the lens. But on rare occasions it was more alive than I could have imagined, like real life on steroids, and I felt I could not take the credit, that some vital force must have streamed into my lens while I was filming. I described the first, impossible day of any edit, confronting the flabby footage spread across storage devices. How difficult it was to know where to start, which piece of flesh to pinch and cut off in the butchery of editing.
While I talked, he drove to an expensive French restaurant above the valley in Franschhoek and said he was buying me dinner.
I realised at some point during the meal that he believed me to be American, and I didn’t correct him. Many of the workers on the farm had assumed this too, maybe because my Afrikaans was stilted. I’d felt mildly offended, and then relieved to have cast off a burdensome identity. It allowed me to avoid answering questions about when I’d left South Africa and why, and what had brought me back. I felt liberated inhabiting the skin of an idealistic young American, who could be held to account for many, many things but not for this particular disaster, not for this country’s decades of trauma.
The Swiss boss and I drank a lot of wine and I knew exactly where he thought the night was headed.
He told me about the small organic farm he’d bought nearby as a passion project. His workers were planting oats and clover between the rows of vines to provide nitrate and phosphate. He’d bought ducks to eat the snails but the ducks had disappeared – onto the dinner tables of the workers, he believed. Now he had a woman come and pick the snails off the leaves individually before they were shipped to Switzerland as a delicacy.
Freed by the wine, he began to tell me other things. That he was an animalist, that he based his sexual attraction on smell alone, and had been intoxicated when he greeted me—with three weirdly formal Swiss cheek kisses—by my natural musky scent.
I excused myself. In the bathroom, I caught my reflection – lips stained red by the wine, hair dirty, eyebrows needing attention. My deodorant had worn off and my armpits were ripe with the aftermath of the heavy lifting of camera and tripod. And there was a sharper odour, of anxiety or excitement, which seemed to have attracted the attention of an older man who did not see a woman who should by that age have learned to look after herself better. The Swiss boss could see only my youth, which was invisible to me, and would remain so until I turned thirty-five and suddenly grasped what I had, only to lose it overnight.
In a class on feminism my second year at college, the teaching assistant, a woman in her mid-forties, had asked all us peachy-faced girls in her study section if we’d ever felt discriminated against as women. Not a single one of us put up a hand, and we refrained defiantly, with a hint of swagger: things had changed, the world belonged to us, we had always been treated as equals.
The assistant, who had been raised in a commune set up in permanent protest outside a weapons factory somewhere in Sweden, looked at us sadly.”Mark my words,” she said,”the doors will start to slam shut in your faces the day you are no longer considered youthful. Only then will you see how misguided you were to equate being young and female with being empowered. You may turn your back on feminism now, think you don’t need it, but by God you’ll need it once you start to age. The opportunities you thought were based on merit will dry up just as you do.”
I’d looked around the classroom and seen on the faces of my fellow female students no alarm, nothing but the pity I too was feeling for her. We all believed that her prediction was the product of personal disappointment, and we felt safe in the conviction that for us it would be different.
Men could only harm us if we let them, and, just like me, most of the women in that room had already armoured themselves against the need for a man. We slept around at college, making sure it wasn’t about anything other than answering for ourselves the interesting question, Am I fuckable? None of us believed in searching for a Grand Romantic Passion, unless it was the grand passion for the self, for realising the self. I had seen my female roommates, and they had seen me, return from one-night stands and efficiently set about the process of readying themselves for the real work of the day: getting to class on time, diligently handing in assignments, volunteering for campus organisations related to our choice of career, feeding our CVs as if they were ravenous beasts that would die without fodder.
Nothing happened with the Swiss boss that night, or any other night—I made sure of it. Before he left for Switzerland, he offered to do an interview for my film, to explain the history of winemaking in the region, all the way back to the Dutch who had planted the first vines and enslaved the first workers to tend them, and the community of Huguenots who had fled religious persecution in France, secretly bringing with them to Africa their treasured vine stocks, sometimes tucked into the folds of their babies’ nappies. I refused politely, saying I wasn’t doing any talking heads for my film.
“But you surely have to provide some background for your footage?” he said.
I stood firm, he left me alone.
In fact, during my time at that farm I had come to change my thinking a little, and was beginning to see the differences between artistic and ethnographic filmmaking. The latter owed something to people other than the filmmaker, but art could stew in its eccentricities, owing nothing to anybody but its creator. If I made an ethnographic film it would need to be shepherded out into the world. It would need to seem principled, both in the conditions of its making and those of its circulation, and would be judged according to what it added or took away from the ethnographic canon.
If, on the other hand, it was put forward as art, I could ignore the human subjects as much as I wished, indulge my visual interest in processes, not bother with contextual explanation. I could revel in being an unreliable witness. Even if the film I produced was a hybrid mess, so long as I could demonstrate in the accompanying written reflection, required for my joint thesis, that I had made it in good faith—with an inquiring mind—I hoped it would be enough to please my professors and let me pass.