Feminist Filmmaker Meets Boss Bitch Rapper
By Leila Dougan
Award-winning filmmaker Shelley Barry and rapper Dope Saint Jude are teaming up to produce a fast-paced, edgy music documentary about the up and coming hip hop queen, whose fresh feminist lyrics and bold, genderqueer style are making waves on the Mother City music scene. Barry talks to The Journalist about collaborating with Dope Saint Jude, burning the candle at both ends and margarine commercials.
Shelley Barry is a one-woman film powerhouse who has been directing and producing shorts and full length feature doccies from a wheelchair for over a decade. Her story is both harrowing and overwhelmingly inspirational.
Almost 20 years ago, as a young graduate on her way to a job interview, Barry was shot at point blank range during the spate of taxi war violence that plagued Cape Town in the 90s. The incident left Barry paralysed from the waist down. She was only 23 at the time. But seeing herself as a survivor rather than a victim of gun violence, Barry refused to give up on her dream of becoming a filmmaker. And she’s no ordinary director. Her areas of activism and work include feminist, disability rights activist and advocate for the control of gun violence.
She started her own company called Two Spinning Wheels Productions and has travelled all over the world, screening her work and scooping up awards along the way. Her filmography includes: Whole-A Trinity of Being, a three part docu-poem that explores her spiritual journey after the violence that caused her disability; Where We Planted Trees, a short film in which she revisits the Port Elizabeth home her family lost during the forced removals of the apartheid state; and New York/New Brighton, a fictional short film that contrasts the lives of two young girls in New York and Port Elizabeth.
Diary of a Dissident Poet, explores the life of poet James Matthews, while her most recent documentary I’m Not Done Yet is a moving tribute to writer, activist and friend Charlene Maslamoney, who passed away after succumbing to cancer. But one of her most defining films is yet to come, by collaborating with a feminist hip-hop artist who’s taking the Cape Town music scene by storm.
For those out of the loop, Dope Saint Jude is the genderqueer, feminist rapper. Otherwise known as Catherine Saint Jude Pretorius, the hip hop artist refers to herself as “an academic, a thug, a rapper, a hustler, an activist, a producer, a community worker, a filmmaker, a party animal, a lover, a sista and a BOSS BITCH!” She and Barry met a few years ago, in a bar in Greenpoint, where Saint Jude was performing in South Africa’s first drag king troupes called Bros B4 Hoes.
“I was very fascinated with this group of women who were being drag kings and particularly Dope Saint Jude because she took on the persona of a rapper based on Lil Wayne. I thought ‘Whoa, this is a movie’. And I approached Catherine that night, she was immediately on board,” said Barry.
At the time, the ambitious filmmaker was burning the candle at both ends, shooting her first feature length documentary on James Matthews while teaching a film course at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where she formed part of the Gender Equity Unit’s LGBTQI programme as a filmmaker in residence. At UWC Saint Jude turned out to be one of Barry’s students.
“[A]t that stage Catherine had left the drag king troupe and had gone solo and she was on this major mission to become successful and to enter the mainstream of rap as a queer, out there, rapper, and being feminist and all of that. And so I said, look I want to make this film, and she was also very keen on telling a story about herself”.
“Is she going to be successful in her quest- will it be what she hopes it will be, what is she going to come up against, who are the people who hate her, who are the people who love her? And then my sub-characters are the people who surround her, all these young dynamic South Africans who she surrounds herself with. And then her mother and her father. Her mother is a very important element in her life. She’s very close to her mom, who is radical in her own way, looking at her roots as well, coming from Elsies River. That is where she came from, but this is where she is now and what’s going to happen over the next year where she attempts to rise to stardom.”
Barry’s films are largely character driven, and Saint Jude does not disappoint, flipping gender norms and patriarchy on its head with word play that blends Cape Flats slang and ‘Gayle’.
“She’s young, she’s black and in a society where there’s an increase in violence and hate crime against people who are queer. Catherine is so proudly queer. She’s out there”, says Barry. “For me, being queer is an issue close to my heart and issues around gender. People have the right to be whatever gender they want to be, and to explore and play and transform if they so wish. So I’m interested in characters, but also stories that are issue driven. Besides I think the world is waking up, finally, to issues around gender and looking at the norms around gender and breaking those norms and living in between those norms.”
Barry says that navigating the complexities of Saint Jude will be one of her major challenges, as well as keeping up with the changing nature of her personality.
“People evolve. Our identity is always in flux,” says Barry. “Since I wrote the last treatment Catherine’s been going through a very spiritual phase where she’s been feeling quite connected to her Christian identity again and that for me has been an interesting turn. She grew up catholic but has not been a practising catholic, but over the past month or two she’s been trying to get reconnected to her spirituality. So that was an interesting turn for me, I didn’t know that about her and she didn’t know that about herself necessarily.”
Following the artist around for a year, is only one of Barry’s strategies for getting the content she needs. From exploring Saint Jude’s roots growing up on the Cape Flats, to her dream of making it big, Saint Jude will have her own camera to document her life, along with some of her friends who’ll also be shooting. Which also means Barry moving away from being a ‘one-stop shop’.
“I came from being an independent filmmaker I didn’t have the budget, but this is more of a collaborative effort, which is great,” says Barry. Besides the budget constraints that all independent filmmakers face at some point in their careers, being wheelchair bound is another major challenge for Barry.
“It really is not easy. We don’t live in an accessible society and wherever I go on shoot I’m having to negotiate inaccessible environments and sometimes that means there’s no bathroom to use. It’s simple things like that. Or there are stairs, or a space is too crowded.”
Not that that’s ever stopped her in the past. “I’ve done crazy things,” she says laughing. “I’ve been carried up in dangerous environments and spaces just to get the shot, but I’m now working with a team of people, people who understand my eye. So I have a stunning team for this film, what I’m looking for now is the money to make it happen”.
Investors in the USA have shown healthy interest in the film, and Barry’s Indiegogo funding campaign is up and running until Friday (19 June). While waiting for the cash to roll in Barry is continuing with film training workshops which is her main source of finance as an independent filmmaker “so that I don’t have to shoot margarine commercials to pay the rent. Not that I’ve ever shot a margarine commercial,” she says laughing.
The film is due to be released in 2016, keep an eye out and #keepintouch this is one collab you don’t want to miss