synopsismaking itthe teamcreditspress

From: The Mail & Guardian - 28 July 2000

"Granny Lee" created confusion and wonder wherever she went, because she was actually a he, and the white person buried in a white cemetry turned out to be coloured. ANDREW WORSDALE talks about the documentary on the life of a remarkable queer.

I was there. At Granny Lee's funeral in the Anglican Cathedral in downtown Johannesburg in 1989. As someone remarks in the upcoming documentary Metamorphosis - The Remarkable Journey of Granny Lee - "It was a deluxe State Funeral." And with so many queens attending it really was - with the sense of occasion and flamboyance that always accompanied South Africa's most famous drag queen. I'd met him some years earlier when I used to hang out with friends at several gay venues in the city - and Lee was always there propping up the bar in some glamorous outfit eyeing all the pretty boys and on occasions snagging them. She was an institution in Johannesburg's nightlife.

Lee him/her/self said in an audio interview with photographer Herb Klein (who supplied 70% of the still photographs for the doccie), "I am not one of those people who want to shine like common brass in sunlight... The reason why I will never have a sex change is for the simple reason that I'm a very holy type of person. People may not think so, but I've been brought up that way. I don't think I will be accepted with a plastic body in the new hemisphere wherever it is. That's why I keep my body as I was born. The other reason is this. If a man wanted a fish, he'd go to real fish."

He was born Leonard du Plooy in Kimberley on the 18th of March 1919, the youngest son of a dysfunctional coloured family. His father left home when he was eight years old and his mother Kate had to depend on her own resources and work as a cook for the Welfare Department to support the family. Leonard went to The Perseverance Practice School and trained there as a teacher. He then went on to become a nursery school teacher and tennis coach, at one point even playing professionally for Griqwa .

After resigning his job he moved to Durban where he also taught and become actively involved in nightlife and the gay scene. In his late twenties he made for a very handsome young man, director Luiz DeBarros who scripted and directed the documentary says he thinks he looked a lot like Laurence Fishburne. In his fifties, Leonard moved to Johannesburg and proceeded to become the city's most famous club-goer and drag queen - by 1972 he'd become Granny Lee.

"I have never yet been called 'mister' in 20 years in this city," Lee told Herb Klein, "They call me 'madam', 'missus', 'granny', or whatever in shops. Not 'mister'. And my success is only this - because I don't jump into men's clothes in the morning."

Lee's late night-socialising and heavy drinking (evidently his favourite was a double brandy and coke with lemonade which he quaffed copiously) led to a liver problem that caused her pigment to fade, aided by an overdose of medication and excessive alcohol abuse Lee literally turned white overnight.

Granny Lee died in a car accident on a highway to Durban after she and a couple of friends decided to travel down there on a whim one very early morning. When her body was discovered Inspector Mostert of the Vrede police station reported the body of an elderly white woman, only later did the policeman - much to his astonishment, learn that the corpse was not that of a white person nor of a woman. Before her death she claimed she was 81 years old, when in reality she was 71 - part of the ongoing 'created identity' that made Granny Lee such an extraordinary character.

The documentary Metamorphosis was conceived when DeBarros was developing another doccie called Skin and he recalled the story of Lee and went to research it at the Gay and Lesbian Archives at Wits University; he found Lee's life fascinating and so began a month of intense research, travelling to Kimberley, speaking to Lee's friends, placing ads in the gay press for info and chatting to club owners. Eventually he and producer Marc Schwinges pitched the idea to Eddie Masingana of SABC 3 and the film was given a virtually immediate go-ahead.

DeBarros says, "It's mainly a documentary about memory, there's not much known about Lee's life prior to 1948 - also gay life at the time was pretty much underground so the movie plays like a collage of people's memories." Combining archive photographs, interviews with friends (evidently a lot of people - especially in Kimberley - helped the filmmakers in their research but refused to go on camera) as well as some recreations featuring Ruth Barter playing Lee as well as narration written by DeBarros with John Novik doing Lee's inimitable gravel tinged voice, the movie makes for a visually enthralling, totally engrossing insight into hard living, eccentricity, and identity.

DeBarros realised that he had to use authentic disco music from the 70s and 80s for the film, there no way he was going to use mood music. This proved a bit of a nightmare for Schwinges because of cost but the enterprising producer managed to cut a cross-merchandising deal with Universal/Value music in which they are releasing a double CD compilation which includes Donna Summer's Hot Stuff, Alicia Bridges' I Love The Nightlife and 38 other tracks from the era. "Evidently I Will Survive was Granny Lee's favourite song," says DeBarros, "but I couldn't bear the thought of it being featured in yet another gay movie." In one more bold marketing move the filmmakers have set-up a website - - where web-surfers can get outrageous advice on love and life from beyond the grave, quotes to remember, audio downloads and much more.

DeBarros and Schwinges who are partners in Underdog productions have made several cutting edge movies and are renegades in very much the same style as Granny Lee although they are two young to have met her. "I only started going to clubs the year she died but I do think I know her vicariously after this film," says DeBarros who decided he wanted to make movies after seeing Star Wars at the age of 7.

Schwinges started attending Cape Town's Film School at the same age. They met when Schwinges was in charge of post-production at Young & Rubicam and DeBarros asked him to help with the cut of Pretty Boys, a documentary about rent boys which he was making as part of a Wits Dramatic Art degree. Since then the two have made Clubbing - a kind of Jo'burg 'Trainspotting' which they did for R2000, Hot legs ostensibly SA's first gay film which clocked in at 30 minutes at a cost of R12 000, Different Strokes a documentary about masturbation, Flaming Images about the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival for e-tv and perhaps most notably Death the highly acclaimed and Avante Award winning two-part series about mortality for SABC 3. To keep themselves in food and water in the long lapses in work filmmakers have to endure they design Websites and do corporate videos (their first was for a penile erectile dysfuntion device and ironically they also did the South African launch for Viagra).

The iconoclastic Schwinges and De Barros admit that they are fascinated by identity, decadence and hard living even though they're both basically homely types. A trait that Granny Lee shared and I'm sure she's smiling from the next hemisphere that these two young funky film entrepreneurs are helping her legend continue 11 years after her untimely demise.

Ruth Barter plays Granny Lee

© Underdog Entertainment 2000