Film: The freak show is dead. Long live the freak show!

Sara Baartman had a very big bottom - and the British public paid to prod it in their thousands. In 1814, Sara was sold to an animal trainer. Just another tragic figure? A documentary about her offers a new way of looking at `freaks'.
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The Independent Culture
It would be nice to think that the decline of the freak show was a product of a modern moral awakening: that we rejected our great-great- grandparents' predilection for gawping at the extraordinary body because we are essentially more civilised than they were. They paid a shilling (5p) to peek at Julia Pastrana the Baboon Lady; Sara Baartman the Hottentot Venus; and Jo-Jo the Human Skye Terrier, because they had ghoulish inclinations which we have learned to suppress. However, the real explanation, I think, is nothing so comforting. The end of the freak show was a direct consequence of the birth of cinema.

At the end of the last century, movies and monstrosities shared the same pitch - kinematograph booths and sideshows exhibiting human oddities could be found side-by-side on the American carnival circuit. However, as picture houses became more luxurious and began to attract a more mainstream, respectable audience, the carnival went into terminal decline.

Why queue with the mugs to gloat over deformity in a sawdust tent when you could sit in the upholstered dark and watch Frankenstein? Why schelp out to Coney to visit Lilliputia - Samuel W Gumpertz's half-scale metropolis with a population of 300 dwarfs - when you could coo over the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939)?

And it's as true now as it was then. Try this on for sideshow sensationalism: Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of Being John Malkovich, has just announced that his next movie will star Patricia Arquette as a hirsute woman who becomes romantically involved with a man who boasts the world's smallest penis - both, in turn, are besotted with a man who believes himself to be an ape. Meanwhile, the Farrelly Brothers, originators of There's Something About Mary, have a comedy in the works about a pair of Siamese twins - one of them wants to be a Hollywood actor, the other is forced to go along with his aspirations. Stuck On You is scheduled to open in 2001.

Although cinema embodies many of the same attractions as the freak show, when the medium presents such entertainments in its narratives, it always takes the high moral ground. It sentimentalises their stars and demonises their managers and patrons - in order to satisfy the filmgoer's sense of liberal superiority. Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) uses a cast of physically bizarre sideshow performers to demonstrate that beauty is no guarantor of virtue. In Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1943), Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane hide out in a caravan of bearded ladies, giants and human skeletons, who seem to be the one source of decency in a paranoid US culture. In X - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), Ray Milland secures a comforting anonymity in the sideshow world. In She-Freak (1967), a drive-in remake of Browning's film, a young waitress is punished for her aversion to carny folk when deformity is visited violently upon her.

And, as the late Raphael Samuel demonstrated in his book, Theatres of Memory (1996), David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) flatters our sense of ourselves as compassionate moderns by making John Merrick a martyr to Victorian cruelty. It gives us a stick to beat our vicious, mutton- chopped forebears, and makes us feel better about ourselves. It also requires history to be gently massaged: Lynch neglects to mention that Merrick was paid 50 per cent of his box office takings, and received 100 per cent of the proceeds from merchandise spin-offs. Not even James Cameron has ever cut himself a deal as smart as that.

Cinema's latest staging of the 19-century freak show comes in Zola Maseko's The Life and Times of Sara Baartman, screened this week in the London Film Festival. Maseko's documentary describes how Baartman was brought from her native South Africa to London in 1810, where she was exhibited as "The Hottentot Venus". A member of the Khoi people, she had the greatly enlarged rump common in her country women.

To the paying public, this fact represented an exotic, outlandish sexuality, and the possibility of proving the popular myth about a mysterious tribe of Africans whose genitals were radically different from the rest of humanity. The punters came and prodded her with parasols and walking canes to test for the presence of padding. "In a way it's hard to imagine why they were so interested," says Maseko. "She was just a woman with a big bum."

A series of newspaper reports claiming that Baartman was being abused by her manager resulted in a court case that attempted to determine whether any coercion was taking place. Probably primed by her keepers, Baartman protested that she was content and well-treated. The rest of her life presents some evidence to the contrary. In 1814, her manager sold her to an animal trainer in France, where slavery remained unabolished. When she died in Paris the following year, Baron Georges Cuvier, the most eminent naturalist of his day, dissected her body, preserving her genitals in formaldehyde; retained her skeleton; and made a plaster moulage of her body.

The pickled body parts have since disappeared, but the skeleton and the cast remain in the vaults of the Musee de l'Homme in Paris. The South African government is currently negotiating with the French to return Baartman's remains for burial in her homeland.

"At the Musee de l'Homme it came to me how physically, socially and culturally, this woman had been dismembered, pulled apart," recalls Maseko. "But the experience bordered on the supernatural. Here was her skeleton, perfectly preserved, appearing to look at the moulage. It was the weirdest thing I've ever seen."

Maseko's documentary - a dry run, it seems, for a feature biopic of Sara Baartman - is the most even-handed treatment of the 19-century freak show committed to film. It details the injustices that were suffered by its protagonist without using them as an excuse for self-congratulation. It argues persuasively that the Baartman case was one of the foundation stones of the racist ethnobiology that developed - in the early 20th century - into the eugenics movement, but it does not condemn 19th-century Britons for their insatiable appetite for the extraordinary.

Maseko admits that if a specimen of Martian life was brought to Earth, he would queue to see it - and for Regency Englishmen, Baartman would have seemed as exotic as an extra-terrestrial.

The film also has a subtle role to play in South Africa's post-Apartheid settlement: Zola Maseko's research into the life of Sara Baartman has had an impact upon his own sense of identity as a black South African. "For me, it's shattered a lot of myths that were created about us. I'd always been taught that the Khoi were dirty bushmen. When I went back to the places where Sara Baartman grew up, I discovered they were a highly civilised society. Perfumes that come from France are made from plants that grow in Sara Baartman's territory. It's been a long journey, an obsession. It's been like reclaiming my heritage."

For a white Briton like me, watching Maseko's film also feels like an act of reclamation. It weaves the once-celebrated Baartman back into the narrative of 19th-century British culture - to join contemporaries such as Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Princess Caroline of Brunswick.

The film also brings a sharp sense of recognition that in the movies, spectacles of the grotesque and of the exotic are still the surest way to pull in the crowds.