'I knew it was going to be tough' - actress on playing intersex athlete in '(S)he'

21 June 2020 - 00:00 By MASEGO SEEMELA
Kate Roothman.
Kate Roothman.
Image: Supplied

She's a star athlete with Olympic dreams, but because she was born intersex she faces ostracisation and hostility.

It sounds like the story of Caster Semenya, but it's the basis of a South African short film that has won plaudits at festivals around the world and is now available for viewing locally.

(S)he, written and directed by Sean Steinberg, tells the story of fictional swimmer Penny Kemp, who is forced to undergo gender treatment.

The leading role is played by Kate Roothman, 27, who is best known for roles in Getroud met Rugby on KykNet and as Rosie Spencer in the fourth season of Erfsondes.

"It was definitely one of the most challenging roles I have played," Roothman said of (S)he.

"I knew it was going to be tough [because] not a lot of stories like this have previously been told. I just wanted to do as much research as possible, to honestly understand what she goes and grows through, and portray that on screen."

Roothman said she had discovered that intersex people face "ruthless" stigmatisation and discrimination.

"As if it isn't hard enough that she can't be herself while doing something she absolutely loves, there will always be someone that thrives on making your life just a little harder. It honestly was heartbreaking."

She said filming had started one morning two years ago just four hours after her grandmother died.

"She was one of the most precious people I had on this earth. And I couldn't let my emotions interfere with Penny's because that just wouldn't be fair.

"And I truly learnt a lot by giving over, and to be present every millisecond. It also helps a lot to play opposite outstanding actors."

[Both the fictional Penny Kemp and Caster Semenya] have been humiliated and shamed by the media in front of the entire world about something they themselves have had no choice over
Kate Roothman, lead actress in '(S)he'

Roothman said the scene that emotionally touched her the most was one between Penny and her father after the swimmer has been banned from competing in the Olympics, "and he wanted to know why she threw it away".

She said there were similarities between Kemp's fictional story and Semenya's real-life experiences.

"They both have been humiliated and shamed by the media in front of the entire world about something they themselves have had no choice over.

"They both had to suppress who they are for the sake of their careers, and both were bullied because of the lack of information.

"Through Penny, I've learnt that is doesn't matter if you are 'accepted' by society. As long as you know who you are, what you stand for and accept yourself, others' perception cannot shape or define you."

(S)he, which is available on Showmax, was named best feature film at the 2019 Jozi Film Festival, and has been well received at LGBTIQ festivals around the world, according to producer Sara Hallatt.

"This was a huge passion project. Everyone involved gave of their time and expertise almost for nothing," she said.

"The topic is a nuanced one that deserved great consideration and respect. We hope, as filmmakers, that we showed respect to the story, its characters and their challenges."

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