Positive and Homeless but Filmmaker Won't Give Up on His Dream
N. Mabasa-Mathope is a fan of fantastic stories. While he was pursuing his undergraduate degree in filmmaking at schools in his native South Africa and in the United States, one of Mabasa’s professors challenged his students to imagine a “what if” scenario to inspire a screenplay.
Mabasa, an HIV-positive immigrant who is currently homeless after a multiyear battle with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, didn’t have much trouble conjuring an idea that he thought was utterly fantastic: What if a man became pregnant?
At the time, Mabasa, who identifies as a gay man, wasn’t aware that history contains several instances where men have given birth. In most of those instances, especially those best publicized in American media, the men who gave birth were transgender, meaning they were assigned female at birth, but identified and lived as men. As Mabasa began to build the “meat and bones” of his screenplay, he spoke with doctors who educated him about intersex people—those born with ambiguous genitalia or genes, who can, in some cases, have both male and female reproductive organs.
“At first I thought it was kind of a genius idea, of what if a man got pregnant?” Mabasa recalls. “But it wasn’t a genius idea [because doctors told me it has happened]. So I wanted to approach it from a reality standpoint, because there have been a couple movies made where a man was pregnant, but it was a comedy standpoint, like slapstick comedy. So I’m approaching it from a different angle, where it really could happen.”
In his own life, Mabasa is no stranger to far-fetched experiences. He doesn’t know exactly when or where he was born, but he was raised all over South Africa. After studying computer science in South Africa, he received a scholarship to study at the New York Film Academy, which brought him to the United States for the first time in December 1998. But the New York winter proved too harsh a climate change from South Africa’s summer, and Mabasa returned to Africa until he was placed in a film program at Santa Monica College, a community college near Los Angeles, in July 1999.
After Mabasa left Santa Monica College, he took filmmaking classes at the Academy of Entertainment and Technology before returning to the New York Film Academy, via its Los Angeles campus. As his thesis graduating film at the academy in 2005, Mabasa produced a 15-minute movie that explored his earlier “what if” question on camera. The short, titled Boys Will Be Boys, has racked up more than half a million views on YouTube. It introduces viewers to Tyrone, a closeted bisexual black college basketball star with big dreams of making it to the NBA. A long-standing relationship that’s turned romantic with Tyrone’s best friend, Randy, gets more than a little complicated after Randy discovers that he’s intersex—and carrying Tyrone’s baby. The short film documents an explosive dinner where Tyrone tells his family the news and tries to manage prying questions from his conservative Christian mother, his father (who is just excited to become a grandfather), his siblings, and his cousins as well as his grandmother’s initial confusion (but ultimate acceptance).
After finishing his studies, like many new graduates with filmmaking degrees, Mabasa struggled to make ends meet and pay his bills. He took odd jobs delivering scripts to major film studios, and shooting independent shorts. But, he says, one of those short film gigs turned out to be a scam, and he was badly beaten and framed for a robbery he says he did not commit.
That debacle brought Mabasa into contact with U.S. immigration officials, who detained him for nearly two years beginning in December 2010. With no money to hire an attorney, Mabasa defended himself at immigration hearings and ultimately lost his case. U.S. Immigration officials contacted South African authorities to obtain formal documentation to deport Mabasa but were met with a surprising reply.
“They’d given my name and everything and then they looked me up in the system in South Africa and it turns out that my name didn’t pop up,” Mabasa explains. “And one of the reasons for that was, until Mandela came out of jail, black people were not documented as legitimate citizens. [Black people] were almost treated like a third-class citizen.”
Mabasa says his HIV status also raised a red flag for South African officials, prompting them to reject the U.S. request to deport him.
“[U.S.] Immigration was told, by [South African] officials, ‘Well, this guy, for one, he is HIV-positive,’ ” recounts Mabasa. “ ‘It’s going be very expensive for us to take him because he doesn’t work, and he’s HIV-positive. And then secondly, we don’t find him in the system, so we don’t want him. So you guys keep him, and see what you do with him.’ ”
That’s how Mabasa managed to stay in the United States. He was released from immigration detention with a letter confirming that he was in the country legally but without any formal documentation that would allow him to access critical support services available to citizens and permanent residents.
“I don’t qualify for food stamps and all those other benefits that come with [citizenship],” Mabasa explains. “These are the [benefits] that are reserved for people that are born here or at least have legal papers to be here. So now I’m caught in a catch-22 situation.”
Mabasa was ultimately able to find temporary housing in a shelter, through New York’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration, which helps people living with the disease and enduring financial hardship get back on their feet. He’s currently living at a Bronx shelter, thanks to a HASA referral, and editing a feature film in exchange for a producer credit.
While he’s editing someone else’s feature, Mabasa is also raising funds to turn his visionary short into a feature film, titled Boyz Will Be Boyz and starring Terrence Townsend as Tyrone and Black Thomas as Randy. While the feature will necessarily explore the myriad issues raised in greater detail, Mabasa says it’s important for him to illustrate the genuine feelings between Tyrone and Randy.
“It’s a romance that started out as friends from a very early age,” explains Mabasa. “And they got closer and closer and closer, and by the time of this pregnancy, Tyrone feels that ‘I shouldn’t abandon this person at this time. This is when they need me the most.’ And he is going to stand by him.”
And ultimately, Mabasa hopes his film—for which a funder offered to match donations through the film’s recent IndieGogo campaign—will deliver an important message of acceptance.
“The more we shake hands, talk, and get to know people who are different from ourselves—regardless of income, profession, education, race, and sexuality—the more we see those same people not as strangers, but as brothers and sisters huddled together on the same rock, under the same sun,” writes Mabasa on the film’s IndieGogo page. “We hope that, through humor, Boyz Will Be Boyz will, in its own small way, contribute to the ongoing, and gladly evolving recognition that we all are more alike than different from one another.”
To find out how you can contribute to the film, email Mabasa at [email protected].