Friendly Christians, bitter rent boys, and South Africa’s liberated queens are part of this year’s queer reality parade
To some jaundiced eyes, documentaries have an inherent fascination and gravitas lacking in feature films. There’s something reassuringly grounded in seeing real people facing real problems and coping, overcoming, or even yielding to them. This year’s San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has a superior selection of docs that cover an extensive queer geography. The best of these can stand with any of the major mainstream documentaries of the past few years.
One of the most successful of the lot is Laurie Collyer’s Nuyorican Dream (1999), a heartbreaking look at the inner workings of a Puerto Rican family in Brooklyn. The film is a kind of inverted Real World, with the privileged brats of that MTV show replaced by a tight-knit family in a constant struggle with poverty, drugs, and prison. The glue that binds them, barely, is the long-suffering mother, Marta, whose devotion to her kids somehow sees them through a succession of tragedies. Her gay son, Robert, escaped the drug-and-prison treadmill to graduate from college and become a teacher, and in some ways he’s as important a force in the family dynamic as his mother, counseling, chastising, and supporting his siblings by turns. A birthday party in which he reads a simple poem to his mother unleashes a tidal wave of emotion that will leave few viewers unmoved.
One of the pleasures of Nuyorican Dream is that it consistently limns larger issues driving — and in some ways destroying — the family dynamic. Zackie Achmat’s Apostles of Civilised Vice (1999) also provides context for its story, but on a wider historical scale. The film is a consistently engaging history of an oppressed group, South Africa’s queer population, from colonial times to today. Re-enactments, normally the bane of the documentary form, are done with charm and wit here, exploring phenomena little known in the West, such as mock-marriages between allegedly heterosexual miners far removed from their wives and children. South Africa had its own homophobic authors, doctors, and other “respected” authorities who made the very concept of being gay “un-African,” but their voices were eventually silenced by time and struggle. The effects of liberation in the Mandela era are giddily realized in lush images of queens splashing happily in the water and singing in exultation.
AIDS was a staple subject in the festival for many years; in 2000 it’s there, but not always as the main theme. In Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s Benjamin Smoke (2000), the syndrome is part of a mosaic of motifs that form a superb picture of Benjamin (no last name), a drag queen and singer for the Atlanta cult band Smoke. This gritty doc travels through a series of seedy locales, physical and psychic, from the impoverished “Cabbage Town” where he was raised to the mood-drenched queer punk music that made better-known talents like Patti Smith into huge fans. Benjamin’s husky drawl and colorful patois — “It knocked my dick in the dirt!” — make him irresistible even as he drifts toward death.
Another fine film that has an AIDS theme is Jacqui North’s Chrissy (1999). This too-brief Australian doc details the crushing effect of its subject’s battle with the disease on herself and her devoted family. Like Benjamin Smoke, the film is unabashedly emotional without sliding into bathos, always a temptation with this genre. Interviews with family members and friends show that family, so often a source of misery for anyone who doesn’t conform, can be supportive and healing when extreme circumstances demand it.
Conformity is hardly the word for the subjects of Mark Achbar’s Two Brides and a Scalpel (1999). Burly George Scott, a Canadian tractor driver, becomes Georgina during the course of the film, in the process divorcing his wife and starting a new life with lesbian Linda Fraser. All the medical details are here, and in close-up, along with campy visual quotes from Doris Wishman’s exploitation classic Let Me Die a Woman. But most inspiring is the women’s loving dynamic, which manages to overcome the often daunting problems associated with transgendering.
Two Brides and a Scalpel (1999) manages a fully fleshed-out portrait of its two principals in a mere 55-minute running time. Director Anthony Wall takes 140 minutes to uncover the Beatles’ manager in The Brian Epstein Story, but the film leaves a sense that the subject has ultimately eluded him. Not to fault Wall for trying; the film is extremely entertaining and exceptionally dense, crammed with the history of Epstein, the Beatles, Swinging London, and all sorts of fascinating offshoots. But Epstein is simply too difficult a subject. Intensely private, though surprisingly uncloseted, he led a double life of outward fastidiousness and professionalism, well documented here, mixed with an endless pill parade and furtive gay affairs. His secret life was just that, too secret to ultimately be known and give a rounded picture of the man handsome and charismatic enough to be a pop star himself.
Another pop star is the subject of Peter Sempel’s Nina Hagen = Power + Glory” (1999). Shot in a grainy verite style that’s no doubt appropriate to its subject, the film gives us interviews, performance footage, and the endless cosmic prattling for which Hagen is known. Ninety-two minutes of Hagen is probably too much by half, in spite of her entrancing stage getups, which include a leather harness with a big pink dildo attached.
Music queens of another stripe will have mixed reactions to David Jeffcock’s panoramic history Stagestruck: Gay Theater in the 20th Century (1999). The film effectively covers all the bases, from Oscar Wilde to Noel Coward to Martin Sherman, moving gracefully from biographical sketches to societal changes to scenes from the plays. But the latter are sometimes more jarring than helpful, as when we see the same actor playing both hyperbutch Stanley Kowalski and Michael, the tormented queen from The Boys and the Band.
Sex workers are less of a presence in this year’s fast than in some previous years. Still, there’s Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s breathlessly awaited 101 Rent Boys(2000), the name perhaps a witty echo of those Taschen books with titles like 1,000 Nudes. The filmmakers use the conceit of handing each of the subjects a $50 bill, and the range of their reactions to it — some grabbing it pronto, some studying it suspiciously — hints at a variety of mindsets that go with their marketable flesh. With so many rent boys on display, it’s hard to get to know particular ones, and a few themes run through many of these lives: molestation as children, broken homes, drug addiction, homelessness, betrayal by friends, objectification, and a pervasive air of futility. Some of the boys surprise us with an upbeat, positive vibe, but others are as bitter as Roberto, who, only 19, says with a chilly calm that doesn’t bode well for his clients, “I hate all my tricks.”
The same directors, ironically, are responsible for a very different doc being shown: The Eyes of Tammy Faye (1999). Some may wonder why the film is even included, given that Miss Tammy was a major architect — the directors call her the “Muse” — of right-wing homophobic televangelism. But Faye and ex-hubby Jim Bakker, as seen in the film, are considered deviants in that world, old-style hucksters full of personality and low-down kitschiness and, surprise, acceptance of homosexuality that made them unassimilable in the cutthroat world of commercial Christianity. Faye’s credentials as fag hag and female drag queen appear solid, and one of the pleasures of this fun valentine to her is the revelation that there’s an authentic, and rather charming, human being behind those buckets of mascara and rivers of tears. She was the first (and perhaps the only) major televangelist to heartily embrace both gay people and AIDS patients, so the least we can do is to return the embrace.