Bright Lights Film Journal

Better Endings: QDoc: Portland’s Ninth Queer Documentary Film Festival (May 14-17, 2015)

Screenshot of Stephania Mirza Curbelo from El Hombre Nuevo (The New Man)

“It’s time to give her story a better ending,” says Jane Anderson in her documentary Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson, speaking of her great aunt Edith (1868-1957), a pioneering artist and a lesbian who was committed for life to a mental hospital in 1925 by an unscrupulous lawyer. Anderson wanted to find out what happened and to restore the forgotten Wilkinson to her rightful place in art history. That “better ending” Anderson seeks is an apt metaphor for what is happening in society today, with the LGBT community becoming increasingly visible, closet doors being torn off their hinges, and individuals creating their own “better endings.” It’s also a tidy mantra for this year’s excellent QDoc festival, with 11 films documenting the queer experience and the extraordinary progress, along with some setbacks, the community has made of late.

Fallon Fox (screenshot)

Opening night’s Game Face offers a rousing example. Belgian director Michiel Thomas was given wide access to follow Fallon Fox, a trans woman, lesbian, and noted mixed martial artist, and Terrence Clemens, a young gay man playing college basketball, in their coming out process. The result is an intimate portrait that shows the literal fighting spirit of these two in an insular world historically intolerant of LGBT folk. The film demonstrates that some of the internalized homophobia is ultimately just that, self-directed and eradicable. In Clemens’s case, macho teammates and trainers go beyond problematic “tolerance” to genuine caring when he comes out. Fox has a harder road. An articulate but seemingly private person who simply wanted to fight, she was forced out of the closet by a threat of exposure. But even in her case the jeers and slurs are balanced by supportive fans and family, and her experiences have made her a dedicated activist for trans rights. Director Thomas keeps the narrative crackling, and we get to know and admire these everyday heroes. Thomas will appear at the screening, along with Fallon Fox and Terrence Clemens.

Painting by Edith Lake Wilkinson

Packed in a Trunk: The Lost Art of Edith Lake Wilkinson tells a different kind of coming out story, the emergence of a gifted artist whose life appeared to have been buried with her art. Director Jane Anderson acts as a kind of forensic investigator of Wilkinson’s life, following leads that begin with the unearthing of a trove of artwork and brings her to the world of Provincetown’s art colonies of the 1910s and ‘20s and one of the earliest documented queer enclaves. A wealth of vintage imagery and footage helps immerse the viewer in this world. The gradually emerging portrait is a disturbing one, a sensitive woman who was robbed by her family lawyer, locked away for 32 years for no clear reason, and stopped in her tracks as an artist. Psychiatric notes claiming Wilkinson’s “sensitivity” and “unusual ideas” do little to support the idea that she was “insane,” though it’s certainly understandable why she was “depressed.” Ultimately, though, it’s the work that lives, and the film is generous in displaying it. The one misstep here is an annoyingly syrupy musical score that distracts from the power of Wilkinson’s story and her shimmering images. Filmmakers Jane Anderson, Michelle Boyaner, Barbara Green and Tess Ayers will attend the screening.

Vintage image from the Starlite Bar (screenshot)

It’s hard to overstress the importance of the gay bar in queer history, but cultural landmarks don’t get the same respect, or treatment, as architectural landmarks, and We Came to Sweat: The Legend of Starlite documents the difficulty of trying to preserve these spaces. Kate Kunath’s film is a stark portrait of two contemporary Americas, the “Landmark District of Crown Heights” where gentrification is rampant and “significant” buildings are carefully preserved, and the vibrant black working-class ’hood where the oldest black gay bar in Brooklyn isn’t considered important enough to save. A host of engaging characters lay out the rich history of the Starlite, which is in some sense the story of every gay bar in postwar America. The Starlite broke taboos in the ’60s, allowing “free dancing” by same sex couples, featured a DJ on par with the legendary Larry Levan, and played church for those rejected by the official one. The new owner is excited by the “nice signs” that metroPCS store will bring when the Starlite is evicted, and that’s what it boils down to. Director Kunath will attend the show.

Tab Hunter (screenshot)

Jeffrey Schwarz specializes in entertaining films about queer cultural figures, Vito (Russo) and I Am Divine being recent examples. He brings the same approach to the fest’s Tab Hunter Confidential, a collage of commentaries by stars like George Takei and Robert Wagner, historical photos and footage, and, most effectively, interviews with the still handsome (at 83) Hunter himself. The film shows a complex and surprisingly humble man, who never made as much of his stunning good looks as his many, worshipful fans did. He also has no illusions about his acting (“I was so bad I couldn’t get arrested,” he says of his work in Island of Desire), but he was ambitious enough, and enticing enough for audiences, to have success as both an actor and a singer. It’s bracing to see him talk honestly about his life and his relationships with men after decades in the closet, and also a bit sad that it had to take so long. Director Schwarz will be at the screening.

Screenshot from The Royal Road

Jenni Olson is a well-known curator and film festival maven, but her ultimate mark will be as a maker of films. The Royal Road, a highlight of the fest, is a continuation of her visual/voice-over memoir cycle that includes Blue Diary and The Joy of Life. The Royal Road overlays a narrative that encompasses quite a range, from unrequited love to the Lothario figure in culture to California history to living out cinematic tropes, spoken against a backdrop of Edward Hopper-lonely, gorgeously framed, almost-still images from around the San Francisco Bay Area and the El Camino Real. Scenes from her personal history as a butch gay woman and persistent romantic are interwoven with riffs on movies like Vertigo and The Children’s Hour. Blended with the narrative, the effect is hypnotic, slowly seducing the viewer into this special world that seems as suspended from the troubling real world as the movies themselves. In this “travelogue of desire,” which, in a typical allusion, she connects with that of Scotty Ferguson, the James Stewart character from Vertigo, there’s a kind of bittersweet, self-effacing humor at work, as she tries to reconcile her movie-derived fantasies with reality: “My whole Casanova thing. It’s really more Walter Mitty, isn’t it? In other words, nothing happens.” The Royal Road manages to be both minimalist and richly evocative, and the film gains from Olson’s brave self-revelations. Olson and producer Julie Dorf will attend the screening.

Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams (screenshot)

Bravery in a nearly impossible situation is the subject of Thomas Miller’s Limited Partnership, which profiles something many may not know about – a legal gay marriage that took place in 1975 thanks to two tenacious men, a fearless lawyer, and a Colorado law clerk who approved it because she couldn’t see any reasonable legal arguments against it. The film follows Australian Tony Sullivan and Filipino-American Richard Adams on a runaway train as they fight a host of government agencies and the courts to maintain their marriage status and Sullivan’s ability to stay in the United States with Adams. Outed by the publicity, Adams is fired from his job of 17 years, while Sullivan stitches together an income from selling pottery at fairs. The story is alternately inspiring and dispiriting as the two deal with hurdle after hurdle, including exile to Europe courtesy of a letter from the Immigration Dept. that refers to them as “two faggots.” Leaving the country along with family, friends, and home, Sullivan says, “was almost like death.” Still, the couple’s refusal to be separated – “We won… they couldn’t separate us” says Adams in one of the most moving moments – shows tremendous spirit and is the heart of this powerful film. Director Miller and Tony Sullivan will attend the screening.

JT Leroy? (screenshot)

One of the great literary hoaxes in modern times involved “JT Leroy,” a supposedly teenage prodigy author of three hugely successful books purporting to be based on his life as a street kid with HIV, gender-queer, drug addict, and child transvestite prostitute pimped by his mother at truck stops. “LeRoy” was masterful in luring writers (Dennis Cooper), filmmakers (Gus Van Sant), stars (Jeremy Renner), even a therapist into his web. But as it turned out “he” was a she, a concoction of an artsy couple in their late thirties, Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knopp, with Laura writing the books and Knopp’s sister playing the role of LeRoy in public appearances. In The Cult of JT Leroy, director Marjorie Sturm expertly breaks down what happened and the fallout – which was considerable – after this character was unmasked. Was it a case of gullible celebrities and artists being punked on a massive scale or a testament to Laura Albert’s brilliant manipulations? It’s a complicated story that probes issues of celebrity culture, identity, gender, and sexism, with the heroes and villains not as clear-cut as one would think. Sturm will appear at the screening of this must-see film.

The True Colors Theatrical Troupe

“Love is love, right, man?” says one of the subjects of Ellen Brodsky’s The Year We Thought About Love, a thoughtful snapshot of where LGBT youth are today. At a Boston high school, a theatrical troupe called True Colors is formed to promote awareness of queer issues and, specifically, to use theatrical performances to share their experiences of “queer love” with classmates, teachers, friends, and family. Brodsky wisely lets the subjects do the talking; as a result we get to know them. The experiences of these funny, articulate teens vary, of course; Alyssa is forced to leave home when she comes out as trans, while Roxas’s family is “totally accepting” of his gayness. A common thread, though, is a determination to live authentically, to be completely “out” in their lives. The film interweaves interviews with scenes of the performances, and it’s encouraging to see these kids progress in their lives and their artistry.

Stephania and her mother (screenshot)

Hombre Nuevo (The New Man) opens with Stephania Mirza Curbelo, a middle-aged trans woman searching the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay, for a boardinghouse in which to sleep. She’s unfailingly gracious in the face of rejection, wishing the proprietor a good day and moving on to the next possibility, which may be the streets. This opening scene sets the stage for a memorable portrait of its subject, a model of equanimity in the face of a difficult world and a troubled personal history. Director Aldo Garay followed Stephania over a 20-year period, so we see her from youth to middle age. Her youth was a highly unusual one; a gifted child, as a boy named Roberto, she taught literacy to adults for the Sandinistas, and vintage footage shows her as an improbable but poised revolutionary boy. Her birth family was “duped” into turning Roberto over to a Uruguayan family for adoption, and the thrust of the film is Stephania’s attempt to reconnect with her original family. This involves everything from visiting a loving aunt (“People need to be accepted as they are”) to a feverish effort by her family’s church to exorcise her “demon” of deviance, which she patiently endures before shrugging and reappearing in pink boots. Garay’s painterly visuals evoke the bittersweetness of her journey, but it’s Stephania’s indomitable spirit that make it stand out.

Ivan and Yvonne Rainer in Kristina Talking Pictures (1976) (screenshot)

Yvonne Rainer was born at just the right time to bring her gifts as both a choreographer (“she leveled western dance” says one commentator) and a filmmaker to a culture in radical change. Born in 1934, she came of age, artistically speaking, in the New York of the late 1950s and early 1960s, as a member of the breakthrough artistic circle that included choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, writers and artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning. Facts Are Feelings: The Life of Yvonne Rainer is a kind of dual biography, limning both Rainer and this vital period in cultural history. Director Jack Walsh fleshes out the portrait with a wealth of historical footage of Rainer’s dance pieces (along with modern versions) and excerpts from her films, along with critical commentary. The film traces her bizarre early life (her health-nut mother gave her and her brother up for adoption because she “couldn’t deal with children”) to her entry into the avant garde in New York and her constant boundary pushing in both dance and film. As one of the commentators says, “She’s a professional provoker as well as a professional revolutionary.” Though she qualifies as a queer hero (she identifies as lesbian these days), Rainer’s less easily pigeonholed than some, and the film’s subtitle seems a little premature; a person this creative and charismatic clearly still has some “life” left in her. Director Jack Walsh and producer Christine Murray will attend the screening.

Larry Kramer in a scene from the film (screenshot)

People who change history aren’t always sweet or well-behaved, and Larry Kramer is perhaps the ultimate mixed-bag queer firebrand, artist, and radical. Larry Kramer in Love and Anger offers an unvarnished portrait of a man called variously “an Old Testament prophet” and “a pain in the ass” – though a “varnished” biography of this subject is unimaginable if any video clips are used. This brisk documentary by Kramer’s friend Jean Carlomusto captures the founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT-UP at his most intense in clips that show how and why he inspired a dramatic shift in the dialogue around what he early on called “the plague” through sheer force of personality and refusal to back down. The film also uncovers a quieter, more contemplative side, as Kramer reminisces about his lonely childhood, initial sexual experiences, an attempted suicide, and his checkered career as a novelist and screenwriter. In one of the film’s more poignant moments, Kramer and his longtime partner get married while Kramer is in ICU. As a child, he says, “I lived in my imagination,” but we can all be grateful to this queer gadfly for leaving his imagination to enter the real world and leave it – and us – the better for it.

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For more information on the festival, go to their website here.