Bright Lights Film Journal

Crafting Community: The 2011 QDoc International Film Festival

“It’s encouraging to see how articulate and unafraid many of the kids in Put This on the Map are in deciding who they want to be, how they want to live, and even what they want to be called: ‘Very gay,’ ‘an ally,’ ‘dating an FTM,’ ‘not straight, gay, bi, anything.'”

The queer community, long accustomed to not relying on craven politicians, creepy religiosos, and other empire-building miscreants to address homophobia, has shown particular skill over the years at changing culture — and society — for the better. Most encouraging in this process has been the fact that so many of our heroes have been self-created, rising not through status or position or wealth but through sheer force of will or personality to present alternatives to the increasingly bloodless status quo. From drag queen performance artists to globally minded political activists, LGBT folk, not unlike other marginalized groups from blacks to immigrants, have contributed to making the world more tolerable, in fact downright artful, in all kinds of ways far out of proportion to our numbers.

QDoc, Portland, Oregon’s groundbreaking queer-themed documentary festival, highlights some of these pioneers, and the mosaic portrait of a vibrant, ever-evolving community is a lively one. Russ Gage usually co-curates the fest with filmmaker David Weissman, but Weissman was busy working on his own doc We Were There, so Frameline’s Jennifer Morris came on board as guest programmer. The fest, which takes place at the Clinton Street Theater this month from Thursday night June 2 to Sunday night June 5th, is the only one of its kind (and one of only two in the world). It’s as much community event as cinematic showcase, with many groups from queer youth to seasoned seniors represented both onscreen and in the audience thanks to the organizers’ outreach. Many of the filmmakers and stars featured will be in attendance.

Social change is the goal, but every revolution needs its artistic diversions. Opening night’s film. Arias with a Twist, directed by Bobby Sheehan, is a double valentine to two major queer talents in collaboration. Drag performance artist Joey Arias and master puppeteer Basil Twist (whose brilliant creations helped make The Addams Family a Broadway hit) worked together on the show that gives the movie its title. This guided tour of the Arias persona includes such images as Arias, dressed in dominatrix drag, whirling on a neon gyroscope while serenading the audience and being attended by ghostly Roswell aliens courtesy of Twist’s visual legerdemain. Arias is an irresistible personality, living her art daily while remaining sweet and rather humble. No wonder there are so many celebs in the film hailing her. Twist, too, blends arresting art with humility. A generous selection from the show and interviews with friends and associates offer a multifaceted picture of two artists whose work reminds us of the kinds of transporting whimsies worth fighting for.

Friday evening opens with a gritty doc on another kind of pioneer. P. David Ebersole’s The Life and Near Death Story of Patty Schemel. Schemel gained fame as the drummer for Courtney Love’s group Hole at a time when female drummers were scarce enough to be considered endangered species. Schemel began drinking at age 12 and eventually became a major druggie, de rigeur for the raging rocker lifestyle. The toll it took was considerable, and the doc is unsparing in delineating the breakdowns, suicides, and revolving-door rehabs of Schemel and company. Many of her associates, friends, and family are interviewed, including Courtney Love, who, as in the group, threatens to overshadow the subject. But Schemel ultimately dominates her own story as a beautiful, charismatic woman who survives homelessness, heroin addiction, and street prostitution in this riveting doc.

Next up is Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. Genesis is Genesis P-Orridge, the widely influential guru of industrial music, founder of Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle, and a fascinating cultural creative who, like Arias, appears to live his art. Like the Arias doc, too, this is a double portrait of Gen and collaborator/ lover Lady Jaye. It’s tempting to view Jaye as Gen’s “muse,” but as the film unfolds, it’s clear that, like Genesis’s sexual identity (he’s had sexual reassignment surgery), the truth is more complex, with the two clearly acting as each other’s inspiration. While obviously not recommended for everyone, Gen and Jaye make even the most mundane activity like washing dishes into a witty performance piece. There’s also plenty of sampling of the pair in concert, alone or together, along with rare footage of 1970s Gen as a cute butch boy punker. Gen is articulate in describing his vision of a third gender — the “pandrogyne” — that, typically, this fearless character tests on himself, though it took Lady Jaye entering his life to “concretize” the idea.

Moving from art to activism, Saturday’s show opens with Glenne McElhinney’s On These Shoulders We Stand. History lessons need not be dull, and this one is anything but. Using archival footage and photographs and interviews with survivors, this doc shows exactly what life was like for pre- (and slightly post-) Stonewall gays in Los Angeles. The nightly battles in the 1950s and ’60s with homophobic police are a focal point, with pictures of lives ruined and surprising victories, as when a fed-up drag queen corrals her fellow trannies for a march on L.A.’s notoriously hateful Rampart police station. Armed with huge bouquets of flowers and demanding their incarcerated “sisters” be released, these queens befuddled the police and won their point. Some of the battles fought at the time —like picketing the phone company to get the word “gay” into the phone book — are unimaginable today. A fascinating section describes the “masquerading” laws that the police used to arrest gay people wearing “gender-inappropriate” clothing. Nancy Valverde, a funny, unapologetic dyke who was frequently jailed for wearing men’s clothing finally sued the city of L.A. to overturn these laws. She and a number of other subjects of a documentary seen in a previous QDoc, A Place to Live: The Story of Triangle Square are among those vividly describing the oppressions of the era and the clever strategies the queens and dykes used to combat them.

Saturday’s activism show continues by expanding the view from local to global. I Am is the result of five years of filming and interviews with 20 Indian families. The story begins with the filmmaker’s regret at not having been able to come out as lesbian to her mother before the latter’s death. From there it opens out into a wide-ranging profile of the varied situations for LGBT people in India. The clichés of India as monolithically homophobic quickly vanish in the face of complex and changing relationships between queer children and their parents. While some of the familiar stories of estrangement are here, it’s significant that in some cases it’s the child who breaks the tie, not the parent. In other cases, the parents yield to social pressures, while others are shown as clearly evolving, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, and wanting to be part of their child’s adventure of self-discovery. Filmmaker Sonali Gulati has a keen eye for evocative images, but it’s the moving story of the reclaiming of self that ultimately makes this documentary shine.

Second on Saturday is Christopher Hines’ unsettling look at male body images, The Adonis Factor. The film begins with intriguing profiles of a group of “A-list gays,” the gym bunny-circuit boy types who live only for the look. Dismissive or just plain nasty toward anyone who’s not “in their league,” these guys are studies in grim narcissism: “I am obsessed with how I look,” says one. But the film soon uncovers cracks in this parade of self-love. The satisfactions of hanging out in an exclusive club can fade quickly. “Mr. Hot Atlanta” talks about abandoning the A-list gays and trying to meet people based on their personalities after contracting hepatitis and watching his buff friends disappear. Nothing crashes their party, it seems, like evidence of human frailty. The film interpolates commentary by psychologists, botox doctors, alternative therapists, and a group of happy bears on the pitfalls of the kind of body fascism pursued by some desperate gays. Most alarming, perhaps, are scenes of twentyish queens having “botox parties” to recapture their “lost youth” of last year. Also on this bill is Jeffrey McHale’s Crowned and Bound, a brief but thoughtful history of Chicago’s International Mr. Leather contest. The winner of a recent contest the film focuses on would have horrified the party boys of The Adonis Factor — it’s a hunky guy in a wheelchair.

Saturday continues with Angélique Bosio’s The Advocate for Fagdom. Kurt Cobain’s favorite director, Bruce La Bruce is one of a small group of queer edge artists who delight in pushing boundaries, not only the ones set up by straights to keep queers in line but also those made by “good gays” who bristle at anything too “offensive” to mainstream sensibilities. He’s known for political satires (including sending up his own revolutionary politics), grainy skater-boy dramas, queer zombie flicks, and most notoriously, for integrating hardcore sex into the story lines, even hiring actual porn stars to perform. Bruce appears throughout the film in cable-TV snippets, hilariously camping it up as a Judy Garland clone, and in interview, deadpanning his way through his history as a thorn in the side of convention. A number of commentators flesh out this diverting portrait, including Gus Van Sant and John Waters. Most amusing is filmmaker Harmony Korine, who, dressed like a demented Sherpa, captures something of Bruce when he says “His movies look and feel a lot like his personality. There’s a lot penises in them, and they’re very kind of grungy.”

Sunday opens on a more sober note with Passionate Politics: The Life and Work of Charlotte Bunch, directed by Tami Gold. Bunch is best known perhaps for receiving the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights from President Clinton. But there’s much more to her, as this fine documentary shows. Bunch’s life story parallels the emergence of progressive politics with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, and women’s and gay liberation. The film shows her evolution, starting life as the daughter of left-wing parents, getting married, protesting racism in the South, then awakening to her own lesbian when she met famed author Rita Mae Brown. Bunch’s driving need to do the “good works” she learned about in childhood takes her to the far corners of the globe, from a Lima, Peru safe house for abused women to South Africa to fight for a family whose lesbian daughter was stoned to death to the United Nations to persuade them to incorporate women’s rights as human rights. Bunch’s charming personality and clear thinking on how to translate theory into action appears to reach everyone she touches, including women of color who were initially skeptical — “Who is this white woman?” An exhausted-looking Bunch laughs when told she seems “tireless” in her advocacy efforts, but the energy she pours into getting results does indeed seem to have earned her the description.

Continuing the Sunday offerings brings us to a youth show, from which only Put This on the Map was screened. This longest of the shorts in the program at 32 minutes, this doc, directed by Megan Kennedy and Sid Peterson, has the glitzy look of a public service announcement, but the sentiments expressed are far from the slickness or superficiality that implies. Twenty-six interviewees give a sharp group portrait of where young queer people are today in terms of gender issues, and it’s a fascinating study. While some of the stories echo the familiar struggles of gay youth in past decades — bullying peers, unsupportive parents — it’s encouraging to see how articulate and unafraid many of these kids are in deciding who they want to be, how they want to live, and even what they want to be called: “Very gay,” “an ally,” “dating an FTM,” “not straight, gay, bi, anything.” Even looser labels don’t always capture it: One teen calls himself “Slightly gender queer,” but another says: “I’m gender queer, but that in itself is limiting.” Androgynous Nick both sums up his personal situation and presents a template worth reaching for: “Gender doesn’t matter. You look at the person.” This is a must-see for anyone interesting in what contemporary youth are thinking.

Continuing with the fest’s political action thread, Charlie Gage’s Inspired: Voices Against Prop 8 looks at the silver lining in the 2008 Prop 8 vote, in which big bucks from the Catholic and Mormon churches combined with the gay community’s complacency to allow California voters to kill queer marriage rights. Moving briskly through these problems, the doc examines how the event galvanized individuals, some of whom had never been activists, to create coalitions and mounted protests all across California. Some of the dicier issues are explored in depth, including the problem of the “east-west” divide that has historically kept white, monied gay interests in places like West Hollywood from joining forces with the less affluent, non-white queer communities in East and South Los Angeles. Most heartening are the personal stories of individuals who watched in awe as their casual phone calls asking a few friends to gather to protest mushroomed into major marches. For those of us who were dispirited after the 2008 vote, this doc offers a welcome tonic.

Wrapping up the fest is Becoming Chaz, directed by the Will and Ariel Durant of queer filmmaking, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who gave us The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Profiling an “associational celeb” like Chaz Bono, offspring of Sonny and Cher, would seem to pose challenges. How to avoid turning it into just another superficial reality TV show? Fortunately, Bailey and Barbato delve deeply enough into the personalities of Chaz and his girlfriend, Jenny, to keep us watching. The film follows Chaz, born Chastity, through the process of gender reassignment, recording all the twists and turns. One of the most interesting twists is something not always discussed in these stories: the effect on the partner of the loss of the person she was originally attracted to. Chaz, says Jenny, was sweeter when she (Chaz) was a woman, which shows dramatically in scenes where it’s clear the testosterone has ratcheted up the less savory sides of Chaz’s new male personality. During some tense dinner preparation, Chaz hurls sexist insults at Jenny, something hard to reconcile with Chaz’s previous incarnation. But the film doesn’t shy away from such moments and benefits from this honesty. Like the others in the fest, Chaz emerges as a mixed-bag hero as he transitions in more than one way: becoming a man and a trans advocate at the same time. Making the personal political is one of the themes of this effective documentary, and could serve as a fitting mantra for another excellent edition of QDoc.