Bright Lights Film Journal

Heroes (Mostly) and Villains: Portland’s QDoc Queer Documentary Festival, May 15-18

To Be Takei

Portland, Oregon’s notoriety of late has come mainly from being satirized as over-the-top PC (Portlandia), its status as a foodie and craft beer paradise, a haven for runaway teens and activists, the rarely sighted “affordable West Coast city,” and the place where “young people go to retire.” Of course, there’s more to the Rose City, not least a surprisingly rich film scene. In addition to a series of bohemian brew-pub theaters and their bourgeois mirror image, downtown’s Living Room Theater (where you can watch art films in veritable thrones while nibbling on paté), there’s the Northwest Film Center (an excellent cinematheque), the hippie-activist Clinton Street Theater, and a string of worthy film festivals.

One of the most interesting in the latter category is QDoc, the only festival in the country (and one of only two in the world) dedicated entirely to LGBT documentaries. Featuring a mere eleven features spread over a long weekend, it’s one of the more navigable festivals, a dip rather than full immersion into what’s happening both cinematically and culturally in the queer community. The event itself tends toward the communitarian as well, with special guests (see the end of this piece), musical acts, and – at least in previous versions – a celebratory air both inside and outside the theaters. I watched nine of the eleven films for this review.

Simone Edwards in The Abominable Crime

Victories for LGBT rights have been coming at seeming breakneck pace in the western world; that’s the subject of opening night’s film The Case Against 8 (unavailable for screening), chronicling the overturning of the ban on marriage equality in California. Alas, forces opposed to queer rights remain in control in some regions. Producer-director Micah Fink’s The Abominable Crime shines a light on the horrific situation in Jamaica, a bastion of homophobic crimes thanks to the usual unholy alliance of church, government, and media. Fink powerfully profiles two Jamaicans at the epicenter of this oppression. The film opens with a woman, Simone Edwards, talking about being attacked and shot twice for her “abominable crime” of lesbianism. Simone’s story alternates with that of lawyer-activist Maurice Towlinson, a gay man whose outing forces him to relocate to Canada though he remains determined to return to his home country – and does – to fight the draconian laws that support the beatings, stabbings, and murder of LGBT people. Interestingly, Jamaica’s “battyboys” (gay men) and lesbians apparently had an easier time of it before the 1980s when American televangelists like Jimmy Swaggert extended their reach into the Jamaican market, whipping up anti-queer hysteria and giving religious legitimacy to sometimes lethal homophobic attacks, recalling the evangelists who’ve more recently helped introduce viciously anti-queer attitudes to Africa. While The Abominable Crime sounds like a grimfest, that’s not the case, due mainly to Simone and Maurice’s charismatic personalities and their clear courage in dealing with state- and socially sanctioned brutality.

 

The New Skids on the Block in Derby Crazy Love

A far different world is portrayed in Derby Crazy Love, directed by Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott. Set in Montreal, Canada, this brisk documentary (65 minutes) dives into the culture of women’s roller derby. The cast of characters is as colorful and unapologetic as their names: Iron Wench, Smack Daddy, Suzy Hotrod, Apocalipstick, Smash ‘N Trash, Kamikaze Kitten. While roller derby has never entered the top tier of mainstream sports, it has its own cachet as sports subculture, with an estimated 1,400 leagues worldwide. A few teams – the Gotham Girls of New York, London’s Rollergirls, and Montreal-based New Skids on the Block – have emerged as superstars. The Skids, as both individuals and players, are at the center of this film, and it’s bracing to see these smart, sexy, funny, aggressive women both in the rink and telling their stories. In addition to “the jam,” when they’re in the heat of battle, Derby Crazy Love showcases the women gleefully busting stereotypes, talking about community and counterculture, playing in bands and planning to have kids, and describing the pleasures of giving their aggressive side full play. A wake-up call comes when Adidas expresses an interest in sponsoring them but only if some of them will change their names – the Skids have a lot to think about.

Rae Spoon in My Prairie Home

Another Canadian documentary of interest is Chelsea McMullan’s My Prairie Home, about transgender singer/songwriter Rae Spoon. Spoon grew up in Alberta, a child of evangelical fanatics (the father was also schizophrenic) who eventually finds a niche in music. The film tracks Spoon’s travels by Greyhound across the Canadian prairies, interweaving interviews, impressionistic imagery, and musical vignettes (Spoon has a lovely high voice) that could stand alone as videos. Some of the musical sequences have a comic surreality; in one, “Love Is a Hunter,” Spoon sings as a trophy head on the wall and then is seen prancing in the forest surrounded by dancers wearing deer heads. The film’s reception will depend to some extent on the viewer’s interest in Spoon’s low-key, reflective style, but director McMullan’s visual inventiveness and Spoon’s sometimes sad, sometimes droll persona make this a worthy watch.

Performers, of course, come in all sorts of guises, from sports players and musicians to public intellectuals. In the latter category is Susan Sontag, one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the twentieth century. Gifted, indeed brilliant, as well as arresting in her beauty, Sontag (1933-2004) was a controversial figure. A master of popularizing complex ideas as well as making sense of pop culture trends, she pioneered the concept of “camp” in a seminal essay. An unconventional feminist, she described being “feminine” as “a performance” before such notions were widespread. A fearless activist, she visited war-torn capitals like Hanoi and Sarajevo and was willing to defend her views in the most hostile environments, as when she was vilified on mainstream TV for suggesting US foreign policy helped trigger the 9/11 disaster or refused to accept Norman Mailer’s patronizing description of her as a “lady writer.” Nancy Kates’s Regarding Susan Sontag, which uses Patricia Clarkson as the voice of Sontag, features those appealing sides of her personality but doesn’t shrink from portraying the less savory ones – her snobbishness and sometimes downright cruelty toward family, friends, and lovers, as well as anyone who “didn’t matter.” She had a conflicted attitude toward her own sexuality, perhaps rooted in the era in which she came up. “My desire to write is connected to my homosexuality,” she says. “I need the identity as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me. I am just becoming aware of how guilty I am about being queer.” The film’s experimental collage-type imagery seems an unnecessary attempt to enhance Sontag’s powerful words and life. Thoughtful interviews interspersed with her own comments and excerpts from her writings give us a rounded portrait of this exceptional artist who embodied the contradictions of her time.

The Rugby Player

Fame can come from a lifetime of acts or a single one. In the case of Mark Bingham, the subject of Scott Gracheff’s The Rugby Player, it was the act of attempting to thwart the terrorist hijacking of United flight 93 during the 9/11 debacle that brought him posthumous renown. Bingham grew up as a jock and heavy-metal fan whose friends were straight and, like his mother, had no idea he was closeted until he came out to everyone in college. Bingham’s mother, Alice Hoagland, is as present in this doc as her son, who was intensely connected to her; it’s through her eyes that we learn about him, with friends and lovers also weighing in. The portrait that emerges is one of an “infectiously happy and charming,” life-loving every(gay)man, who (like Sontag in this way) always stepped up to right an injustice – an ex-lover recalls Bingham, no slouch himself at 6’5″ and 250 lbs, going after a “much larger” gay basher in San Francisco. Home movie footage, memorial get-togethers, and ongoing interviews with Hoagland breathe life into a man whose enthusiasm, strength, and kindness touched many lives. It’s unclear what exactly happened in that plane on 9/11, but the film makes a convincing case that Bingham reacted as he did to the gay basher, pulling other passengers together to counter-attack and, in this case, prevent a larger tragedy.

Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger

The LGBT community has many heroes. One of the most visible is Kate Bornstein, a “tranny” activist, gender theorist, writer, performer, Twitter maven, and cultural presence. Bornstein was born a male in 1948, had sexual reassignment surgery in 1986, and now says, “I don’t call myself a woman, and I know I’m not a man.” Bornstein’s story is well told in Sam Feder’s Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger, riffing on the name of Bornstein’s autobiography. The title is appropriate; the author’s provocations aren’t strident but playful, interweaving wit and whimsy with challenges to the gender status quo. A solemn pronouncement like “We teach what we most want to learn” is followed by a comically delivered plea of “Don’t be mean!” This sort of playfulness extends to language in Bornstein’s defense of the controversial word “tranny” as a term, like “queer,” that can be viewed as empowering the people it’s meant to demean. Interviews, encounters with friends, beach romps, past involvement with Scientology, bouts with cancer, performance pieces, and lectures are all here and make for a compelling portrait of this sweetly inspiring, surprisingly down-to-earth figure.

John Wotjowicz in The Dog

It would be a stretch to equate Kate Bornstein with John Wotjowicz, aka “the Dog,” whose attempt in 1966 to rob a bank to finance his lover’s sex change became the subject of the Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon. But they do share a certain “this is me!” quality, an unrepentant claim to their individuality irrespective of social or gender conventions. Wojtowicz was considered “nuts” by many, and there’s certainly enough in the fine documentary The Dog to support the term. But he’s also perhaps the ultimate romantic, a man who, Quixote-like, pursued a crazy dream, surely knowing it would land him dead or in jail, of committing a major crime to help his male lover realize his wish to become a woman. The picture is vivid – this “Dog” barks, loudly and often crudely, with no filter. “Nobody ever did what I did. Nobody ever robbed a bank to cut off a guy’s dick to have a sex change.” He’s a mass of contradictions and provocations, a Goldwater Republican who became a “peacenik,” a devoted heterosexual husband who then “married” two men, a sweet man capable of death threats against his lover, a guy photographed standing in front of the bank he robbed with a t-shirt that says “I Robbed This Bank.” Part of the appeal of the film is some very rare footage of gay liberation in New York in the early 1970s, including a sit-in at the Marriage Bureau to force the government to accept gay marriage. But as fascinating as the social history and the bank robbery story are, Wotjowicz, who died of cancer in 2006, is the real star here, cheerily vulgar, larger than life, shrugging off social constraints, oblivious of consequences, and reveling in the fact that “I beat the fuckin’ system.”

The Circle

There’s enough elasticity in the term “documentary” these days to allow the QDoc programmers to include a “docudrama” this year. It’s Stefan Haupt’s The Circle, set in Zurich’s queer subculture in the 1950s. Haupt takes the unusual approach of setting up a reenacted story that is interrupted regularly by real-life interviews with those who lived it. The result enriches this alternately unsettling and uplifting story. Switzerland never had a homophobic law like Germany’s infamous Paragraph 175, and queer culture flourished in postwar Zurich, with an elaborate cabaret, complete with tableaux of models in posing straps, and a publication called Der Kreiss (The Circle) as vehicles for gay expression and building a queer community. Inevitably, given the time, this lively scene came under threat due to murderous rent boys and corrupt authorities. A series of killings turns the spotlight on The Circle (which referred to both the club and the publication), but instead of pursuing the killers, the police go after the “fags,” assaulting and blackmailing the men and shutting down the club and eventually the publication. Central to the story is the romance of a drag performer, Röbi, and a teacher, Ernst, who would in real life become the first gay married couple in Switzerland. Director Haupt deftly evokes the era and its challenges in the narrative sections and in interviews with the lively Röbi and Ernst. Rare archival images help round out this excursion into a little-known corner of queer history.

To Be Takei: George as Mr. Sulu in Star Trek

Closing night’s To Be Takei, directed by Jennifer Kroot (of It Came from Kuchar fame), profiles the irresistible George Takei, whose latest claim to fame is that he probably has the most Facebook followers of any person in the world (more than 5 million at this writing). Takei’s life journey has been as “bold” as his travels through space in Star Trek, and the film hits all the touchstones, from his forcible relocation to a Japanese-American internment camp to his marriage to his partner Brad. Takei’s personality can be intensely serious or wildly comic, always using his rich baritone voice to persuade, amuse, or cajole. He’s hilarious in roasting Star Trek nemesis William Shatner (“Speaking of fat alcoholics”), verbally fencing with pal Howard Stern, getting testy with his micromanaging husband. There’s poignancy in his memories of having to stay closeted in the 1950s and ’60s in order to work, and in his performance in a pet project, the stage musical Allegiance, about his internment camp experiences. Despite a personal and professional history that could easily be crushing, he remains a strong and optimistic figure – “I don’t believe in negativity,” he says – and an inspiring presence not only for the LGBT community but for anyone who’s lived at the margins of the mainstream.

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Guests at QDoc will include: directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White (The Case Against 8); film subject and human rights activist Maurice Tomlinson (The Abominable Crime); directors Mary Gallus and Justine Pimlott (Derby Crazy Love); director Nancy Kates (Regarding Susan Sontag); director Sam Feder (Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger); directors Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson (Kumu Hina); director Jennifer Kroot and editor/co-director Bill Weber (To Be Takei)

For more information about QDoc, including times and venues, check out their website: http://www.queerdocfest.org/.