Bright Lights Film Journal

History, Herstory, Our Story: The 2010 QDoc International Film Festival in Portland, Oregon

“She had a lot of action inside!”

These may be the most tumultuous, and confusing, times yet for queer folk, with the stakes increasingly high as we push ever harder for our rights. Supposedly progressive California voters, manipulated by the Mormon and Catholic churches, overturn marriage equality, while in supposedly backward Iowa, it’s approved. Some gay teens succumb to social, religious, and family homophobia by killing themselves; others are happily slamming the closet door shut and taking to the streets. Nothing is predictable these days. Conservative icons like Bush ex-Solicitor General Ted Olson fight vigorously for gay marriage rights, while supposed allies, like President Obama, cynically ask for our patience, but really our silence, in pursuing full equality.

This year’s QDoc festival captured some of this chaos in a kind of mosaic portrait of queer culture present and past. As the only film festival in the U.S. devoted exclusively to LGBT documentaries, QDoc is uniquely positioned to draw this picture. Over the course of a long weekend last month (Thursday, June 3 to Sunday, June 6) and 12 features and shorts, the fest surveys the political scene (8: The Mormon Proposition, Other Nature) and the sometimes unlikely heroes (Out in the Silence, Topp Twins, Sylvester) who show how much richer society would be in a world where all of us can simply be ourselves.

Being oneself was the lesson of the two opening night entries. Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight offers a simpatico portrait of Vicki Marlane, a drag artiste who, at 72, continues to perform at Aunt Charlie’s in San Francisco’s rough-and-tumble Tenderloin District. That’s an appropriate venue for someone like Marlane, who went from Minnesota farm boy to roller-skating tranny to highway whore to prison inmate and on to a notable career as the tranny “Toast of the Town” in early ’70s San Francisco. There’s plenty of performance footage here, as well as helpful beauty tips for the cosmetically challenged, but some of the most fascinating moments come from Marlane’s descriptions of her long stretch as a “Hoochie-Koochie” dancer in a Minnesota carnival, rubbing elbows with such notables as Alligator Woman and the Girl in the Iron Lung. Her choice in boyfriends wasn’t always the best — she had a penchant for rough trade, ex-cons, and “straight” married men — but she survived emotional abuse, drug use, and desertion and wears the scars with pride. Second on the bill was Get Happy, a brief but charming sketch of Emmy Award-winning makeup artist and fashion designer Mark Payne. Mark’s childhood back story is more intriguing in some ways than his adult success. At a ridiculously young age he perfected drag mimicry, doing dead-on impersonations around age 11 of Liza Minnelli, Shirley MacLaine, even Diana Ross in blackface. Payne was abetted by a sympathetic mother and grandmother, who recognized his particular genius and encouraged him with money, materials, and love. Nothing could stop him — a friend recalls that even after he set the house on fire during one of his drag recitals, they moved to the garage and Mark started doing a Liza Minnelli routine. For young Mark, every object was a potential stage, though, as his mother says with mock-regret, “The thing with the hood of cars is they don’t withstand high heels too well.” Every young drama queen of any orientation deserves a mother like this.

Friday’s double bill began with 8: The Mormon Proposition, directed by Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet and narrated by Lance Dustin Black, screenwriter of Milk. The film opens with an endearing gay couple getting married during San Francisco’s historic registration, and revisits them on the emotional roller-coaster ride that follows. Cowan and Greenstreet meticulously document the ruthless schemes of the Mormon Church in helping to throw out California’s gay marriage law, while showing the human cost of religious bigotry on families, individuals, and society. The litany of lies and deceptions at work is quite extraordinary even for truth-‘n’-morality-challenged organized religion, from the Church’s setting up phony organizations to funnel money through, to a massive ad campaign filled with lies, to downright extortion as pastors visit parishioners at home and say things like, “Based on your finances, this is what you can afford to give,” and wait for the check. The film clearly links Mormon Church actions to gay teen suicides, and, in a heart-wrenching moment, follows a group of homeless Utah teens as they go “home” to a filthy building — abandoned, like they were. The only flaw in the film is that it fails to mention the shortcomings of the established gay groups and their campaign strategies, which were viewed by many observers as incompetent. Ultimately, though, 8: The Mormon Proposition is a must-see for anyone interested in understanding why gay marriage was killed in California, and the true nature of the forces we’re up against.

The second entry on this bill was a more celebratory one, a 43-minute profile of the IDKE (International Drag King Extravaganza), which began in Columbus, Ohio, of all places, in 1999. Looking back gives the participants a chance to wax poetic on the peculiar pleasures of “male impersonation.” Commentators with whimsical names like Flare, Carlos Las Vegas, Dainty Box, and others are seen expertly burlesquing such male stereotypes as a “Big Papa” hick and a nerdy teenage boy. The film shows the DK world as an ever-changing locus for expansive gender play as these inventive “genderfuckers” include even “femme” male riffs in their repertoire. Accompanying this show was Stormé: Lady of the Jewel Box Revue. African American Stormé  DeLarverie was the only male impersonator at the legendary New York drag club that inspired La Cage aux Folles. Archival footage and photos show this striking performer at work — unlike many gender performers, she did her own singing — and as she is today, working as a bouncer. Expert commentators like Joan Nestle offer context. The theme of authentic selfhood runs throughout this enticing 21-minute portrait. As Stormé says, “All I had to do was be me.” In a disturbing footnote, this icon, now 89, was recently (March 2010) incarcerated against her will in a nursing home with a dubious diagnosis of “dementia,” apparently in a plot by Chelsea Hotel owners to take possession of her $600 a month rent-controlled apartment in that New York landmark. See here for some of the grim details.

Saturday’s line-up began with another uncompromising black diva. Sylvester: Unsung is a fast-moving biography of the disco queen whose “Mighty Real” burned up the dance charts back in the day. Sylvester, born in 1947, is seen here in multiple guises — budding gospel singer, disco goddess, Cockette, “Paris chanteuse,” even “Snake Woman” (to fevered Brazilian fans) — but is always recognizable for his glamorous getups and soaring falsetto. This portrait — while sometimes too glitzy for its own good — is ultimately fair-minded, not sparing us Sylvester’s sometimes shallowness (“I wouldn’t get out of the car until someone opened it for me”), and numerous friends and fellow artists weigh in on the strange magic that made up this character, who died of AIDS in 1988, age 41.

Next up was Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement, a funny, moving love story about two women who met during the closet days of the early 1960s and stayed together for 40+ years, until Thea’s death in 2009. These women’s history, individually and as a pair, is 20th century gay history in a nutshell. We see them in all its phases: dancing furtively in secret gay bars in the 1950s, flirting with therapy to “go straight,” marching for gay rights in the 1970s, trying to resolve the rift between feminism and lesbianism. Best of all, though, are the dynamic personalities that emerge. Edie and Thea’s intelligence and crackling sense of humor, well displayed here, must have helped them survive the difficult times. They’re also refreshingly upfront in talking sex, particularly the adaptations and compromises they’ve had to make as they age. In a typical moment, Thea reminisces wistfully about the sight of young Edie in a tight sweater: “She had a lot of action inside!” They leave the viewer with a simple, irrefutable message: “Don’t postpone joy.”

Equally powerful was Yony Leyser’s William Burroughs: A Man Within. It’s hard to believe Leyser is only 25, so finely crafted is this documentary (which took five years to make). Burroughs is an especially tricky subject. Widely considered the “godfather of punk,” as well as a pioneer of queer, Beat, and junkie culture, he seems too soft-spoken, too inward-looking to be a trailblazer. Despite the wild creativity (he’s responsible for the phrases “soft machine,” “heavy metal,” and “blade runner”) and expansiveness we see in his novels like Naked Lunch, he appears repressed, paranoid, rigidly unemotional, perhaps self-hating, more content with his undemanding cats than with the lovers he seems to have longed for. Even when sleeping with the rent boys who were his common choice Burroughs kept a loaded gun under the blanket. Director Leyser employs snappy visual effects to keep the eye excited, and he includes archival footage and an impressive variety of commentators — Patti Smith, Anne Waldman, Iggy Pop — to try to make sense of Burroughs. But — and no criticism of this excellent film intended — Burroughs is ultimately one nut that simply cannot be cracked, a mysterious gay artist who reviled mainstream gay culture, perhaps because, like so many things, he couldn’t be a part of it.

Saturday ended on a more upbeat note with Le Tigre: On Tour, a profile of the cult electronic/dyke/activist band that grew out of riot grrrl/DIY/zine culture via leader Kathleen Hanna’s first group, Bikini Kill. This could have been an exercise in self-love, since LeTigre is listed as the filmmaker. But for fans of the band, or anyone interested in contemporary youth culture that mixes art and activism, Le Tigre: On Tour offers fresh fun. The doc shows Hanna and fellow bandmates Johanna Fateman and JD Samson onstage, being interviewed (by annoying sexist guys), crashing in hotel rooms, and grappling with the inevitable compromises that go with trying to reach larger audiences while maintaining their street (and self) cred.

Nepal was the subject of the next film, Other Nature — specifically the unique situation for queer folk there. Nepal may be the only country in the world that has codified gay marriage in law and offered full rights to LGBTs without actually following through on any of it. Curiously, the government issues “third gender” identification cards (read “tranny” cards) for all “gender variants,” a drastic and troubling misreading of the complexities of queer identity. Against the country’s dramatic mountain backdrop, the film thoughtfully details the struggles of ordinary Nepalese gays (and an Indian dyke couple) to make these laws workable. One scene shows a mother who respects and loves her gay son, but that may not be common. As one lesbian says, even if their legal standing is resolved, “Our families give us hell and kick us out, too.”

Next up was Out of the Silence, set in the homophobic heartland. Filmmaker Joe Wilson, a gay émigré from Oil City, Pennsylvania, decides to stir the anti-gay pot by putting his wedding announcement into the local paper and seeing what happens. His inspiration? A plea from a local mother to help with her son, who’s being bullied at school for being gay. Some of the cast of characters is depressingly familiar: an indifferent (when not smirking) school board, the local unhinged (probably closeted) bigot-activist, a lesbian couple struggling to survive in a hateful environment. But there are some surprises, too. Wilson’s forthright, friendly manner begins to sway one of the local preacher-homophobes and his wife. The bigot-activist tries to manipulate the black members of the State Board of Education by pitting black civil rights against gay ones, but they see through her tricks. CJ, the handsome bullied boy, taken out of school for a year, returns and finds himself more equipped to deal with hostile peers. Typical of this well-made film is a home truth spoken by Wilson: “What they call an agenda, we call our lives.”

Wrapping up this year’s fest was the Untouchable Girls: The Topp Twins, about everybody’s favorite twin yodeling New Zealand lesbians, Jools and Linda. Most Americans aren’t familiar with the Topp Twins, New Zealand’s “twin yodeling lesbians.” But as twin yodeling lesbian acts go, the Topps can’t be beat. Leanne Pooley’s documentary is an irresistible tribute to two unlikely heroes. Raised on a farm, the twins, now in their fifties, were blessed with an unheard-of mix of talents: vocal chops, a playful, theatrical sensibility, down-home charm, and an unwavering social conscience. Their act is a unique blend of these qualities.

The film follows Jools and Linda in concert, cutting up with audiences, at protests and fundraisers, on their farm with their wives, and in amusing early footage of the fetching duo as brash street singers. Somehow managing a blend of disarming, endearing, and authentic, the twins manage to reach audiences unimaginable in the polarized States, including steelworkers, farmers, and native activists. Their political work, which they do with a smile, has had major payoffs, too. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark attributes the passage of gay rights in New Zealand in part to them, and for the simplest reason: “The Topps being so proudly who they were helped make the issue more mainstream.” The film also showcases the hilarious gallery of characters they’ve invented: two good old boys Ken and Ken; country gals Belle and Bell Gingham; a pair of fussy rich dowagers. It also describes Jools’s struggle with cancer movingly and unsentimentally. Untouchable Girls shows two indomitable spirits who carry a timely message along with their art: be yourself and the rest will follow. That could also be the mantra for this year’s always worthy QDoc.