Bright Lights Film Journal

Keeping It Real: Documentaries in the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, 2002

Lindsey Merrison’s Friends in High Places

Dykes and trannies get more than their usual screen time this year, thank goddess

Documentaries are the heart of the Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, not only because they’re often worthy in themselves but because, like the queer subcultures they usually portray, they tend toward cultural invisibility and shine when the light’s turned on them. Some will resurface briefly on PBS or one of the simpatico cable TV channels, but few will get any kind of commercial release, and most will simply vanish after making the queer festival rounds. That’s a shame, because there are some exceptional entries, along with a few dogs, in this year’s fest that deserve an afterlife.

Trannies and dykes of all stripes get their due and then some this year. Festival regular Rosa von Praunheim (I Am My Own Woman) weighs in with Queens Don’t Lie, a loving portrait of four German drag queen activists. Typical of this engaging troupe is their opening number, apparently one of their standards, performed in startling ’60s trash couture designed by BeV  StroganoV: “She came on a steamer, the super girl from San Francisco town. She wears a ding-dong vama dama sing-song teeny-weeny flower-power dress.” And you know how hard it is to find that kind of dress, even for a “super girl” in “San Francisco town.”

In a startling serendipity, two filmmakers from different countries produced strong biopics on their cross-dressing dads. Even Benestad’s All About My Father uses artful special effects and often painful interviews with his father, a strong-willed, unrepentant drag queen doctor in a small Norwegian town, to render the chaotic effect the transition had on his family. Joel Janecek’s dad is another powerful, unapologetic drag queen.Myth of Father bracingly shows the rewards along with the inevitable rifts that accompany the difficult decision to live honestly.

The ascension of an ex-sex worker tranny to New Zealand’s Parliament was greeted with surprise and shock in some quarters, but most of her constituents, and her fellow MPs, properly adore Georgina Breyer, the subject of Annie Goldson and Peter Well’s sympathetic Georgie Girl. Among her accomplishments, the funny and commanding Breyer goes where no tranny’s gone before as she judges a children’s sheep-riding contest and sets up an office to actually deal with the concerns of her supportive constituents. Breyer’s cutting humor and colorful life are well displayed here.

The rarely sighted drag king phenomenon is exhaustively explored in Gabriel Baur’s Venus Boyz. The “boyz” of the title appear as cowboys, gangbangers, and less describable icons of masculinity, whooping it up onstage and off, living simply by that old chestnut, “Gender is undefined. It’s what you make of it.” There are inevitable political overtones in this kind of drag. Some of the kings make no bones about the fact that they want the respect that goes with masculine privilege – “being female is a performance.” Dressing up lets them experience “maleness” firsthand.

Dykes are also featured prominently in the fest.Swimming Upstream: A Year in the Life of Karen and Jenny shows that charisma isn’t the exclusive property of movie stars after all. K & J, whose attempts to have a kid put them on a rollercoaster ride that threatens never to stop, get by on good humor and heart.Ruthie & Connie: Every Room in the House features another pair of dazzling dykes. Being older, they faced more obstacles, including a near suicide, than Karen and Jenny when they abandoned husband and family in favor of each other in the 1970s. These are wonderfully warm, funny, and powerful women whose connection resonates from the screen.

Moving into more grim areas, the Catholic Church’s recent scandals dovetail nicely with two docs this year. Macky Alston’s Questioning Faith follows the director as he questions both religious professionals and regular folks who’ve experienced trauma about “why God lets such horrible things happen to people!” His subjects’ stories are passionately portrayed, but some viewers may question his sincerity in, for example, the scene where he reacts to an old preacher’s claim to believe in angels with a shocked: “Angels? Dead people?!” Hasn’t he heard of them? More evidence, if such were needed, that religion gets in the way of living can be found in The Devil in the Holy Water. Director Joe Balass took his crew to the World Gay Pride event at homophobia’s ground zero, the Vatican, where he interviews an endless parade of men in dresses (priests and drag queens), along with duplicitous nuns (“I have to catch a bus!”) and various functionaries who mostly refuse to comment on queerdom, despite nagging hints that they have quite intimate knowledge of it.

In a more fabled realm are thenats of Lindsey Merrison’s Friends in High Places: The Art of Survival in Modern-Day Burma. Nats are spirits, channeled by Burmese queens, that can help with finances, love, etc., and 85% of the population believe in them. The queens who channel them (and it’s mostly a “gay thing”) are highly respected and feared by all, including Burma’s brutal military. “Did you fuck the general?” one of them asks another. It seems some of the nats have “government sponsors” who give them presents, houses, and perhaps nights of hot military lovin’. Some of the spirits have names suspiciously similar to drag queens: Lady Silver Wings, Little Flute Lady.

Sliding into the gutter (or tearoom), Kristiene Clarke’s The Truth About Gay Sex offers a satirical “how-to” for homos (and interested straights) that explores such timeless topics as fisting, the “anal canal” (seen in lurid close-up), and irresistible play spaces like public toilets. A doctor appears throughout, portentously describing various body parts and what to do with them. In other scenes, a trashy queen takes us on a tour of London’s outdoor sex spaces. Her eagle eye spies a spanking session “right around the corner!” (in some bushes), and few viewers will remain unmoved when she eloquently exclaims, “God, the smell of cock in that cottage is just unbelievable!” (“Cottage” is Brit slang for an active public toilet.)

Some curmudgeons insist that “queer humor” is an oxymoron, but John R. Killacky and Larry Connolly’s Keeping It Real: The Adventures of Greg Walloch proves otherwise. Walloch is an anomaly by most reckonings: a gay disabled white comic who lives in Harlem because he likes to “keep it real.” He hates the “saintly disabled” routine, so he skewers it. He’s determined to become “the most beloved disabled performer in America, I’m going to kick that Christopher Reeve’s ass!” The film cleverly visualizes some of Walloch’s quite funny routines, including a hilarious one about adopting a Chelsea twink, played to the gay hilt by the fetching Stephen Baldwin. “Sure he’s cute and stupid, and who doesn’t love that?” Walloch’s humor has a subtle but quite powerful political edge; one of his routines is to pull a straight man onstage and “fall in love with him for a minute” – actually an excuse to paw a nervous hetero boy. Not that he’s above dishing his own community. In his twink telethon, he tearfully reminds his audience of “the hidden costs of being gay – the parades, the expensive party drugs, the painful anal shenanigans.” Despite the film’s satirical title, Walloch does indeed “keep it real,” a mantra that applies equally well to the docs in this year’s festival.