Bright Lights Film Journal

Put the Camera on Us! Documentaries at the 2003 San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

Reality cinema celebrates homos of this year and yesteryear


With television practically asphyxiated by ancient sitcoms, brainless “reality” shows, doctored-to-death news, lifestyle schmaltz, and other dubious cultural forms, and with mainstream movies awash in action sludge and feel-good pap, festivals like the SFILGFF become increasingly important. While the quality of the features each year tends to vary, sometimes dramatically, the documentaries usually hit a pretty high mark. This year is no exception, with excellent work appearing in the first week of the fest on such timely subjects as homo teen travails, “gift giving” and “bug chasing,” Internet porn addiction, Gore Vidal, dildos, and even the hitherto unsuspected — at least by this reviewer — existence of a gay Shangri-La on the Mexican border with Guatemala.

If Melissa Levin and Roxana Spicer’s Class Queers and Cecilia Neant-Falk’s Don’t You Worry, It Will Probably Pass are any indication, the situation for queer youth remains dicey. The same crushing forces seen decades ago are still evident — homophobic parents and peers, small-town prejudice, vicious religion. The difference is that the today’s kids seem stronger and more stubborn than ever and have more options. They know they don’t have to accept the status quo and many of them don’t. In Don’t You Worry, three teenage lesbians tell moving stories about the terrors of trying to come out — or being forced to stay in the closet, at least for awhile — and the difficult but rewarding trek out of their little burgs into the warm queer enclaves of the big city. In Class Queers, dynamo teen dyke Adina overcomes her rabbi father’s bigotry through sheer force of personality and her insistence on living authentically.

Far from the prole pleasures of those films is Deborah Dickson’s The Education of Gore Vidal, starring the patrician, acid-tongued queen of literature, playwrighting, and politicking, the latter as both observer and participant. Grimly clever home truths pour like honey from Vidal throughout this valentine: The U.S. is “a nation of shoplifters”; the Founding Fathers, far from being nice fellas, “wanted a republic where it was safe for white men to do business.” One of the treats of the film is seeing Vidal’s elusive lover as the two of them stroll through the piazzas near their Italian home, or take a cab through New York City to attend readings of his work. Archival footage captures such rare sights as 10-year-old Gore making headlines by flying a plane. More familiar is the scene many years later of our hero debating the Democratic convention with a screeching, spewing William Buckley, whose arched-eyebrow threats that he’s going to “plaster” Vidal’s “goddamn face” make him a far likelier contender than his adversary for the title of Evil Queen.

Vidal despairs of the culture and dismisses the idea of a viable future, but perhaps if he’d seen Judy Wilder and Laura Barton’s Dildo Diaries, he’d change his mind. This witty, sexy doc looks at the wacky world of our favorite piece of plastic, using the insanity that is Texas as its starting point. Latexians of all sexes should know that possessing five dildos there is okay, but getting caught with six is a felony. In Texas, they can’t be called dildos; they’re “educational models.” Appalling scenes of the Texas legislature ruthlessly writing biblical morality into the penal code are balanced by comic tours of a dildo factory, interviews with dildo industry magnates, images of scary turn-of-the-20th century sex devices, and a “casting” scene with a well-hung hunk. The inescapable Annie Sprinkle also appears to spread … joy; does this woman never sleep?

Perhaps, too, Vidal should have watched Todd Ahlberg’s Hooked before making any sweeping conclusions about the decline of the culture. Or maybe this doc, about the lure and sometimes unpleasant consequences of Internet sex addiction, could provide further evidence of approaching armageddon. “It’ll make you a monster,” warns one queen. “I lie about my age, I string them along!” screams another. A third, citing the dangers of that policy of fabricating an online self that won’t match up when the date occurs, says glumly, “I shouldn’t have to ask a 30-year-old, ‘Do you have teeth?'” Of related interest is Louise Hogarth’s The Gift. This grimfest might inspire Vidal to recall the depravities of ancient Rome. The “gift,” as hip queers and a handful of straights know, is HIV. A “bug chaser” can get “charged” at one of the meth-drenched conversion parties, or the more common “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” play parties, described in lurid detail in this film. “The virus has become eroticized,” laments psychotherapist Walt Odets. A 50ish happy-chappy named Bill gives brainless boytoy “Kenboy” a birthday present by corralling dozens of guys to fuck him without rubbers. “His goal was to take 40 or 50 loads,” says a wistful Bill. “Happy birthday, Kenboy!” Viewers will have to draw their own conclusions on this distressing development, but the film, basically a series of sometimes highly emotional interviews with people on various sides of the issue, is important and intriguing.

Despite the implication in The Gift, you don’t have to die to be happy, as Patricio Henriquez’s Jucitan Queer Paradise shows. You can just go to Mexico. Surely Vidal could plan a trip there, to see for himself the long-awaited, much-vaunted, treasurable-beyond-belief image of a homosexual heaven in a country reputed to be among the most neurotically macho. Though there’s allegedly only one gay couple there, everybody seems interested and available. It’s a queen’s dream, surpassing even Turkey, aka “the country full of tops.” In a comical chat between self-identified gay and straight men, one of the former tells one of the latter: “You’re not a whole man unless you’ve screwed a fag.” Surely words to live by. A follow-up scene shows the straight guy lying in bed awaiting the ministrations of the obliging “fag.” The film also shows something queers know but straights don’t — that everyone benefits when queens roam free. The women of Jucitan are apparently as powerful as the men, more so in a sense because they appear to control entirely the local economy. Imagine a world ruled jointly by women and queers! Talk about paradise.


The second half of the world’s largest queer film festival is as rich in the realm of documentaries as the first. Subjects range from tranny transitions, church activism, ACT UP, and Audre Lorde to Tribe 8, homo hip-hop culture, and an amazing, unclassifiable bit of queer Americana called Put the Camera on Me.

Rene’s Story and Jamie’s Story

The dreaded “reality TV” trend has an upside that has nothing to do with hetero dating rituals and worm-eating contests. Showtime (like HBO and Sundance), has been very active lately in funding edgy docs, including some excellent queer material. Two examples of the latter are on view at the fest under the umbrella title of The Opposite Sex, with Jamie’s Story a portrait of a MTF (male-to-female) transition and Rene’s Story about an FTM. These films, both directed by Josh Aronson, dig deep to help viewers understand the quite specific dilemma of being born with a radical rift between the mind, which sees itself as one sex, and the body, which displays as the opposite. Rene and Jamie show extraordinary tenacity in dealing with hateful relatives, uncomprehending peers, cruel employers, and intolerant churches that simply view them as lesbian/homosexual, though it also shows the acceptance and love that more enlightened souls offer them. The film avoids special pleading by making it clear that the victimization of Rene and Jamie creates other victims in the form of their mates, who are shattered when the truth comes out about who their partners really are.

More of the terrors of straight society are represented in Jamie A. Lee and Dawn Mikkelson’s THIS Obedience, which tracks attempts by some enlightened parishioners and pastors to overcome the ECLA’s (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) policy against the ordination of otherwise qualified gays and lesbians who refuse to take a vow of celibacy. What is this endless hetero obsession with the fucking methods of homos? As so often in these cases, the queers come off as logical and intelligent, while the hand-wringing heteros (and perhaps some closet cases) defend the old ways with increasing feebleness. At the center of the drama is Anita C. Hill, a charismatic pioneer whose refusal to step aside gives heft to this drama.

Another queer pioneer is the subject of Jennifer Abod’s The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde. This brisk (60 minutes) valentine covers considerable ground on a complex subject — Lorde was acclaimed as poet, essayist, theorist, activist, feminist, scholar, internationalist. Archival footage of Lorde lecturing and performing show why she was so influential on several generations of feminists. Lorde is also feted in Sonali Fernando’s worthy Body of a Poet (playing with The Edge of Each Other’s Battle).

James Wentzy’s Fight Back, Fight AIDS: 15 years of ACT UP on Video, in keeping with the spirit of the organization it depicts, is simply a collection of video footage of ACT UP marches, meetings, and protests — the ultimate in democratic activism. Some viewers may get bored by the lack of commentary, but scenes such as the late Vito Russo eloquently speechifying remind us of the vitality of a movement that garnered as much controversy as practical results.

Speaking of takin’ it to the streets, the shorts program Homo Hop offers a veritable lexicon of previously unglimpsed black and Hispanic New York street homo types. Maria Clara’s Life on Christopher Street parades all manner of hip-hoppy queers, distinctively dressed, verbally adept, and answering to such names “homo thugs,” “homo butch queen thugs,” and the always enticing “ruthless gangster bitches.” There’s a vibrant vulgarity to these loose-knit, sexy groups who toy with hypermasculinity, hyperfemininity, and hyper-everything-in-between. They speak with a rough poetry that’s irresistible: “I have my cunt ways,” says one dykey creature. And one evil queen sums up the pleasure of the pounce: “I see a homo thug, I’m goin’ after him, plain and simple!”

Street creds are also at the heart of Tracy Flannigan’s extra-thrilling Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary. The charismatic punky dyke group, maligned from all sides, is shown in concert, extensive interviews, and footage from the 1994 Womyn’s Festival in Michigan, where their onstage sex and violence, with libidinous displays of dildos and mock-macho preening, caused an uproar among prim “womyn’s music” types. “I was scared, really scared,” says one shaken concertgoer of the group’s antics, though that doesn’t stop straight boys from eagerly answering lead singer Lynn Breedlove’s demand to come up onstage and “suck my cock!” Tribe 8’s exhilarating attack on cock rock remains as powerful as it is controversial, but these gals are also highly intelligent and downright endearing offstage. And surely few would argue with Lynn’s sentiments that “It’s important for people to be penetrated!” and “There’s nothing wrong with penises as long as they’re detachable!”

If there’s one must-see doc in this year’s fest it’s Darren Stein and Adam Shell’s Put the Camera on Me. This captivating film (which played on the Sundance Channel in June 2003) looks at the weirdly sophisticated movies made by li’l Darren Stein in the 1980s starting at age 7, with plenty of excerpts and interviews with his parents, siblings, and stars 20 years later. Darren’s subjects? Sexuality, cruelty, cross-dressing, games, friendships, rivalries, and childhood, according to the doc’s tagline. His repertory company? The local kids, straight and (future) gay. This queer mini-auteur’s work fearlessly breaks taboos, and Stein (who appears in most of the productions) is brazen in his efforts to reimagine the gore and glam of Hollywood movies as vehicles for his own fevered imaginings. In one of the dramas, a little boy in drag declares “I’m gay as a whistle!” under Stein’s direction. Later one of his stars, now a hunky man, says with amusement, “Darren zoomed tight in on my crotch!” in one of the horror movies they were making. Stein’s movies are a priceless time capsule of the period, but also an amazing stroll through the brain of a wildly creative, unabashed queerboy who flourished in the seemingly hostile terrain of suburban America in the Reagan years.