Bright Lights Film Journal

Something to Come Out To: Gay Documentaries Triumph in the 2001 SFILGFF

A bumper crop of docs scale the heights and trawl the depths of queer culture

“There was nothing to come out to. We never heard the word homosexual. The media never mentioned it.” So says one of the dykes profiled in Lucy Winer and Karen Eaton’s Golden Threads, a superb profile of a global networking service for lesbians that also casually fleshes out a still elusive history. The period referred to was the 1940s. Six decades later, thanks in no small part to the SFILGFF and works like this, there’s an increasingly visible community to come out to, the word homosexual is so popular it’s become passé; and the media, straight and gay, can hardly get enough of things queer.

This year the SFILGFF is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and a look at the documentary component of the fest shows there’s indeed much to celebrate in 2001, even as there continue to be too many reasons for mourning.

To mark this milestone, San Francisco impresario Marc Huestis produced 25: History of the Festival. Deftly mixing interviews and archival footage, Huestis chronicles the fest’s transition from a local activist affair to its position as the world-class event of its kind. Everyone from filmmakers to devoted longtime attendees lovingly attest to the fest’s influence on their lives and work. The sometimes too self-congratulatory tone (complete with testimonials in Spanish and German) is happily mitigated by a trove of fabulous anecdotes and a brisk running time (60 minutes).

Far from San Francisco and its concerns, several little-known queer subcultures are explored this year. Among the best such works is Bombay Eunuch, directed and produced by Alexandra Shiva, Sean MacDonald, and Michelle Gucovsky. “For me, being a eunuch feels right,” says one of the subjects, but their lot in India’s heavily patriarchal culture is a far from happy one. Once idolized and feared as spiritual beings whose presence at births and weddings was crucial, the eunuchs (hijra), who number 1.3 million in India, now subsist through begging and whoredom. The film creates a powerful mosaic of lives truncated by family rejection, social exile, poverty, and AIDS. The mix of academic analysis, scenes from Bollywood, and memorable scenes from the lives of a group of eunuchs paid by the filmmakers for access into their rarely glimpsed world make this a must-see work.

Closer to home is Juan Carlos Zaldivar’s engaging 90 Miles, an autobiographical tale of growing up communist in Cuba until age 13, then coming to Miami to enjoy the debatable pleasures of American culture. Zaldivar’s queerness is less compelling here than cultural dislocation, most profoundly felt by his father, whose longing for his old life in Cuba takes on tragic dimensions. Another world mostly unknown to Westerners is seen in Robbie Hart’s Tina Machida in Zimbabwe. This brief but inspiring doc contrasts president Robert Mugabe’s noxious “dogs and pigs” metaphor for gays with a young lesbian who eloquently demands her rights. The terror of “family values” surfaces mightily here in Machida’s grim recounting of being raped by a man paid to do so by her parents. Mugabe also appears in Lionel Bernard’s fine French documentary Homophobia: That Painful Problem as one of many villains, screaming about the threat that queers represent. Not all these villains are individuals; scenes of mass destruction of a movie theater showing a lesbian-themed film (India) and rioters demanding discriminatory laws against gays (France) chillingly demonstrate the murderous mentality of hetero mobs when confronted with queer imagery.

“Pleasure is political, and we should seek it,” according to Christine Burton, 93-year-old impresario of the aforementioned Golden Threads. Burton is a remarkable presence whose tumultuous personal history of unrepentant lesbianism spurred her to pursue both the pleasurable and the political, in this case creating an organization for mid-life and older dykes. The film focuses on one of the group’s annual get-togethers. While Burton’s striking intelligence and energy dominate the film, there are other pleasures, among them witty recollections of life for World War II-era dykes in New York’s secret gay bars: “If you were a woman, you had to have three articles of clothing. So you’d get some big stomping butch who had to wear bloomers! It was so humiliating!”

If Golden Threads debunks the myth of the humorless lesbian, Paris Poirier’s Pride Divide reminds us that that myth, and others, is alive and well. The film, an excellent survey of 50 years of complex relations between gay men and lesbians, exposes an alarming number of clichés still prevalent in the queer community – e.g., that bisexuals “can’t be trusted”; that all gay men are flighty sex fiends; that all lesbians prefer love to sex. The increasingly irrelevant Camille Paglia is the worst of the interviewees, spewing dubious insights such as that lesbians only help male AIDS patients because they, the dykes, enjoy seeing men, any men, in a position of weakness and dependency.

The era of the “AIDS movie” as a major presence was thought to be over by now, but just as it has in life, AIDS has resurfaced strongly in this year’s fest. Several powerful documentaries in this year’s fest probe this apparently inexhaustible subject. Jay Corcoran’s Undetectable follows the lives of six HIV-positive people in Boston as they grapple with the disease and with what too many have perceived as the cure, the “cocktail.” The film tracks its subjects, who represent a wide range of sex, race, and class, over time, showing that spirit can sometimes survive even as humanity is compromised. If Undetectable is intermittently grim, Mary Patierno’s The Most Unknowable Thing is downright harrowing in its picture of the twists and turns in the life of an HIV-positive man who marries his female chiropractor. Patierno pushes every imaginable button – and a few perhaps unimagined — in this brilliant and disturbing portrait of life’s gruesome little surprises. The filmmaker is the sister of her subject, a fact that may explain some of the film’s intensity.

AIDS and celebrity are an irresistible mix for trash TV, but Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher’s Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story takes a more subdued, almost worshipful view of its subject. Queen-watchers will find this endlessly intriguing, partly because it’s an authorized work featuring tons of rare footage from performances, home movies, and Mercury’s legendary “decadent” parties. Others might object that it’s more hagiography than biography. The most enchanting moments are opera diva Montserrat Caballe’s reminiscences – with performance scenes – of her duets with the queen of Queen. Another too-slick celebrity bio can be found in Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The Life & Times of William Haines. Haines is one of 1930s Hollywood’s legends, a gay man whose stardom collapsed when he refused MGM’s insistence that he drop his lover and go back into the closet. Directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey made this doc for American Movie Classics, and while it’s informative enough, it’s a minor work compared to that team’s lively Tammy Faye Baker bio.

For those who can’t get enough of glitzy old queens, there’s a 1955 Liberace show at the fest that shows His Gaudiness in all his terrifying glory. As other shocked commentators have noted, the scariest thing about Liberace is that he was a top! On the same bill is an unedited psychiatric intake interview dating from the same period as the Liberace show. The title homo of The Case of Mr. Lin is a musician confounded by his homosexual tendencies who has sought out psychiatric help. Bizarre indeed is the “dialogue” between Lin and shrink Carl Rogers, who mostly simply regurgitates what Lin tells him. The gulf between the supposedly sympathetic shrink and the struggling patient is wide enough to accommodate a small nation, but there’s a subtle sense that Lin may be playing a game with Rogers, and may be less willing to change than a postscript about his “progress” would indicate.

Moving from the archaic camp and psychiatric horrors of yesteryear to the heady political arena of today is Tom Shepard’s Scout’s Honor. This loving work is a well-deserved tribute to the Petaluma straight boy, 15-year-old Steven Cozza, who’s become a legend in the gay community for his campaign against homophobic Boy Scout policies. The sordid history of the Scouts’ attitude is interwoven with moving stories of the human casualties, both gay and straight. Cozza’s unerring bravery in the face of backward locals and an intransigent national organization is a sight to behold. Like much of this year’s fest, Scout’s Honor offers pleasant proof that not every queer hero has to be a celebrity, or even queer.