Gendernauts, military drag queens, communist queers – and, oh yes, John Waters distinguish this year’s docs.
Those who make them and those who follow them have long lamented the lack of commercial venues for documentaries. A few struggle through the gate and run in a “regular” theater (think Hoop Dreams), or briefly in repertory (recently, A Place Called Chiapas), if they get sufficient attention and backing. Some recover their cost by being sold to HBO or some other cable channel, but most never make it beyond the gulag of the film festival circuit.
This same lack of visibility and commercial viability also creates unexpected pleasures. Documentarians who can solve the always pesky problem of financing can explore marginal or even taboo subjects, unearth hidden histories, or challenge the political or social status quo in ways that are unimaginable in feature films. This year’s Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has a number of notable documentaries that do one or another of these things, and sometimes all three.
Clinton and the military’s poisonous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to the contrary, much of the festival is about speaking out and reconstructing/reclaiming the queer self. This “ask, tell” strategy surfaces in the arena of gender politics in Monika Treut’s cleverly titled Gendernauts, which examines the lives of a group of “gender rebels” in San Francisco. What’s most amazing is how, recognizing the indifference or hostility of both the straight and gay communities, they’ve carved a space for themselves in society out of sheer personal will, generating a unique infrastructure that includes medical clinics, clubs, and the equivalent of “safe houses” where they can truly be themselves. In spite of the dizzying variety of sexual definitions the film explores – Professor Sandy Stone says mysteriously that there are “many” genders – these MTFs, FTMs, “intersexes,” and unnamed variants are surprisingly grounded, often funny, and very human.
Two bookend documentaries on related subjects are more problematic but equally intriguing. Parris Patton’s Creature traces Stacey Hollywood’s bumpy history from 15-year-old gay runaway to L.A. club queen and drag prostitute to recipient of her bible-thumping family’s mixture of tears, hugs, and horror during a depressingly weird visit after “he” has become “she.” Early in the film another queen aptly defines Stacey’s troubled world when she says, “Life is chaos, honey … you’ve just got to feed on the chaos.” Jack Lewis and Thulaine Phungula’s Sando to Samantha shows how a South African queen was inducted into the army and became the soldiers’ best gal – at least until she was thrown out for being HIV positive. There’s wonderful comedy here in Samantha’s less-than-soldierly marching style – wild shoulder movements and haughty stares – but this is ultimately a bitter and unsettling story of the harsh limits society places on its deviates.
South Africa is also the setting for another kind of deviate in Greta Schiller’s The Man Who Drove with Mandela. Cecil Williams was an anomaly by most measures – a prominent theater director, gay man, and communist freedom fighter for black nationalism who pretended to employ Nelson Mandela as chauffeur in order to foment armed revolution. Corin Redgrave tries with intermittent success to conjure Williams in the reenactment scenes, but the film’s real strength is in its poignant interviews with those whose lives were touched mightily by him. The film shows why he’s credited by those in the know as the inspiration for the ANC’s total legalization of homosexuality in South Africa, a law that the ignorant backwater known as the United States has yet to enact.
Continuing the world tour of gender fun leads us to Stanley Kwan’s Yin and Yang: Gender in Chinese Cinema. Kwan’s other work in the festival, the feature Hold Me Tight, is a major disappointment from the director of Actress and Rouge, but this ambitious documentary somewhat redeems him. In Yin and Yang, the gay director salvages some surprising images from early Chinese films. Among these are nude camaraderie sequences from a 1930s melodrama, and clips from the movies of Yan Kim-Fai, an immensely loved cross-dressing dyke from the ’40s on who acted and lived with her female partner. The usual images from John Woo’s homoerotic thrillers are present, along with interviews with most of the prominent Hong Kong directors. Kwan politely probes Tsui Hark, Woo, and the others about the queer undercurrents in their work and their relationships with their father, but the clips – some of them quite rare – are of greater interest. It’s worth noting that the Shaw Brothers refused his request to include footage from their films, perhaps too troubled by a director of Kwan’s prominence being an out queer.
Closer to home is Steve Yeager’s Divine Trash, an insider’s view of John Waters’s work with special attention paid to Pink Flamingos. The film answers a few lingering questions – yes, that was Waters himself screaming about “tabuloids” and “two jealous perverts” in the voiceover in Pink Flamingos – and uncovers everybody’s secret favorite character in the film, the “singing asshole.” (He appears in shadow, and doesn’t “sing” this time.) The film drags at 105 minutes, but the rare footage of Divine rehearsing and Waters directing – very dictatorially – make this must-viewing for campsters.
Speaking of wacky gals, the inescapable Annie Sprinkle returns to the festival screen with her version of the history of erotic movies. Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn covers familiar territory as one of the sex star’s strolls through her career via film clips, scenes where she “interacts” with her image on screen, and self-help sequences with titles like “Get to Know Your Pussy.”
More expansive is John Scagliotti’s After Stonewall, which takes up the history of the lesbian and gay movements from where Before Stonewall left off. After Stonewall is a sobering mix of mourning and celebration – mourning for the saturation of death from the AIDS crisis and the failure to progress beyond a point, celebration because there is ample cause for it, as the film shows. The early history of the movement is tellingly, often amusingly detailed by those who created and lived it. The controversies that once seemed unsolvable – the women’s movement’s hostility toward dykes, the gay men expecting the “girls” to bake cookies – eventually gave way to other problems, but clever queers were able to move into a number of power positions, throw off the yoke of “mental illness” inflicted by the medical establishment, and radically increase visibility. The Gay Games and marches on Washington are shown up close, along with Clinton’s sickening betrayal on gays in the military and his signing of the loathsome “Defense of Marriage” Act. Best of all, like the “gendernauts” in Treut’s film, and for much the same reason, activist queers built elaborate infrastructures where none existed previously. This paid off in a powerful way, the film shows, when the AIDS crisis kicked in and there were food banks, rent subsidies, specialized clinics, counseling, protests, and advocacy to lessen some of its impact. This theme – be yourself, do it yourself, and speak out! – not only informs After Stonewall but reassuringly filigrees the whole fest.