“We couldn’t figure out how to divide the cat . . .”
Queer documentaries have had a special place in homo history at least since 1978’s Word Is Out, the pioneering showcase for the kind of articulate, almost shockingly mainstream lesbians, gay men, and trannies whose struggles (and existence, for that matter) the mainstream had spent decades denying. The genre has come a long way since then. Much of the focus today remains on the fight for rights as queers set the bar ever higher, merrily pushing that famous “agenda” (read: equality) that so unhinges the haters. But increasingly there’s cause for celebration too, and the docs are reflecting that. Even sad stories have their balancing smiles as musty closets get an airing and tribute is paid to gay men and women past and present, famous and obscure.
Programmers Russ Gage and David Weissman (of Cockettes fame) scored a coup in this area with the Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival, the first in the country. Spread over a single weekend starting Friday, June 1, 2007, the fest comprised a mere nine varied works along with a host of guests, panels, and parties. Nine proved to be a magic number, making the fest approachable and enjoyable in ways that more bloated festivals simply can’t be. Together these films create an inspiring group portrait of a complex queer community coming of age.
Opening night entry Red Without Blue (directed by Brooke Sebold, Benita Sills, and Todd Sills) paints a memorable picture of Mark and Alex (aka Clair), beautiful identical twins dealing with the after-effects of a joint childhood nearly smashed by drugs, suicide attempts, rape, and virtual exile in their small Montana town. Shot in a lyrical, impressionistic style that befits its subject, the film blends family photos, old home movies, and in-depth interviews — most movingly with the twins themselves — to capture the life and times of this complex, charismatic pair. Now in their twenties, both are seen carving out separate identities and other relationships while remaining deeply connected. One of the most fascinating aspects of this dark but ultimately hopeful film is the evolution of the parents; particularly poignant is their loving father’s interplay with Clair, whose transition he not only supports but pays for.
Another pair of heroes, albeit more famous ones, are the stars of Joan E. Biren’s No Secret Anymore, a sweet salute to San Francisco’s Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. This fearless duo, now in their eighties, practically invented the lesbian rights movement in the 1950s with their organization the Daughters of Bilitis. That was only the first of a dizzying list of groups they founded to hammer the homophobes and sexists. The documentary includes rare photos and home movies of early, secret dyke meetings, but what’s most fun is Martin and Lyon’s droll sense of humor. On their relationship: “We were determined to last at least one year, even if it killed us! We couldn’t figure out how to divide the cat . . .” No Secret Anymore is a sheer delight and a rarity — a casual history of the lesbian lib movement that’s also a ripping bio of two of queerdom’s goddesses.
“Every city has a hot spot for the DL scene,” says one of the men in Abigail Child’s intriguing On the Downlow. The “hot spot” in this film is Cleveland, where four young African-American men reveal the many ways they interact with queerness, bisexuality, and “straight” men. The director creates an atmosphere of intimacy and trust with these men, who explore with frankness and humor the ways they’ve customized their sexual identities without bowing to the usual social pressures. Like Red Without Blue, the film shows the increasing quaintness of the closet in the men’s dealings with family and friends.
In Boy I Am, directed by Sam Feder and Julie Hollar, three female-to-male trannies from New York struggle with who they are and what it means, in the widest sense, to transition. The film tracks Nico, Norrie, and Keegan through each step of the process. Along the way, it addresses some expected questions, such as the possibility of future regret, but also explores some less often heard fears, such as how much of the FTM’s wish to change is based on “female self-hate,” or their desire for male privilege. Activists, theorists, dykes, and other trannies thoughtfully weigh in, but ultimately it’s the magnetic personalities of the three stars that make Boy I Am both entertaining and enlightening.
Equally entertaining but very different otherwise is Mary Jordan’s Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. Smith (1932-1989) was an extraordinarily influential figure in the New York art and film scene starting in the late 1950s. A gay anarchist/artist who made baroque, glittery underground movies using trash and his own speed-of-light imagination, he’s best known for the underground feature Flaming Creatures (1962), banned for its Dionysian orgies and male and female nudity (nicely sampled here). The film makes a convincing case for Smith as a modern William Blake, the visionary godfather of performance art, the sexual revolution, and even the counterculture. A master at conjuring beauty from nothing (his outfits, all feathers, garbage, and festoons, were legendary), he was also deeply self-destructive, and always “bit every hand that could feed him,” as John Waters says. The film features extensive footage of Smith in action, along with contextualizing commentary from friends, for a thoughtful biography of a genius who was queer in more ways than one.
On a darker note, Cynthia Wade’s Freeheld tells the story of dying police lieutenant Laurel Hester’s battle with New Jersey county officials — the Freeholders — to get partnership benefits for her female lover. Shortish at 38 minutes, the film nonetheless packs a wallop as a wrenching portrayal of a massive injustice. Luminous scenes of Hester and her lover Andree are balanced with sequences of Hester’s tragic decline and riveting moments of combat in the Freeholder meetings, where Hester’s policemen peers and other supporters try desperately to move the blank-faced, unbudging bureaucrats. Bring a hanky.
Set in sunnier climes than the homophobic darkness of New Jersey, Patricio Henriquez’s Jucithan: Queer Paradise engagingly profiles a far-south Mexican town that, according to folklore, became extra-gay when the town’s patron saint dropped “a bagful of queers” on it. We should all have such a bag. The citizens here supposedly not only tolerate but welcome gays, celebrating homo contributions to the culture and having a government car castigate homophobics by loudspeaker. The film sometimes feels like a whitewash; other sources (including Mexicans from Jucithan who have seen this and the other “Jucithan is so gay!” doc floating around) have said the town “doesn’t tolerate lesbians” and much prefers its queers in dresses. Still, the film gets points for its colorful drag festivals, a classic pushy bottom teacher who seduces a confused straight man (“You can’t say you’re a man until you’ve fucked a fag!” he lectures), and a charming tranny hairdresser who longs for Prince Charming but is okay till he arrives.
What better way to spend a languid Sunday afternoon in Portland than with 1960s muscleboys and 1980s red-hot dykes? The double bill that day started with Philip Lewis and Jean-Francois Monette’s Eye on the Guy: Alan B. Stone and the Age of Beefcake. A short swoop into a little-known career, the film honors shutterbug Stone and his tasteful studies of the unclothed charms of Montreal’s working-class hunks. There’s plenty of fetching flesh (in posing straps), winsome smiles, and even some thoughtful cultural context, though the brief running time (under an hour) doesn’t allow for the kind of deep-sea dive into flesh that some viewers might want Interestingly, this short film also showcases Stone’s very fine non-physique work documenting some of Canada’s cityscapes, native peoples, and far-flung subcultures including a First Nations rodeo.
Director Katherine Linton’s compact (28 minutes) companion piece, Lesbian Sex and Sexuality: The Evolution of Erotica, riffs on the lesbian porn movement and sex-positive dyke lifestyle by highlighting the history of On Our Backs magazine and videos like How to Fuck in High Heels (with juicy excerpts). The interviews in this irresistible doc are sharp and often hilarious. Typical of the unapologetic pioneers here is Diana Cage: “The good ’80s lesbian didn’t enjoy penetration because penetration was simply mimicking heterosexual sex; you were just a tool of the patriarchy. But secretly we were sticking as many things in as many orifices as we possibly could!” Amen, sister.
Another kind of liberation is the subject of the closing night film, Mike Roth and John Henning’s Saving Marriage, a spectacular look at how gay marriage came to Massachusetts. The film is a white-knuckle ride through the complexities of a process no one would have believed possible a few years ago but that now seems inevitable, if not as speedy as some would like. The film captures the intensity of the grassroots movement by unstoppable activists who work to dislodge homophobic legislators, and the challenges that lie ahead. Along the way it stops to etch powerfully emotional stories of individual activists, simpatico legislators, and couples who do get hitched, showing exactly what’s at stake here. Saving Marriage proved a rousing end to a worthy addition to the queer film festival circuit and a feather in the cap for Portland.