Bright Lights Film Journal

What’s Up, QDoc? Portland’s 2008 Queer Documentary Festival

Seeing queer lives from the U.S. and Canada to South Africa and Iran

Portland, Oregon’s profile as a destination city for queer media happenings got a boost in May 2008 with the second annual QDoc festival. The 2007 event, the first queer documentary festival in the U.S., was as much about community as it was cinema, with huge crowds of every description streaming into the bohemian Clinton St. Theatre, and more crowds waiting outside hoping to get a ticket. The generally high quality of the films, and the long roster of filmmakers attending, didn’t hurt. This year, QDoc, expertly curated by filmmaker David Weissman (of Cockettes fame) and SFLGFF émigré Russ Gage, was a bit longer, starting on Thursday and ending on Sunday, with a mostly solid selection of recent docs from around the world on all things queer. Again, most of the filmmakers were in attendance for Q&A’s and schmoozing.

Opening night’s feature, set in Italy, is Suddenly, Last Winter, but it might as easily have been called The Winter of Our Discontent. The winter is 2007 and the discontent is a familiar one: the frustrations of the never-ending process of trying to break through the firewall of church and state to gain our civil rights. The couple at the center of the story, Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi, who also directed the film, appear initially as characters in a fairy tale. Witty vignettes show them happily going about their daily lives while a voiceover says things like, “Our heroes are wondering: ‘What’s for lunch?'” They’re not closeted in the least — as the voiceover says, “Hide their love? They wouldn’t know how to. Neither of them can even keep a secret.” But the bubble-world of the couple (who have been together for eight years) is about to break as they start to focus on recent political developments. Berlusconi’s homophobic reign has ended, and the new left-inclined Italian legislature is poised to pass a domestic partnership law. Unfortunately, the Vatican, aligned with surprisingly blatant neo-fascist groups and enabled by weak-kneed politicians, has stepped in to stop the “disease” of homosexuals seeking to “destroy the family.” Gustav and Luca decide to make a documentary about this process, and they boldly confront ordinary people on the street along with legislators, trying to get homophobes to explain their reasoning. Long supported by family and friends, they’re shocked by the virulent reactions, which come with equal nastiness from brutish machos and smiling nuns. Who knew the land of la dolce vita was so . . . not dolce? The process of making the film proves as illuminating for Gustav and Luca as watching it does for the viewer. It’s both a bracing study of the complex forces that keep us in second-class citizenship, and a compelling character study of two engaging naifs awakening to the darker forces at work in the world.

The world tour of homophobia continues with a wrenching look at the dire situation in contemporary Iran. Directed by Tanaz Esaghian, Be Like Others as a title has two meanings: it’s both a cruel command to gay people, particularly effeminate men, and an expression of the wistful desire by those same gay people to conform, to “be like” their heterosexual counterparts in order simply to survive. In Iran, homosexuality can be punished by death, but any gay man or lesbian is allowed — encouraged, really — to become a transsexual, with the sanction of the Islamic government. The effect of this rule, the film shows, is that gay men who aren’t transsexual must become so. The film interviews doctors, social workers, bureaucrats, and clerics, but mostly tracks a group of men who are post-operative, pre-operative, or simply terrified at the prospect of being, as one doctor says, “ripped apart.” One of the post-op trannies, Vida, acts as a kind of mother hen or sister figure, but she’s also a subtly insidious presence who represents a kind of walking advertisement for the operation as she tries to convince the others of the wonders that await them in their new life. Unfortunately, the men often lose either way: as gay men, they’re denounced by their family — in one instance, a father tries to lure his son to a “special meal” that includes tea filled with rat poison; as trannies, they’re equally reviled and typically end up as street whores. It’s heartbreaking to watch these loving, vibrant people being crushed under the weight of hateful families and irrational fundamentalist dogma. Most riveting is an exchange between a forceful queen, Fahrad, and a callous female government documentarian (not the maker of this film). Fahrad is eloquent in objecting to being forced into changing himself to suit society in a way that amounts to self-destruction: “The fact that I have to do this takes away any sort of choice. If they operate on me, disfigure me, and dump me on the street, the result will be the very societal harm they fear!” Like Suddenly, Last Winter, Be Like Others shows in grim detail the human toll that homophobia takes.

One of the hallmarks of modern documentary is the director who’s also the star, using the raw material of their lives as both intimate memoir and springboard for a look at larger questions. Suddenly, Last Winter, She’s a Boy I Knew, and Searching 4 Sandeep fall into this category. Poppy Stockell conceived Searching 4 Sandeep as a film about Internet dating in her native Sydney, Australia. That changed when her research brought her face to face (at least online) with a gorgeous Sikh woman living in London. The problem was that while Stockell was comfortably out, Sandeep Virda, from a religious family, was closeted. Stockell uses technology to bridge the geographic, and she hopes romantic, gap by sending Virda a video camera so the two can get more acquainted. They meet in neutral territory, Bangkok, and the connection indeed proves to be real. Nonetheless, this is not going to be as smooth as its beginnings; overcoming traditional religious resistance to queerdom won’t be easy, even if Virda’s charming sisters are supportive. There are moments of intense emotion here, particularly in a scene where a conflicted Virda breaks down in front of the camera that’s supposed to be sending love notes.

Love abounds in Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100, an inspiring personality who faced triple oppressions — black, female, lesbian — with aplomb. Ellis, who was born in 1899 and died in 2000, was that rare creature, an uncloseted dyke at a time when this was almost unheard of. The film begins with shots of a slim, sturdy Ellis dancing, doing the “electric slide,” at age 99, and we learn that she runs errands for the other people — all much younger — in her retirement building. Director Yvonne Welbon interweaves historical footage and whimsical re-creations with Ellis’ detailed reminiscences. She vividly describes her early life in Detroit, born into a family of achievers that included musicians and doctors. She describes the infamous riot of 1908 in which whites, falsely believing one of the “colored men” had raped one of the white women, attacked the blacks and burned 40 homes. Ellis talks about her first crush, on her gym teacher, and in an amusing touch typical of the film, she revisits that gym and instead of pausing to recall, runs a lap around it! She talks about her longest love affair, 35 years with butch Babe Franklin, and about setting up a secret “Gay Spot” in their home from 1941 to 1971 at which local gays and lesbians gathered to dance, drink, and date. Anything she thought she wanted to do, it seems, she simply did — running a printing business, learning self-defense, becoming a photographer. She’s also amusingly risqué. Of one woman she says, “She had the loveliest breasts. I sure wish I had a picture of them!” Ellis unabashedly admits to having had sex most recently at 95 and advises the mesmerized younger lesbians who congregate around her, “So keep on!”

Next up is Beyond Conception: Men Having Babies. This is not about the tranny who made the mainstream news early in 2008 as a “pregnant man.” Instead, it’s part two in Johnny Symons’ ongoing study of gay male parenting that began with the sweet Daddy and Papa (2002). This time it’s a different couple, Paul and Bruce, who already have one baby but want another. They carefully step through the maze of finding a proper egg donor and a surrogate. It’s not a cheap decision: $89,000 is the figure the film gives. Enter Jennifer and Jenna, two big-hearted dykes who are willing to help. Jennifer has been a surrogate before and loves the idea of helping out her gay brothers, but complicating matters is that Jenna also wants to become pregnant; if anything, she’s more desperate for a baby than Paul and Bruce. Beyond Conception follows the ups and downs of this four-way relationship that is, below the smiles and hugs and supportive chatter, ultimately a sometimes chilly business transaction. The film is most alive when conflicts arise, and when the guys, particularly Paul, reveal a creepiness in their dealings with the women. When Jennifer says she’d like her best friend to be in the delivery room, Paul nixes it. When she says she might need a “private moment” alone with Jenna during the process, Paul quickly reminds her that the contract says he and Bruce can be there. Numerous shots of Paul driving through San Francisco in designer glasses, or complaining to Jennifer about the cost of the first failed attempt (“it’s like a new car out the window — a nice car”), mitigate the sympathy for the couple and their search that the film is attempting. Jenna has the strongest moments of authentic emotion when she has a meltdown over her own inability to conceive. Anyone looking for the details of this increasingly popular way to conceive a child will find the film informative.

We live by acronyms these days — SNAFU, FUBAR, etc. — but FTF was one I’d never heard of until FtF: Female to Femme. This film, directed by Kami Chisholm and Elizabeth Stark, would make a dandy companion piece to Gabrielle Baur’s Venus Boyz — both explore lesbians engaging in a kind of theatrical gender play, this time embracing the “superfeminine” style of 1950s housewives and burlesque dancers. Some of the women are literally involved in theatre, as revealed by footage of neo-burlesque shows by groups like Burlesque-esque. The focus here is on embracing what appears to be an intensely stereotypical “feminine” role — complete with high heels, push-up bras, lipstick, and “femmy” ways of talking and moving. Commentator Toni Parks calls it a reaction to “a sea of plaid flannel shirts” observed at one dyke gathering. It’s not clear if this kind of ultra-feminine roleplaying might ultimately bleed into Tammy Faye Baker territory (not to diss the late lamented Tammy Faye). Part of the thrust is that this is “ironic” roleplaying, not simply a literal copying of an apparently submissive role devised by men. But is it really ironic, and as playful as they say? If so, why do they need the support group featured prominently in the film? Some of those talking about what’s at the heart of “transitioning” from butch dyke to femme dyke take it fatally far into abstruse gender theory, creating more confusion than enlightenment. Some viewers, too, may be more puzzled than intrigued when one woman describes herself as “high femme” and another talks about feeling “the power of the earth energy” as she stands in high heels. Nonetheless, some of the women are sharp and often hilarious in describing their new lives as more contemporary variations on the lipstick lesbian.

If the women of Ftf: Female to Femme use their bodies as canvases for genderplay, Keith Haring used the world and everything in it for his more expansive images of gyrating pictographs and dancing penises. At the beginning of The Universe of Keith Haring, directed by Christina Clausen, the late artist’s mother says, “He was born face up instead of face down, which the doctor called ‘Sunnyside Up.'” The Haring seen here was indeed a sunny, soulful personality who put his celebratory stamp on everything from paintings and murals to an autograph seeker’s shoes or an art dealer’s car. The documentary features lively footage of Keith and his friends (including Grace Jones and Madonna) at work and play, and corrals a wide range of commentators — fellow artist Kenny Scharf, Yoko Ono, family members, and friends — for this multifaceted portrait. Haring’s story takes place against the backdrop of New York’s 1980s sexual and artistic revolutions. He’s shown at the center of both, eagerly participating in the raging bathhouse scene while also adding his tireless DIY approach to the queer club scene and breaking down the barriers between the fine-art elitism of the museums and galleries and the exhilarating impromptu street art of graffiti artists. Haring’s iconic image created for Act Up (Silence = Death) came in the wake of his own HIV diagnosis, but his lament for his abbreviated existence was more about his art than his life: “I still have so much to do.” Wisely, the film celebrates his life, not his death. It also, happily, avoids overanalyzing this most generous of populist art, instead letting Haring speak for himself in extensive excerpts from audio interviews.

Haring celebrated openness, liberation, and more specifically, queerness. But others have done the same thing in a very different way. In the 1996 documentary It’s Elementary, director Deborah Chasnoff filmed elementary classrooms in which anti-gay prejudice was discussed. The follow-up film in this festival is It’s Still Elementary, by the same director. This important film examines the backlash against its predecessor, interviews some of the children more than a decade later, and shows the considerable gains that have been made since. One of the striking aspects of the first film, reprised in the new one, was the sophistication of some of the children. Right-wing and religious propaganda notwithstanding, they were comfortable discussing queerness and bigotry and were often insightful in reading them. As a little girl, Samira Abdul-Karim was smart enough to know something about queerness that many adults still won’t admit: “You can’t really change it.” Samira is shown as a mature young woman, equally engaged, and like other interviewees shown, she remembers the It’s Elementary experience as a vital moment in her life. Happily, It’s Still Elementary shows that much of the promise of the film has been realized, and it deserves credit for its pioneering efforts in helping to improve life for gay kids. For example, whereas there were only 2 straight-gay alliances in the country in 1996, in 2007 there were 3,000. That’s progress.

Children are also an important element in Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story, directed by Julian Shaw. They’re one of the big audiences for the famous South African drag queen, political satirist, and AIDS educator. Uys, whose stage name is Evita Se Perron, has been acknowledged by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as a major force in overcoming apartheid, brazenly ridiculing the country’s reactionary leaders like P. W. Botha in brutally funny sketches under the cover of his female persona, or conversing with a puppet version of a clueless leader like Thado Mbecki whom he outright accuses of genocide in ignoring the AIDS crisis. The Uys of Darling! is a charismatic presence, a verbal magician who comes off as a sort of activist version of Dame Edna. “The most famous woman in South Africa,” as he sarcastically dubs himself, spends much of his time advising young people on the importance of condom use — a particular necessity in a country whose present leadership barely acknowledges AIDS. As in It’s Still Elementary, the children welcome his message and understand it, not least because the messenger makes it so entertaining. He has no patience with backward politicians: “Take a pension and fuck off!” he says. He’s also handy with the aphorisms: “Hypocrisy is the Vaseline of political intercourse.” Tutu and Mandela are among those on hand giving unsparing praise to an amazing man whose spirit shines through this film.

Spirit also informs She’s a Boy I Knew, a bittersweet record of the transition of filmmaker Gwen Haworth from Steven, a straight male, to Gwen, a gay female. Haworth adroitly mixes comical cartoon images, old magazine ads riffing on gender roles, and homemade special effects with frank interviews with the family and friends affected by the decision. His mother was confounded: “You were a real BC boy,” she says wistfully. His wife Malgosia was shocked but supportive. His father laments the “death” of his son and struggles to come around. One particularly evocative sequence shows footage from one of Steven’s student films, in which he’s walking down a path and gradually disappearing, an apt metaphor for his transition. The film is refreshingly respectful in its treatment of the people in Gwen’s circle, encouraging them to be candid even when it shows the filmmaker in a bad light. Malgosia, who makes a superhuman effort to stay with Gwen despite the personal toll it takes on her, is especially articulate in this respect: “I didn’t want to love what you didn’t want to be.” Dour moments of focusing on the complex system of losses and gains that surround transitioning are balanced by the warmth and openness of friends and by Gwen’s sardonic humor. Her hormone treatments, she says, made her feel like she was “cramming a lifetime’s worth of PMS into a few months.” The film’s tagline is “A highly subjective documentary about love, family, and transsexuality.” Just as accurately, it could be called a moving tale of love, loss, and personal transformation — themes that filigree this festival and make it a rewarding venue for anyone interested in the present state of queer representation.