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.
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.
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.
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.
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.