Feisty orthodox Jewish dykes, globe-trotting ladyboys, fascistic Armani queens you know, the gang
Queer film festivals would seem to be a little passé in 2008, what with closets now collecting more dust than victims, gay adoptions at record levels, and a pro-homo president almost certain to be elected. Instead, they’re more widespread than ever. Why? Perhaps because with those long decades of non- and misrepresentation of queers on the big screen, it still feels good — and arguably necessary — to flex our cinematic muscles by showcasing our community in all its gaudy glory and even boring conventionality, to remind the world of our existence in case they have a sudden memory lapse. Then there’s the convenient world tour of queerdom these films afford; money-squeezed viewers who like to travel can check out the scene from Iceland and Argentina to Israel and France. Plus, of course, watching a movie at home with phones ringing, solicitors banging on the door, and bathroom breaks simply can’t compare — even with a 50-inch plasma screen — to experiencing it on the big screen, in near darkness, with an enthusiastic crowd of fellow deviants.
Portland, Oregon adds its voice to the chorus of gayfests with the 2008 edition of the PLGFF, a nine-day affair featuring 20-odd features and docs on themes ranging from feisty orthodox Jewish dykes to globe-trotting ladyboys to starry-eyed hunks looking for that elusive online romance. What follows is a look at some of the highs and lows of this generally appealing fest.
Opening night’s feature, Laurie Lynd’s Breakfast with Scot, brought the wrath of a few homophobic Canadian hockey fans even as it pleased some of the viewers who actually saw it. The story is a bit convoluted, but in essence it follows a conservative male couple — former hockey legend turned sportscaster Eric and sports lawyer Sam — whose lives are disrupted by 11-year-old Scot. Sam’s sister has died, and Sam and Eric end up with custody of the boy. Unlike his new dads, Scot is a free spirit, a queen in training who fearlessly represents everything Eric, particularly, fears about living authentically. While the film doesn’t come right out and say, “Meet the pre-teen queen!”, the kid is unapologetically fem, which terrifies semi-closeted Eric. Scot hates sports, love musicals, threatens to kiss one of the neighbor boys, and outs Eric to a security guard. While the couple’s multiracial friends cheer on the new improved family, Eric’s increasingly appalled as Scot continues on his merry road to self-discovery in plain sight. Breakfast with Scot sometimes drifts too far into feel-good territory as a lesson in tolerance, and there’s a whiff of the After School Special in the over-earnest way the drama unfolds. But Noah Bernett turns in an exceptional performance as Scot, expertly incarnating a character who’s at once fey and sincere. It’s also notable as the first queer-themed film to get a major league sports franchise endorsement, with the NHL and Toronto Maple Leafs logos product-placing themselves over the place.
Another, rather different gay kid appears at the beginning of Olaf de Fleur Johanesson’s gritty, innovative The Amazing Truth about Queen Raquela. Little Earvin is seen briefly being chastised for playing with dolls, and before you know it he becomes one himself — a grown-up ladyboy in the slums of Cebu City, Philippines. Earvin mentally adopts a defensive mythical persona, that of indomitable Queen Raquela, to survive the often brutal conditions of her work as a street prostitute. Raquela’s dream is a Cinderella one of going to Paris and meeting a handsome rich guy who’ll save her from the streets. She improbably applies to be a nurse; asked what she thinks a nurse’s duties are, she says “I give people food and drink and wear a nice white uniform.” If Raquela’s clueless about the medical profession, she’s savvy enough to put her fetching flesh to work as an Internet porn star; her instant success may lead her to Paris, she thinks, and does in fact hook her up with a creepy pornmeister named Michael (played to neurotic perfection by Stefan Schaefer). Director Johanesson has dubbed his film a “visiomentary,” a clumsy term that nonetheless captures the constantly surprising mix of cinema verite and fiction at work here. Raquela, “played” by Raquela Rios, talks directly to the camera, and it’s her uncrushable spirit that holds this modern picaresque together.
Spirit — and survivor — is also the word for Don Bachardy, noted artist and longtime partner of the late writer Christopher Isherwood. Their story is beautifully told in Guido Santi and Tina Mascara’s Chris & Don: A Love Story. This valentine to one of queerdom’s most famous pairs — who knew a lot of other famous queer singles and pairs of the 20th century — interweaves a dual biography with expert commentaries and some captivating archival film footage, all presided over by the endearing, playful figure of Bachardy. They met in 1952 on a Santa Monica beach, and the pairing was unlikely with Bachardy only 18 and Isherwood 48. But their relationship, which lasted until the latter’s death in 1986, had an intensity and power relayed in the diaries of both, despite some serious ups and downs. Bachardy proves a delightfully frank chronicler of their life together and as a self-conscious member of the queer café society of the time that included Tennessee Williams and Montgomery Clift. Vivid color footage from the 1950s shows Bachardy as a handsome gap-toothed twink frolicking on the beach. When he laughingly recalls that Isherwood looked at him “like he could eat me up,” it’s pretty clear why.
A very different kind of documentary, Johnny Symons’ Ask Not, takes on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” The film follows two groups — young gay men and women and a group of DADT soldier-casualties — as they fight this ruinous policy in different ways. The Right to Serve campaign shows activist youth duplicating the dramatic sit-in events of the civil rights era. In cities from New York to Chicago they attempt to enlist as qualified, willing, but openly queer soldiers, with the inevitable dispersal or arrest bringing ever more attention to the issue. The Call to Duty Tour tracks a small group of soldiers, some of whom are the gifted linguists the U.S. unceremoniously dumped despite a desperate need for Arabic speakers, as they speak before military groups on the deep damage to themselves, the military, and national security imposed by DADT. The film drops pertinent statistics throughout: 12,000 honorable service members dishonorably discharged; 4,000 qualified soldiers who’ve refused to reenlist rather than stay in the closet; and perhaps the trump card, a list of the countries (practically all of them) that don’t discriminate as we do. Among the moving personal stories here are those of handsome linguists Jarrod and his partner Alex, and of “Perry” (identity withheld), an eager, closeted enlistee from San Francisco whose personality changes during his tour of Iraq make it viscerally clear why this policy — and war in general — is so destructive.
Iraq is one of the few countries missing from Parvez Sharma’s A Jihad of Love, a striking survey of the plight of gay men, lesbians, and transsexuals in or from the Middle East who are, and want to remain, Muslims. Here we see the inevitable encounters between tormented queers and implacable imams as the latter offer brisk and brutal denunciations. Sampling countries from Egypt and Iran to Turkey and South Africa, with stopovers in safe havens like Paris and Canada, the film profiles a gallery of people who long for acceptance by the religion they grew up in but cannot suppress their queerness as they’re told to do. Similar to, but arguably surpassing, the unfettered hatred meted out by American fundies, the Muslim faith-keepers casually condemn spiritual transgressors to death, and the culture, from family to legal institutions like the judiciary, supports it. Chilly scenes abound. A rare gay Imam who had been married is teased by his own children about being stoned to death. A young Egyptian queen busted in the infamous “Cairo 52” incident that brought international censure recalls being raped in prison, showing scars that remain fresh years later. The film’s numerous blurred or hidden faces emphasize the literal loss of identity these people suffer.
Religious oppression also underlies one of the festival’s best features, Avi Nesher’s The Secrets. Naomi is a brilliant young Orthodox Jew from a prominent family who’s slated to marry an obnoxious, uptight yeshiva student. Trouble is, she’s been devastated by the death of her mother, and her own scholarly skills eclipse those of her intended. Because she’s depressed and doesn’t seem anxious to wed, her worried rabbi father sends her to a controversial all-female seminary, supposedly to teach her the proper role of women in Orthodox Judaism. Too bad for dad, she hooks up with a gorgeous free spirit named Michelle. Much sisterly bonding, and more, occurs, and the two also bond over a mysterious townswoman with a troubled past who appears to be dying. The plucky duo secretly devise healing “Tikuns” — usually the exclusive province of men — to help the woman, with unexpected results. The Secrets is set against a densely detailed backdrop of Jewish culture and custom, but the relationship of Naomi and Michelle takes center stage as they continuously attempt to assert their rights in the spiritual domain against powerful patriarchal interests and the latter’s turncoat female allies in the all-girls school. Acting is uniformly excellent here, and the scenery of centuries-old masonry buildings and cobblestone streets adds to the film’s realistic atmosphere.
Less successful, though intermittently intriguing, is Étienne Dhaene’s The New World, a French comedy-drama that tackles the theme of lesbian adoption. Lucie desperately wants a baby, and her partner Marion reluctantly agrees. Inexplicably for contemporary France, Lucie’s not out to her fellow teachers, so she sidesteps their questions about the father even after she’s showing. Lucie’s former hippie parents are happily accepting (they even fret that Lucie’s interest in procreating may indicate internalized self-hate). Marion’s churchgoing mother is considerably cooler, predicting her daughter will have no place in the new family. When baby Enzo is born, Mom’s prediction appears to be correct: the inseminating father unexpectedly insinuates himself into the boy’s — and Marion and Lucie’s — life, causing major friction. The humor in The New World is mostly predictable, including a boilerplate “gallery of wacky donor possibilities” scene. The film is more alive in the dramatic moments. Perhaps the most memorable thing here is the shocking revelation that France’s gay adoption laws are worse than America’s; Marion is told by a lawyer that unless she’s lived with the birth mother for 15 years, she has no legal rights with respect to the child.
A brief jaunt from France to Spain brings us to Juan Flahn’s satire Boystown. This Almodovar-esque film is a witty skewering of gay body fascism and the tired cult of real estate. Chueca is an old district of Barcelona being gentrified to the exacting taste of gay realtor Victor, a buff Armani queen whose clean-up campaign includes murdering any of the old ladies who refuse to sell him their flat. This Joan Crawford-esque neat freak is quite clear about his intentions: “I want Chueca to be a paradise with bright, minimalist homes, clean streets, and nice shops where gays and modern heteros can show their bodies off.” Slobby gay working-class couple Rey and Leo, who are the opposite of Victor’s bourgeois ideal, become suspects in the murders, which are being investigated by a mother-and-son team, with Mom a hopeless neurotic and Sonny Boy a little too interested in the gay lifestyle. The tone here is high farce, not exactly credible but consistently entertaining with its troupe of eccentric characters and sardonic dialogue. A typical example of the latter: When chubby, homely Leo tells Rey’s mom (who hates him) that he and Rey met an orgy, she’s dumbfounded. “You met at an orgy and he picked you? What were the others — lepers, ministers?”
Speaking of ministers, there’s a doozy of one at the center of Robert Cary’s Save Me. This low-key but effective film features Judith Light as Gayle, the domineering head of an ex-gay ministry, Genesis House. Save Me opens with a wild sex ‘n drugs ride, with bedraggled party boy Mark (Chad Allen) getting down and dirty with, and then robbed by, a motel trick. Speeding toward death or at least a psych ward, he ends up instead at Genesis House. Initially chafing at the rules and religious dogma, Mark soon becomes a True Believer. He accepts Gayle as a kind of surrogate mother, a role she’s all too willing to fulfill. Of course, you can’t easily take the party out of the boy, and Mark soon finds himself drawn to hunky fellow resident Scott, whom Gayle vehemently dislikes. In a startling sequence, she causes a huge scene at a dance in which hapless Christian girls are told to dance with Genesis House’s “ex-gays.” It seems Mark and Scott are eyeing each other a little too closely. Gayle’s obsessiveness and control freak-ism make her increasingly unhinged, and her beloved Genesis House threatens to slip out of her control. Light makes Gayle a fascinating study in repression as she dispenses smug clichés (“I know when I have doubts, it’s the Lord testing my faith”) while offering her distinctive brand of smotherlove. The film suffers from a television (well, cable television) look, with actors mostly familiar from TV. And its emphasis on the complexities of its characters, rather than simply condemning the whole ex-gay ministry scam, may cause some viewers to wince. But Save Me’s powerful emotional tableaux, driven by Light and by actors Chad Allen and Robert Gant as the troubled couple, save the film from bathos.
Less necessary except for fans of the particular ethos each one invokes are Santiago Otheguy’s La Leon and Hormoz’s I Dreamt under the Water. The former is an opaque study in sexual repression in the otherworldly deltas and lagoons of northern Argentina. Handsome Alvaro is a repressed reed-harvester who likes to read books and gaze longingly at the males who occasionally appear in this isolated environment. Occasionally, he manages a hookup. Meanwhile, another local, Turu, learns he’s gay and baits him. Not unexpectedly, the two become more intimate, and not in the good sense. While the photography is often stunning, much of this film is so dark it’s impossible to see what’s going on, a neat metaphor for repression and isolation but an insurmountable obstacle to viewer involvement. The glacial pacing and unknowable characters don’t help. More exciting indeed is I Dreamt under the Water, which opens with a nihilistic quote by Lydia Lunch about creating a new life for a few hours to forget a terrible old one. The film describes a terrible new one as Antonin, a bisexual 20-year-old, distraught over the death of his beloved, Alex, goes on a rampage of sex and drugs. A thundering soundtrack and garish photography accentuate Antonin’s mad world that incorporates everything from heroin addiction to graphic sadomasochistic sex. Draw a soothing bath after this one.
Two-character dramas can be dicey: what if the two characters are dullards? Fortunately, that’s not the case in Yen Tan’s sensitive chamber play Ciao. In fact, a few other characters are seen briefly, but this is mainly about Jeff and Andrea. Jeff is the best friend, and possibly more, of Mark, who’s been killed in an automobile accident. While going through Mark’s email, Jeff discovers his friend was engaged in an online romance with an Italian man, Andrea, who was, ironically, scheduled to fly to Dallas to meet Mark. Andrea comes anyway, meets Jeff, and the two begin a hesitant, ultimately probing exploration of who Mark really was and of each other. On paper this sounds simple to the point of simplistic, but the film’s austere visual style, emphasizing empty, lonely spaces, recalls the work of classical Japanese cinema. And the skill of Adam Neal Smith and Alessandro Calza in rendering two lost souls who may or may not be able to come together in the wake of an unexpected tragedy makes Ciao both engaging and enlightening — something that can also be said about the best entries in this year’s festival.