Sunday, June 17, 2012

FRAMELINE36: FESTIVAL REPORT—By Michael Hawley

June means pretty much one thing to Bay Area cinephiles and that's the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival—better known around these parts as Frameline. This is the organization's 36th year as the "world's largest LGBT media arts non-profit" and their festival line-up boasts 217 films (89 of them features) from 30 countries spread across 104 programs. I've previewed 18 selections on DVD screener and my choices necessarily reflect a predilection for documentaries and international narrative features.

French Connections

Director André Téchiné's The Witnesses was Frameline's opening night film in 2007. He's back this year with Unforgivable, another of his complex and sophisticated dramas about passionate people in messy relationships. Téchiné's protagonist this time round is a crime novelist seeking inspiration in Venice. He meets and marries a bisexual real estate agent and then hires her ex-lover, a retired female private detective, to track down his errant daughter who has run off with an aristocratic drug dealer. Then the plot starts to get complicated. It all becomes somewhat potboiler-silly by the end, but Téchiné's direction is never less than assured and the cast, headed up by André Dussollier and Carole Bouquet, is game for it. As always, Venice makes a fabulous movie location and it should really dazzle the Castro Theatre's huge screen in 35mm (Unforgivable is one of 10 Frameline features being shown via increasingly rare 35mm film, so get it while you can.) Curiously, the lone festival screening is on a weekday afternoon, perhaps a condition imposed by the film's distributor? It's scheduled to open at Bay Area Landmark Theatres on August 10.

In 1994, Téchiné directed a movie called Wild Reeds, which is now regarded as a classic of LGBT cinema. It starred Gaël Morel and Stéphane Rideau. Morel has since become a director in his own right, making films that frequently star Rideau (Full Speed, 3 Dancing Slaves). They reunite for a fifth time as director / actor in Our Paradise, with Rideau playing an "aging" hustler who takes a young rent boy under his wing. It's an affecting love story, shot in a dreamy Parisian wintertime. Rideau, now sporting a slight paunch, looks as hot as ever. The problem is that his character is also a serial killer who's bumping off his johns one by one, a plot thread that takes on increasingly screwy dimensions. Our Paradise is never dull and if you're looking for an edgy, subtitled film with lots of sex and nudity, this is your ticket. Roughly halfway into Our Paradise, actress Béatrice Dalle pops up in a supporting role, receiving a sword through the throat while acting as a magician's assistant.

Dalle is the wild woman of French cinema, both in her personal life and the movie roles she takes on. She achieved notoriety 25 years ago with her debut film, Betty Blue (based on a novel by Philippe Djian, who also wrote the novel upon which Téchiné based Unforgivable). She's played a modern-day cannibal (Trouble Every Day), a malevolent entity who terrorizes a pregnant woman on Christmas Eve (Inside) and more recently an alcoholic mathematician with an adoring gay nephew (Domaine, which topped John Waters' 2010 best list). She's my second favorite French actress and I was beside myself when I learned she had two movies in Frameline36. The other one is Bye Bye Blondie, in which she and Emmanuelle Béart (Manon of the Spring, 8 Women) play women who reignite an affair they began as mentally disturbed teen punkers. While Dalle's character is now living on welfare (and looking like a fleshy Morticia Adams), Béart is a closeted, successful TV host married to a gay writer (Pascal Greggory). The film gracelessly lurches between past and present day, while hammering home the perpetually contentious nature of their relationship. The film's biggest disappointment is the lack of a juicy sex scene between Bye Bye Blondie's two famous stars. I realize I might not be the best judge, but it looked to me like they were just buzz kissing and awkwardly pawing at each other. I had higher hopes from writer / director Virginie Despentes, whose XXX-rated Baisse-moi raised a ruckus back in 2000. On the plus side, Dalle and Béart each get a juicy tantrum scene in which to sink their teeth. Tickets for Bye Bye Blondie are now at RUSH, proving that at least 1,400 people (the capacity of the Castro) wanted to see a pair of still-hot middle-aged French actresses have a go at each other at 9:30 on a Saturday night.

For a fun, undemanding time at the movies, one couldn't do much better than the sweet zaniness of Mikael Buch's Let My People Go!. Nicolas Maury stars as Ruben, a gay nerd who's given the boot by his Finnish boyfriend. He returns to Paris a few days before Passover, only to find his Jewish family on the verge of implosion. Highlights include the novelty of watching Carmen Maura play a French Jewish matriarch (other cast recognizables include Amira Casar and Aurore Clément), and the candy-colored cinematography of Céline Bozon that'll look swell at the Castro in 35mm. Let My People Go! screens the night before Gay Pride, providing a perfect lead-in to the annual Castro Street mayhem known as Pink Saturday. Director Buch, who co-wrote the screenplay with noted French director Christophe Honoré (Love Songs, Dans Paris), is expected to attend the screening.

Although the bittersweet Belgian coming-of-age tale North Sea Texas is largely in Dutch, it seemed fitting for inclusion here. Introverted Pim lives with his single mother, a former beauty queen turned bar-circuit accordion player. He's got a crush on Gino, the slightly older neighbor boy with whom he's had idyllic sexual dalliances. After Gino takes up with a French girl, Pim transfers his fixation onto Zoltan, a lanky carnival worker who rents a room from Pim's mother. North Sea Texas has gorgeous widescreen cinematography, eye-catching 1970s art direction, nicely observed moments and fine performances, but the storytelling and tone lean toward overly languid. Still, a noteworthy feature film debut for director Bavo Defurne, who is expected to attend the festival. And lastly we have Funkytown, a trashy, flatfooted, overlong French-Canadian melodrama about the ups and downs experienced by Montréal discotheque denizens in the late 70's. It has a genial soundtrack of terrific classic disco hits and a maudlin last half hour that's good for some unintentional laughs.

Documentaries

Frameline36 opens with Vito, Jeffrey Schwarz' powerfully moving portrait of writer / activist Vito Russo, the man who literally wrote the book on LGBT imagery in movies (The Celluloid Closet). What I hadn't realized until seeing this doc was the extent of Russo's strong-willed activism, first as an early member of Gay Activist Alliance (where he introduced the concept of movie nights for all-gay audiences), then as co-founder of GLAAD and ACT UP. Schwarz' film combines a trove of archival materials with revelatory interviews of those who knew him best, including his brother Charlie, Lily Tomlin, writer Armistead Maupin, filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and former Frameline executive director Michael Lumpkin. My favorite clip has to be the one of Russo and Bette Midler trying to bring peace to a fractious 1973 NYC Gay Pride celebration. The film is of course, ultimately and devastatingly heartbreaking, as first Russo's lover Jeff Sevcik, and then four years later Russo himself, succumb to complications from AIDS. Director Schwarz, Charlie Russo and Michael Lumpkin will all be special guests on Opening Night.

Frameline always has a good selection of docs about LGBT struggles around the globe and this year I zeroed right in on Call Me Kuchu, which won the documentary Teddy Award at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Kuchu is the Ugandan word for gay and this film honors the courageous activists battling one of the most homophobic societies in the world—a homophobia that's fueled, not coincidentally, by American evangelical missionaries. While several activists are profiled, it is David Kato who is the soul of the film. We watch as he fights the enactment of draconian anti-gay laws (the details of which you must hear to believe) and battles in court against a tabloid newspaper which publishes photos of LGBT folk they want to see hanged. A rare LGBT victory in the latter court case is celebrated with a Ugandan-style backyard drag ball, one of several moments of needed levity. The editor of that tabloid, by the way, is the most insidiously evil person to turn up in any of the 18 films I previewed, both fiction and non. It will be a pleasure to hear him being booed and hissed at the Castro screening, which will be attended by directors Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, as well as three Ugandan LGBT activists from the film. This should be quite an evening. (David Kato, alas, was murdered in his home in 2011, an event the film deals with extensively.)

Another perennial Frameline favorite of mine are the biographical documentaries of LGBT folks in the arts. Some of this year's tonier selections include bio-doc profiles of writers Audre Lorde (Audre Lorde—The Berlin Years 1984 to 1992) and Somerset Maugham (Revealing Mr. Maugham). I neglected to watch those, but I did take in portraits of internet gadfly Chris Crocker (the kid who bawled "Leave Britney alone!") and early Glam Rock progenitor Jobriath. Me @ The Zoo—the title of YouTube's first video—told me all I'll ever need to know about the effeminate young "Tennessee hillbilly" who spent his youth acting out in front of a webcam, to the delight and repulsion of a mega-million viewers. As a doc it's pretty uneven, but has disturbing things to say about instant celebrity in the internet age. "Happiness is only a hair flip away," indeed. Jobriath A.D. tells the amazing tale of Jobriath Salisbury, né Bruce Campbell, a handsome and talented former Hair cast member who became the first openly gay rock musician signed by a major record label. Jobriath was hyped as the "new David Bowie" by svengali music promoter Jerry Brandt, with thousands of bus ads and a billboard on Times Square, all before a single note was recorded. Although his debut 1973 album failed to chart, contemporary musicians such as Jake Shears (Scissors Sisters), Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields) and Marc Almond (Soft Cell) all appear on camera to testify to its greatness. Archival footage includes a Jobriath recording session with a long-haired Richard Gere singing back-up vocals (he was friends with Hair cast member and future disco diva Vicki Sue Robinson—who knew?).

Another pair of fascinating docs I recommend are Habana Muda and Submerged Queer Spaces. The former tracks three years in the love affair between Chino, a poor bisexual Cuban deaf mute with a female partner and two kids, and José, a well-off Mexican who wants to help Chino emigrate, but has doubts about his sincerity. Virtually all the dialogue in the film is conducted in sign language and subtitled. This necessitates a lot of reading between lines, particularly in determining whether Chino really loves José, or the many gifts and promise of a "better" life he represents. One suspects both. Without any elaboration, the film's abrupt ending reveals that Chino never leaves Cuba. Regrettably, there will be no special guests attending the festival to answer the inevitable questions.

If you've lived in San Francisco as long as I have you won't want to miss Submerged Queer Spaces, an exercise in urban archeology that seeks out extant remnants of extinct local LGBT businesses. Neighborhood by neighborhood, we get to see vintage photos of LGBT haunts superimposed over their modern day counterparts, along with details that have survived the decades—such as tiled entryways and original sign mounting brackets. One bravura sequence is a long tracking shot up and down Polk Street, on which the filmmaker has superimposed the names of original businesses with their years of operation. On camera and in voiceover, old-timers spin anecdotes about the past. Some are more interesting than others, such as a black lesbian recalling her affair with Janis Joplin, whom she met at the Anxious Asp bar in North Beach. My ears perked up at the mention of clubs I'd long forgotten (The Rendezvous in the Tenderloin) and I pondered the film's notable omissions (the Haight with no mention of the I-Beam?). The documentary's discordant electro-percussive score helps emphasize the disconnect between past and present, but too often calls attention to itself. Director Jack Dubowsky and cinematographer Wilfred Galila are expected at the screening.

LGBT in the Muslim World

Each year it's hard to predict where the new LGBT stories will come from. In 2010 there were so many films from South America, Frameline created a special sidebar for them. This year there are hardly any and Asia seems underrepresented as well. That absence may have been supplanted by a bounty of works from Muslim countries and their Diaspora, including my favorite of the festival, Iranian transgender drama Facing Mirrors. Quietly intelligent and non-didactic, it's the simple story of two women: Rana, a mother forced to drive a taxi while her husband serves a prison term, and Adineh, aka Eddie, a FTM transsexual hiding from her menacing family while awaiting the passport that will take her abroad for gender reassignment surgery. Following an initially abrasive meeting as driver and passenger, circumstances turn Rana into Eddie's protector and a respectful friendship ensues—one that will be tested right up until the nerve-wracking climax. Shayesteh Irani gives one of the year's unforgettable performances as Eddie. If she looks familiar, it's because she was one of the female soccer fans prominently featured in Jafar Panahi's Offside. It's interesting that Iran can produce such a sensitive and sympathetic film about transsexualism—it's completely legal there and the government will even pay for the surgery, all because there's nothing in the Quran which forbids it—and yet they put homosexuals to death. Fereshteh Taerpoor, who produced and co-wrote the screenplay with first-time director Negar Azarbayjani, will attend the screening. This is the Frameline36 film no one should miss.

Two Frameline36 films portray Muslim families living in Europe and in each there's a conflict between two brothers, the eldest of whom is gay. The similarities between them end there. Sally El Hosaini's My Brother the Devil centers on an Egyptian family living in a London council flat. Older brother Rachid is a drug dealer who works hard to ensure that his brother Mo stays in school and out of trouble. Mo envies Rachid and wants to emulate the thug life, until he discovers that his brother's relationship with a French-Arab photographer is more than what it seems. This is the grittier and more realistic of the two films, with a powerful sense of mise en scène. Strong British accents and extensive use of slang, however, make the dialogue difficult to follow. That's not a problem in Guy Lee Thys' Mixed Kebab, whose five languages are completely subtitled. The family in this film is Turkish and living in Antwerp, Belgium, with a younger brother who's a petty criminal and an older gay brother who's engaged to be married. It's the more broadly entertaining and sexier film of the two, but is marred by extreme tonal shifts and ludicrous plotlines (starting with the older brother's decision to bring his twinkie Belgian boyfriend along on a trip to Turkey to meet his fiancé).

Istanbul is the setting for Zenne Dancer, whose title is a Turkish term meaning male belly dancer. The main character is one such entertainer, a haughty queen who performs extravagant production numbers both on a nightclub stage and in his own mind. The plot revolves around his relationship with a pair of gay bears, one a closeted Turkish student with a threatening family and the other a German photojournalist. Like many LGBT films from countries where homosexuality is taboo, Zenne Dancer revels in melodrama, and is also confusingly edited with an overly emotive score. But it's quite heartfelt (and allegedly based on a true story) with an extremely polished look and reasonably three-dimensional characters. To be filed under "things one learns at film festivals," I now know that in order for gays to avoid military service in Turkey, they must present photographs of themselves being anally penetrated. The film's endnote reveals that the Turkish military possesses one of the world's largest gay porn collections. Life partners and co-directors Caner Alper and Mehmet Binay are expected to attend the screening, along with two of the film's stars.

Finally, a big recommendation for Yariv Mozer's sad and touching Israeli documentary The Invisible Men, which lays out the plight of gay Palestinians living in Israel. In their homophobic homeland they face violence and banishment from families, as well as torture at the hands of police who accuse them of working with Israeli intelligence. Their only option is to live a clandestine life in Israel, working illegal odd jobs and always being on the run. The documentary largely focuses on Louie, a handsome 33-year-old who has spent 10 years repeatedly being deported back to the Occupied Territories and then slipping back into Israel. His face bears a scar from a knife attack by his father and he carries a stun-gun as protection against street attacks by relatives who live in Jaffa, the Arab port city adjoining Tel Aviv. The documentary begins as Louie is presented with a third option, asylum in a European country, and follows him as he struggles with that difficult choice. Director Mozer and the film's producer, Adam Rosner, will be present at the screening.

Loose Ends

The 18th film I previewed didn't fit into any of the above categories, but it's one of Frameline36's best and bears mentioning. Oliver Hermanus' Beauty is about a closeted, middle-aged married South African man who develops an obsessive crush on the hunky young son of close friends. Rattled by his attraction, he stalks the young man under the guise of friendliness, until a drunken encounter sets off an explosion of sexual violence. Moody, intense and deliberately paced, Beauty premiered to acclaim in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of last year's Cannes Film Festival. It screens at the Castro on Monday night, June 18, immediately following the Iranian film Facing Mirrors, affording one the chance to see two of this year's best films back-to-back.

Believe it or not, there are more films I hope to watch during the actual festival. Topping that list is Ira Sachs' Keep the Lights On, the 2012 Berlin Film Festival Teddy Award winner and Frameline36's Narrative Centerpiece Film. I also don't want to miss Empire of Evil, which I presume is the final film of beloved Bay Area queer experimental filmmaker George Kuchar who died in 2011. Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A.), the documentary filmmaker who recently received the San Francisco International Film Festival's Persistence of Vision Award, has a film in the festival about progressive news commentator Ellen Ratner (A Force of Nature). I'd also like to check out some of the films showing in Frameline36's 20th anniversary tribute to New Queer Cinema, especially Ana Kokkinos' intensely erotic 1998 movie Head On. Writer/critic B. Ruby Rich, who coined the term New Queer Cinema, will be honored with this year's Frameline Award, which she'll receive in a presentation prior to this year's closing night film, Cloudburst, starring Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker.

Cross-published on film-415.

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