Friday, June 22, 2012

FRAMELINE36: REVEALING MR. MAUGHAM (2012)—The Evening Class Interview With Michael House

Michael House and I last conversed when his documentary The Magnificent Tati (2009) premiered at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Part of that conversation went up on SF360 with the balance appearing on The Evening Class. House has followed up his portrait of Jacques Tati with the equally informative Revealing Mr. Maugham (2012), premiering in the Bay Area as part of the 36th edition of the Frameline Film Festival.

With earnest thoroughness, House recounts W. Somerset Maugham's fascinating literary career and reveals intriguing elements of his personal life that enrichen an appreciation of Maugham's body of work. Archival materials are ample—photographs, film clips and rare interview footage with the author—and are supplemented by commentary from several talking heads who are either professed experts on Maugham or family members offering personal recollections. House's reliance on scholastic expertise backfires a bit, especially when said experts lack on-camera charisma, and one wishes all of this information could have been scripted into a narrative voiceover delivered by a recognized actor. Among his ensemble of talking heads, Pico Iyer comes across as the most energized speaking to why Maugham's work remains accessible to reading publics across the globe and it is, of course, always a pleasure to hear Armistead Maupin opine on any subject, his comments on how creativity is fueled by pain being especially noteworthy here. Maupin is the first to admit his reluctance to put words in Maugham's mouth as to how he went about writing his books.

Revealing Mr. Maugham succeeds as another entry in the queer historical canon—not so much as a homostylized fantasy of a known cinematic icon (Joshua Tree (1951): A Portrait of James Dean), or a rescue from the dustbins of memory of a nearly forgotten rock star (Jobriath, A.D.)—but as an accentuation and inclusion of someone admittedly famous and world-reknown into a brethren that—despite increased membership over the years—still comes off now and again as famished for fellowship. How insecure can a queer community be? And how important is Maugham's homosexuality to an understanding of his work?

If, as suggested by one of the film's experts, Maugham guised his sexual interests in female characters who have since become some of the most famous women of literature (and filmic adaptation), he joins the ranks of such writers as Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward in having an indelible impact on culture, albeit indirectly, for expressing what at the time was the love that simply could not speak its name. It's amusing to consider how much the foundations of culture rest upon the constraints of the closet, which—almost as much as poverty—inspire artists to be clever and circuitous in their creative self-expression.

More significantly, however, is the role that Maugham's long-time companion Gerald Haxton played in procuring access to the experiences and personalities that informed Maugham's stories. Maugham, suffering from a stammering speech impediment and characterized as introverted, might never have met the prostitute who became the template for Sadie Thompson, for example, had it not been for Haxton providing introductions. Important for capturing the mannered climate of the time, Revealing Mr. Maugham likewise recapitulates the complicated sex lives of the early 20th century, limned by impropriety, scandal and unhappy marriages of convenience.

Perhaps one of the most interesting inclusions in the documentary's commentary on Maugham is the montage of entries from Maugham's Facebook page, where videotaped testimonials from Maugham fans illustrate the author's continuing relevance to contemporary audiences.

I'm grateful to Michael House for providing streaming access to Revealing Mr. Maugham and to being amenable to answering a few questions via email.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Taking a look at your IMDb profile this morning, I took note that you consider yourself an editor more than a director? How would you distinguish the two?

Michael House: In fact, I really don't consider myself either. I am a guitarist if I am anything. In my mind directing and editing are just another two labels applied to the complicated process of making a film. Nowadays, an individual can do nearly all the jobs on a factual film so all the little steps—such as directing or editing—are within the whole process, but for me the films are largely made in the edit so the editing is really important. Interviewing and filming (things that fall under "directing") are often sheer luck and very unpredictable so I tend to seize control and find the narrative in the edit.

I never look at IMDb. My profile is not accurate and I am not keen on IMDb because I know much of the voting for films on IMDb (at least on my films) are not real votes. They also make it hard for film makers to list things. I guess I just don't like IMDb.

Guillén: I note that Tati scholar David Bellos, who contributed to your Tati documentary, is likewise a producing credit here. Can you speak to your continuing collaboration with Bellos and the formation of SWiM Cinema?

House: David Bellos is a professor at Princeton University. He is also one of the world's most respected and important translators. His best selling book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is simply wonderful. David and I became friends because he wrote a book on Jacques Tati that I love. After the film on Tati, David offered to help me make more films about artists and, well, here we are.... He understands that arts education needs all the help it can get and that factual films on art are a wonderful way to introduce overlooked icons (i.e., Tati and Maugham) to people. He is a true supporter of the arts and I adore him.

SWiM cinema is a project I started in March to make films on art available to anyone on earth with the internet. Most people don't understand how a film is distributed but I can tell you it is not easy, nor practical to have a small factual film made available to a viewer in, say, Japan or Russia. Even places such as Brazil are really hard to get a film made available. It is not because there are not people who would like to buy the films in these places but because iTunes or DVD companies make it nearly impossible for the indie film maker to distribute their work there. People think that the internet has opened up the global market for indie film makers but that is not really true. One must find a distribution company such as iTunes in each market, and there are like 650+ markets, so for a small niche film the idea of selling it everywhere is still really hard.

I set up SWiM cinema to try to solve this problem and to create a global platform where I could offer my films, and other film makers' films, ("artumentaries" I call them). Obviously I have to subtitle them and find promotion methods to let people know the films are available—all of which we are doing. SWiM does PR by screening its films with non-profit organizations, museums and by other methods. For example, we team up with an organization and donate a portion of each sale to them. Revealing Mr. Maugham shares its proceeds with the British Stammering Association and Pride London. As you know, Maugham was a stammerer and gay. So SWiM is a new way for factual films to find viewers. We don't do DVDs, only downloads. DVDs are, in fact, very bad for the environment and we want to keep it as green as possible. (When I say "we", I mean "me".)

I think with specialized films on art the audience is not massive but it is certainly international. I gave all that some real thought and came up with SWiM cinema. It is slowly working. We sell the films to people all over. I think Maugham was bought first by someone in Iceland then in India, both on the day SWiM released it. That could never happen if we tried to sell with normal "traditional" sales methods. I plan on growing the catalogue to include many artumentaries from numerous countries as well as some films of stage plays and concerts, nothing super mainstream, just interesting things you won't ever find on BBC or PBS.

Guillén: Can you speak to the genesis of this project and how you went about shaping it? What is your personal engagement with Maugham?

House: I owe Maugham a lot because The Razor's Edge (1944)—which I read when I was 19—really inspired me to live my life as I wanted to and not to follow the normal path I was raised to follow. It gave me the idea to move to Europe and be an artist. After The Razor's Edge I read all of Maugham's work (and I still do read him). I love his stories. He is a true "internationalist", which is very rare in fiction. His "voice" is also one I really like, never anything but interesting and compatible to me.

I knew Maugham had gotten a bad rap in his last years and so I had (for years) wanted to make a film that looked into that. I felt it needed to be cleared up. Selina Hastings wrote her biography The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham about three or four years ago and she really unlocked all of the misunderstandings about Maugham, so she and I got together and asked the Royal Literary Fund to allow us permission to use Maugham's work. He willed them his copyrights.

I then started trying to find writers on the best seller list who were into Maugham. Armistead Maupin was the first, then Pico Iyer, Alan Furst, Alexander McCall Smith, these are all giants in the world of publishing so I asked them and they all basically said, "Yes, I'd love to talk about Maugham. He is a major inspiration to me."  To me the measure of an artist is how seminal he / she is with real artists working today and Maugham truly takes the cake on that point. So I started interviewing all these "big" writers and was pleased to find they were all "mini-Maugham-experts". I then asked Maugham's family to be in the film and they agreed, thanks to Selina Hastings. So it all came together, as these things do, because wonderful, intelligent people agreed to participate.

Guillén: In your NPR interview you made a point of correcting the description of Maugham as bisexual to assert he was homosexual. Some might argue—as the comments section heatedly reveals at Towleroad—that this is "bisexual erasure on behalf of Gay, Inc." Why is it important for you to understand Maugham as a homosexual, and not a bisexual?

House: We know Maugham only involved himself with women after he was the age of 40. More importantly, he only involved himself with women after he was London's most famous playwright. Up to that point—when he was a mere struggling writer—he was only involved romantically with men. Fame was the reason he got involved with Syrie and other women. Remember, Maugham became famous only 10 years after Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for being queer.

Maugham lived his whole life with men as lovers. Gerald Haxton was his main lover for 30 years but—before Gerald—Maugham was deeply in love with a man named Harry Phillips. They left England together to live as a couple in Paris around 1905, in fact. I am certain that marriage, women lovers and fatherhood would have never entered Somerset Maugham's life if he had not become the world's most famous playwright by 1912. Being gay and famous was not possible back then and a "conventional marriage" was your cover. It is hard to understand how famous Maugham was in the 1910s. We are talking mega-star of his time so public image was a real consideration.

I also think one has a serious obligation to be fully honest when you make a "factual" film and I found no evidence while making this film that Maugham ever felt sexual love towards a woman—men, yes, over and again—but never towards a woman. So to me he was homosexual, not bisexual.

Guillén: How important is Maugham's homosexuality to an understanding of his work?

House: I think Maugham was an outsider and his writing is from that perspective. His being gay was one of those elements. Armistead Maupin says being gay helps one live like a "spy"—growing up keeping secrets, observing people's reactions very closely, things like that. I think this all added to Maugham's perspective and helped him observe better, which made him a better writer. But to be honest, I think Maugham's work is for anyone who in their heart is an outsider—gay or straight.

Guillén: I note the documentary is already available for purchase online. Does this mean that—other than for a festival presence—a theatrical release is not in the works? In terms of festivals, where is it booked next?

House: Revealing Mr. Maugham is for the festivals only. I haven't really had any thoughts beyond that. It will be in festivals in Greece, Ireland, South Africa and loads of others. Every week a new one asks to screen it. It was at the BFI in March and will show at the very cool Chichester Festival in August, also in Germany, Russia and Japan. Although I have festivals asking for it, I don't think Revealing Mr. Maugham is a film for general theatrical release, but what do I know?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

THE INVISIBLE WAR (2012)—By Frako Loden

The Invisible War (USA: Kirby Dick, 2012) (In theatres June 22)—The statistics that bolster the shocking subject matter of this documentary—an epidemic of sexual assault in the US military—threaten to overwhelm any criticism of its presentation. The numbers are simply astonishing. For example, 15 percent of all military recruits have raped someone in the past. Since sexual assault is a crime of repetition and obsession and not taken seriously by higher-ups, the military is a "target-rich environment" for repeat offenders. Over 30 percent of all female veterans are raped, but 80 percent of the sexual assaults are never reported. Why not? Because in many cases the officer to report to and the rapist are one and the same man. The film profiles soldiers who have reported and have even filed a lawsuit, amply demonstrating that trying to make perpetrators accountable and to recover the monetary and therapeutic costs are akin to a second rape. These women (and some men) are on the frontlines of a hidden war that can only be described as a self-destructive conspiracy given the eerily consistent patterns of these crimes. Kirby Dick avoids linking rape with military ideology and instead focuses on its criminality. His suggestion that adjudication be taken out of the hands of the military brass and placed with civilian authorities drew protests during the film's San Francisco International Film Festival Q&A from members of the audience who think civilian jurisdiction is no better.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


It seems anymore that an American independent doesn't have sufficient credibility unless it's mounted one or two successful crowd sourcing campaigns. Joshua Sanchez's performance-driven feature debut Four (2012) [Official site / Facebook] has managed to achieve just that, securing its requisite $5,000 in Kickstarter funds for the film to traffic to its world premiere at the recent Los Angeles Film Festival. I usually suffer from compassion fatigue when it comes to Kickstarter campaigns—as a film writer I'm hit up by every project imaginable—but, supporting Four was a no-brainer. This film—adapted from the play by Pulitzer Prize finalist and Obie winner Christopher Shinn—brightens the cinematic landscape with its eschewal of lazy softcore porn for an authentic and complex treatment of gay characters.

Initial reviews from L.A. have been stellar. At Variety—though couched in staged reservations—Andrew Barker notes that Four spotlights "a quartet of furiously committed performances, ...burnished by vivid, atmospheric lensing." At indieWire, Emma Bernstein characterizes Four as "a quiet and poetic meditation on the solitude of the human condition." At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell states that Four "manages to create a brooding atmosphere that slowly tightens its grip, sloughing off familiar tropes concerning race and sexuality and hitting enough subtle notes to become more intense the more quiet it becomes."

In the Bay Area, where Four is featured in the 36th edition of San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival, Jackson Scarlett observes in his festival capsule that Four "upends typical expectations of race and gender, reading Shinn's drama with an intensity that invariably invites comparison to the early films of Neil LaBute for its candor, carnality, and explicit focus on the mechanics of longing." LaBute, in fact, serves as Four's Executive Producer. At the SF Bay Times, Gary Kramer writes: "An outstanding character study, Four boasts a quartet of brilliant performances—with [Wendell] Pierce in particular a standout—and a seductive rhythm that will rivet viewers as the characters come to terms with themselves and each other."

Wendell Pierce—familiar to fans of HBO programming The Wire and Treme—bravely tackles the role of Joe, a closeted black, middle-aged, married man out on an internet sex date with young white teenager June (Emory Cohen). indieWire asserts that "Pierce steals the show with his multi-layered performance that is often best at its quietest: small facial movements and seemingly inarticulate grunts illustrate everything the character is unable to say aloud." Variety adds that Pierce manages "to convey Joe's warm, big-brotherly qualities alongside his sexual menace" and argues that—as "the film's most pronounced relationship"—its illegality is neither judged nor whitewashed and "might almost seem an argument for old-school Athenian pederasty."

That argument wouldn't have any credence were it not for the hungry reciprocity of June in a knockout performance by Emory Cohen, familiar to fans as the troubled son on Smash. Brooding, petulant, indecisive but anxious for experience, Cohen tempers longing with self-loathing in one of the most accurate portrayals of teenage sexuality this reviewer has seen in some time. June's shift from cagey indecision to seductive certainty is one of the film's most sensual moments, even as its hidden truth is painfully accentuated by the expressions of fear and disgust flickering over June's face during his uncomfortable sex with Joe. That truth—that a young man must do whatever he has to do to gain experience and find himself—is both sad and sobering.

Consummate performances are also achieved by E.J. Bonilla as the thoroughly charismatic and wisecracking Dexter striving to find an identity past the fading glory of his high school basketball years. In a brilliant stroke of sound design, Michael McMenomy layers in the sound of a dribbling basketball when Dexter and Abigayle first kiss. Aja Naomi King delivers a tortured performance as Abigayle, Dexter's love interest and Joe's daughter who—with considerable less back story than the other characters—beautifully suggests the damage inflicted by her father's not-so-secret indiscretions.

Shinn's script and Sanchez's adaptation offer insights riddled with conflicted American values. Offering to buy June some fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July (the quintessential American holiday), June protests that fireworks are illegal in their town, to which Joe responds that breaking the law is a core American quality. This scofflaw attitude concerns not only their sexual liaison, but suggests that the rules that need to be broken are those that demand people desire in certain ways, when in truth they must desire elsewise. At film's end, Joe offers June a gift of condoms and sparklers: a transgressive blessing that confirms that rules must be broken in order to discover an authentic self.

Four plays Framline36 on Thursday, June 21, 7:00PM at the Castro Theatre. Expected guest: director Joshua Sanchez.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


It's difficult for a young person in their teens or early 20s to have a conscious sense of how they are an active part of cultural history; its living embodiment, in fact. More often than not this is an insight privileged from the vantage of distance, decades later, when one looks back nostalgically from the reflective comfort of the armchair. This week I've had two flights back to the late '60-early '70s. First, Sheila Weller's welcome reassessment of 1967's Summer of Love ("Suddenly That Summer") published in the July 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, and secondly Kieran Turner's Jobriath A.D. (2011), screening this evening at the 36th edition of San Francisco's Frameline Film Festival.

Queer history applies different research methods in its practice. Familiar facts are either recontextualized through a queer perspective so that they accommodate the reclamatory fantasy of the queer historical project (as in Matthew Mishory's Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, 2012), or personages are recovered from the margins and ellipses of history, redeemed from inference and resituated into subject significance, as in the case of Jobriath Boone, né Bruce Wayne Campbell who was—as Michael Hawley notes in his capsule—"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."

Turner's documentary is as much about Jerry Brandt's promotional excesses as it is about the unfortunate media disaster known as Jobriath. Ample screen time is given Brandt to justify his failed executive decisions, which in retrospect don't seem so off mark, even for being admitted gambles. Just as Hair was a successful reaction to the Summer of Love detailed by Weller in her Vanity Fair piece, Brandt was convinced Jobriath would do well as they "rode the wave in" to New York on the coattails of the Gay and Lesbian movement of the early '70s. Perhaps one of the most poignant points made in Turner's documentary is the lack of support Jobriath received from the gay press during his bid for fame and how—all these decades later—Jobriath might just receive his long overdue recognition and perhaps (as Brandt enthuses in a chilling bit of irony) a Broadway treatment. I don't know whether to say everything old is new again or a prophet has no honor in his own country.

Without question, Jobriath was an artist ahead of his time and—true to mythologist Joseph Campbell's assertion that misunderstood artists are the martyred saints of modern times—there's a Catholic impulse to light a candle for Jobriath's failed artistic experiment sacrificed to the fickle malcontents of the public imaginary. Turner's documentary addresses the way that gay men have had to reinvent themselves in order to survive social persecution, relying on the masks of persona to both conceal and reveal themselves. This "acting out" is conceived as both creative agency and a desperate cry for acceptance. Ambivalent gender as masquerade becomes performance art subject to uncertain reception.

Some of the film's most difficult subjects are tackled through animation (left curiously uncredited at both film's end and IMDb). How Jobriath's advertising campaign is homophobically defaced, how heterosexist imagery trumps gay erotic expression in the commercial games where "sex sells everything", and how Jobriath's chance to successfully reinvent himself as cabaret singer Cole Berlin becomes a warped record that ushers in the AIDS years, are all simply but effectively presented.

Jobriath A.D. plays Framline36 on Tuesday, June 19, 9:30PM at the Victoria Theatre. Expected guest: director Kieran Turner.

Monday, June 18, 2012


Arthur Rimbaud and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry are the twin literary spirits guiding Matthew Mishory's debut feature Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean (2012) [official site / Facebook]—Rimbaud as an introduction to fire, and Saint-Exupéry as the patron saint of puers. Like Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince appearing and disappearing in the desert, Mishory's homostylized take on Hollywood icon James Dean queers the archetype of Dean's eternal youth, as imagined through his formative years at UCLA.

With much style and adequate substance, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean is more bio-fantasy than bio-pic, glorifying Dean's bisexuality and shrugging it down the runway like a fashion shoot this side of softcore gay porn. The film's narrative emphasis appears to be that life can "hurt so good" and—true to Rimbaud—Dean is frequently shown suffering for his art while those around him, each in turn, suffer longingly for some kind of commitment out of him. As Dean, James Preston (previously seen on ABC's The Gates) broods beautifully, there's no question about that, and his experience modeling for Abercombie & Fitch serves the film's surface appeal and compensates for some uneven acting. When he's on, however, Preston is undeniably mesmerizing. His hypnotic on-screen seductions sizzle around their edges, especially when he admits to a young man he's picked up on the beach "I'm passive" and then sets out to prove his versatility.

With regard to surface appeal, cinematographer Michael Marius Pessah's talents are on evident display with lustrous B&W compositions of Joshua Tree's stark beauty contrasted against L.A.'s martini poolside parties, sumptuously lit, briefly suggesting the raw style of '50s juvenile delinquency films before relying almost exclusively on glossy center spread aesthetics, and interjected now and again with grainy color sequences that telegraph (a bit too artily perhaps?) the color Dean brings into the life of those who love him, especially Dean's never-specifically-identified "Roommate" (Dan Glenn). Suggestion and insinuation hold court.

Unfortunately, languorous pacing sometimes breathes the life right out of some of the dialogue (thin enough as it is), forcing the film's visuals to sustain interest. My favorite scene was an acting class where a young actress is instructed to recite the Star Spangled Banner inside her head so as to generate enough intensity to have an audience believe she is waiting for a train. Despite myself, I kept wondering how often this was being done within the film? Another particular standout is Jeff Harnar's moody performance of "I Fall In Love Too Easily", and choice selections of Jo Stafford, Kay Starr and Doris Day to add pop accents to this timepiece.

Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean plays Frameline36 on Thursday, June 21, 4:30PM at the Castro Theatre. Expected guests: director Matthew Mishory, actors Robert Gant, James Preston, and Edward Singletary, Jr.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


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.


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.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Recapping her experience of the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival (4/19–5/3/12), Frako Loden continues her assembled list of short reviews, from least favorable to most. Part One can be found here.

Land of Oblivion (France: Michale Boganim, 2011)—By the time a friend told me he was devastated by this film, my only chance to see it was on DVD. But seeing it on a small screen was powerful enough. The first half is full of social movement as people gather for a Ukrainian country wedding, which is then ruined by rain and the sudden departure of the firefighter groom. (Someone actually leaves the wedding cake out in the rain!) Disaster arrives in the form of the dark rain that also spelled doom for the Hiroshima citizens in the Imamura film Black Rain. The second half is a decade later, as we observe the day-to-day life of the widowed bride Anya—now barely recognizable with hollow eyes, wearing a chic wig and working as a tour guide. What makes this film devastating, and gives it its uncanny power as barely fictional documentary, is the shooting location: the long-abandoned ghost town of Pripyat that the Chernobyl nuclear accident emptied out overnight. Anya, a numb shell of her former self, shows tourists through the buildings like a ghost who wanders eternally through her cursed home. (DVD screener)

The following three docs had my critical faculties fighting my repulsion toward their subjects. The Queen of Versailles (USA: Lauren Greenfield, 2012) (opening in Bay Area theatres 7/27) profiles Jacqueline Siegel, former Mrs. Florida, mother of eight and Botoxed so-called "trophy wife" to luxury-timeshare tycoon David Siegel, who claims to be kingmaker to George Bush. The first half of the film, hard to distinguish from a reality TV show, indulges the Siegels' excesses, the most stupefying of which is the building of the largest residence in America, a 90,000-square-foot behemoth with 30 bathrooms, inspired by Marie Antoinette's palace at Versailles. The last half depicts the crumbling of the couple's wealth as the timeshare business collapses, construction on the dream house is halted and David Siegel borrows to pay his creditors. Jackie Siegel is a marvel of obliviousness, bad parenting and hoarding, reigning over a household full of sullen children and tearful, overworked Filipina maids. If this film weren't given a berth in a film festival and I ran across it on the Discovery Channel, I would have watched it for three minutes and moved on. It doesn't take long for the fascination to wear off and the disgust to make the skin crawl. Why do people with too much money have no vision or taste? A poor upbringing or an abusive first marriage doesn't explain this kind of emptiness. The Sundance description, which was modified after David Siegel threatened a lawsuit, still gets it wrong by bestowing on this film "the epic dimensions of a Shakespearean tragedy." It's way smaller than that. (Festival screening)

Something weaker than disgust moved me watching the otherwise excellent The Source (USA: Jodi Wille & Maria Demopolous, 2012). Before seeing it I had no knowledge of the 1970s Los Angeles cult led by Jim Baker, a charismatic strongman with a homicidal past. His Source restaurant, his most successful venture, attracted the Hollywood elite with its celebrated salads and was memorialized in Annie Hall. As Father Yod, Baker became an "earthly spiritual father" preaching the "law of kindness" and kundalini yoga to his followers, giving them new names to prepare for sainthood in the Aquarian age. His act of blowing life into a stillborn baby, the first Source Family child, convinced many that he was a miracle worker. Was he that or just "a dirty old man on a lust trip," as his first partner described him when he proposed taking on multiple wives? Plenty of men and women swear their lives were transformed for the better because of this man, but things turn reliably dark when he starts calling himself God, assigning women to men, indulging in blood rituals and prophesying apocalypse. After moving his large household to Hawaii to escape mainland authorities, Father Yod falls silent and swears he is only a man before hang-gliding to his death. Under his auspices reportedly 65 albums’ worth of music were recorded by the psychedelic band YaHoWha 13. I think this legacy alone should assign him to the lower regions of hell at Armageddon. (Festival screening)

Finally, Women with Cows (Sweden: Peter Gerdehag, 2011) aroused my physical disgust and pity for two Swedish sisters who have very different outlooks on raising cows in their old age. The more conventional sister actually dislikes cows and resents having to help her obsessive sister, who is approaching uselessness and peril due to a poorly treated back injury that has her bent literally in half and a tendency to fall asleep while trying to milk her cows. My feelings of disgust for the bovinophile sister, who crawls into her bed covered with hay and cow dung, constantly threatened to overpower my sympathy for both. (2012 Palm Springs Film Festival screening)

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (France: Robert Guédiguian, 2011)—Compelled by a sense of fairness, an aging dock worker contrives to draw his own name in a drawing for layoffs and plans to take his wife to Tanzania for their anniversary, when they are robbed by home-invasion thieves. Learning that one of the robbers is a young man who was also laid off and is caring for some abandoned children, the dock worker at last must face the bourgeois-proletarian divide that's always bothered him. I enjoyed the film but was always slightly perturbed knowing that it was working itself up as a fable. (Festival screening)

Dreileben: Beats Being Dead (Germany: Christian Petzold, 2011)—As the first installment in a trilogy, this film effectively evokes the innocence and dread of a fairy tale set in the woods. For me it forced a comparison to the Yorkshire-set Red Riding Trilogy, which also proposed a ghastly natural landscape that imperils wandering young girls. But this German project has a different orientation that can be seen in the backgrounds of the lovers, a vulnerable Bosnian-immigrant hotel maid and the hospital-attendant boy who's torn among her, a more ambitious choice of girlfriend and the chance to live overseas. These options of movement and wandering are menaced by the mysterious Thuringian forest, which has its own history of romantic and scary legends but now harbors an escaped sex offender. Christian Petzold's other films have skillfully meshed psychological analysis with the East-West legacy of his country. Here you see it in a sublimated way, with the teen-romance aspects overshadowing the more interesting subtext. (DVD screener)

The Intouchables (France: Eric Toledano / Olivier Nakache, 2011) (in theatres)—This throwback to the 1980s American interracial buddy film gains new life in its more sentimental, French-language context. The plot is pure formula even if it's based on a true story: an African caregiver from a troubled family in the Paris banlieue shows a lonely white wealthy quadriplegic how to love and live again. It's undeniably entertaining and sometimes hilariously funny—caregiver Driss's reaction to the opera had me in tears—but the unexamined stereotypes and Magic Negro tropes keep getting in the way. (Press screening)

Chasing Ice (USA: Jeff Orlowski, 2012)—This documentary poses large-scale environmental destruction against the life of a single man to stunning effect. The landscape is glaciers and the man is James Balog, a nature photographer who developed the Extreme Ice Survey to document the rapid retreating and thinning of glaciers as a result of climate change. Twenty years ago, he says, he was a climate-change skeptic—and then what he saw in Greenland made him a witness and surveyor of environmental disaster. His time-lapse photography of calving, or collapsing, glaciers should put any disbeliever to shame. At 60 years old and after numerous knee surgeries, Balog's days of clambering up peaks to monitor his cameras are coming to an end. But he's a hero for what he's already documented, and he's perfect at wrangling contrarian post-screening questioners as he demonstrated at the Kabuki. (Festival screening)

Last Call at the Oasis (USA: Jessica Yu, 2011)—The numerous films about global water crises form a major subcategory of the environmental documentary. This one is especially beautiful, photographed by Jon Else and featuring a lovely, limpid opening-credit sequence but then a montage on how we waste water on a monumental scale. The film spells out the waterless doom that awaits California and compares the American situation with other countries such as Australia. We meet Erin Brockovich, who has been finding levels of hexavalent chromium in Texas groundwater higher than they were in Hinckley, the southern California town she is famous for defending. Fingers are pointed at oilfield services giant Schlumberger and the "Halliburton loophole" that exempts fracking, or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, from government regulation. Tyrone Hayes, the UC Berkeley amphibian expert ostracized and lionized for his research, explains how the herbicide atrazine in water has changed the sex of frogs from male to female. The bottled-water industry is a scam. Yu explores solutions for water recycling and desalination, taking time out for an amusing segment on our varying levels of disgust for water we perceive as "dirty." (Festival screening)

Bitter Seeds (USA: Micha X. Peled, 2011)—After showing the dark side of working for Walmart and Levi's, Micha X. Peled's third film in his "globalization trilogy" directs his camera at the dubious fruits of Monsanto, the multinational chemical company that is swiftly taking over the seed supply of the world. Monsanto has persuaded untold numbers of Third World farmers to buy its genetically modified cotton seeds and Roundup pesticide, throwing them into a cycle of debt that has resulted in over 200,000 farmers committing suicides by drinking the very pesticide that led to their dire financial strait. Peled gives us hope in the form of Manjusha, the daughter of a village council head and farmer who killed himself this way, as she takes halting steps toward a journalism career to investigate the reasons for her family's ruin. (Telluride Film Festival screening)

Tokyo Waka (USA / Japan: John Haptas & Kristine Samuelson, 2012)—Here's a documentary that introduces an environmental oddity—the proliferation of jungle crows in Tokyo—but not in an alarmist way. Like a remarkable number of other nonfiction films at this festival, it explores a physical phenomenon like an art form, sending out associational feelers that inspire poetry and intellectual discovery. It's a "city-poem" of my birthplace that comes close to essentializing it with the usual suspects of Shinto animism and Buddhist transience, but an analysis of the metropolis as a "metabolism" shows how it flourishes. And the amazing lifestyle of the cunning, aggressive corvids keeps everything real. I had the pleasant surprise of spotting my architect friend Yumi Kôri in it expounding on the evanescence of buildings rebuilt after World War II firebombings. (Festival screening )

Meanwhile in Mamelodi (Germany / South Africa: Benjamin Kahlmeyer, 2011)—This documentary made me feel like I had been dropped off without a plan in the home of Steven Mtsweni, snack shop proprietor in the Mamelodi township of Pretoria, South Africa. His household is more excited than usual because the World Cup is to be held in South Africa for the first time, and he hopes to reap tourist dollars. (There's a brief and unpleasant reminder of the 2010 World Cup: the incessant buzz of vuvuzelas, supposedly of Zulu origin.) But the family man has equally important concerns like keeping his nephews off the streets, treating his mentally ill wife and finding out why his little son's ear hurts. From an ambitious and worried father we turn to Mosquito, his teenage daughter whose post-apartheid future options seem wide open: university, soccer, sexual freedom. I enjoyed this film's warmth and raucousness and clowning around for the camera, especially the girls doing the chicken dance as their cousins accuse them of being boy-crazy. There are moments of rare beauty, like the steam rising from a newly-bathed child, that make life in the township seem worthwhile. (Festival screening)

The rigorous and unflinching The Law in These Parts (Israel / USA / Germany: Ra'anan Alexandrowicz & Liran Atzmor, 2011) resembles Errol Morris's Fog of War, with government officials at a desk answering questions as they face the camera. But another angle shows us, on a green screen at the informants' side, footage of the four-plus decades of Israeli injustice against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories who are governed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Offscreen questioners ask these lawyers and judges legal questions about the status and treatment of Palestinians: as temporary military combatants? displaced peoples? citizens under Israeli law? Their conflicted answers bare the mess that is Israeli military justice. (Festival screening)

Found Memories (Brazil / Argentina / France: Júlia Murat, 2011) (opens at SF Film Society Cinema 6/22)—Here's a parable about a remote village that works without the forced humor of a Where Do We Go Now? In this film the humor is dry and taciturn, as we settle into the simple routine of an elderly pair who start the day in exactly the same way. The woman bakes bread and brings it to the shop, they argue over its display, they drink coffee and listen to the sounds of the remote forested village in Brazil's northeast where trains no longer stop. The cemetery is mysteriously locked and deaths have not been recorded for decades, although the remaining inhabitants are soon for that other realm. Into this time-stopped routine wanders a young woman with a camera who enables memory and time travel again. It was a lovely experience to watch this rich, lushly communicative yet nonverbal film after one with non-stop dialogue. (Festival screening)

Another Brazilian narrative film that privileges sound over dialogue is the engrossing Neighboring Sounds (Brazil: Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012). The happenings in a well-off housing complex in the Brazilian city of Recife are rarely anchored to a conventional plot, but gradually certain personalities and effects take shape. A pair of men put on vests and get themselves hired as the new security service for the complex, which is near a low-income neighborhood that houses many of the maids and delivery people employed there. So the rich, middle-class and poor of all origins and skin shades are rubbing shoulders and creating a constantly-building tension. Barking dogs and a recent rash of burglaries are the quotidian irritations that push disparate people into confrontations. (DVD screener)

The debut feature Mosquita y Mari (USA: Aurora Guerrero, 2011) won praise at Sundance for its story of two teenage Chicanas who become intimate during study sessions in an old auto repair shop. Yolanda, nicknamed "Mosquita," is the straight-A product of hard-working immigrants, and Mari is smart but neglected by her illegal single mother. Yolanda coaxes Mari into working within the system, while Mari shows Yolanda what it's like to have a rebellious chip on one's shoulder. Now that time has passed after viewing it, I'd say it's a tenderhearted look at first love permeated with the atmosphere of Huntington Park in southeast Los Angeles. It will play at Frameline June 16 and 18. (DVD screener)

The Waiting Room (USA: Peter Nicks, 2011)—I planned to see this documentary about the emergency room at Highland Hospital in Oakland out of a sense of duty, since one of my students worked on it. I saw an excerpt online showing a Highland employee singing an uplifting hymn. That scene prepared me for something unusual and transcendent, and—although it didn't make it into the final cut—its spirit of warmheartedness and human dignity remains. This film is a generous, humorous and humane look into the workings of a public service that treats the least endowed members of our community: the uninsured patient. The focus is on the waiting room, where patients explain their ailments and the bureaucratic history that landed them there, and the secretaries, nurses and doctors try to tend them. Some of these characters are indelible, embodying the everyday heroism that often goes unnoticed and underappreciated. Winner of the Golden Gate Award for Bay Area Documentary Feature and the festival's Audience Award for documentary. (Festival screening)

The tone of Wuthering Heights (UK: Andrea Arnold, 2011) was what I expected from someone with this director's sensibilities, at least judging from the film of hers I’ve seen, Fish Tank (2009). Even in the suburbs her characters are feral. Here on the Yorkshire moors, the characters from Emily Brontë's classic novel climb peaks and look out over the countryside as if they were in a Terrence Malick film with a lot more wind and rain. Arnold's decision to change Heathcliff from a Roma or Spanish boy in earlier versions to a black runaway slave feels almost (unintendedly?) racist, seeming to imply that Cathy's cultivated wildness complements his inborn wildness. Arnold's take on human cruelty is more effective. In addition to abuse against humans, we see not only one but two dogs being hanged from fences. (Having seen an earlier, albeit offscreen, dog-hanging in another movie, I've had enough!) Heathcliff flings himself against walls more often than he flings rabbits to death. Cathy and Heathcliff as children are much more compelling than their older counterparts, and once the film enters the drawing room its elemental power dissipates. (Festival screening)

Bonsái (Chile / France / Argentina / Portugal: Cristián Jiménez, 2011) (opens at SF Film Society Cinema 7/13)—I enjoyed this film's wistful and funny look at youthful infatuation with others and with the literary text, most charmingly experienced at the same time in bed. A young man can't bring himself to admit to an attractive new acquaintance that he's never read Proust. When he's reunited with her years later, he's dismissed from his job typing a famous novelist's handwritten manuscript but pretends he still has the job by writing his own novel—about his own first love. Not many films can evoke what it's like to be in love, alone, smoking and writing in the middle of a rainy night. Although I haven't read the original novel by Alejandro Zambra, the movie seems to be a skillful film adaptation of what is probably a very self-reflexive work of literature. Although for the film, the entire bonsai subplot or metaphor or figure of speech could have been scuttled without being missed. (Press screening)

Don't Stop Believin': Everyman’s Journey (USA: Ramona Diaz, 2012)—I enjoyed this documentary enough on DVD, but I suspect I missed a really good time judging from Michael Hawley's film-415 description of its Closing Night screening at the Castro with filmmakers and band members present. Like Michael, I had limited interest in the band Journey—for me they were a comedown from Santana, two of whose members formed the new act—and wasn't keen to see the film. Until I saw that it was directed by Filipina Ramona Diaz, who executive-produced the recent San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival's standout doc Give Up Tomorrow (2011), about a miscarriage of justice in the Philippines. Then I learned that this present film focused on Arnel Pineda, a Manila-born singer-songwriter who endured poverty and lengthy bouts of homelessness before his singing prowess was discovered on YouTube by Journey members in search of a new lead singer. Pineda's new career as an arena-rock frontman brings him a whole new magnitude of stress as he negotiates all at once his first world tour, the temptations of a rock star, and his relationship with fans and critics from his homeland. Neither a rags-to-riches saga nor an account of disillusionment with the big time, this film portrays a resilient, good-humored man who is ready for anything life tosses his way. (DVD screener)

Until I saw the documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (USA: Matthew Akers, 2011) (opens at SF Film Society Cinema 7/6), I didn't think watching two people in a staring game could bring epiphanies and tears to my own eyes. But "staring game" is too reductive to describe what pioneer performance artist Abramovic did during her big 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. She sat silently in the middle of a big room through the duration of the exhibition, inviting anyone to come and sit in a chair facing her. She might sit alone for hours or encounter dozens of people in a day—it was up to the spectators. They might glare at her or take off their clothes in tribute to her vulnerability. The film commemorates and contextualizes the MOMA show. Notably, it details Abramovic's relationship with former lover / collaborator Ulay and reproduces enthralling footage of their final performance in 1988, when they walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China toward each other—a journey that took three months and spelled the end of their relationship. All through her career the artist has been present in ways that everyone at that wall, in that museum chamber, and now viewers of this film, can imagine. (DVD screener)

I still have vivid memories of the night raid on a middle-class house in Guilty (France / Belgium: Vincent Garenq, 2011), when a bewildered bailiff and his wife are hauled off to be arrested for child molestation and their children scattered into foster homes. What follows is a nightmare of injustice based on an actual 2001 case, as lack of evidence proves to be no obstacle for an ambitious young judge. The case goes for years, during which the husband attempts suicide and goes on a hunger strike, his wife lashes out at her accusers during a stupefying court proceeding, and their estranged children act out. This gripping, suspenseful account boasts a superb and physically taxing performance by Philippe Torreton as the innocent defendant. Noémie Lvovsky, one of my favorite actors—as a nonplussed lady-in-waiting she is one of the best things about the opening night film Farewell, My Queen—plays the co-accused wife in a register of (mostly) quiet fury. (Festival screening)

By the Fire (Chile: Alejandro Fernández Almendras, 2011) is an observant and deeply moving portrait of a year in a married couple's life. Daniel and Alejandra in their early 40s, with grown children, have moved to the country near the Andes and are trying to make a go of cooperative farming. Dani finds a kitten while scrounging for abandoned materials in a never-finished country club begun by his boss. After making love, the couple tease each other with reminiscences of their youthful sexual exploits. Dani leaves his farming chores to fix lunch for Alejandra, who seems to be getting sicker with cancer. The two take a holiday, where they listen to tales by the boss's wife and can't find snow for the homemade sled Dani has brought along. Finally we watch him, now a widower, pack up the house and visit his in-laws, where he drops off Alejandra's things and the now-grown cat. The sight of the empty cat carrier, improvised from crates and another example of Dani's industriousness, brings back memories of better times feeding the kitten on the dining table. In a final long take I watched through my tears, Daniel has trouble reattaching a railing on his pickup and throws it down in frustration and despair. The camera patiently waits for him to collect himself, fix the railing and drive away. The distant light glows miraculously as he literally drives off into the sunset and a new phase of his life. It's a side issue, but I was gratified to see an animal used as a reminder of happiness and not as a victim of human rage or weakness. (I saw my fill of animals strangled during this filmfest. Knowing it's not really happening isn't much comfort.) It's a naturalistic use of an animal in a film that reveals more by seeming to sit back and observe than by manipulating events. (DVD screener)

Another wonderfully observational film set in the countryside, this time a documentary, is Winter Nomads (Switzerland / France / Germany: Manuel von Stürler, 2012), which follows middle-aged Swiss sheepherder Pascal and his younger female apprentice Carole as they lead 800 sheep, some dogs including an adorable puppy trainee, and a trio of independent-minded pack donkeys on a four-month cold-weather trek of transhumance, a new word for me meaning nomadic pastoralism. The definition suggests one serene meadow after another, which could not be further from the truth, as conversation is drowned out by passing trains and freeway noise, and Pascal must use sign language to coax an oncoming car to move aside and let his flock take over the road. Some farmers resent the sheep and don't hide their hostility, while friends join the shepherds for fondue al fresco. Both Carole and the dogs endure Pascal's tongue-lashings when they steer the sheep wrong. Despite the tension and stress of conducting an ancient custom through a 21st-century setting, the film plainly shows why Pascal has done it for decades: the snuggly comfort of a tent full of dogs, the fragrance of tea in the morning, the blanket of a snowy field, the quiet camaraderie of human with beast. I thought all sheep were followers until I learned that a bell-wearing sheep—a bellwether, of course!—is assigned to lead the others. (Festival screening)

I Wish (Japan: Koreeda Hirokazu, 2011)—Koreeda's insights into family life and children's psychology deepen with every film he makes. I'm a fan of his very noncommercial Maborosi (1995), Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2006), but I approached I Wish with skepticism after learning that it was commissioned by Japan Railways to commemorate the opening of the Kyushu bullet train—and its Japanese title is "Miracle". There he goes, I sighed, down the track of maudlin formula films that is the fate of so many promising Japanese maverick directors. But I Wish is still a Koreeda film beholden to no corporate backing in its depiction of a family that just can't live together. Two brothers of contrasting temperaments live apart with one parent on opposite ends of Japan's southernmost island. Despite being the more pessimistic and anxious sibling, Kôichi talks Ryûnosuke into a plan to reunite the family by any means necessary. That the actors are real brothers who have performed as a comedy duo for years doesn't slicken their performances. Koreeda keeps them real. (Festival screening)

Golden Slumbers (Cambodia / France: Davy Chou, 2011)—Cambodian cinema had a brief life. The increasingly shocking opening titles tell us that the first feature film, made around 1960, ushered in a 15-year era of moviemaking. About 400 movies were made in Cambodia during that time, and Phnom Penh alone had over 30 movie theaters. When the Khmer Rouge took over in April 1975, movies were banned, theaters shut down, and films left to rot. Then the most shocking title: Considered to be "enemies of the people," most filmmakers and actors were killed. This documentary, with few remaining principals to interview and somehow reluctant to show clips of films that have survived, instead evokes that era through the soundtrack songs that are still performed in karaoke lounges, coveted old posters, the recollections of film buffs, and views inside a movie-house-turned-hovel for 116 households. Occasionally playful effects distract us from the horror of a massacred film world. But it's hard to forget director Ly You Sreang, who sits inside his beautiful but empty house telling a long, eventful story of initial movie success, French exile with his pregnant actress wife, then time done in a Cambodian prison camp. His happy return to France finds an utterly changed wife who long thought she was a widow, and after years of struggle and business success in that country he returns to a modernizing, and sadly forgetful, Cambodia. (DVD screener)

The Invisible War (USA: Kirby Dick, 2012) (In theatres June 22)—The statistics that bolster the shocking subject matter of this documentary—an epidemic of sexual assault in the US military—threaten to overwhelm any criticism of its presentation. The numbers are simply astonishing. For example, 15 percent of all military recruits have raped someone in the past. Since sexual assault is a crime of repetition and obsession and not taken seriously by higher-ups, the military is a "target-rich environment" for repeat offenders. Over 30 percent of all female veterans are raped, but 80 percent of the sexual assaults are never reported. Why not? Because in many cases the officer to report to and the rapist are one and the same man. The film profiles soldiers who have reported and have even filed a lawsuit, amply demonstrating that trying to make perpetrators accountable and to recover the monetary and therapeutic costs are akin to a second rape. These women (and some men) are on the frontlines of a hidden war that can only be described as a self-destructive conspiracy given the eerily consistent patterns of these crimes. Kirby Dick avoids linking rape with military ideology and instead focuses on its criminality. His suggestion that adjudication be taken out of the hands of the military brass and placed with civilian authorities drew protests during the Q&A from members of the audience who think civilian jurisdiction is no better. (Festival screening)

Step Up to the Plate (France: Paul Lacoste, 2011)—The English title's perky baseball play on words doesn't quite fit the mood of this often wistful documentary about renowned French chef Michel Bras handing the day-to-day operations of his eponymous restaurant over to his son Sébastien. Hence the French title Entre les Bras. Americans may not recognize Bras, which has maintained three-star Michelin status at a hilltop restaurant in Michel's home village of Laguiole (also famous for its cheese and folding knife) on the Aubrac plateau in south-central France. Bras's 25-year-old signature dish, the gargouillou, a brilliant assemblage of at least fifty separately prepared flowers, herbs and vegetables served with an emulsion and purees, opens the film like it starts the meal. Although Bras is open only in spring and summer, we follow Michel and Séba through the seasons as they pick up produce, take the family on a crayfishing outing, fuss in the kitchen and carouse with friends at the Gaillac Grape Festival. As winter approaches, the mood grows pensive as Michel contemplates retirement. The scene that most effectively captures the intimate competitiveness of father and son is when Sébastien auditions a dish, adapted to Japanese ingredients for his Hokkaido restaurant, for Michel's approval. (Press screening)

Perhaps the most intellectually stimulating film at the festival was Patience (After Sebald) (UK: Grant Gee, 2011), a documentary companion to W.G. Sebald's uncategorizable 1995 book The Rings of Saturn. Like the written work, the film can't be assigned to a single shelf. It's a film of and about literary interpretation, a travel guide and a book about travel writing, a memoir about memoirs, a work of and about Holocaust literature. It's an utter revelation. Superficially about sights the German-born Sebald came upon and wrote about in strolls through his adopted East Anglian countryside (where he died in 2001), Patience explores the landscapes of trauma, memory and the uncanny and how thinkers come to their understanding of Sebald's work, a rumination on the horrors of the 20th century in prose and grainy photographs. It excited both the traveler and the lapsed literary scholar in me. (Festival screening)