Taking on sham gay marriages, oppression and homophobic violence, the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival holds back on taboo in favour of a global step forward.
Love And Marriage by Mark Wilshin
Iris Long, Peter Staley, Mark Harrington. These are the names of the men and women who saved our lives. All our lives. The forgotten heroes, who took on the US Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the pharmaceutical multinationals and each other to bring drugs to market that would save millions. As Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary Fire In The Blood reveals, it took another decade for triple combination therapy to become affordable in the global south. But by 1995, when AIDS was at its peak in the US, the disease had claimed over 50,000 lives in the States alone, research and development into medicines had been desperately neglected by Reagan’s underfunding and Bush Snr’s (as well as society’s) homophobic belief that the “gay disease” could be cured through behaviour change, or celibacy. Oscar-nominated, David France’s How To Survive A Plague combines the tragic pathos of We Were Here with the militancy of Stonewall Uprising screened at the festival in 2010, to create a powerful and intensely moving documentary on the men and women who took up arms and held the world to account.
Opening with I Am Divine, documentaries were particularly strong at this year’s festival, Jeffrey Schwarz’s bio-doc a moving and wickedly funny portrait of Glenn Milstead (AKA Divine), his notorious friendship with childhood friend John Waters, his beyond-drag aesthetic and his life-long dream to escape the candyfloss wig and forehead-invading eyeshadow and make it as a straight actor. With talking head interviews from the likes of Tab Hunter and Ricki Lake as well as archive footage, I Am Divine is a compelling journey through big dreams in Baltimore, parental rejection and what came after that career-making moment in Pink Flamingos.
As well as Selena Blake’s Taboo Yardies, a shocking but somewhat rambling look at the brutality of homophobia in violent Jamaica, Sebastien Lifshitz’s Les Invisibles unveils the unspoken testimonies of gay pensioners, documenting the fights, the lost years, the flings and romance in a broad spectrum of talking heads, giving a voice to the quiet revolutionaries who each reshaped the worlds around them. Cathy Lee Crane’s Pasolini’s Last Words offers some fascinating archive footage surrounding the death of the Italian auteur, but despite some clever visuals, offers little to illustrate the complex play of Pasolini’s writings. Ester Martin Bergsmark’s She Male Snails on the other hand is a beautiful excursion into a land beyond male/female and fiction/documentary. Comprised largely of a bathtub interview, fictionalised memories (with a variety of actors à la Palindromes) and home video footage of writer Eli Levan’s farewell-to-youth party, Pojktanten is a poetic and beautiful take on androgyny.
Fictional features took up the gender-blasting mantle with Facing Mirrors, a touching portrait of two rebellious women living in the Iranian capital and the unlikely friendship that emerges between taboo-busting taxi-driver Sadegh and Adineh/Edi, a young girl living as a man, desperate to escape the clutches of her wealthy, conventional family forcing her into marriage. In a country where it’s possible to have gender reassignment surgery but the dishonour of queer sexual orientation makes it largely prohibitive, Negar Azarbayjani’s film is a moving road movie in which a lonely, desperate woman’s pain is finally made good by the change in attitudes of her friend and brother. But sadly, just as in last year’s Circumstance, it seems the only option available to gay or trans Iranians is emigration.
Michael Mayer’s Out In The Dark poses the same problem when a gay Palestinian student hooks up with an Israeli lawyer. It’s a dramatic look at the plight of gay Palestinians, forced to cross into Tel Aviv illegally, and who are coerced into collaborating with the Israeli Secret Service or face deportation back to the West Bank, disgrace and death. Mayer doesn’t really evoke the nuance of gay relationships – it’s strange that Muslim Nimr, so deeply in the closet, manages to turn a blind eye to the dangers of having his photo taken in an Israeli gay bar, or slides into a relationship with Roy with such apparent ease. But nevertheless, as a me-and-you-against-the-world story of homophobia and human rights, Out In The Dark rivals Eyes Wide Open as a moving and powerful tearing down of sacred temples.
Crossing borders became the focus of first-world relationship dramas too, with Dominique Cardona’s Margarita and Glenn Gaylord’s I Do rediscovering gay marriage by dint of green card immigration laws. Beyond the temptation of sham straight or gay marriages, both films focus on the romance of civil union. And while Margarita is a sometimes hilarious look into middle-class smoothie-drinking, guilt-ridden liberals forced to downscale in the economic crisis, its lesbian love story is a syrupy Mexican muddle of slow-mo hot-tubs, conveniently recalcitrant lovers, would-be Brazilian husbands and a deus ex machina bike accident which sends Margarita packing, back to the Estados Unidos Mexicanos. I Do, on the other hand, has New York as its elysian dreamland, where federal law it turns out trumps state law in the green-card marriage stakes, making it impossible for gay uncle Jack to marry his Spanish lover Mano and stay in Manhattan. Despite an inexplicably Australian brother, Glenn Gaylord’s film has the complicated weft of reality about it, Jack’s family commitments overshadowing his opportunities for love. And despite a somewhat sententious narration, I Do is a moving, compelling drama on the challenges to love in a complex world.
As well as Laurence Anyways, Keep The Lights On, Weekend and My Brother The Devil, there was also a chance to catch on the big screen the first British gay television drama South which was broadcast in 1958 swiftly on the heels of the Wolfenden report and Mark Rydell’s The Fox based on a DH Lawrence novella and groundbreaking in its depiction of lesbianism and nudity. There was also David Lambert’s brilliant Beyond The Walls and James Franco and Travis Mathews’s Interior. Leather Bar. a remake of the excised 40-minute S&M sequence from William Friedkin’s Cruising.
But the films that really stood out were Leesong Hee-il’s White Night, a wistful slow-burner that follows Korean flight attendant Won-Gyu through a sleepless night in Seoul by way of nostalgic rendez-vous with ex-boyfriends, late-night hook-ups and unexpected revenge for the homophobic attack that drove him out of the closet and out of the country, and Marçal Forés’ bilingual Animals, a super-stylish, sexy and imaginative look at the confusion of adolescence. And with talking stuffed bears, ghosts and mysterious outsiders, Animals is an original and thought-provoking piece of cinema that goes intriguingly beyond the realm of fantasy.
From year to year, the same themes recur – iconic bio-docs, documentaries exposing the gay community’s bruised past and features in which young gay Muslims have no other choice than to leave their country. It’s tempting to believe, this year more than most, that the only way is out. And New York, it seems, is the place to be – for Jamaican exiles to British would-be photographers, a gay paradise in which to escape oppression. Gay narratives may go round in circles, but films like Negar Azarbayjani’s Facing Mirrors give us hope of a gradual and hard-won movement towards acceptance in countries like Iran, Jamaica and Palestine. And even if it’s only one person at a time, the narrative of escape could be changing.