Frameline46's Serious Cinema

by Brian Bromberger

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday June 14, 2022

Frameline46's Serious Cinema

Frameline's full return to theaters has presented challenges to its staff. Programmer Allegra Madsen talked about how the pandemic impacted the film festival.

"The pandemic as a huge global crisis has influenced us all and in ways that are difficult to fully identify," she said at a press conference. "I do see that artists and filmmakers are grappling with how to navigate a paradigm shift and how to articulate this new world we find ourselves on the cusp of. As a programmer I wanted to highlight this but I also wanted to create a moment of relief for our audiences, a moment to be together, to laugh and to share in the experience of an amazing story."

Frameline is also cognizant of its function to counter queer negative backlash in light of all the homo/transphobic laws emerging in states this year.

"Our role is to offer a platform to uplift and amplify queer stories and story tellers and to nurture queer creativity," Madsen added. "Our role is also to build and strengthen the queer community. Frameline is a moment to see ourselves and our stories represented. It is also a moment to learn about one another and what it is like for all members of our LGBTQ+ community to be queer in the world. This brings us together in strength and understanding so that we can stand united to combat this radical legislative swing."

When the first frames of "Black As U R" flicker on screen, déjà vu memories of Marlon Rigg's classic "Tongues Untied" immediately surface, since both films begin with dance movements. "Black" can be seen as an updating of themes first explored in "Tongues," with the depressing realization that little has changed in almost 35 years. "Black" is concerned more with homo/transphobia within the Black community.

Writer/director Micheal Rice devastatingly shows the lack of progress by pointing to a young Black trans woman who was beaten by a mob within days of, and just ten miles from where, George Floyd was murdered, yet there was almost no media interest. Rice asks how African-Americans, having known society's cruelty, can re-enact it against their own must vulnerable community members, reflecting on his own experiences of growing up Black, Christian, and gay in the South.

The most devastating scenes are the ones in a Black barbershop, where the male customers defend and seem proud of their prejudices (e.g., why would a man willingly lose power to act like a woman), though there is a surprise hopeful finale. Also chilling is how one of the trans women interviewed is later found murdered. Dr. Charlene Sinclair from the Center for Race, Religion, and Economic Democracy provides insightful commentary, declaring when you give a child life, you confer on them the freedom to identify themselves as their own person.

Rice's message of loving yourself unapologetically and without fear seems an antidote to the poisonous anti-LGBTQ legislation enacted this year. The film is gripping, horrifying, and inspirational all at once; congratulations to Rice for creating one of the best queer documentaries of the year and an absolute triumph for Frameline46!

A Holocaust love story is at the center of "Nelly & Nadine," a winning documentary about Nelly Moussset-Vos and Nadine Hwang. Nelly, an accomplished opera singer but also a spy, and Nadine Hwang, daughter of a Chinese diplomat, who were arrested for helping people flee the Nazis.

They meet in Ravensbruck concentration camp as political prisoners and fall in love. Nelly is transferred to Mautthausen camp. It will take almost two years before they are reunited and decide to move to Venezuela, where they will live the rest of their lives together as a secret couple.

This beautiful, harrowing story is re-created by Sylvie, Nelly's granddaughter, who pieces the clues together from a box left to her containing photographs, Super 8 footage, audio recordings, and diaries. The family thought they were just friends, but, as a historian comments, "nothing is real until it's socially expressed." The finale which includes the reading of Nelly's diary entry telling what Nadine means to her is thrilling and heartbreaking. This is one of the jewels of this year's festival.

In the experimental category we have a lyrical erotic drama from Austin, Texas, "Three Headed Beast," in which a long-term bisexual couple, Peter and Nina, are re-negotiating their open relationship, as Peter is besotted with a younger guy, Alex. There is no dialogue for the first 45 minutes, and then minimal speaking for the remainder of the film. Sound effects — mostly sex noises — and music (from Cerberus, Hydra, Chimera) provide most of the emotion.

'Nelly & Nadine,' 'Three Headed Beast,' 'Follow the Protocol'
'Nelly & Nadine,' 'Three Headed Beast,' 'Follow the Protocol'  

With its primarily visual storytelling and inventively staged erotic encounters with avant-garde production design and lighting, it's reminiscent of 1980s arty MTV videos, though the sexuality, with a few exceptions, is more suggestive than explicit. Considering all the sex (the hetero variety is kept to a minimum) these people are having, they seem so unhappy.

However, because we learn so little about the three participants, we have no charged connection to them. When Nina, feeling threatened by Alex, has to decide whether to close her relationship with Peter, it should be an emotional climax but it isn't. The film is a bold, brave, visually exciting failure, but young directors Fernando Andres and Tyler Rugh are promising, and we look forward to their next endeavor.

How to have sex during lockdown is the theme of Brazil's "Follow the Protocol." If you've ever complained about gay films not featuring average men rather than gorgeous studs, this movie is for you, as it stars stocky bear Francisco. Bored by his daily routines, such as attempting to practice Yoga and watering his plants, after being dumped by his long-time online partner on Zoom, horny Francisco is determined to have sex following all safe protocols from national and international authorities. He even convinces an old boyfriend to visit and have sex.

While we realize the film is a satire on isolation and Francisco's fears are purposely exaggerated, his paranoia, hypochondria, clinical depression (the correct dosage of medication for which he's trying to figure out), and control freak disposition with endless talking, make him unlikable.

When he later has sex with a former sex worker and the guy at one point tells him to "Shut up and suck my cock," most viewers will probably want to stand up and applaud. This is the movie future cultural historians might want to look at for research on how people negotiated having sex during a pandemic. Points for determination; it might appeal to the leather/kink crowd.

A fun blast from the past, the English documentary "Blitzed" looks back at the story of the '80s Blitz kids, a generation of outrageous teenagers, working class and art school kids (all inspired by the gender-bending David Bowie), who formed a subculture that would define the look, sound, style, and attitude of the 1980s. Amid the labor strikes, racism, and homophobia rampant in 1979 London, they formed the Blitz Dance Club, which became the Soho equivalent of Studio 54, though much more fashion-conscious.

Here was a place where it didn't matter if you were gay or straight, or what race you were, since everyone was a misfit who wanted to dress up however they wanted, dance, do drugs, and be together. It was still dangerous to flaunt your gayness or dress androgynously, so at the Blitz everyone could safely play games with their sexuality, gender, and clothing. Here, gender fluidity became fashionable, and such musicians as Boy George (forthright comments as usual), Spandau Ballet, Stephen Strange, Visage, Ultravox, and Sade all had their start. The film is buoyant and elegiac about an era long past, which, for 90 minutes, comes excitingly alive again; this is a small gem well worth visiting.

A portrait of Lebanon's Slave to Sirens, the first all-female thrash metal band in the Middle East, the documentary "Sirens" focuses on Lillas and Shery, co-founders and guitarists, who wrestle with keeping the band together. Lilas is falling in love with a young Syrian woman, complicating her friendship with Shery.

'Blitzed,' 'Sirens,' 'A Run for More'
'Blitzed,' 'Sirens,' 'A Run for More'  

After being discovered in a major music magazine, the band gets invited to play at the UK's Glastonbury, the world's largest music festival, but they are not the rip-roaring success they hoped they would be. As Beirut erupts into flames after the 2020 port explosion, Lilas and Shery's friendship breaks, with Shery quitting the band.

Lilas must decide whether the band can continue, and rethink her management style. The rage of a disintegrating Lebanon comes through their music, which is a long way from the Go-Gos or Destiny's Child, but enables them to be who they want to be without limits. Still the film is an unexpected charmer, showcasing the struggles of being feminists and queer in an unforgivingly conservative culture.

The struggles of trying to change societal attitudes characterizes the documentary "A Run for More." Frankie Gonzales-Wolf, a Latinx transgender woman, has been a fighter her whole life as a successful corporate executive and a campaign manager for others. Exasperated by legislatures passing bills attacking trans people, she decides to make history as the first openly elected transgender official in Texas, and runs for City Council in San Antonio to represent District 8.

She is aided by her military veteran husband, Jeff, loving mother, and the Trans United Fund, which supports trans people seeking election, but it still is an uphill battle, with personal attacks, her voting signs being torn down, and people refusing even to talk to her.

She perseveres, and we won't spoil the ending, but let's just say she lands on her feet nicely. This is a traditional documentary that works because Gonzales-Wolf is dynamic, charismatic, and persistent as an inspirational role model. If only there were more people like her willing to serve in elected positions, perhaps our nation would be less bitter, divided, and partisan. If you need some hopeful encouragement after streaming the depressing daily news cycle, this is the movie for you.

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) was the author of "Carol" (original title "Salt"), the first lesbian story with a happy ending, and her life is illuminated in the documentary "Loving Highsmith." Based on her diaries and notebooks (which were found in a laundry closet after her death), and read by Gwendoline Christie ("Game of Thrones"), it features interviews with family and gossipy surviving former girlfriends.

'Loving Highsmith,' 'Impresario,' 'All Kinds of Love'
'Loving Highsmith,' 'Impresario,' 'All Kinds of Love'  

Highsmith had to lead a double life and hide her sexuality from her family and the public. She even tried to change her sexual orientation by means of conversion psychoanalysis because she wanted to marry a man. She later led a wild lesbian underground life in New York, even chasing a married woman to England.

"Carol" was penned under a pseudonym, and it wasn't until 40 years later that Highsmith revealed her name as the author. Although her books "Strangers on a Train" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (with some parallels between the author and her famous literary character) brought her fame and fortune, she resented being pigeonholed as a crime novelist. She could be prickly and nasty, but her early life in Texas was somewhat traumatic; she was abandoned by her mother and raised by her grandmother. Her mother rejected her entirely (Highsmith's friends called her a bitch).

This elegant, intimate doc forces us to reevaluate Highsmith, and see how her sexuality impacted her artistry, rendering her a bit less enigmatic; this doc is one of the peaks of the festival.

He's a one-of-a-kind, indomitable San Franciscan treasure who is receiving his due in the documentary "Impresario" (also the name of his memoir), concerning the antics of Marc Huestis. Starting off as a drag artist, he joined the counter-cultural theater collective Angels of Light. He became the driving force behind the gay film festival in San Francisco as the co-founder of Frameline.

As a filmmaker, he created two early queer signposts: "Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age," one of the first features to address AIDS, and the sex-positive documentary "Sex Is..." (1993). He produced camp film and performance extravaganzas ("celeb-rations") and benefits at the Castro Theater, honoring Hollywood legends (Tony Curtis, Patty Duke, and Kim Novak, among others).

A political activist and HIV+, he's become an advocate for AIDS survivors. A perfectionist, he can be cantankerous, but also lovable. Photographer Dan Nicoletta and director Rob Epstein join other friends to celebrate an iconic nonconformist who embodies post-Stonewall history in his small but tough frame. This is a minor but delightful homage to a life that probably could only have happened in San Francisco.

Divorce becomes the catalyst for a gay man's midlife crisis in the muddle that is "All Kinds of Love." Abandoned by his commitment-phobic husband, stuck-in-the-mud Max (Matthew Montgomery) wants to start over. He agrees to take younger hip nerd Conrad (Cody Duke) as his temporary roommate, and inevitably an intergenerational romance develops. Will they live happily ever after? You won't care, because there is virtually zero chemistry between Montgomery and Duke.

If you recall, Montgomery, in whom mediocrity knows no bounds, was the king of forgettable, low-budget, schlocky gay films of the early 2000s ("Gone But Not Forgotten," "Long-Term Relationship," "Redwoods," "Role/Play," etc). Formerly the young stud, he's now playing the Daddy. It's the kind of movie you sit through and afterwards wonder why.

The film is poorly acted, especially by Max's supportive, never-ending advice-giving parents, who are involved in a throuple. It is a feat to make male frontal nudity (of which there is plenty) and throuples boring. Totally missable. Better one should stream local director David Lewis's far superior "Longhorns" and "Rock Haven." So far, the biggest disappointment of Frameline46.

On the plus side, there are no murders or suicides in the gay Muslim Dutch narrative "El-Houb." Karim (Fahd Larhzaoui) is a successful Moroccan-Dutch businessman who is having sex with his new Ghanaian boyfriend when his father barges into his apartment and sees the two men in flagrante delicto. Karim rushes to his parents to come out to them, but they order him out of their home. He locks himself in their closet and won't come out (get the pun?) until they agree to talk to him.

'El-Houb,' 'When Men Were Men,' 'Jeannette'
'El-Houb,' 'When Men Were Men,' 'Jeannette'  

In the closet, he revisits mostly negative childhood memories, recalls how his new romance started, and confronts his own feelings and insecurities. The film is loosely based on Fahd Larhzaoui's own experiences of coming out to his parents, which he had previously performed in solo theater shows. Thus, "El-Houb" can sometimes feel stagey, but overall works fine.

Larhzaoui is towering as Karim, but Lubna Azahal steals the film as Karim's cagey mother, who one minute is disowning him and the next moment is feeding him his favorite food. Simultaneously funny and horrifying, the film is an effective critique on Arabic families' silence on homosexuality and other culturally taboo topics; well worth seeing.

Theater becomes salvation in the trans narrative "When Men Were Men." Kieran (Izzi Rojas) is juggling two lives. In Dublin, wheres he's part of an acting troupe, his fellow thespians perceive him as a cis man. But at home in a small town, an hour outside of Dublin, he is bullied and forced to play the part of a girl, Kay, because his religious mother won't accept his gender identity. This dysfunctional family has survived a tragic loss. Kieran wants a life in the theater because he feels only there can he be himself.

He reluctantly falls in love with a new neighbor boy, Egan (Aidan Dick; yes, that's his real name), who doesn't know Kieran is trans. As they get closer, both Kieran and Egan must become more vulnerable and honest with themselves and each other. Rojas and Dick, the writers, directors, and stars of "When Men...," are both nonbinary actors and filmmakers.

"We made this film as a way to navigate our own transness and wrestle with ideas of masculinity within our own gender identity," said Rojas. In this movie about shifting identities they largely succeed, though there's a bit too much going on here, especially when religion starts rearing its ugly head. Overall, an auspicious debut revealing new possibilities for trans drama.

Perhaps no film at Frameline seems more relevant in light of the recent mass shootings than "Jeannette," a documentary on Jeannette Feliciano, a Puerto Rican lesbian living in Orlando, who resumes her life after surviving the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting. A single mother raising her teenage son (teaching him boxing and firearm safety), one of her principal ways of coping with this trauma is to return to competitive bodybuilding.

Much of the film centers on her gym training regimen (in too many ho-hum scenes). She's also a trainer coaching and motivating some of her fellow survivors. One senses the gym is her safe space, a haven as well as her primary support system.

The film uses a cinema verité style with a spare voiceover narration by Jeannette, rather than interviewing her. It starts to sag in the middle, even when she visits her family in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which should energize the film but doesn't.

The issue is not filmmaker Maris Curran, but the subject, who is cautious, guarded, and reserved. She opens up a bit about her difficult upbringing as the daughter of a Jehovah's Witness mother, and she mentions briefly a new relationship with a woman who isn't shown on-screen, but the elephant in the room — the shooting — is not addressed directly, only obliquely referenced. It appears Jeannette is still processing this tragedy and hasn't fully integrated its devastating impact on her life.

In a revealing moment, she confesses she has never felt safe in her life. Even towards the end of the documentary, when Jeannette enters a bodybuilding competition, some excitement should be generated; but instead, the results, which won't be spoiled here, are reported with only lukewarm enthusiasm.

The whole film has a tentative quality to it, mainly because the Pulse shooting and its emotional impact seem on the periphery when it should be center stage. Perhaps the film was made too soon. Jeannette is resilient, an inspirational role model especially having to deal with so much on her plate, so in light of all these admirable characteristics, the film, regrettably, should be more compelling and gut punching than it is.

While at times it seems as if it could be a PSA for PFLAG, the documentary "Emergence: Out of the Shadows" deals with the lonely and terrifying experiences of coming out in traditional South Asian families, in particular the Punjabi Sikh cultures. Three absorbing stories — those of Kayden, Jag, and Amar — are highlighted, with Amar being the fulcrum, the founder of Sher Vancouver, a non-profit organization in British Columbia for queer South Asians. He also produced the film.

His story consisted of writing suicidal notes and getting help in becoming straight, but fortunately he became a social worker and clinical counselor, helping Kayden and Jag. Jag's coming out as a lesbian was complicated by her brother's revelation he was gay, meaning their parents had two queer children.

Then there's heartbreaking Kayden, whose father exiled him to Surrey, B.C. to live with his sisters and cousins while he attended college, so as to keep his homosexuality hidden in India. We get to hear the parents' stories and how their children's coming out was as life-altering for them, as it was for their kids, having to deal with broken dreams, shame, cultural taboos, and unanswered questions.

Amar's mother, Jaspal Sangha, who is not only totally supportive of him but has become a surrogate parent to Kayden, should win PFLAG parent of the year. These stories will be very familiar to viewers having heard and experienced them many times, but the film will resonate with the struggles of queer people of color.

The film would have been more powerful and useful if one of its subjects had been a trans person. Still, when Amar says, "being gay is about being human and another way of loving," and Jag advises, "there's nothing wrong about you, you are exactly who you are supposed to be, so find your people and you will feel less alone," these are messages we can't hear too often.

Look for more Frameline coverage in last week and next week's issues.

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