Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Frameline41 2017

Frameline, aka "the world's longest-running and largest showcase of queer cinema," celebrates its 41st edition from June 15 to 25. This year's 147 films from 19 countries are split almost evenly between features and shorts, with an unprecedented 40 percent coming from women filmmakers. Here are thoughts on a dozen I had the chance to preview, with additional spotlights on others I'm hoping to catch during the festival proper.

One of my favorite film genres to watch at Frameline are LGBTQ "celebrity" documentaries and biopics. Frameline41 gets off to an auspicious start when Jennifer Kroot's The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin screens on opening night. The film solidifies Kroot's reputation as one of our best cinematic LGBTQ biographers, and compares favorably with her previous bio-docs on George Takei (To Be Takei) and the Kuchar Brothers (It Came From Kuchar). Her new film traces writer Armistead Maupin's unexpected path from conservative great-great-grandson of a Confederate general, to author of the internationally beloved "Tales of the City." Stops are made along the way to frankly discuss such things as his sexual friendship with, and ultimate outing of, actor Rock Hudson.

Kroot's main competition in the LGBTQ bio-doc biz is Jeffrey Schwarz, whose acclaimed films Vito, I Am Divine and Tab Hunter Confidential all played Frameline. He's back this year with The Fabulous Allan Carr, a look at the outsized, hedonistic life of the man who produced Grease, the Broadway musical of La Cage aux Folles and everyone's fave campy disco romp, Can't Stop the Music. Speaking of fabulous, was anyone ever more deserving of that identifier than cartoonishly big-buxomed Jayne Mansfield, an actress perhaps best known for her grisly death as for her starring roles in 50's cult classics like The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? I've been a rabid fan since childhood, which is why Mansfield 66/67 is the film I'm most anticipating at Frameline41. Directors David Ebersole and Todd Hughes' work promises to survey Mansfield's life and oeuvre, with heavy emphasis on her relationship with Anton LaVey, founder of San Francisco's Church of Satan. John Waters, Peaches Christ and Kenneth Anger, whose essential scandal tome "Hollywood Babylon" is graced with Mansfield's cover portrait, are among the film's talking heads.

Another noteworthy film biographer with a new movie at Frameline41 is gadfly British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt and Courtney, Biggie and Tupac, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer). His Whitney: Can I Be Me was one of the big hits at this spring's Tribeca Film Festival, garnering great reviews for its provocative examination of Whitney Houston's troubled life and career. Why is this film at Frameline? Apparently, Houston was a closeted bi-sexual who was in a decades-long relationship with friend and personal assistant Robyn Crawford, even during her marriage to Bobby Brown. Frameline41's Centerpiece Documentary focuses on another singer, Mexican ranchera interpreter Chavela Vargas. Harry Vaughn's tantalizing program notes describe Vargas as a "pistol-packing, cigar-smoking, tequila-downing, women-loving" performer who had affairs with Ava Gardner and Frida Kahlo. Moviegoers may know her voice and image from films by Pedro Almodóvar (Flower of My Secret), Alejandro González Iñarrítu (Babel) and Julie Taymor (Frida). Chavela is co-directed by Catherine Gund, whose portrait of choreographer Elizabeth Streb, Born to Fly, was a highlight of Frameline38. Elsewhere in the line-up of biographical films on famous (or in these cases, infamous) LGBTQ folks, I'm looking forward to the narrative features Tom of Finland and My Friend Dahmer, the latter an imagining of the serial killer's high school years based on a best-selling graphic novel (co-starring Anne Heche as his mother!)

In addition to Untold Tales, I had the chance to watch five other Frameline41 docs and all are recommended. The most memorable is Quest, Jonathan Olshefhski's empathetic, serenely powerful study of an African-American family and their Philadelphia neighborhood during the Obama years. The reason for the film's Frameline inclusion doesn't become apparent until roughly two-thirds through, when it's revealed that the Rainey family's teenage daughter PJ is lesbian. PJ's loss of an eye following a neighborhood shooting is one of Quest's major story arcs. The film is scheduled to appear on PBS' P.O.V. series later this year in an edited form, but trust me, you'll want to experience every possible minute of this remarkable family's eight-year journey.

Two other Frameline41 docs centered on family are Abu (Father) and Small Talk. The former is director Arshad Khan's fascinating account of growing up gay in a once-liberal Pakistani family, where the parents gradually transition to fundamentalism after emigrating to Canada. Khan incorporates a wealth of home video footage with animation and Bollywood clips that reflect back on his own story with poignancy and humor. Then in Small Talk, Taiwanese filmmaker Hui-Chen Huang seeks answers about her painful relationship with Anu, her butch lesbian mother who was emotionally and physically absent during childhood. The film comes alive at its mid-point, when Huang interviews several of her mother's ex-girlfriends. Their descriptions of Anu as a drinking, gambling, generous-to-a-fault bon vivant contrast sharply with the dour, reticent woman we observe in the movie. Small Talk won the prestigious Teddy Award for best documentary at 2017's Berlin Film Festival.

Documentaries about LGBTQ cultural and political history are always of special interest to me. Andrea Weiss' Bones of Contention is a tragic and compelling memorial to queer folk who were persecuted, imprisoned and oftentimes buried in unmarked mass graves during Francisco Franco's fascist reign in Spain. Revered poet Federico Garcia Lorca is thought to be buried in one such grave, and quotations from his work are used as a framing device throughout the film. In a rare moment of levity, Bones of Contention reveals that "booksellers" was the coded euphemism used for lesbians, who were afforded the dubious "luxury" of slipping under the fascists' radar simply because they weren't thought to exist. During the festival, I'm hoping to catch two films documenting LGBTQ repression and emerging activism in the 1950's. Josh Howard's The Lavender Scare takes on gay witch-hunts that arose following President Eisenhower's 1953 signing of an executive order banning homosexuals from federal employment. Fergus O'Brien's docu-drama Against the Law covers roughly the same era in the UK, honing in on the story of pioneering activist Peter Wildeblood.

Those with an affinity for LGBTQ culture's edgier edges won't want to miss Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution. Yony Leyser's fast-paced and informative doc about queer punk-dom begins at ground zero with the scene's invention by Toronto musician-artist G.B. Jones and filmmaker Bruce La Bruce. Through a series of zines and especially La Bruce's groundbreaking 1991 debut feature No Skin Off My Ass, the duo dreamt up a non-existent phenomenon that became a self-perpetuating reality. Aided by nifty graphics and animation, Leyser's film highlights such seminal touchstones as Queer Nation, the anti-assimilation movement and Riot Grrrl. The parade of talking heads is nothing short of astounding, with La Bruce, Justin Vivian Bond, Lynn Breedlove (Tribe 8), Jon Ginoli (Pansy Division), Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), Penny Arcade, Peaches, Patty Schemel (Hole) and especially Canadian artist-filmmaker Scott Treleaven (1996 doc Queercore: A Punk-u-mentary), all offering their singular takes upon the movement. And just when you start to think, "where the hell is John Waters," there he is bringing up the rear. On a side note, one wonders why La Bruce's latest film The Misandrists, is M.I.A. at Frameline41.

Amongst the roster of international narrative features, I was especially taken by three from Latin America. This year's Centerpiece: World Cinema presentation is Ernesto Contreras' lush and lyrical I Dream in Another Language, in which a linguist travels to a remote Mexican jungle village to document a barely extant dialect. The problem is the language's two remaining practitioners no longer speak to each other due to a decades old conflict involving sexual attraction. A moment or two of ill-fitting melodrama and an excess of sea-frolic-ing detract little from the overall intelligence of this lovely film tinged with magic realism. I Dream in Another Language won an audience award at this year's Sundance.

I also heartily recommend Carlos Lechuga's Santa & Andres. Set in Cuba in the early 80's, the film keenly observes the evolving relationship between a gay writer – one who spent eight years in prison for being "counter-revolutionary" and is now banished to a remote countryside shack – and a seemingly hardened young female Communist party member assigned to keep tabs on him. In addition to its gripping, humanist storyline, the film boasts extraordinary performances from Eduardo Martinez and Lola Amores in the title roles. In Julia Solomonoff's Nobody's Watching, we're offered a remarkably different kind of story about immigration to the U.S. Guillermo Pfening, who won the Tribeca Film Festival's best actor prize, plays an Argentine telenovela star trying to relaunch his career in NYC without much success. With his tourist visa about to expire, he tenuously couch-surfs and takes on odd jobs, including a stint as nanny for a close friend's baby. Meanwhile, he receives frequent phone calls, and an in-person visit, from his married and closeted ex who wants him back in Buenos Aires. As Tim Sika summarizes in his Frameline capsule, Nobody's Watching "observes with an outsider's eye the subtle boundaries that define class, race and opportunity in contemporary America." Director Solomonoff returns to Frameline for the first time since 2009's memorable The Last Summer of La Boyita.

In four decades of attending Frameline I can't remember there ever being a film from Armenia, let alone a compassionate and thoughtful one centered on FTM transitioning. Pouira Heidary Oureh's Apricot Groves begins and ends with an identical POV shot of someone being wheeled into surgery by a chador-covered woman speaking words of comfort in Farsi. The unseen patient in this flash-forward is Aram, an Iranian-Armenian "man" who has come to Armenia's capital of Yerevan from Los Angeles to ask for his fiancé's hand in marriage. He's accompanied by his gregarious older brother and after a strained meeting with the bride's family, the siblings drive to the Iranian border for an unexplained purpose (albeit one that's foreshadowed in the film's opening – it helps if you know Iran is a world leader in sexual reassignment surgery). Apricot Groves features handsome widescreen cinematography, an effective regional-flavored score and a hypnotic performance by actor Narbe Vartan as Aram. The final international feature I'm recommending is Francis Lee's God Own Country, which I caught at the recent SFFILM Festival. Lee aptly won Sundance's World Cinema directing prize for this Brokeback Mountain-influenced tale about a closeted, hard-drinking Yorkshire sheep farmer's volatile relationship with a Romanian itinerant worker. The film's steamy sex scenes should look particularly glorious up on the Castro Theatre's gigantic screen.

The biggest surprise about Frameline41's World Cinema line-up is that there's only one entry from France. Luckily, it's a film I've read terrific things about and am delighted to have the chance to see. Jérôme Reybaud's 4 Days in France is described as a sexy road movie in which a 36-year-old Parisian leaves his boyfriend and hits the backroads of rural France, using his Grindr app to find anonymous sex. Unbeknownst to him, his boyfriend is also using Grindr to stalk and keep track of his movements. Although it's not from France, I'm also hoping to check out the French-language Canadian feature Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, which not only has the longest title at Frameline41, but also the longest running time at 183 minutes. Finally, I'm hoping not to miss the Showcase presentation of John Trengove's The Wound, a rare example of LGBTQ narrative filmmaking from sub-Saharan Africa. The film is a gay love story set against the backdrop of Ulwaluko, a ritualistic circumcision ceremony practiced by South Africa's Xhosa community. Director Trengove created controversy recently when he withdrew The Wound from the opening night slot of Tel Aviv's TLVFEST, at the request of BDS South Africa. (Frameline has dealt with its own issues over Israeli governmental support over the years). The film has also proven to be controversial in its homeland.