The Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival Comes of Age During a Transitional Year
by Joshua Sanchez
During its fifth year on the scene, the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which ran April 24-May 4, faced many challenges. Not only had the MGLFF lost its founder and director Robert Rosenberg, but also South Beach’s Colony Theatre, the festival’s flagship venue since its humble beginnings. The festival rose to the occasion with the help of new executive director Phillip Matthews and the eclectic taste of program director Carol Coombes, delivering a selection of films celebrating the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender experience in all its diversity.
Screened in downtown Miami’s historic and glittery Gusman Center, Mark Rucker’s 2003 Sundance favorite “Die Mommie Die,” opened the festival with a martini twist of camp and cocktails. Featuring screenwriter Charles Busch as semi-retired chanteuse Angela Arden, “Die Mommie Die,” is sure to become a midnight movie classic in no time. Described by MC Bruce Vilanch as “the best looking audience in the world,” the colorful, sold-out Miami crowd at the Gusman devoured the movie’s heavy does of camp, and gave Busch, who appeared with Vilanch at the end of the screening in full Angela Arden majesty, a standing ovation. Busch seemed overwhelmed, relishing his experience of viewing the movie with “the audience we wanted to give it to.” The opening-night gala party at the panoramic Miami City Club atop the tallest building in downtown Miami, lived up to the drama and spectacle of the screening, with stellar views of the city and most attendees partying until the early hours of Saturday morning.
As the rains came to Miami on Saturday, so did the festival downshift in programming to melancholy terrain. Kicking off day two was Norwegian Even Benestad’s stunning documentary “Alt Om Min Far” (All About My Father) which screened at the 2003 Berlin Film Festival. The documentary is a moving portrait of Benestad’s father, Esben Benestad, openly transgender and on the verge of shifting from male to female. “All About My Father” traces Esben’s history as a successful, married doctor to his divorce and re-marriage to Elsa, a woman who accepts his gender identity. The film’s emotional conflict comes less from an exploration of Esben than from the feelings expressed by Even and his sister Elizabeth, who are bitter and angry toward their father for sacrificing the happiness and security of their family for his gender explorations. The family’s distant and intellectual method of discussing their damaged relationships is at once disturbing and riveting. This sparsely attended afternoon screening was one of the festival’s overlooked gems.
At this point the festival split venues and cities, adding Fort Lauderdale to the mix. Teaming up with the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, the MGLFF presented three films and one shorts program over two days at Fort Lauderdale’s Cinema Paradiso, a Spanish-style arthouse owned and operated solely by the FLIFF. Situated in a deserted section of downtown Fort Lauderdale, the Paradiso seemed somewhat out of place for the festivities, but drew sellout crowds nonetheless. Saturday’s double bill at the Paradiso opened with Kristen Coury’s gay gangster flick “Friends and Family,” followed by festival favorite Everett Lewis’ “Luster.” The story of a gay couple that happens to be mafia hitmen, “Friends and Family” was an audience delight, not diminished by the appearance of star Brian Lane Green. A former soap opera regular and Tony nominee, Green recently came out in the pages of Out magazine, although ironically enough, he plays one of the only straight characters in “Friends and Family.”
Down south, the women took over the ranks of the Regal South Beach as the MGLFF presented a much anticipated screening of Geoff Sax’s three-part BBC mini-series “Tipping the Velvet.” Adapted from the novel by Sarah Waters and the BBC2’s highest-rated program of 2002, “Tipping the Velvet” is the story of a passionate love affair between Nan, an oyster girl from Whitstaple, and Kitty, a cross-dressing music hall star. All who saw it praised this gender-bending love story set in 1890’s Victorian England. Actress Rachael Stirling attended the screening, much to the thrill of the audience, who were so familiar with the novel that they referred to it by page numbers.
The festival’s salute to the ladies continued into Sunday as day three kicked off with two documentaries showcasing the diversity of the lesbian experience. “No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon,” directed by the charismatic lesbian activist Joan E. Biren (JEB), is the inspirational love story of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, two San Francisco-based pioneers of the lesbian political movement. The sizable Regal Theatre venue was consistently filled on Sunday afternoon, as the Miami lesbian community made a day of the MGLFF screenings for women. Following “No Secret Anymore,” was a brunch for the ladies, then back to the movie theater for Dee Moshbacher’s “Radical Harmonies,” a history of women’s music.
Back in Fort Lauderdale, “Global Passions,” the first of the shorts programs, showcased a wide variety of international shorts on the subject of passion. “Global Passions” was an eclectic group of shorts highlighted by French director Daniel Wiroth’s stop-motion marvel “One Dance One Song” and Brazilian Ed Andrade’s comic film noir “Nervos de Aço” (Nerves of Steel). Along with Wednesday’s “MIX Brasil” screening, featuring the best of last year’s 10th MIX Brasil festival, “Global Passions” exemplified the MGLFF’s commitment to exhibit Latin American and Spanish language works. Julien Hernandez’s “Sex, Politics and Cocktails,” about a penniless Cuban-American filmmaker in Hollywood, and Francesc Bellmunt’s “Lisistrata,” a Mel Brooks-like comedy about ancient Greek warriors forced into homosexuality, featuring Maribel Verdú from “Y Tu Mama Tambien” were both well attended and received by Miami’s sizable gay Latino community.
One of the festival’s most eagerly anticipated screenings was Italian Aurelio Grimaldi’s “Un mondo d’amore” (A World of Love). This film is a complex exploration of the life of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. In 1949, the director was a literature professor dreaming of his first novel and exploring his sexuality for the first time. Pasolini has a drunken, yet largely innocent sexual encounter with three boys at a village fair and is soon under investigation for his homosexual tendencies. Taken in context with Pasolini classics such as “Teorema” and “Salo,” “A World of Love” provided a much-needed detour into the mind of a great artist.
If “A World of Love” was the festival’s most anticipated screening, then Louise Hogarth’s “The Gift” was certainly its most controversial. Already made notorious by a now legendary exposé in Rolling Stone magazine, “The Gift” explores the gay male subculture of HIV “gift givers,” or HIV-positive men who knowingly spread the HIV virus through unprotected sex. Most of the stories in “The Gift” are harrowing, to say the least, from Doug, the 20 year old who is “charged up” by an HIV+ man, to bare back sex parties where safe sex is strictly prohibited. The film was a sobering presence in an otherwise largely celebratory festival, speaking to a generation of gay men who continue to struggle with the spread of HIV. “The Gift” was appropriately screened with “Hard Fat,” another controversial film exploring the culture of “gainers,” gay men who gain weight as a sexual fetish.
Richard Day’s “Girls Will Be Girls” returned the festival to drag camp for its centerpiece screening. Switching venues to the mostly music based Jackie Gleason Theater, “Girls Will Be Girls” is a continuation of Day’s 2002 short “Evie Harris’ Shining Star.” The screening was made all the more enjoyable by the attendance of stars Jack Plotnick, Clinton Leupp, and Jeffery Roberson. Drag queens book ended this year’s festival with the closing night’s “Leaving Metropolis,” the story of a frustrated guy in love with a straight married man and counseled by his HIV-positive pre-op transgender roommate Shannon.
Despite its rocky road, the 2003 MGLFF presented a selection of films that would be as hard to categorize as the gay, lesbian and transgender community itself. In the world of gay/lesbian/transgender film festivals, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles dominate. But if the 2003 MGLFF is any indication, Miami could join their ranks in the near future.