Frameline, the oldest and largest LGBT film festival in the world, wrapped this past weekend after an ambitious 11 day run. The 32nd edition of this Bay Area fest also served as a bittersweet send-off for its director of 25 years, Michael Lumpkin. The man responsible for Frameline’s evolution from a three day exhibition of local film into an eleven-day event of international stature ensured that his last opus would be every bit as boisterous and fun-loving as the festival’s reputation now demands. More than 230 selections hailed from 36 countries, falling in categories as a disparate as horror, musical, porn, and kids flick.
As usual, documentaries (and shorts) made up the bulk of entries and these were, for the most part, poignant but artless. Stories of rural Chinese children dealing with the effects of AIDS and isolation and gay activists waging a war on discrimination in the middle east mix with personal tales of gender reassignment, accepting gay parents and children, and lovingly re-told romances. While each is insightful, and occasionally quite moving, few have much filmic merit, instead surviving solely on the strength their message.
“Byron Chief Moon: Grey Horse Rider,” a Native American artist biopic directed by Marlene Millar and Philip Szporer, and Nissim Mossek‘s “Citizen Nawi,” which casts its sights on the struggles of a gay Jewish pro-Palestine activist are prime examples – the stories of both men tug at the heart, challenge preconceptions, and should be prime material for powerful movie making. Instead, as is too often the case, these tales dull on screen as the filmmakers sloppily follow around their subjects with camera in hand, seemingly giving no thought to composition or narrative arc. Much of the documentary crop this year begs the simple question, “why is this a film and not a book or a conversation?”
A couple of docs are notably stronger and more convincingly constructed: Sundance and Berlin Film Festival favorite “Be Like Others” and the world premiere of “A Horse is Not a Metaphor.” With “Others,” Tanaz Eshaghian offers a beautiful and surprising glace at the plight of homosexuals who, under the stupefying fundamentalist laws of Iran are prodded and aided in changing genders so as to legally practice their purportedly deviant sexualities. Naturally the coerced sex changes do little to temper extremely hostile discrimination against the individuals who become increasingly alienated and confused. Eshaghian masterfully balances a tender approach to the patients she follows and a bewildered, at times angry, take on the societal expectations and governmental restriction that callously dictate their circumstances. The film marvels openly at the hypocrisies of an Iranian society guided by an archaic and narrow set of fundamentalist decrees, but finds its greatest success in universalizing the base human desires that drive both the exclusion and indomitable spirit of its subjects.
Veteran experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer‘s most personal film to date, “A Horse Is Not A Metaphor” focuses on her recent battle with ovarian cancer. The cinematic poem glides through her chemotherapy treatments, archival record of the first-ever all-woman rodeo, and shots of her in the process of making the film. The wild, albeit slow, montage of imagery acts as both an assault on the viewer and a reminder to let go and experience viscerally. Hammer seems most concerned with transfiguring her anguish and hope into a visual landscape that-while remaining personal and unique-is an adaptable parable that can offer strength to others’ cancer experiences.
Speaking excitedly post-screening, she explained, “Ovarian cancer has been called the ‘silent killer,’ so now we want to yell about it and make it not silent anymore.” Lest the personal be mistaken for the apolitical, she goes on to express her desire to turn the film into a rallying call for the development of better treatment options. She hopes to bring the film to “hospitals and clinics and get the message out there about ovarian cancer. Perhaps with a new Democratic president in office we can finally get the stem cell research to find that tumor marker so that the chemo can focus on the tumor, rather than having to flood the entire body cavity.”
The narrative feature field was pretty strong, especially with the inclusion of a seven-film retrospective hand-picked by Michael Lumpkin to highlight the best of Frameline’s past. All of these are cinematic gems in their own right, but it was especially refreshing to revisit Gus Van Sant‘s “Mala Noche.” The director’s first feature debuted at the festival in 1986 and set the tone (and the way) for his impressive career. Shot in black and white, the film employs Van Sant’s signature style of off-kilter and unconstructive camera work, powerfully relaying the story of a young gay man’s doomed love for an illegal teenage immigrant. Another retrospective (though it was only released in 2002) satdnout was “Yes Nurse, No Nurse,” a charming musical from the Netherlands that played convincingly of off familiar themes from “Signing in the Rain” and “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” while adding a deliciously naughty and mischievous strain all its own. The action follows a group of odd, but lovable misfits under the charge of Nurse Klivia as they fight to keep a scrooge landlord from evicting them. Threaded in between are dance and songs routines rivaling those of Agnes DeMille and Bugsby Berkley, with a particularly memorable number that features a dashing blond burglar wearing only underwear cooing to and strutting to a cage full of pigeons (all to impress his mildly mentally challenged girlfriend).
A new narrative of note was the extremely low budget “Japan Japan,” which employs a frantic mixture of internet pornography, Japanese pop songs of the 70s, split screen boredom scenes, a recurrent self-referential trailer, and awkward roommate fantasies to bring to life the semi-autobiographical tale of director Lior Shamriz. The protagonist Imri looks toward the exotic to spice up his humdrum existence in Tel Aviv, only to realize that his isolation and boredom are self-imposed and have little to with his geographical location. In the post-show Q&A Shamriz noted that response to his film has been very polarized, and indeed much of the Castro theater (a 1,600 seat movie palace which was packed for the showing) shuffled out brusquely as the credits rolled.
The post-Japan Japan scene was somewhat unusual. Full theaters are the norm throughout the festival, but audience support is typically extremely high, with thunderous applause and hooting typically following even the most mediocre of films. The last day of the Festival coincides with the Pride Parade, a huge deal in San Francisco both in and out of the GLBT community. Yet still, morning to night, the Castro was packed with eager attendees beginning with a pair of shorts programs and ending with the Closing Night feature, Laurie Lynd‘s “Breakfast with Scot.” Amidst a roaring crowd, a ten minute standing ovation, and special tributes from Gus Van Sant and John Waters, Michael Lumpkin stood up and said, “I though about it for a moment, I thought about changing my mind and staying after all.”