A Celebration of Queer Cinema: The San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival
by Pam Grady
The 27th San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (SFILGFF), June 12-29, began on a note of 1960s-era glamour with Charles Busch's wicked Hollywood satire, "Die Mommie Die," and ended with the punk-rock grunge of Alex Steyermark's melodramatic "Prey for Rock & Roll." In between, the 18-day festival presented a 271-film (78 features/193 shorts), 33-country slate that balanced the silly and the serious, the comic and the dire, and the controversial and the crowd-pleasers.
That there were certain dichotomies built into this year's festival that were brought into sharp relief on closing night with the announcement of the audience awards. The documentary prize went to Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer's "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin," a serious work limning the life of a man who fought social battles on two fronts, as a civil rights leader and as an openly gay man, long before a gay liberation movement existed. In contrast, Pieter Kramer's "Yes Nurse! No Nurse!," an infectious, lighter-than-helium Dutch musical about a kindhearted, no-nonsense nurse, her evil landlord, and her wacky charges, won the audience award for best feature.
The good humor of movies like "Die Mommie Die," "Yes Nurse! No Nurse!," and Canadian filmmaker Lee Demarbe's exuberant, no-budget, paean to '70s exploitation movies, "Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter," in which J.C. returns to battle lesbian vampires, set a buoyant tone for the festival. Canada's move to legalize gay marriage and the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the country's sodomy laws added to SFILGFF's good cheer.
But while SFILGFF celebrated queer cinema, it also underlined that the battle for full equality has not yet been won. Billy Hayes' "Cock & Bull Story" is a ridiculous story of a straight boxer whose erections in the clinch lead to trouble, but it also serves as a chilling reminder of the violence that homophobia breeds. Documentary shorts Michele Prevost's "Isn't It Obvious?" and Dion Manley and Jed Bell's "Transgender Day of Remembrance" pay tribute to transgender murder victims. Both the Italian "Thelma & Louise"-like thriller, "Gasoline" by Monica Strambini, and French director Francis Girod's spooky "Gender Bias" hinge on homophobes who menace queer characters.
Just as troubling are the real-life political actions that threaten the financial well-being of the festival and its parent nonprofit, Frameline. On opening night, board president Pamela David made a plea for community support from the Castro Theatre stage, "Don't overblow this, but these are hard times. There's a lot of political uncertainty. There's certainly a lot of economic uncertainty." At the festival's close, David went on to explain that Frameline was recently denied its annual NEA grant, despite the fact that the committee that normally acts as a rubber stamp approved its application.
The AIDS pandemic continues to plague the gay community, as it has for over 20 years now. This year, SFILGFF programmed a special sidebar, "AIDS: Then and Now," built around 10th-anniversary screenings of two of the first mainstream dramas on the topic, Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning "Philadelphia" and Roger Spottiswoode's made-for-TV "And the Band Played On." A new documentary, "People Like Us: Making Philadelphia," by director Jeffrey Schwarz, examines Demme's film and the elements that made it a box-office success.
Far more fascinating than either of the Hollywood films and more controversial is Louise Hogarth's "The Gift," a documentary that explores the subterranean world of "bug chasers," HIV-negative men who wish to become positive, and "gift givers," HIV-positive men willing to fulfill that desire through unprotected sex. Screened on a Saturday afternoon, "The Gift" played to a rapt audience that remained for a lively panel discussion and audience Q&A, hosted by the STOP AIDS project.
Two AIDS dramas, Thom Fitzgerald's "The Event" and "Walking on Water" by Australian director Tony Ayres, dealt with assisted suicide and its aftermath. Fitzgerald's film is well intentioned, but plays like a soap opera. Told in piecemeal, flashback fashion, it doesn't allow for any real insight into any of the character's motivations, least of all the AIDS patient played by Don McKellar. Ayres' film, on the other hand, movingly delineates the grief of survivors who know they've done the right thing in helping their friend leave the world, but still feel regret.
Another sidebar, "Queer Youth: Come of Age," offered a tantalizing menu of films on the pressures and pleasures of adolescence. Gay and lesbian Icelandic teenagers share their frank coming-out stories in Hrafnhildure Gunnarsdottir and Thorvaldur Kristinnson's "Straight Out," co-winner of the documentary jury prize. In "School's Out: The Life of a Gay High School in Texas," director Jeremy Simmons follows 10 students -- including two transsexuals, an HIV-positive 16-year-old, and a young Republican -- over a stressful school year in which declining enrollment threatens to shut Dallas' tiny Walt Whitman High.
In the narrative realm, Michael Burke's "The Mudge Boy" benefits from Emile Hirsch's moving performance as an awkward teenager coping with his mother's death and his own budding sexuality. In contrast, no actor could possibly save Olivier Panchot's "Laura's Paradise," a French drama about an 18-year-old who becomes obsessed with her new girlfriend and who falls prey to a debauched existence of drugs and disco-dancing. It is as ridiculous as it sounds. At 90 minutes, it plays like an epic "This-is-your-brain-on-drugs" commercial.
A pair of teen comedies, the French "My Life on Ice" by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, and the American "Put the Camera on Me" by Darren Stein and Adam Shell pay homage to the power of home video. "My Life on Ice" is a completely fictionalized account of a 15-year-old figure skater who compulsively keeps a video diary of his daily life that plays like the real thing -- amusing, but dull. The captivating and often hysterically funny "Put the Camera on Me," compiles the home movies that Stein made between the ages of five and 15 with his brother and friends playing everything from concentration-camp victims to gay superheroes and intersperses them with new and revealing interviews.
Filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey received this year's Frameline Award for their ongoing contributions to gay and lesbian media arts and screened a new documentary, "Dark Roots: The Unauthorized Anna Nicole," as well as their first narrative feature, "Party Monster." The duo was thrilled by the Frameline honor. Barbato commented, "Our first film festival was here at Frameline, that was the first time I went to a festival, so we have a very special connection to it." Asked why they decided to return to the subject of Michael Alig and the club kids for their first feature after already making a documentary on the same subject, Barbato replied, "The documentary documented the scene and was sort of more anchored on Michael Alig. The feature explores a relationship. And, really, in documentaries, you can, like, lie a little and in drama, you lie a lot to get at a greater truth."
Other awards at SFILGFF 2003 went to Debra Wilson's "Butch Mystique," audience winner for best short. The $10,000 Levi's First Feature Award went to Kai S. Pieck's "The Child I Never Was," a spooky German drama based on the life of child-killer Jurgen Bartsch. "Straight Out" shared the $10,000 Stu & Dave's Excellent Documentary Award with "Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary" about San Francisco's own hardcore, all dyke, punk rock band.
Gina Gershon brought the festival to a raucous close on Pride Day, June 29, with her appearance at the Castro Theatre in support of her star turn as a bisexual punk rock musician in "Prey for Rock & Roll." After the screening, she was asked if she feared that her appearances in queer movies might typecast her in Hollywood. Her tart reply, "It's all queer to me," brought down a house that couldn't agree more.