The stars shone brightly on the ceiling of The Olympia Theater last week, while a Wurlitzer played to an excited audience for the opening of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which this year celebrated its 9th year of being one of the first stops in the country for LGBT films. Festival director Carol Coombes drew gasps in a ruffled orange skirt and sequined orange halter as she took to the stage to introduce British director Duncan Roy (previous MGLFF jury winner with 2002's "AKA") for his opening night film "The Picture of Dorian Gray" with the warning that just as Oscar Wilde's novel had drawn both praise and scathing criticism, so too might Roy's queer-themed update of the novel, set in 1980s New York. The titular portrait is modified with the ravages of age replaced with AIDS--which strongly divided its audience.
As Roy, accompanied by actors Aleksa Palladino and Michael Goduti acknowledged after the film, this appeared to be the case. "I saw loads of people walk out at the end, so obviously it pissed people off. I think it's a good thing to do." While its strongly experimental roots and blatantly arty sensibilities may have made for a controversial choice for a festival opening (though apparently not unusual--the film will also open Newfest and Toronto's Inside Out Festival, among others) the film was not without its share of undeniable pleasures, with its lulling repetition, neon sculpture, and, most of all, the opportunity to see a former "7th Heaven" cast member, David Gallagher, all grown up now, get fucked by Satan.
The party continued at the Bank of America building's roof terrace, where one could gaze upon the skyscraper, one of the tallest in Miami, lit bright orange in honor of the festival, where the color was omnipresent. Oranges adorned the catalogue, "Orangeheads" candies were distributed throughout festival venues, and a bevy of drag queens wore orange unitards to match their fright wigs. "Orange is the new pink, and I'm going to be wearing a lot of it," stated Coombes throughout the festival's screenings, and indeed she was barely seen without at least some orange on her body. The orange branding was explained in the festival's rousing trailers (created by Onix Padron's company O-TV Creative Services, Inc.,) which proclaim that "oranges are no longer the only fruit South Florida is known for," before giving an overview of the story of Anita Bryant, former spokeswoman for Florida Orange Juice who fell into personal and professional disgrace after leading a campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Miami Dade county.
Bryant's galvanizing effect on the gay rights movement was explored in even greater detail in Jay Rosenblatt's fortuitously timed Bryant documentary short "I Just Wanted to Be Somebody," which delivered the audience a healthy dose of schadenfreude before Mike Roth and John Henning's feature "Saving Marriage" reduced them to tears. One of numerous docs dealing with the current marriage debate and the fallout from the Massachusetts legalization of gay marriage, "Saving Marriage" is particularly strong based upon its treatment of the story as political suspense as it follows the fight to prevent the Massachusetts legislature from passing a constitutional amendment that would jeopardize the (still uncertain) future of gay marriage.
A few of the festival's best films were also its most peculiar, beginning with "2:37," the feature film debut of Australian Murali Thalluri, who was 19 (!) when he made it, a sort of suicidal who-dunnit with more than a passing resemblance to Gus Van Sant's "Elephant." The film manages to overcome mere imitation of its spiritual ancestor by inserting a generous amount of humanity and strikingly naturalistic performances into its long, beautiful tracking shots of high school hallways making even the most lurid of plot developments seem plausible in its difficult journey to answer the question of 'which student in crisis killed him-or-herself in the janitor's closet at 2:37 on an ordinary day. Succeeding almost despite itself is Canadian director Denis Langlois' strange little docudrama "Amnesia - The James Brighton Enigma," the true story of a young man who wakes up naked outside a club in Montreal with no knowledge of his name or his history except that he is gay (unless he is constructing an elaborate ruse). It is a testament to the slick filmmaking and fascinating story that it remains so intriguing, even despite its occasionally melodramatic acting and a wildly implausible theory injected towards the ending.
The festival programmers made the most of their Miami location throughout its ten-day run. Besides the main theater on Lincoln Road in South Beach, screenings were to be found in nearby Fort Lauderdale, and parties were scattered throughout the city; the gala party accompanying festival centerpiece "Anger Me," Elio Gelmini's straightforward and refreshingly ego-free portrait of avant-garde queer cinema pioneer Kenneth Anger, took place along the two-block historic art-deco Hispaniola Way. Closing night saw partygoers travel from Dai Seijie's lush, epic tragedy (and this year's audience award-winner) "The Chinese Botanist's Daughter" to equally lush, less tragic Parrot Jungle Island. And audiences were invited to view Casper Andreas's "A Four Letter Word," follow-up to 2005's "Slutty Summer," with the same characters in similar romantic mishaps in the great outdoors, outside the lavish new condo development, Flamingo South Beach.
Filmmaker Andrea Meyerson was back in Miami with "Laughing Matters...the Men", the third installment of her series on gay comedians (the second part, "Laughing Matters...More," won last year's audience documentary award), and she successfully warmed up the crowd with her own mini-standup routine, joking "I was nervous making the men's installment, because a filmmaker wants to please her audience, and it's been a really long time since I've pleased a man." She needn't have worried, the sold-out audience gave a huge response to the film, and afterwards a select group of donors joined Myerson and one of the film's subjects, gay comedian Bob Smith, for the Producer's Circle Dinner at the swanky Ola Restaurant, while, simultaneously, a women's dinner at the equally posh Afterglo club feted director Pratibha Parmar's crowd-pleasing Scotland-set narrative "Nina's Heavenly Delights," a sweet story about two women who fall in love while attempting to win a curry competition to vindicate the reputation of one's father, a deceased Indian restaurant owner. Parmar, who describes the film as "food porn," said that she based it in part upon her own story--she met her partner of 10 years while they argued over the best way to make a curry.
Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox had an exceptionally good year at Miami; not only did he win the Jury prize for his new film "The Bubble," about a relationship between an Israeli reservist and a Palestinian man that flourishes in the bohemian world of Tel Aviv. The pairing eventually faces tough obstacles when exposed to the regional fighting outside of their idealistic neighborhood. Fox was celebrated with a $1,000 HBO Career Achievement Award for his previous work, including "Yossi and Jagger" and "Walk on Water" during the event.
MGLFF's jury prize for documentary was awarded to "Red Without Blue," in which two identical twin brothers have their relationship tested when one begins to identify as a woman, and the audience award for documentary went to Will Parinello's tribute "Emile Norman - By His Own Design," about the gay art designer and his partner of 30 years, Brooks Clements.