FESTIVALS: SFILGFF Goes Silver; Persistent Vision's Lavender Lens
by Carl Russo
(indieWIRE/ 06.29.01) -- Climaxing in a five-hour Pride parade up a Market Street lined with flapping rainbow flags, the 25th San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (SFILGFF) celebrated its own fabulousness like Bush-Cheney never happened. The event has grown from a collection of home movies projected onto a bed sheet to become the largest film festival in California, which poses a bit of a problem in some queer camps.
Well-heeled, wish fulfillment characters formed the spine of this year's program. Susan Seidelman's "Gaudi Afternoon" opened June 14 with irresistible female star power in a wafer-thin comic caper; Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau's "Adventures of Felix" provided the June 19 centerpiece with a handsome French-Arab who makes everyone happy; and in the June 24 closer, Julie Davis blends man love with movie love in "All Over the Guy."
Frameline, the fest's parent organization, wisely commissioned Persistent Vision, a four-day panel conference, to address those pesky problems of identity and representation as gay culture moves from the margin to the mainstream. A lavender mob of over 100 academics and industry bigwigs converged June 17-20 at the high-tech Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, away from the hubbub of the Castro Theatre. On stage, cultural studies buzzwords like "post-gay," "pansexuality" and "homonormativity" mingled with biz words like "pickup deal" and "24p DV," while producer pitch sessions carried on behind closed doors.
"There's a sense in which queer audiences feel implicated in the representations up on the screen in a way that the heterosexual audience, out on date night at a multiplex, is never going to feel," said critic B. Ruby Rich, leading the charge in her opening address. "The guy's never gonna walk out saying, 'That murderer was a man! How dare they?'" Listing off several less-than-savory gay types she'd like to see on screen, Rich decried the "airbrushed, idealized portrait that can be brought home to Mom," and pointed to transgenderism as a hot subject because theirs is "an identity that has yet to be guaranteed."
A panel titled "From Perversion to Product Placement" tackled the commercialization of queer, though producer Fenton Bailey ("The Eyes of Tammy Faye") claimed that a "hierarchy of buzz" blurred the line between the under- and overground: "So many television programs pander to the voyeurism of the viewer, but voyeurism is really just curiosity, and I think what an audience wants to see is what isn't of their everyday life." Montreal author and professor Chantal Nadeau added a hopeful note: "We have to reflect upon the market not only as a place of assimilation but maybe also as a place of emancipation."
"After the Glamour Fades: Is Grassroots Activism Dead?" answered its own question with a collection of living radical artists including Allyson Mitchell, who admitted, "I had always understood that there was a certain class of people who could be filmmakers, and you had to have a university education or a college course." Nevertheless, she armed fifty non-filmmakers with a Super 8 camera and a roll of film, and the project begat the highly political "Three-Minute Rock Star." Noting the irony of the panel's surroundings (convened at the neighboring Sony multiplex), Mitchell stated, "I believe now that we all make culture and art, and accessing how to do this is what takes power away from mega-studios like Disney and other cultural artifact production monopolies."
Oscar-winning doc-maker Debra Chasnoff ("Deadly Deception") informed the audience at "Risky Business: Activism and Documentary Filmmaking" that most of her time is still spent scrambling for bucks. "There's this false perception, 'Oh, you've made it. You won the Academy Award, therefore you don't have any troubles with funding.'" Begging pays off, however, as seen in a clip from her gay-positive new work, "That's a Family!", is to be shown in elementary schools.
Strictly not for kids was "Reel Sex and Digital Pleasures: The Passions & Politics of Porn," which included experimental hardcore video excerpts by "gender variant" photographer Del LaGrace Volcano. Also present was veteran sex performer/lecturer Annie Sprinkle, complaining about 25 years of censorship blues, including the recent refusal of an Office Max to print a topless mermaid on her business cards.
Producer Eva Kolodner ("Boys Don't Cry") opened the discussion "Digital Revolution: Democracy or Delusion" by challenging five myths about DV, including unlimited access for all people and free distribution. "It's always going to be about people wanting to see the work, which is often about the quality of the work," she said, citing several aspects of production that remain expensive. As for a possible glut of inferior product, director Q. Allan Brocka ("Rick & Steve the Happiest Gay Couple in All the World") offered, "We had access to pens and papers for centuries and we don't have gluts of 'Moby Dick's."
"Who's Buying What Story?" returned to the questions of what audiences want from queer films and what queer filmmakers want from audiences. Producer Bruce Cohen ("American Beauty") noted that a lot of current gay films are "imitating or aspiring to the mediocrity of a studio piece. I dream of a world where the bar for quality is as high for queer content as it is for straight content."
On the same panel was former Channel Four programmer Jaquie Lawrence ("The Hanging Garden"), incredulous of critics who panned her "Metrosexuality" serial, which premiered at this fest. (One more pan: aspiring to the mediocrity of a music video, the show proves that bitchy queens spouting zippy one-liners doth not a "Queer as Folk" make.) She spoke of working within the confines of advertisers' "dream demographic" of the young, straight male: "The blokes say, 'Oh, tits tits tits!' But actually what they're watching is a foray into human rights issues." Maybe, but to that end, Lawrence announced that she's developing lesbian versions of "Sex in the City" and "Friends" for the BBC. "It might just be flavor-of-the-year, but let's take advantage of it," she said to resounding applause.
While often the conference felt like an instant critique of certain program choices screening across town, one film was on everyone's lips, being cited on panels as the embodiment of successful (self-)representation, a work both artistically challenging and life affirming. "By Hook or By Crook," a lyrical DV feature by local butch performance artists Silas Howard and Harriet Dodge, had its smashing world premiere June 17. Several days later, viewers were still on a high.
"I really wasn't sure how a gay and lesbian audience would perceive this. I've had experience doing art where it's not always an instant, easy thing to reach an audience if you're a more marginalized queer," Howard told indieWIRE. Her DIY ethic is shaped by her participation in SF's reigning queercore girl band, Tribe 8. "Also, Harriet and I were garbage men the whole time up until production. We would be cleaning people's garbage out, and running back and writing our script."
"By Hook or By Crook" follows Shy (Howard) from the sticks to a burnt-out Mission District, where she hooks up with the unhinged Valentine (Dodge) who wants to find her estranged mother. When not pulling petty heists, they spend rarified moments around the flat as the scraggly-bearded Valentine lets loose her crazy wisdom. Comparisons to Cassavetes' "A Woman Under the Influence" are drawn.
"I identify anywhere between queer or butch or transgender, but the main thing we wanted to show was that these people had complicated lives and complex emotions," Howard said. "I think it's a really big deal to see yourself up on the screen." Audiences of all persuasions might recognize themselves up there, which seemed to be the explicit hope of the Persistent Vision conference.
[Carl Russo is a radio programmer and freelance writer living in San Francisco.]