FESTIVALS: Women Sweep Awards at SF Int'l Lesbian & Gay Film Fest
by Carl Russo
Like the famous Dykes on Bikes that led the city's massive Gay Pride parade earlier that morning, it was the women filmmakers who stole the show as the 19th San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival wrapped June 25.
After a weak opening night offering, Jim Fall's half-baked comedy "trick," audiences were treated to ten days worth of dazzling works -- by all accounts the fest's strongest lineup in years. 268 films lit up screens at the Castro, Roxie and Victoria theaters, with a record 8 world and 5 U.S. features premiering. The Closing night screening of Lukas Moodysson's "Show Me Love"-- Sweden's box office smash about two angst-ridden teen girls who find humanity in each other's arms -- left celebrants in high spirits. The film's distributor, Strand Releasing, co-catered the after-party with an appropriate offering of Swedish meatballs and fish.
Strand's support of cutting-edge features was rewarded minutes later when their new Australian acquisition, "Head On," won the $10,000 Dockers Khakis First Feature prize. This complex and frenetic drama focuses on a young, macho gay man in Melbourne who straddles a rough-trade night life with the conservative traditions of his Greek immigrant family.
Ana Kokkinos, the film's Greek-Australian director, spoke with indieWIRE about the mixed blessings of government financing. "We're quite lucky in Australia in that we have some government assistance for filmmakers. I suspect it's the envy of the world for most independent filmmakers who are struggling in other countries," she said. "Then a number of [film board bureaucrats] were horrified at the subject matter and said, 'this is really too in-your-face.' But in the end we got market interest which meant that we got a local distribution deal together with an international sales agent who put up a guarantee. So once we had those two elements in place, that automatically triggered financing from the main government body."
Kokkinos said she never expected the story to have such universal appeal before it became a hit in her country. "For a lot of young kids who are either straight, gay or bi-, the point was that they have very similar issues -- going through a lot of the same problems about being young, confused, living life very intensely, and also having to lead a secret life separate from their parents and the community."
Leading a secret life was never an option for the subject of the documentary "Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100." The portrait of the irrepressible Ellis, an openly gay African-American woman who turns a century old this July, won the fest's Audience Award for Best Documentary. Filmmaker Yvonne Welbon brought Ellis out from the Midwest to meet enthusiastic crowds at the June 25th world premiere.
"Ruth cannot believe that her life is this important to people. She was really thrilled to be here," Welbon told indieWIRE. "She went to the dyke march last night and had the best time. She called me this morning and said she clipped out a picture from the paper so she can prove to her friends at home that there were that many lesbians in one place." Welbon's next project, "Sisters in Cinema," will be a history of African-American women filmmakers.
Lesbian women of color was also the topic of "Chutney Popcorn," which won the Audience Award for Best Feature. Indian-American director Nisha Ganatra's culture-clash comedy received a similar award at the Newport International Film Festival in early June. Ganatra admitted some apprehension about her SF screening to indieWIRE: "In Newport the whole audience was very old people, very white people and very straight people and we thought, 'Oh my God, we're dead.' And they loved it, so then I thought, 'Oh my God, what if the lesbians hate it?' So now it's nice to know that very, very conservative straight people love it and the queer audience in San Francisco loves it." While waiting for nibbles by distributors to turn into a catch, Ganatra has written a "big-budget comedy-action-adventure-science-fiction movie about these girls that get super powers."
In keeping with the festival's theme, "The Color of Sex: Race and Sexuality in Queer Film," organizers bestowed the Frameline Award upon Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan for "outstanding achievement in lesbian and gay media arts."
Kwan, who recently came out as gay, presented two recent features. 1996's "Yang + Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema," gives the "Celluloid Closet" treatment to Chinese film with homoerotic readings of old epics and new action flicks. Interviews with Fifth and Sixth Generation filmmakers expand the analysis to discussions of traditional gender roles, while rare clips liven the often dry discourse. In his newest feature, "Hold You Tight," Kwan masterfully rearranges time and plumbs emotional depths in the relationship of a young computer geek and an older gay businessman.
Another premiere from Hong Kong employs lush flashbacks to return to the days of arranged marriages and multiple wives. Jacob Cheung's "Intimates" reveals the passionate life led by a servant girl despite her oath to celibacy.
A pair of Norwegian films were all the buzz among filmgoers. The heroine of Carl Jorgen Kionig's "Blessed Are Those Who Thirst" is a mod motorcycle detective on the trail of a real sicko. The pulpy story is violent, erotic and superbly plotted, as if Dario Argento directed an episode of "NYPD Blue," with a dash of Radley Metzger softcore thrown into the sex scenes. In Svend Wam's "Desperate Acquaintances," the drug-induced psychosis of a young man ignites a series of intense, soul-searching arguments between his two buddies, one of whom has been closeted for twelve years.
Other premieres included Guido Henderickx' stunning "S." (Belgium), about a young woman who leaves behind a trail of murders in response to a string of abusive relationships; Katherine Brooks & Karen Klopfenstein's "Outtakes" (US), an all-attitude, no-insight indie film about indie filmmaking; and Nick Katsapetses' "The Joys of Smoking" (US), a Gregg Araki-inspired graduate thesis not quite ready to make the leap from classroom to film festival.
The festival centerpiece, Max Faberbock's US premiere of "Aimee & Jaguar" (Germany), was closed off to journalists by the distributor, according to one publicist.
One highlight this year wasn't a film at all but an eight-part TV series called "Queer as Folk." This multi-plotted gay soap opera features the wickedly sharp writing of Russell T. Davies and direction of Charles McDougall and Sarah Harding. Audiences faithfully lined up for each separate bill to watch the exploits of a group of twenty-something gay yuppies from Manchester. That the graphically explicit serial came from Britain's Channel 4 suggests that the American networks are light-years behind in offering provocative programming.
The most unusual premiere recalled San Francisco's glory days as the skin flick capital of the world. "Annie Sprinkle's Herstory of Porn" is the evolution of a fabulously kinky porn goddess, based on her recent stage performance. Sprinkle's ditzy persona drips with sarcasm as she comments on her vintage triple-X clips: from the "Deep Throat"-era of big-budget features to the eighties video kink of midgets and "hot amputee action" to her own transformation into a "post-porn-modern" lesbian performance artist.
In an interview with indieWIRE, Sprinkle described her reactions after reviewing her exploitive roles in films from the seventies. "When I first saw them I felt a little bit shocked and amazed. But I try not to be judgmental about where I was at. In 'Herstory,' I play kind of an air-heady, silly party girl, because that's where I was. I'm just going back and re-enacting the way it really was."
Working with some of the same cast and crew from her adult films, and using seed money donated by her father, Sprinkle set out to make a splash on the festival circuit. "I like the audience that goes to festivals. They're more intellectual, kind of arty. I was really happy that I made it to the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Festival which is, to me, the best festival to be in." She hopes to recoup costs by selling her video on the Web (www.heck.com).
Apropos to a sexy and passionate festival like the SFILGFF, Sprinkle encourages aspiring filmmakers to get their feet wet with porn. "Just do it! Don't censor yourself. Personally we can really learn and grow from it. I have and society definitely has." With a giggle she added, "And get the best lighting you can."
[Carl Russo is a San Francisco based journalist and frequent contributor to indieWIRE.]