In some of life's occupations (and preoccupations), turning 30 is a point many would prefer to defer. Supermodels, acrobats, and San Francisco gay men among them. Yes, "maturity" is "nice" in theory -- but facial lines, thinning hair and a body-fat percentage that no longer stays low all by itself can seriously cramp a boy's lifestyle. Though not, of course, a bear's. On the other hand, longevity in gay institutions is always a plus, since our communities' public histories have been so short, as well as so often embattled by oppression, the AIDS epidemic, and other impediments to survival. Thus the 30th anniversary marked by this year's S.F. International LGBT Film Festival represents more than just a healthy and well-loved cultural treasure's long-term success story -- it offers a forum for the LGBT community to celebrate its own hard-won survival and progress.
Certainly spirits have been high -- but then they usually are -- at Frameline30's events. Writing at the festival's midpoint, and having come directly from a double bill of Indonesian and Filipino features that drew audiences thoroughly mixed in gender and ethnicity, one thing that struck me is how comfortable with its own diversity the S.F. gay community has become. Back in the day -- count yourself lucky if you're young enough to have missed this stuff -- it was not uncommon to hear some queen in queue express pique at the general ickiness of having to see some Sapphic action in a mostly gay-male shorts program. And it was even more common to hear womyn (remember that term? don't worry, nobody else does either) decry the political incorrectitude of some lesbian films, their insufficient number in Frameline programming (of course, a festival can't show what isn't being produced), and even allowing men to purchase tickets to lesbian programs that might eventually sell out. Ah, Separatism: Among things the '70s gave us, you rank neck-and-neck with Bobby Sherman's Greatest Hits, and thankfully have just as little remaining cultural currency.
Fortunately, we now can all get along, and the worst political incorrectitude is intolerance between any one S.F. LGBT community and other -- be they twink, leather, femme, butch, drag king, tranny, artfag, or cowpoke. A lot of that diversity-embracing has been on display in the fest's screenings to date. Saturday afternoon's world premiere of Todd Holland's "The Believers" sold out the Castro Theatre for a documentary about the globe's first transgender gospel choir -- The Transgender Gospel Choir, to be exact, which made a roof-raising onstage appearance afterward. Then there was the tumultuous reception given the prior night to filmmaker Marc Huestis (who co-founded the festival thirty years ago) and star Louis Biedak's midlife-crisis-goes-surgical documentary "Lulu Gets a Facelift." Opening night had been the expected love fest, with director Maria Maggenti and cast members lauded after "Puccini for Beginners," the romantic comedy that represents her long, long, long-awaited second feature. (The first was "Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love," which had won the same Frameline slot 11 festivals ago.)
Technical difficulties caused a major delay mid-screening, which Maggenti covered with a sort of making-of standup routine. The next evening, viewers were torn between soft-focus boarding-schoolgirl fantasia ("Loving Annabelle"), old-guard gay avant-gardism ("Jack Smith & the Destruction of Atlantis"), and widescreen Spanish musical tranny dramatics ("20 Centimeters"). Late-nighters at the Victoria faced "Flirting With Anthony," which director Christian Calson ("Shiner") noted was "an experiment" he'd consider a success if it gave viewers a boner. This succession of in-extremis scenes featured shaven-headed guys pummeling each other, sister and boyfriend engaging in pin-down tickle sessions with her gay teenage brother, and so forth; one could tell the audience didn't share most of these fantasies -- but most of them did stay in their seats.
That kind of excess might indeed have struck some as preferable to the gay-friendly "After School Special" qualities of "The Conrad Boys," whose Sunday showing was introduced by none other than "captivating newcomer" (according to his press release) Justin Lo himself. Lo produced, directed, wrote, edited and starred in this tale of a prissy young man who forgoes college to care for his nine-year-old younger brother when their single mother suddenly dies. Before the screening Lo, reading from notes, welcomed us to "the long-awaited San Francisco premiere" (by whom? him?) of a film made in the tradition of prior "intimate, intelligent and emotional" indie dramas. I'm still waiting to see that film -- in a strange technical glitch, what was subsequently shown was a syrupy, amateurish vanity project starring an "actor" who looked very much like the on-stage Lo. Go figure!
A parodic rather than actual ego trip mercifully ended that night's Victoria programming via "Kiki & Herb Reloaded," latest "documentary" about the famed, formerly-S.F.-based cabaret-travesty act who were duly in the house.
Also hitting some high musical notes was "Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig," which chronicles the making of a benefit CD featuring "Hedwig" covers by Rufus Wainwright, Polyphonic Spree, Yoko Ono, Jonathan Richman and many others. Sound problems at the Castro hampered much of the documentary's early going, but didn't lessen the love given original "Hedwig" John Cameron Mitchell's appearance afterward. Meanwhile at the Roxie, scrappy U.K.-Nigeria coproduction "Rag Tag" impressed with its "My Beautiful Laundrette"-type tale of two childhood friends turned adult gay lovers amidst the varied criminal corruption and moral censure of multicultural London micro-communities. Its writer-director Adaora Nwandu confessed afterward that she's a straight woman who was nonetheless irresistibly pulled toward this story -- making her one among many surprising female directors of gay-male content in this year's fest.
Does that mean making gay-themed movies is now an easy-money opportunity worldwide? Hardly. Talent behind both "Rag Tag" and Indonesian drama "Last Second" noted the difficulty of screening their films in the countries they were shot in. (In "Rag Tag's" case, Nigeria's current President is a professed homophobe.)
[EDITORS NOTE: This article was originally published in SF360, a joint publication of the San Francisco Film Society and indieWIRE.]