Frameline Celebrates Another Successful Year as the World’s Largest Queer Fest
by Karl Beck
The San Francisco International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival, returned for its 28th year of films by/for/and about the queer community. Working as the seat captain for the festival, I found myself stationed in the grand, historic, and beloved Castro Theatre in the epicenter of San Francisco’s well-known gay male neighborhood. Being positioned in the Castro, surrounded by all sorts of festivalgoers, staff, and volunteers allowed for a remarkably encompassing impression of what the SFILGBT seems to be all about: audience and community.
Dubbed “Frameline” after the year round non-profit which produces the festival and supports queer media arts, the SFILGBT Film Festival is the world’s largest and oldest queer film festival. The festival’s many years of experience are apparent in the smooth operations of most all logistical aspects, of which I saw few failures other than a few delays due to lengthy Q&As or the inevitable occasional print problem.
Opening on June 17 and ending on June 27 (Gay Pride weekend), Frameline opened with Ian Iqbal Rashid‘s “Touch of Pink.” The standard audience-pleasing opening night fare, “Touch of Pink” was spiced up with a decent quota of scathing one-liners, interesting characters and touches on themes of colonialism, multiculturalism, marriage, and old cinema with Kyle MacLachlan playing Cary Grant, who is also the protagonist’s invisible friend. It sounds a bit hard to swallow but was surprisingly entertaining considering the fare that often opens most film festivals. But gay marriage was the real theme of the evening, as the large opening night party followed at San Francisco’s City Hall, where many same sex couples were married in February. Indeed, marriage was an overall theme at the festival with numerous docs detailing the recent events. The festival lauded Mayor Gavin Newsom for his pro-marriage stance, though some criticize the politician for his anti-homeless policies and accuse him of posturing himself in-line with affluent gay (white) male constituents. With Frameline’s always vocal audience, applause, hissing, and booing were all heard when the Mayor’s video message prefaced the opening night screening in the Castro Theatre.
Queer films were aplenty, with screenings of 84 features and 183 shorts from 25 countries. Though, sadly, much of what I screened fell in the mediocre category from a critical perspective. Though, ultimately, San Francisco audiences seemed thrilled to have such a large array of films with content not only for white gay men, the most likely to receive theatrical distribution, but also for people of color, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. For many, critical reviews of filmmaking and editing quickly fall to the wayside when a like-minded audience is able to see “their” story. Many audience members see multiple (10+) films during the festival and seem to revel in the ability to see the story and content coming from today’s queer voices projected on the big screen. Because, remember, even in San Francisco many of these films will not even make it to video, let alone enjoy a theatrical release.
Audience accolades went to Rodney Evans‘ “Brother to Brother,” which won the audience prize for best feature. The film details the relationship between a present-day gay black male artist and his mentor, a member of the Harlem renaissance. The audience documentary prize was given to Sonia Slutsky‘s “Drag Kings on Tour,” which follows a three-week, 15-city tour of drag kings across the U.S. and Canada. The audience prize for best short was given to Mary Guzman‘s “Mind if I Call You Sir?,” which explores the lives of Latina butches and female-to-male transgender Latinos.
Jim DeSeve‘s“Tying the Knot,” a doc looking at the history of marriage and arguing for same-sex marriage rights received the $10,000 “Stu and Dave’s Excellent Documentary Award” and was selected by doc jury members Jack Lewis, Jeffrey Friedman, and Dee Mosbacher.
Feature jury members Corey Tong, William Guentzler, and Guinevere Turner awarded the $10,000 Levi’s First Feature Award to Q. Allan Brocka‘s clever, sexy, and hilarious “Eating Out.” Brocka, already known on the festival circuit for his Lego character “Rick and Steve” short films, commented on his festival experience: “My screening at the Castro was one of the highlights of my life, as a queer filmmaker, the audience was amazing. I was so overwhelmed by the end of the week.” Inspired by John Hughes films as well as teen comedies like “Porkys,” “Eating Out” follows Caleb, a straight man who pretends to be gay in order to get with Gwen, the best friend of Mark, who is Caleb’s roommate Kyle’s biggest crush. Got that? True debauchery and hilarity ensue on screen. Emily Stiles delivers a knock-out performance as Gwen that carries the film and delivers an unforgettable phone sex scene.
Of late, it seems that no gay film festival would be complete without a Margaret Cho concert film. This year’s “Revolution” — unsurprisingly a festival hit — makes it clear that Cho continues to refine her stand-up, placing her amongst the most talented comedians in the country. Pointedly more political in this film, Cho eloquently reminds the audience that artists’ jobs are to comment on the cultural landscape, not be silenced by it. Along with “Eating Out,” Richard Day‘s “Straight Jacket” was also amongst the most popular comedies screening. A campy send-up of ’50s-era Hollywood blacklisting, “Straight Jacket” nicely melds unwieldy slapstick and camp with a dollop of social commentary. Fans of Day’s biting 2003 feature “Girls Will Be Girls” can count on unforgettable laugh-out-loud one-liners, including a Judy Garland joke that had this writer reeling for quite awhile.
Swiss lesbian writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach received a spotlight in this year’s programming, with the documentary “A Swiss Rebel: Annemarie Schwarzenbach 1908-1942” and the gorgeously shot Swiss narrative “Journey to Kafiristan.” Almost forgotten by history, Schwarzenbach was born into Swiss aristocracy but was openly lesbian, friends with anti-Nazi artists/activists Klaus and Erika Mann, wrote and photographed while traveling extensively, and battled a heroin habit to boot. The latter film follows Schwarzenbach and ethnologist companion Ella Maillart’s trip to Afghanistan directly before the onset of WWII.
Documentaries weren’t as prevalent as they are at some festivals, but there were several that stood out. “The Truth or Consequences of Delmas Howe” focuses on the art of painter Delmas Howe, who made a series of neo-classical paintings of obviously gay men inspired by the Station of the Cross. Titled “Stations: A Gay Passion,” Howe’s work was exhibited a few days before 9/11 and was missed by any audience due to the cultural void left months after the 9/11 wake. Exceptionally interesting, Howe’s paintings resonate in the imagery of the Stations and ’70s gay male culture, specifically set in New York City. Now living in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, Howe continues to paint and reflects on the small town mind set as well as the particular uniqueness of Truth or Consequences. The film’s strength comes in its examination of the resonance of gay male art, specifically from the generation of artists that were almost entirely silenced by AIDS and of which Howe is one of few survivors.
Also well received was the Warhol superstar doc “Jackie Curtis: Superstar in a Housedress,” as former Factory member and Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn was in attendance and provided a hilarious Q&A. Screening in the “Fun in Boy’s Short’s” program the documentary “TV Dream Homes: The Drawings of Mark Bennett” delivered a remarkably touching story about Bennett, who draws blue prints of vintage TV show homes such as “I Love Lucy,” “Bewitched,” and “Leave it to Beaver.” Losing all confidence in himself and his passion, Bennett’s work was eventually discovered and is now collected and even part of MoMA‘s collection.
Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, on the heels of their narrative “Party Monster,” returned to the documentary format with “Hidden Fuhrer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler’s Sexuality.” One of their better-made documentaries (previous docs include “101 Rent Boys” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) the film examines a lot of startling evidence suggesting that Hitler may have been homosexual. With lots of food for thought, the doc also treads over the negative inferred issues if Hitler was actually homosexual. Definitely one of the more of the thought-provoking films at the festival, “Hidden Fuhrer” is worth seeing.
The vain Italian film “Adored: Diary of a Porn Star” was Frameline’s centerpiece film. Audible snickering due to the lack of full-frontal nudity remains the most memorable attribute of this screening. Though the after party at “Foreign Cinema” was quite enjoyable as was the mingling with the usually cruisy and always friendly Frameline crowd.
The 2004 Frameline Award for contribution to gay and lesbian media arts went to lesbian director Rose Troche, most recently active as co-executive producer and sometime director for Showtime‘s “The L Word.” Troche was presented with the award at the 10-year anniversary screening of her debut film “Go Fish,” though many audience members were disappointed that Troche didn’t return from a dinner engagement to do an audience Q&A.
Other films that enjoyed packed showings and extremely responsive audiences were Franco Zeffirelli‘s “Callas Forever,” Zeffirelli’s love-letter to the gay-adored and world-renowned opera singer, Maria Callas. Liz Gill‘s “Goldfish Memory,” a quick paced romantic comedy, received warm praise as did “My Mother Likes Women,” the quirky Spanish comedy depicting a mother, a Czech girlfriend, and three meddling daughters. “Punks” director Patrick Ian Polk‘s “Noah’s Arc” was heavily praised by audience attendees, who offered the director accolades for his depiction of gay black middle class life in Los Angeles.
When asked about his feelings about this year’s festival, Frameline executive director and festival co-director Michael Lumpkin noted, “This was a very successful year, logistically, for LGBT cinema, programmatically and overall. The quality of the films was very high.” “Eating Out” director Q. Allan Brocka added, “It’s so nice now, we (queer filmmakers) can just make normal films, without having to explain who we are.”
Frameline’s vision of diversity and community outreach is perhaps its most remarkable aspect as a non-profit and as a film festival. After programming has been completed a multitude of community groups are approached to co-present screenings based on the content of film and the varied group(s) own advocacy prerogatives. With more than 35 co-presenters, Frameline’s allies varied from the Black Coalition on AIDS, other local film festivals, SFILGBT Community Center, Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, and others. The closing-night party, held at Terra, offered a perfect illustration of this. At that event, the “Sisterz of the Underground,” a female collective committed to building a positive hip-hop community in San Francisco, entertained partygoers with some break dancing and krumpin.
Screening on Pink Saturday, the day before gay pride, was “Hellbent.” Take the archetypal (or cliché depending on how you look at it) roles of your slasher film and then prescribe them to a to gay equivalent and you have the gist of this film. The surprise comes in director Paul Etheredge-Ouzts delivery. “Hellbent” manages to keep things fresh, funny, sexy, and scary (not to mention bloody). All attributes which most in the slasher film genre can rarely claim. The street party afterward was as crazy as Pink Saturday inevitably is in the Castro. Those fortunate enough to have an invite made way to Frameline’s party at Gold’s Gym, which was festive but a bit hazardous when booze meets low lighting and low level gym equipment.
Closing the festival was Angela Robinson‘s light-hearted and enjoyable “D.E.B.S.” While introducing the film, Robinson noted that on the director’s commentary on the “Bound” DVD, the Wachowski brothers recount that nothing would ever equal their Frameline screening in the Castro Theater. Robinson’s anecdote couldn’t be more accurate. The Castro Theatre stands as a landmark of history and early movie houses that inspire a sense of awe. Complete with an organist in the evenings, the experience of visiting this theater is something within itself. Fill the theater with an open-minded crowd, celebrating their solidarity of diversity and that expression on the big screen and you have the potential for one (or many) moving experiences. Because when it comes down to it, the San Francisco International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Film Festival succeeds as a celebration of expression, community, and the audience.