[EDITORS NOTE FROM INDIEWIRE: This is the first in a regular series of articles that will take a critical look at the state of contemporary queer cinema. In developing this column, indieWIRE turned to New York City based writers Michael Koresky and Chris Wisniewski, inviting them to take a sort of “he said, he said” approach to discussing queer films.]
Michael Koresky: Surveying the landscape of queer cinema has become increasingly difficult in recent years. Where there was once a thriving independent gay-lesbian film scene — confident enough in itself to exist on film culture’s fringes, populated with genuinely outcast movies that didn’t have their sights set on wider audiences — there seems to be an increasing disinterest among viewers in seeking out smaller films simply because of gay content.
Many would point to the outsized, mainstream success of Brokeback Mountain as the turning point (after which viewing gay cinema as cultural marginalia no longer seemed sufficient), yet to me the shift seems much greater than this, due more to changing attitudes at large than anything else, not to mention the ready availability of gay content on cable channels like Logo and Here!. If homosexuality has become something approaching mainstream, then why should gay movies still be relegated to those third-rate specialty houses that seem like porn-era holdovers? In some places, we’re already allowed to get good and married, so why can’t we get good movies as well?
For this, our first column about where queer cinema’s at, and possibly where it’s headed, we could think of no better place to start than the films selected for this month’s slate of LGBT festivals (from San Francisco’s recent Frameline and last month’s NewFest in New York to Los Angeles’s upcoming Outfest). If there’s been any impression from the films we saw this year, it would be that reality has, with some exception, trumped fiction, but more significantly, the best films were those that dared, in this so-called “post-gay” climate, to remind us that all is not necessarily alright, whether in governmental policy (Ask Not), with the continued practice of safe sex (Sex Positive), or, most dramatically, under Islamic law (Be Like Others, A Jihad for Love) While I adored the festival’s romantic, inspiring centerpiece Chris & Don: A Love Story, a documentary about the decades-long romance between Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood, currently in limited release, I most admired those filmmakers who weren’t ready to hang up their activist hats just yet.
Chris Wisniewski: There certainly wasn’t anything “post-gay” about the best nonfiction films of these festivals. “Ask Not,” for example, reminded us that even though we may be poised to put the Bush-Clinton-Bush-era behind us, in some arenas we haven’t come that far since 1992. But Ask Not isn’t just a glorified PSA; director Johnny Symons smartly follows a core group of soldiers who put an appealing human face on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” problem (though they still may not be quite enough to fill the movie’s full 73 minutes). “Don’t ask, don’t tell” isn’t just a matter of policy for these people, it affects the lives of those who, for reasons deeply personal and political, have chosen a life of military service.
A few entries skewed too far towards the individual and the anecdotal side of things (Richard Gere’s brother is sweet and all, and his kids are adorable, but it wasn’t enough to hold my interest through all of Tom Keegan’s Out in India). The biggest offender on this front was the formless, self-consciously “hip” Bi the Way, which purported to expose the changing attitudes towards sexual identity among today’s under-30 set. Directors Brittany Blockman and Josephine Decker simply assert that this sea change is taking place — okay, with a little commentary from Dan Savage and Michael Musto — but they seem more interested in their assemblage of bi interviewees, picked seemingly at random from various points around the continental U.S., than they do in asking serious questions about contemporary attitudes towards bisexuality. They devote easily more than ten minutes of screen time to Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette’s ten-year-old son, because (I guess) he’s told his parents that he might decide he’s bisexual one day. It wasn’t exactly edifying.
Tanaz Eshaghian’s Be Like Others, on the other hand, wasn’t simply edifying, it was heartbreaking. Eshaghian’s film examines the lives of pre- and post-operative transsexuals in Iran. An interview with a doctor and cleric give us all of the political backstory we really need: sex changes are permitted under Islamic law, and are therefore legal in the Islamic Republic of Iran (the government will even change a person’s gender on his or her birth certificate). Since homosexuality is not legal, an unspoken ambiguity lies at the heart of Be Like Others — are the people who decide to change their sex transsexual, gay, or simply too effeminate to avoid constant persecution? This ambiguity hangs over every interview Eshaghian conducts and every medical check-up she observes. Shortly before his surgery, one of her subjects admits that he wouldn’t be going through with it if he could be accepted as he was in Iranian society. The moment is devastating, and it suggests that Be Like Others, the strongest film I saw from these festivals, isn’t “post-gay,” but it may be “pre-gay.”
All of this raises an interesting question: what makes a queer movie “queer” in the first place? Click here to read all of this first edition of Michael Koresky and Chris Wisniewski’s Queer Notebook.