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Freedom, Defiance, Shame, Courage, and Justice for All: 6 to Watch from Outfest

Freedom, Defiance, Shame, Courage, and Justice for All: 6 to Watch from Outfest

Bookended by two very full weekends, the 27th annual Outfest concluded on Sunday after eleven days of screenings, tributes, panels, conversations, receptions and parties. For many guests the passage of Prop 8 was a popular way to contextualize their experience at the festival, and already there are signals that the fight for Equality in 2010 is the major focus of the community here. By this weekend, no one was talking about “Bruno,” probably because there were so many great alternatives at the festival, and possibly because no one cares now that it’s opened and belly-flopped. More buzz-worthy was a sneak peek of the second episode of “Glee,” and at a panel with the cast and creators, actor Cory Monteith made a favorable impression with his charming wit.

Outfest presented its diverse lineup of films split mostly between the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and the Fairfax theater on the perimeter of West Hollywood and the REDCAT downtown at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. In a sprawling regional city like LA it’s hard for any one cultural event to dominate the entire landscape, and the REDCAT is a very cool space, but the 25-minute commute (with no traffic) from the DGA may have distanced it too far to fully integrate those films into the rest of the festival. “Fearsssssss” hissed the animated snake in the official festival bumper in front of each film. It was spelled out that way onscreen, but he pronounced it “fierce,” and he was definitely gay.

At the awards brunch on Sunday, prizes were given to several films that represent an evolution in gay filmmaking – specifically, a more broad definition of “gay film.” Here is more about some of the highlights from this year:

“Mississippi Damned”

Developed at Film Independent’s Producers Lab in 2007 and Directors Lab in 2008, this film is an emotionally devastating debut from writer/director Tina Mabry. Based on true events, Mabry chronicles a black family’s bitter existence as they struggle with a seemingly inescapable legacy of poverty, race, class, and abuse. Not as austere as “Ballast” and not as brutal as “Precious,” this film falls somewhere in between and is more accessible than both. Like those films, “Mississippi Damned” is decidedly set in its place and this feels like an authentic representation of that specific milieu (although, it was shot in North Carolina for budgetary reasons). Expertly directed and beautifully shot and scored, featuring unforgettable performances by a tremendous ensemble cast this a film of rare accomplishment. There’s nothing especially gay about this film, at least in the traditional sense – the one gay character in the film is a secondary character (but by no means minor), and her lesbian experience doesn’t get the same attention as the other characters in the second half of the film, but her personal struggle and heartbreak is unforgettable. As the “gay narrative” evolves, it’s refreshing and encouraging to see a film like this at a festival like this.

“Choosing Children” (1984)

This landmark documentary from 1984 profiles six lesbian families and examines the legal structures that complicate their efforts to formalize their arrangements and protect their rights as parents. Beautifully restored by Outfest and the UCLA Film and Television archive through the Outfest Legacy Project, this film plays less like a cultural artifact and more like a prophecy. The lesbians are strong, fearless, working class women who represent their community with pride and defiance at a time when homophobia made it hard for them as feminist women to challenge the existing definitions of parental roles and gender roles. Filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner said they were “personally grappling with questions about the issue and the film made it possible to talk about and explore the issues.” The six families were chosen from personal ads in national gay newspapers and feminist papers. At a post-screening panel, one of the lesbian families was present with their now grownup daughter who has two young daughters of her own. She said she is now “proud of who her family is but at one point felt ashamed.” The filmmakers are hoping to raise money for a DVD re-release of the film. UCLA’s Bob Rosen remarked, “preservation involves – on one hand – saving the past for the future, but the payoff is in the present. When you see a film like this from the past it gives you the courage to move into the future.”

“Fig Trees”

Acclaimed Canadian filmmaker/artist John Greyson originally conceived this “video opera” for a gallery installation and then made this daring and surreal theatrical version that won him a Teddy Award at Berlin earlier this year. The film fluidly intercuts documentary footage of AIDS activists Tim McCaskell and Zackie Achmat with a fictional musical by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson portraying the men. Greyson combines arresting imagery, provocative musical choices, and inventive storytelling to make an unforgetable film honoring the efforts of the activists. The bold artistry of this film transcends definition.

Filmmakers James Pellerito and David Barba (“Pop Star on Ice”) with “Prodigal Sons”‘s filmmaker/subject Kim Reed and her brother/subject Marc McKerrow. Photo by Bryan Stamp.

“College Boys Live”

This doc goes behind-the-scenes of a subscriber-based 24/7 live website to follow 6 college-aged gay boys and the gay couple who owns the house where they live together and play/work. The boys come from troubled backgrounds – each one seeking refuge, or a step-up, or the adoration of online voyeurs, or a surrogate family for 6 months. Six months is the term of the “contract” and it’s just long enough for filmmaker George O’Donnell to expose the ugly truth of this scenario. The gay couple who act as den mothers and collect the “$20,000 per month” income generated by the subscriptions are great subjects, too, but hardly redeemable (they can’t even justify their position without long “thoughtful” pauses – long enough to give the audience a place to laugh). At one point they invite a subscriber who is obsessed with one of the boys to move in with them. The production value isn’t great, but the film is compelling, dramatic, surprising, and tragic.

These boys are not in college and probably will not go to college, and for whom the future is not hopeful; and yes it’s like watching a train wreck. But train wrecks are messy and there aren’t many survivors. It’s easy to dismiss this film as an exploitation or guilty pleasure. Television is over run with reality shows that take the same approach and allow audiences entre into worlds not always seen, so that one can escape and often judge the subjects. Because of that, maybe it’s okay to watch this film and not take it so seriously. It’s easy to want to forget that these boys have very real problems and their struggles will continue and likely worsen. But it’s really a wake-up call to the gay community, and should serve as a cautionary tale. These boys represent a demographic of the gay community that seems to be shrinking as it becomes more “acceptable” to be gay; or, at least a demographic that has become inconvenient to the conversation. Like all communities, there are certain class distinctions that divide the community. Is it easier to be a gay youth today than it was 20 years ago? Not for these boys.

“Prodigal Sons”

Sure it’s not a discovery here (it’s been playing domestic and international festivals since it’s premiere at Telluride last September), and it’s not quite a homecoming (it screened at AFI where it’s hard to standout as an indie documentary among all the high profile international films and glossier Indiewood fare) but the film and its “star,” director/subject Kim Reed, fit in and standout at Outfest. Last year she was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film for this debut feature doc which explores issues of identity and acceptance through the dysfunctional relationship between a transgender woman and her adopted brother whose quest to find his birth family opens the door to many surprises. It’s one of the most acclaimed documentaries of 2009, and although the LA screening at AFI disqualified it for any awards at Outfest, it was one of the most admired and buzzed about films at this festival.

“Two Spirits: Sexuality, Gender, and the Murder of Fred Martinez”

Screened as a work-in-progress (although the film appears to be finished) this subtle and illuminating documentary uses the widely unknown story of the murder of a “nadleehi” Navajo teenage boy to explore the Navajo tradition of recognizing (and honoring) men and women who possess both masculine and feminine traits. Just two years after the murder of Matthew Shepard, and only one state away, the tragic murder of Fred Martinez wasn’t given the same attention by national media, and the filmmaker smartly avoids any overt comparisons. It’s hard to hear the fond recounts of Fred’s short life and the graphic details of his murder (mostly from his mother) and not be saddened and enraged, but more than tell a moving and unfamiliar story, this film possesses a tremendous capacity to advance the current national debate about equality – often reduced to a black-and-white issue – and will challenge the concepts about gender identity. At Fred’s funeral, there are two framed photographs atop his casket – one as a boy and another when he is dressed as a girl, and both are unmistakably the same person.

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