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Who Has The Right To Tell Stories of Marginalization?

Who Has The Right To Tell Stories of Marginalization?

At the Q&A follow-up to the Toronto International Film Festival world premiere of “Girls Lost,” the stunning teen fantasy from Alexandra-Therese Keining, the Swedish filmmaker noted the prevalence of transgender representation in today’s media: ‘I wouldn’t say it’s a revolution, but I certainly think that there’s some sort of movement going on right now, and it’s been building up for quite some time. I’m thinking about Caitlyn Jenner, “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent.”’ And she’s right. If each Toronto International Film Festival were to be viewed as a spotlight shone on a year’s capsule of cultural trends, last month’s 40th edition of the fest surely fits the bill. While you might not have been able to rely on TIFF selections for fairy-tale endings in the same vein of the E! Jenner series “I Am Cait,” the stories a public once tended to shy away from are finally present.

“Girls Lost” is, appropriately then, tinged with one of the most pitch-black moods of any film on youthful outcasts. A trio of puberty-stricken Gothenburg gals (played by Tuva Jagell, Wilma Holmén and Louise Nyvall), are the only solace each other has from the prison sentence that is their middle school lives. Regularly terrorized by cruel classmates for manifesting the ‘weird girl’ trope of so many fictions, Stephen King’s “Carrie” doesn’t feel so distant from this tale of torment when it takes a brisk supernatural turn. One night, the inseparables plant mysterious seeds which beget a glowing flower; fed-up with the pain of dull routine and yearning for any new life that may come their way, they drink from its nectar. 

The effect is immediate, and Kim, Bella and Momo are magically transformed into teenage boys. But the change is not permanent, and after a single night of bliss at a soccer field where the three are taken in as ‘one of the guys,’ the metamorphosis wears off and the girls must submit back to scholarly hell: shoves in the hallway, locker room ridicule. Just like a drug, the temptation to morph into an appearance which grants one the benefits of male privilege is ever-strong, and the suckling from the flower — which Keining views as a metaphor for growing up and finding one’s sexuality — becomes a regular affair. The fun and games soon come to a halt, however, and the movie proceeds to examine what sort of fate befalls an individual grown addicted to being on top, to being a boy.

“It’s almost like an illusion,” the director told the audience in Toronto. “She’s chasing so much after her true identity it almost becomes like a nightmare. Because it’s unattainable, she can’t reach what she wants and needs.”

With the arrival of “Girls Lost,” openly lesbian Keining has crafted a heart-wrenchingly personal coming-of-age picture, even if it happens to be based on an award-winning novel. While she’s adapted the book’s original elements, it’s evident her outsider experience informed Kim’s struggle for self-acceptance, or the complicated crush that arises between the two heroines. At its ambiguous end, soundtracked by the harrowing vocal chords of Fever Ray, nothing but harsh reality is capable of plunging the depths of this fantastical film. 

This year, the Toronto International Film Festival ran rampant on movies with gender and sexual identity as their primary plot points. As /bent’s Peter Knegt witnessed there was a nearly unprecedented roster of decidedly mainstream LGBT content unleashed upon the Venice and Toronto festivals last month. We saw double with Tom Hardy as gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray in “Legend,” but even well-intentioned performances from our most cherished actors weren’t enough to lift our highest-anticipated from the slums of mediocrity — as was the case in Julianne Moore and Ellen Page’s Lifetime-worthy fight-for-rights fiasco, “Freeheld” (out in theaters today).

My mother, a sucker for all things categorized ‘Family’ or billing Susan Sarandon, texted me as I was entering the cinema for “About Ray,” envious that I’d be able to catch it before her. It is, essentially, a film about the plights of motherhood, with Elle Fanning’s transition from Ramona to Ray serving as more an inciting incident than a resounding motive (Toronto’s moderator even gave the director a pat on the back for her “beautiful movie about three women.”) Another couple words to set my mom’s ears a-perk are “Oscar buzz,” and so she expressed similar interest to see “The Danish Girl,” a shoo-in for a slot at the Academy Awards due to its classically-composed biopic status. That’s not to mention Eddie Redmayne’s predictably astonishing evocation of trans figurehead Lili Elbe, whose show is stolen by Alicia Vikander’s Gerda, the woman who did not ceaselessly stay by Elbe’s side as the movie romantically implies.

So here are two pretty non-queer directors, Gaby Dellal and Tom Hooper, making movies about previously taboo topics which my mother is now mightily eager to see. And good for them! Honestly! It would be unfair not to commend them for their forays into the netherworld of reaching an audience, and ugh, market, with such unreliable subject matter as transgender narratives. It’s only a slight shame that queer audiences are so easily able to see past their agreeably-produced, yet pop-pandering facades. 

The question casting a shadow upon these variably-received efforts, then, is one of authenticity. Who has the right to tell stories of marginalization? Moreover, who possesses the ability to shoot them out into the stratosphere with the ardor and intimacy they deserve, and better yet, require?

There’s so far from a clear answer. Roland Emmerich (59/gay/LA), the birther of blockbusters and epics, sought to take a brick to the windows of his soul by making a “personal project” for once, as so many peers had oft urged him to do. The result became the film we all love to hate, stone cold “Stonewall,” which disastrously missed the point by omitting every key figure of the queer-rights riots in favor of an America that can only swallow a gay community composed of handsome white men. “Freeheld” also delved into the contemporary LGBT struggle with its portrayal of Jersey officer Laurel Hester’s deathbed appeal for her pension to be transferred to her same-sex partner — the first time Ellen Page has played a gay woman since she came out last year. What the fuck went wrong? 

Susan Wloszczyna wrote on RogerEbert.com about the Oscar race post-TIFF and the salient trend of motion pictures based on historical, if not modern, figures and events. In cinema’s infantile years, pre-1908, newsreel producer Pathé’s catalog conflated “historical scenes” with images of actuality, suggesting there was no significant difference between recording a public event as it happened versus reconstructing a past or current event in a studio. Are we seeing some sort of resurgence? Lest for Marvel clogging, this is the state of the sophisticated side of our times, which is bound to haul in its fair share of accusations of injustice. What hits harder than your story mistold? At the “Son of Saul” Q&A, an elderly Auschwitz survivor in the audience asked an integral and silence-ensuing question, to which first-time filmmaker László Nemes, and Géza Röhrig, the Holocaust film’s star, could barely respond: How can a movie even possibly try to express the unutterable horror that living and dying through Auschwitz was?

“It could have been you or me.” These were the words of Magnus von Horn after screening “The Here After,” another Swedish standout of the fest, which follows a teen re-entering society after years locked away for murdering his girlfriend. It’s doesn’t have a direct real-life basis, yet it happened to be one of the realest films I sat through. Is it simpler to imagine our championing post-mortem biopic, or our terrifying truths? It was make-believe, this gray and rainy TIFF, that held its own up to the lines of true story bait competing for a hook. 

At its close, after a festival wrought with attempts at the genuine, attempts at shining light on the darkened, it was a pair of magical-realist films that best wore their hearts on their chewed-up sleeves. An alter-ego to Keining’s “Girls Lost,” Canadian Stephen Dunn’s debut “Closet Monster” additionally dealt with homegrown youth on the search for identity against a hopeless backdrop. Dunn was brought to tears several times throughout the post-premiere discussion, painfully reminiscing about a hate crime that occurred in his hometown while he was little, a means of inspiration and subsequent demon-purging for his genre-bending bildungsroman. These two films came from a place of heartfelt alienation, the place where others wanted to appear like they did. The others took the leap, pushed the all-important conventional boundaries, and yes, by every mean possessed the right to be made. They had the skin, I’m just not sure I always felt the heartbeat.

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