“There sure are a lot of straights in fanny packs,” I thought to myself as I boarded the Norwegian Breakaway for my gay film festival at sea. I’d never been on a cruise, but I had been to a film festival – usually fewer fanny packs. As it turned out, six days and seven nights on a luxury cruise liner with water slides, buzzing slot machines, and hot tubs straining under the weight of relaxing retirees, was in fact an ideal setting for discovering the up and coming voices of independent queer cinema.
In its fifth year, Pride of the Ocean is an LGBTQ film festival aboard the Norwegian Breakaway, a cruise ship so massive that Bermuda had to build it its own dock. I was offered a cabin in return for writing about the
experience. Roughly 1300 nautical miles, 22 films, and 8 plates of lox later, I give you my seven-day recap of my time at Pride of the Ocean, “the film festival for people who love cruising.”
I was asked if I wanted to bring “anyone, significant other?” Never one to accept discrimination for being single, I ignored the comma and brought a friend. I’ve known Buzz (a family nickname) since middle school, a fellow writer with a boisterous laugh and keen eye for the absurd.
The Sunday we set sail, or “embark”, we are running late. The ship takes off from Midtown, a place most New Yorkers avoid at all costs. We have a laissez-faire attitude about the cruise. We prefer travel by carpool, not floating casino. Is there security? We don’t really have to be three hours early as suggested, do we? We burst into shocked laughter as we pull up to the massive ship, topped with three water slides and a ropes course. The security lady scolds us: “I got a question, why you so late?” We smile at a cute gay couple in front of us before one begins flirting with Buzz. I look around at families in matching Hawaiians. “This doesn’t seem like a gay cruise.” She consoles me, “they probably sold some tickets to straights to fill up the empty rooms.”
Before we have time to unpack, cruise director Julie hustles us to the fire drill over the intercom. We shuffle into drill station 7—an auditorium—surrounded by a distinctly “normie” crowd. No gays, no freaks. We’re not in Kansas, so to speak. I point out two weirdos, a pony-tailed man and his pink haired wife. (She turns out to be a grump. You just never know.) We see one hunky gay across the room—it turns out to be Swedish filmmaker Casper Andreas, whose short—“A Last Farewell”—is playing the festival.
It’s sinking in that I might not be cruising on this cruise (not the way I imagined.) “It’s not possible I got on the wrong ship, is it?” I ask a guy at guest services, who stares at me blankly. I mention, “Pride of the Ocean,” and a second guy runs to get another guy, who tells me there is a cocktail party in ten minutes on deck 16. I hop in the elevator to find the Spice H2O Pool Bar & Grill. I see half naked guys in a hot tub and a projection of Lady Liberty saluting “Our Lesbian Pioneers.” I shudder to imagine butches in bonnets, but breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve found my people.
In addition to screenings of their short films, ten early to mid-career filmmakers were invited on the cruise as part of the Cineslam workshop; which includes lectures from various industry professionals, roundtables on material in progress, and, of course, a free cruise. “Nothing is free,” insists John Scagliotti, Executive Director of the festival, “the program, if they get selected, is free…[but] they work, it’s a scholarship and it’s educational.”
I stumble into the Spiegel Tent, circus themed, for the first screening of shorts by the Cineslam filmmakers. I am tickled pink by Bryan Horch’s deliciously campy comedy, “Spooners,” which puts its uptight protagonist through the most absurd indignities imaginable while mattress shopping as a gay man. I am quite taken with an animated film by Montreal based filmmaker Iris Moore. “Beyond the Mirror’s Gaze” is a whimsical exploration of gender that imagines a dream world where one could open a closet full of body parts and take one’s pick. Moore’s figures dance across the screen with jolly aplomb, swapping bouncy boobs for petite ones, and transforming lips into hearts into roses.
I meet a sweaty Buzz post-Zumba and head up to the pool deck for a swim. The pool is too warm to be refreshing and I think it’s made of salt water, and it’s crowded with fans of a band butchering the Black Eyed Peas. We are surrounded by a vacation crowd of all ages, shapes, and sizes. We exchange bewildered glances amidst buckets of Coors Light, bikini-clad moms dancing with piña coladas, and twenty-five dollar towel rentals. Where are we, and how did we get here?
We head to The Manhattan Room, one of five complimentary dining rooms, for a group dinner with the Pride of the Ocean participants. The Manhattan Room feels like an enormous nightclub sans entertainment, like a cheap
imitation of a 1940s supper club my grandparents frequented. We sit with a group of young people whom we learn belong to hunky Swede Casper, including Diane, who winks and says she is newly single. Savvy to the rules of complimentary cruise dining, she orders double appetizers. Danny, impressively sloshed for 5:30 pm, orders three shrimp scampis.
There is a couple at our table fighting in hushed voices, eventually they excuse themselves, leaving behind untouched plates of steak tartare. “Someone asked when they were getting married,” says the boy with
braces who looks eighteen but is apparently old enough to be drinking red wine with his steak as he gossips about his friends. He gushes about Casper’s husband, Dr. Turner, who is a fabulous dermatologist and was a great comfort to him when he needed a mole removed near his eye. Diane offers me a taste of her crab cakes.
We wake up to the gentle knock of complimentary room service: fresh fruit and hot coffee. This is how we wake up each day thereafter on the cruise. Each afternoon, we are excited to see what new animal-shaped towel housekeeping has constructed. I attend more screenings while Buzz attends a Rockettes dance class. It brings back bad memories of being told to lose a few and trying to bounce a penny off her hiney.
I don’t smoke, but I bum a cigarette from a couple sitting on the public deck. Linda and Scott have been on many cruises before, they love Adam Lambert, and they were born in Brooklyn but live on Staten Island. Linda reminds me of my Aunt Debbi from Long Island who took me to see Pink at the Nassau Coliseum. As Linda whips out her selfie with Adam—“He knows me by now”—I breathe a smoke-filled sigh of relief. These, too, are my people.
We retire to our room to nurse our impending seasickness. Lying in our freshly made bed, gazing out at the endlessly blue ocean and sky, our towel monkey the only witness to our nausea, we remark: “This is hell.” We
meditate, read, and turn in early.
We wake up in Bermuda. At breakfast, I introduce Buzz to Madeleine Olnek and Laura Terruso, two independent filmmakers I befriended at the Pride of the Ocean screenings. Madeleine has a feature hitting the festival circuit called “The Foxy Merkins,” which Laura produced. They’ve just come from a meeting with Scagliotti to talk fundraising. His advice? “Always remember a name. I have a list you won’t believe. I have the name of everybody who’s ever given us money.”
We sit at the Garden Café sipping see-through coffee and discuss distribution, self-producing, and what to do with material that’s been sitting in the can for too long. The Cineslam participants avail themselves of this down time to ask specific questions of the working filmmakers. They share a genuine interest in each other’s work, not simply in schmoozing and exchanging business cards. Where else do these kinds of candid conversations between novice and expert filmmakers happen? Certainly not at Sundance.
Buzz and I begin bickering as soon as we set foot in Bermuda. Turns out, she is allergic to sun and no one in my family can travel without breaking into an anxious sweat. Once free from the stresses of public transportation, we explore Bermuda’s pink beaches, scream way too loud at what I’m sure was a very nice blue crab, and find a shady overhang to camp out in. We hitch a ride into Hamilton, capital of Bermuda, where we eat fried Wahu and
watch the Gombeys pass by in traditional garb and drums.
In my rush to buy a Hawaiian shirt, 100% Rayon (not the good kind), we almost miss the ship. When we make it back on, breathless from our sprint, a woman with a Dark ‘n Stormy in one hand and a beer in the other says, “I’m taking the elevator. I’m on a cruise!” We take the stairs.
It feels like ages since we saw Madeleine and Laura, quickly becoming our new best friends. (The cruise is just like that other gay institution—summer camp—where you make fast friends over bad food and bond complaining about something you are enjoying very much.) We have an impromptu private screening in their room. Madeleine shows “Countertransference,” her short that screened Sundance in 2009, which you can watch here.
Laura shows her NYU thesis film, Iris shows two more animations, and Becky Lane shows footage discussed at breakfast. It strikes me just how supportive an environment this is for filmmakers in process to share their work, make connections and friendships, and really dig in and learn. Pride of the Ocean, the film festival for people who love cruising, is just one surprise after another.
More screenings to pass the time as the ship sails home. “Lavender Hill” is a short film by Austin Bunn and Bob Hazen, which offers a glimpse into one of the longest running communal living spaces of the Back to the Land
movement, which just happened to be queer. Using exquisite 35mm archival footage, juxtaposed with images of the overgrown land as the commune’s aging members revisit their former utopia, the film is a poetic meditation on nostalgia and impermanence, and a celebration of love and community.
Later in the afternoon, we are treated to a screening of “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin,” directed by Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates. (Kates directed “Regarding Susan Sontag,” a Tribeca favorite this year.) Rustin was the openly gay advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and head organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. (There is a delightful still of Rustin at the March, walking casually behind Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, cigarette in mouth.) A man history has relegated to man behind the curtain status; “Brother Outsider” lets a little light shine on Bayard Rustin’s inspiring legacy.
After a closing cocktail party featuring one of the best Liza Minellis I have ever seen, the Pride of the Ocean group gets down at Shaker’s Martini Bar to piano karaoke. I usher everyone into Fat Cats Jazz Club so I can perform “I Got a Woman” with my new friend Big Poppa and his New Orleans jazz band. After all, I couldn’t let the filmmakers take all the glory.
Disembarkation. (Yes, it’s a word.) I awake just in time to see the sun rising over One World Trade as the ship sails up the Hudson. We pack our bags and head up to the Garden Café for one last plate of lox, herring,
sausage, eggs, fruit, and see through coffee. Once off the ship, I get vertigo. Apparently this is called “sea legs.” My body knows what my heart won’t admit; I’m going to miss that big ‘ole ship.