18-29 March 2009 (1)
In 2009, the Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF) can – and does – still boast of being the second biggest film festival in Melbourne, quite an accomplishment in a city where, barring a summery spell hanging over from Xmas/New Year, there is scarcely a day when there isn’t at least one film festival of some sort in full swing. This surely says something for the cinephilic strength of the city’s queer community – or rather, communities, for there is nothing like a festival such as this to illustrate just how diverse a group the queer community really is. The proof of that diversity at MQFF is not so much in how all the various GLBTIQ peoples are brought together, whereupon, en masse, their diversity is suddenly so apparent, but rather in how the festival offers certain films and programs which will demonstrably only appeal to, and hence in fact isolate, particular sections of that wider community. Which is to say that, in a way, the MQFF is really several concurrent festivals, each pandering to the proclivities of different queer niche groups, with, to be sure, points where the interests of those groups intersect, but also with points where they almost wholly don’t. Of the latter, for example, a strong case can be made for Champion (Shine Louise Houston, 2008), a lesbian skin flick promoted as such and which, further, came with a bold-type warning in the program that it “contains explicit sex scenes and depictions of SM and butch/femme role-play which may offend some viewers”; unsurprisingly, a full house of exclusively womenfolk attended it (albeit not all went the distance – the film’s extremely lengthy and explicit sex scenes, each presenting, as if with a methodical anthropological agenda, a new variation upon lesbian sexual role-play, grew very tedious and left one wishing rather more screen-time had been given to the boxing-related framing story!)
I felt it then incumbent upon me to try to see as broad a cross-section of the festival’s offerings as possible, in the interests of best representing in this report a sense of the breadth and overall quality of the festival’s programming. I would, however, be lying if I were to say that I, like all festival-goers, wasn’t drawn to certain areas of the program rather more than to others, which, for example, meant I didn’t rush to see Jeffrey Schwarz’s ultimately well-received Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon (2008), a documentary on gay porn icon Jack Wrangler, whereas I did see the aforementioned Champion. It is very likely that, of the two, I saw far the lesser film. But, as the make-up of the audiences attending any given festival session often amply illustrated, all MQFF visitors are driven by different imperatives, indexable in each instance to some extent to their own sexual preferences. Hopefully my imperatives won’t, here on in, prove too transparent or parochial. Call me an optimist…
Recent programming practices have favoured something fluffy and more for the boys on Opening Night, with something often a little harder edged and more for the girls come Closing Night. This trend carried on into this year’s festival, with the very fluffy Opening Night film being the rather underwhelming and two-paced Were the World Mine (Tom Gustafson, 2008), a sluggish starter that did, thankfully, pick up considerably in the second half, wherein a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream serves as the locus for a wholesale queering of a small town, after the diffident gay young fellow cast as the play’s lead comes over all puckish indeed on discovering the secret to pulling Cupid stunts at will…
Were that MQFF might revert to the fine example it set three years ago when it kicked off with that gritty other Capote film, Infamous (Douglas McGrath, 2006). That night proved you can still throw a great bash if the film beforehand is actually worth talking about at the party afterwards. Were the World Mine under-served the sense of occasion in other respects too; the event, as usual, was held at Melbourne’s venerable Art Deco Astor Cinema, where justice was not done to one of the biggest of big screens in projecting the film off video; vision – and sound too, for that matter – were poor. Were the World Mine was even more underwhelming than it should have been, although I suppose that was all forgotten barely 20 minutes later once everyone was at least the one drink in and enjoying a fine old knees-up with plentiful nibbles…
On to the program proper, then.
Far the lesser of two so-called “Centrepiece Presentations”, the German film Mein Freund aus Faro (To Faro, Nana Neul, 2008) tells the story of Mel (Anjorka Strechel), a boyish young woman who assumes the mistaken identity of handsome, Portuguese “Miguel” on colliding in her BMW with a couple of pretty young hitch-hikers, one of whom soon takes a shine to ‘him’. This invariably leads to a web that takes quite some disentangling, and not before things look sure to take a turn for the ghastly, à la Kimberly Peirce’s far superior Boys Don’t Cry (1999). It may even be that concern for Mel/Miguel’s welfare is felt at all strongly only because of the precedent of poor Brandon Teena’s horrifying demise as dramatised and widely seen in Peirce’s film and well-known also through the 1998 documentary The Brandon Teena Story (d. Susan Muska & Gréta Olafsdóttir).
The other “Centrepiece Presentation” was the tremendous Portuguese film A Outra Margem (The Other Side, Luís Filipe Rocha, 2007). Ricardo, as beautifully played by the vaguely Hugo Weaving-esque Filipe Duarte, is a professional drag queen in Lisbon. For 16 years he’s been estranged from his family, who live in a small village, far afield, that he ran away from on his wedding day. After a failed suicide attempt – a response to the recent suicide of his boyfriend – Ricardo is visited in hospital by his sister, who takes Ricardo back to the village. There he meets his nephew for the first time, a charming young man with Down syndrome, and from the example of whose joie de vivre he – and others – will yet learn a thing or two.
I found The Other Side truly affecting, beautifully paced, handsomely shot, and very well acted.
Other Narrative Feature Films
Probably not so much for its content and (admittedly somewhat bent) sensibility, but more for the gay iconhood of its director, Madonna’s Filth and Wisdom (2008) got a guernsey at MQFF. I feared the worst… but was soon charmed by this unruly vehicle for rambunctious and charismatic Gogol Bordello frontman, Eugene Hutz. It’s a sprawling tale of grungy lives grainily portrayed, as led by a gaggle of young, wayward London-dwellers, including Hutz’s Ukrainian bedroom philosopher/band leader A.K., who engages in a bit of comically unglamorous BDSM – sometimes roping in his lady housemates – to pay the bills, when he’s not directly addressing the camera, that is. It’s all really rather good fun, even down to Richard E. Grant’s sad-sack blind poet throwing hissy fits over the futility of – everything, really.
Of Insatiable (Jessie Kirby, 2008), an Irish horror film with very little queer content anyway: probably the less said, the better. Big screen cannibalism has seldom been so drab and boring; I was surprised that such a desperately dreary film was included in the program presumably just on the basis that two of its central characters are young women with the hots for one another. And maybe the film wasn’t even quite finished yet?
Happily, Drifting Flowers (2008), Taiwanese director Zero Chou’s follow up to Spider Lilies, which screened at last year’s MQFF, is at least as good-looking a film as her previous effort but is far more coherent and accomplished, if not still without some structural flaws and pretensions. It does, however, cover a lot of emotional terrain across three semi-connected, sequentially presented depictions of dramatic stages in a variety of lesbian relationships. The first story told is that of a burgeoning romance between a blind singer and her mannish accordionist, with the singer’s little sister running green-eyed interference. The next, the most touching, involves a reunion between the aging participants of a long-ago sham marriage, with one now HIV-positive, the other stricken with Alzheimer’s disease and convinced that the former is in fact her dead, butch ex-lover returned to her. The third is a pocket rites-of-passage story revolving around one of the first story’s characters’ earliest assertions of a gender identity willfully contrary to her family, and her family business’, wishes. Overall, Drifting Flowers proved 90-odd minutes quite well spent.
Céline Sciamma’s languorous feature debut Naissance des pieuvres (Water Lilies, 2007) is a coming-of-age reverie with more than a touch of the Sofia Coppolas and van Sants about it, set around the hormonally-turbocharged milieu of competitive adolescent synchronised swimming. In the outer-Parisian boondocks, shy, awkward Marie (Pauline Acquart) develops a crush on the town bike in the swimming team (Adèle Haenel); perhaps though, the latter’s slatternliness – and even her heterosexuality – could all just be a façade – or, at least, not the full story? Acquart and Haenel are both terrific as they negotiate their characters’ burgeoning relationship’s shifting dynamics, as is Louise Blachère in a thankless role as Marie’s embarrassing best friend. Water Lilies is a lovely piece of work, and marks Sciamma as a talent to watch.
From the vaults
MQFF, year in, year out, is very much a global survey of current-day queer cinematic production, with latterly but a single token feature from yesteryear programmed wholly for its kitsch appeal. This year that feature was the preposterous, histrionic American lesploitation melodrama That Tender Touch (Russel Vincent, 1969). Festival director Lisa Daniel addressed the full house at the start of the session, as she is often wont to do, in this instance taking the unusual step of encouraging crowd participation from the mostly female audience. Alas, the most vocal of this enjoyably risible film’s off-screen ‘participants’ were three young fellows sitting immediately behind me; theirs was an utterly inane, over-voluble commentary running throughout the whole film – how cruel Fate, to have bestowed such a will towards ostentatious waspishness on three so young and pretty without too bestowing a commensurate level of wit! They were very irritating indeed, proving that contrived audience participation can really backfire… Notwithstanding their gormless interference, then – well, what of the film? As with all the best lesploitation, it was oh-so clearly made neither by somebody who knew (or cared to reflect) the first thing about actual lesbian life, nor was it made for a lesbian market – which of course worked only to its camp advantage. For an American feature of the time, it was surprisingly exhibitionistic, and Russ Meyer tragics must have relished seeing Sue Bernard in the lead role as the tormented, self-loathing lesbian-in-denial, Terry (she was the tormented Linda in Meyer’s revered 1965 cult colossus Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), as well as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ (Meyer, 1970) Dolly Read’s small part as a ditsy maid.
Australia! Australia! Australia!
No Australian feature films made the cut for this year’s festival but Australian filmmakers nonetheless did still enjoy some representation at the 2009 MQFF…
“Oz Shorts” & “Oz Docs”
The “Oz Shorts” package was a mixed bunch of Australian-made short fiction films and documentaries with a clear standout in Rhys Graham’s fascinating and provocative Skin, one part of a three-part whole that has elsewhere been presented entire as Anatomy (producers: Michael McMahon and Tony Ayres [director of The Home Song Stories, 2007]); here, the other two parts, Heart and Muscle, curiously appeared in the separate “Oz Docs” program.
Skin is concerned with the long-standing relationship between artist eX De Medici and portly middle-aged gay man Geoff O, whose body is a most extraordinary testament to De Medici’s great talents, to his love of indigenous botany and to a very high pain threshold indeed! – but what to do with this incredible artwork after Geoff’s death?… Heart (dir: Amy Gebhardt) and Muscle (dir: Natasha Gadd) were both strong works too; the former concerning the newly re-activated relationship between another celebrated artist, Jacqui Stockdale, and her muse and ex-lover, Rose Mastroianni, while Muscle profiles Acrobat, an amazing itinerant circus troupe, one of whose members has HIV.
Outside of Skin, much of the “Oz Shorts” package was bad-to-middling, barring The Uncertainty Principle (Jacqui Schulz, 2007), a well-wrought and poignant short in which a meeting in a doctor’s waiting room between two women, one born as such and miserable and the other only a recent convert but ostensibly full of life, leads to additional encounters which cast each other’s travails in wholly different lights. And Kris Cross (dir: Sarah Spillane), an unfinished documentary on a lively, mid-transition transman, is also interesting, principally because stories such as his almost can’t help but be interesting – and because he’s a charmer – but its unfinishedness is a little too appreciable.
Shorts & Docos from Farther Afield
Documentaries are typically a highlight of any MQFF program. And this year, as is often the case, documentaries on gender-variant folk were particularly strong. A curious observation: gender docos at MQFF reach a small crowd principally constituted of genderqueers and their friends, with the majority of other MQFF-goers ignoring them. However, the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) often screens films – documentaries and fiction films both – concerned with transgender issues, and manages to fill mid-sized cinemas with them. MIFF has clearly established that there’s reliably a general audience out there interested in the telling of such inherently dramatic narratives as those belonging to transgender folk, yet at MQFF, such films almost paradoxically only ever play to a small, niche audience. I find this somewhat irksome and frustrating – but whose fault is it? I for one don’t know.
Australian filmmaker Rohan Spong’s T is for Teacher (2009) is a near-feature length documentary soberly conveying the experiences of four teachers, in various parts of the United States, who each have sought to transition from male to female while in the employ of the US school system. Spong interviews each of the teachers at some length, along with colleagues and students, as well as capturing the thoughts of some troubled parents, a few local clergy and miscellaneous other busybodies. Happily, I left this well-made film with a certain amount of optimism for the lot of my fellow transgendered folk, not a feeling historically engendered by the majority of trans- issues documentaries.
Further cause for optimism came with Ema, Lo Haragti Et Habat Shelach (Mom, I Didn’t Kill Your Daughter, Orna Ben Dor, 2007), a terrific 50-minute long Israeli documentary following a loving couple of transmen who are each at different, but both highly dramatic, points in their transitional journeys. It’s a very warm, and sometimes very funny, film, with two greatly likeable leads: in extroverted, heavyset video diarist Lior, soon to go under the knife, and the shy, slender Yuval, who’s bracing himself to become a test-case in Israeli law in seeking change to the official records of his personal particulars.
And then there was Odd One Out, Very Normal Really: From Lucas to Luus, only 16 minutes long but quite the most joyous trans doco I have ever seen. Director Charlotte Hoogakker’s 2005 short focuses on the pre-adolescent transition of its titular subject, and, in a masterstroke, canvasses not the thoughts of a single adult but rather only those of Luus’ peers at her school in a small Dutch village. If ever there was proof that children are inherently accepting of difference, before the prejudicial and doctrinaire ramblings of jaundiced adults can sully their thinking any, then this is it. A wonderful accomplishment.
But what would a MQFF be without at least one really angry, polemical genderqueer doco? L’Ordre des Mots (Binding Words, Cynthia Arra & Melissa Arra, 2007) fit that bill perfectly, introducing six highly articulate French intersex/genderfuck activists who each relate to camera the battles they have fought – are still fighting – with themselves, with the greater society around them, with the widespread prevalence of reductionist binary thinking, with conservative elements within academia and psychiatry, as well as within French law, which, on the evidence presented in this film, is rather more grotesquely behind the times than I would remotely have expected. We also get to see them in action, successfully disrupting a conference where a famed academic transsexuality-denialist is attempting to hold court. Stirring stuff!
Moving on from gender issues, festival guest Nitzan Gilady’s excellent Jerusalem is Proud to Present (2007) proves there is in fact something that can yet unite fundamentalist Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy City: a common enemy – homosexuals. It’s 2006, and Jerusalem’s grassroots Open House for Pride and Tolerance has its biggest challenge yet immediately ahead of it: to stage a peaceable Pride March through Jerusalem that summer as the centrepiece of that year’s World Pride events. Predictably, they encounter some resistance… ranging from grotesque filibustering in City Hall such that the march might never be officially sanctioned, to incitements to mob violence through widespread pamphleteering and postering. Nitzan Gilady was able to attain terrific access to, and considerable candour from, a number of key antagonists in this story’s protracted, often exasperating, unfolding. And the ultimate message to be gleaned from this film? – apparently, rioting and hate crimes are fit and proper for Him Upstairs to witness in the city deemed the holiest of the holy, yet peaceful expressions of pride in human diversity are not!
Lastly, and only superficially more lightheartedy, Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm (Wendy Slick and Emiko Omori, 2007) is not only a fascinating and entertaining look at the recent history of the female orgasm, and at the (marketing of an) extraordinary array of latter day contraptions devised to help induce it, but it’s also an alarming account of once-common knowledge lost: for the female orgasm was far better understood – and celebrated – in mediaeval times than throughout much of the 20th century! Just as alarmingly, underneath all the abundant good humour brought to this film by its terrific array of sex-positive female talking heads, there is a slow-burning narrative undercurrent demonstrating how female sexual empowerment can to this day be considered a criminal provocation by the US’s phallocentric legal system. For it transpires that, even now, in some American states, criminal charges and massive fines can be dished out to any woman whom should dare to educate other women, or whom especially should dare to disseminate certain apparatuses, such that other women might be able to arrive at their own orgasmic self-determination. Utter madness.
Oh well, it’s time to step off the soapbox and begin to tie this thing up.
Affinity (Tim Fywell, 2008), an inevitable, made-for-television adaptation of Sarah “Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith” Waters’ second novel, made for a crowd-pleasing Closing Night film. While its small-screen production values were sometimes appreciable, this ripping yarn of spiritualist charlatanry and escapology set against a backdrop of repressive Victorian sexual mores was nonetheless compelling and enjoyable, in no small part due to intelligent scripting from prolific British period drama specialist Andrew Davies. Performances were strong too, with Anne Madeley excellent as Margaret, the tormented, well-to-do, do-gooding lesbian patsy overfrequently calling in on Zoe Tapper’s seductive, cunning-beyond-her-years jailbird, Selina. And while its denouement would not have come as much of a surprise to many in attendance, so popular is Waters’ work especially amongst the lesbian community, it still pulled off a very satisfying resolution.
It’s Almost a Wrap
Turns out my path forged through the 19th MQFF program was one less trodden, so I feel it behooves me to make mention of various of the festival’s Audience Choice Award-winning films, many otherwise absent from my account of the festival. Ella Lemhagen’s Swedish gay parenting dramedy Patrik 1,5 (Patrik Age 1.5, 2008) won the audience pick for Foreign Language Feature; glam cross-cultural lesbian romance I Can’t Think Straight (2008) won Best Feature for director Shamim Sarif. The award for Best Documentary went to Jerusalem is Proud to Present, while Best Short Film went to Donkey Girl (Ties Schenk, 2006). Best Australian Short Film was deemed to be the excellent The Uncertainty Principle, which also picked up the Emerging Filmmaker Award for Best Short Australian Queer Film. Lastly, Galactic Sex Wars (2008) picked up “Best Australian Short Queer Film in Celluloid Casserole” for director Robbie McEwan.
Additionally, strong word of mouth let me know after the fact that I was a fool to have missed Chris & Don: A Love Story, Guido Santi & Tina Mascara’s 2007 documentary on longtime partners Christopher “Cabaret” Isherwood and American painter Don Bachardy, as well as the Mexican narrative feature Quemar las naves (Burn the Bridges, Francisco Franco, 2007). Were that they (and other films) could have been screened a second time… a fate I hope to be in store for more of the higher quality films to screen in MQFF’s landmark 20th installment next year. On which note…
This writer would always love to see a greater retrospective component to MQFF, and I think next year’s 20th anniversary presents a golden opportunity to implement just that, whether in casting an eye over some of the festival’s greatest hits and misses dating back to its modest 1991 debut, or, inspired by, say, this year’s single retrospective feature’s gleeful lesploitativity, in screening a whole focus on films of that particular tawdry ilk. When I think of all the great, delirious, and often even voraciously pro-queer sexuality (while, yes, still somewhat prurient) 1960s-70s Eurotrash churned out by such arthouse-grindhouse greats as Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, Harry Kümel and Walerian Borowczyk (all males, natch…) that could be assembled and programmed under the lesploitation rubric – best I don’t now additionally get started on the potential for that to cross over with choice selections from the wonderfully unsavoury women in prison and nunsploitation canons… Oh but that’s quite enough of that, now! Lest I let slip any further indicators that my MQFF coverage could ever be the least bit in thrall to my own idiosyncratic… inclinations, just as might that of any other Jo(e) Festival Reporter, I’ll end this queer film festival report, which did at its outset aspire to some fool pretensions to a distanced objectivity and universality … now.
Melbourne Queer Film Festival website: http://www.mqff.com.au
- As with recent years, encore screenings of popular festival films were programmed for the day after Closing Night. These films were Affinity, Ciao (Yen Tan, 2008), I Can’t Think Straight and Dog Tags (2008). Affinity I will cover later in this report; I Can’t Think Straight will get another mention too. Dog Tags’ director Damion Dietz was a guest at the festival; I heard nothing very positive about his film, however.