Frameline is a film festival that is flourishing alongside the dramatic changes in queer and LGBT identity politics. The larger, more prominent screenings occur in the Castro neighbourhood, which is famed for being the centre for San Franciscan LGBT politics and activism. Alas the Castro district is also notorious for being conservative and male dominated. I’ve heard many a story about various queers who don’t fit into the ‘Castro clone’ image; feeling alienated and at times bluntly reminded that this is not their space. Other screenings occur in the grungier Mission district with The Roxie and The Victoria theatres and a handful of sessions occur in the East Bay in the Elmwood theatre. While it is labelled as an LGBT film festival, thus reinforcing the rigid gender binary signified by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, the festival over the last few years is becoming queerer, celebrating the grey areas that the realities of sexuality and gender identities bring about. This is evident in the increasing number of mixed gender short packages and the decision to have a film about the sexual awakening of a young trans woman as its opening night.
It is quite an unfortunate trend of late for the standout gay narrative feature films to be of a higher quality than the key lesbian narrative features. The most notable lesbian feature films in the programming were Jamie and Jessie are Not Together (d. Wendy Jo Carlton), or as I preferred to call it “Jessie can do better”, Hannah and the Hasbian (d. Gordon Napier) and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (d. Madeleine Olnek). What still perplexes me about Olnek’s film is the programming slot it was given in the schedule. There was a lot of buzz surrounding this film, as the people behind the film “brought you Frameline favourite shorts Dyke Dollar, Countertransference and Hold Up.” Festival director Jennifer Morris, when introducing the film, claimed this was the funniest lesbian feature ever made. Big call. Why then was this programmed directly during the annual Dyke march? Why would you force your film to compete directly with such a huge community event? It simply makes no sense whatsoever. There were plenty of films that it could have been swapped with, such as the Worldly Affairs shorts program or Going Down in La-La Land (d. Casper Andreas), which screened at the Castro at other times that day. As a result the theatre looked less than half full, which is a great shame. Programming issues aside, the film itself is a delightful tribute to B-grade science fiction films that is heart warming and clever. While I doubt that this film will be heralded as the funniest lesbian feature ever (perhaps fans of Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader or Angela Robinson’s D.E.B.S might have something to say about that), it was most definitely the highlight of the lesbian features.
Jamie and Jessie are Not Together is an offbeat musical comedy that just didn’t quite work. The characterisations of the two leads were uneven, leaving Jessie to be more relatable. This may have been the clever delivery of actress Jessica London-Shields or the lack of development of Jamie’s character, but Jamie just came across as shallow and self-centred, which was further proved when only 5 people showed up to her going away party. Did director Wendy Jo Carlton honestly have so few extras to shoot this party scene? The film would have been a more solid comedy if there weren’t any musical numbers. If your lead cast can’t sing and you are having 30 minute gaps between musical numbers, perhaps you should rethink what genre you want your film to fit into.
Hannah and the Hasbian is a quirky fast paced comedy about Hannah, who wakes up one morning to find out her girlfriend is now heterosexual, or a “hasbian”. The film’s high production values and sublime animated cut scenes make the film an enjoyable viewing, especially considering the low budget. What leaves me uncomfortable is that all cast and most of the crew are heterosexual. This was evident in a few awkward and alienating moments throughout the film, such as when Breigh (the ‘hasbian’) states that her leading motivation for choosing to be heterosexual is wanting to have a family one day because of course lesbians can’t have kids.
The gay features represent the highs and the disappointing lows of the festival. Weekend (d. Andrew Haigh) concerns the budding romance of two polar opposite men over the course of a weekend. While Russell is very private about his sexuality, Glen is completely open to what gay life has to offer. The film is an honest and handsome portrayal of a one night stand that becomes something more. During question time, someone asked if the two lead actors were gay in real life, to which Haigh declined to respond. I later spoke to London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival senior programmer Brian Robinson as to why this is so important. His response was that these narratives are an extension of the audience’s own sexual exploration and having knowledge that these actors are heterosexual automatically puts up a brick wall limiting just how far this identification can go. Food for thought for the cast and crew of Hannah and the Hasbian...
Being present for the screening of Leave it on the Floor (d. Sheldon Larry) was perhaps a personal highlight of the festival. The film is a musical depicting an outcast gay youth discovering the fast paced world of the balls, which was documented in Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (which actually had its own retrospective screening earlier in the week). The raucous and frivolous crowd lapped up every second of the film. While it had its flaws, such as the singing being out of sync, the film is a quintessential example as to why the queer film festival will never become redundant. Watching this film in any context other than with a queer community would simply be soulless. The Frameline audience is famous for their active participation, hissing at villains and cheering and finger-clicking for their heroes. Attending Frameline is more than just watching a film; it is an active engagement with the San Franciscan queer community.
The films Longhorns (d. David Lewis), E Cupid (d. JC Calciano) and Judas Kiss (d. J. T. Tepnapa, starring adult film star Brent Corrigan) are the epitome of banal gay American cinema. Their narratives were threaded thinly throughout and none of the actors seemed comfortable. One festival programmer stated they would rather quit their job than watch another film like Longhorns again. E Cupid’s narrative is so farfetched it barely makes sense. E Cupid is a relationship application that claims to be able to fix your relationship troubles; however the plot develops through one too many plot holes that simply break any sense of belief. It’s such a shame that queer film festivals are littered with these ‘gay mainstream’ romantic comedies. They all have the same formula: the cast are mostly white, attractive, gender appropriate men with relationship troubles. When done well, such as Going Down in La-La Land in this year’s festival, the viewing experience can be a relaxing fluffy experience. Otherwise they just insult our intelligence.
Three (Tom Tykwer) is a glorious exploration of the development of a ménage à trois that isn’t preachy or negative. Tykwer is a masterful director, which was made very obvious with one of my personal favourite films, Run Lola Run. The film is a delightful comedy about happily in love Simon and Hanna unknowingly both starting an affair with the same man, Adam. The film has perhaps the most memorable sex scenes of the festival where Simon and Adam first meet in the change rooms after a late night swim. I knew I was in for a treat when I learned that a significant number of friends who worked for Frameline were clearing their schedules just so they could see the film for a second time on the big screen. In no way was I disappointed.
Trans cinema has increasingly become the most exciting aspect of the queer film festival line up and this is clearly evident in Frameline 35’s program. Opening night film Gun Hill Road (d. Rashaad Ernesto Green), which was nominated for the grand jury prize at Sundance, was an innovative choice. The LGBT film festival audience is quite often segregated into their various identity groups, which is an inevitable shame. The opening night film is one of the few sessions were we see a ‘coming together’ of all the sub categories to celebrate queer film. Having Gun Hill Road as the opening night film is a choice that should be applauded. The film is a gritty depiction of an ex-con returning home to find his wife estranged and his son transitioning into Vanessa, portrayed superbly by breakout star Harmony Santana. Having a film depicting homemade collagen injections and the destructive power of the father for an opening night film was a brave move, one which had everyone talking about it for weeks afterwards, which (coupled with the moving standing ovation at the conclusion of the film) I believe is the sign of a successful opening night film.
The importance of queer actors playing queer characters arose again with the comparison of Harmony Santana’s portrayal of Vanessa with cis-gendered Rick Okon as FTM trans character Lukas in Romeos. Sabine Bernardi’s film left me feeling incredibly torn. The film, for the most part, is very well done. It sees Lukas incorrectly placed in a female nurse’s dormitory for his community service at a senior’s home. The script gives us extraordinary insight into the sexual awakening of a subject not often told. However the two lead characters of Lukas and his love interest, Fabio, left me feeling utterly alienated. While I must state that while being personally biologically male, having a biological male playing a transgendered male simply did not work. At times his breasts under his sweater were lop-sided and in many shots he had an Adam’s apple! Any element of suspended belief was simply lost. When Fabio discovers the truth of Lukas’ gender identity, he responds by being a derogatory asshole and he continues to be so up until the final scene. While I am usually against giving away the conclusion of the narrative, the film ends with very little redemption for his character. Though I desperately wanted to be taken away with these characters, I simply couldn’t reconcile with the façade that was taking place on screen. I am reminded of my discussion with Brian Robinson. There is most definitely a brick wall up here, one of which I was unable to overcome.
The film Tomboy (d. Celine Sciamma) is a pure gem, rightly winning the audience award for best feature. When young Laure goes out to play with the local neighbourhood children she goes by the name Michael. The film touchingly explores young Michael’s relationship with his new best friend Lisa, who doesn’t know the truth behind Michael’s gender identity. Special mention must also go to Malonn Lévana as Jeanne, Laure’s younger sister. The scenes in which the two play and where she cuts his hair are truly endearing. Director Sciamma has gently captured how children conform to society’s expectations of gender. Actor Zoé Héran as the lead gets the performance just right. The subtle strutting on the basketball court and the boyish interaction with both Lisa and Jeanne are exemplary. This little group of prepubescent friends are a microcosm of a wider society that punishes those they don’t understand.
As always, the short film selections were a very mixed bag. The differences in quality between the two key shorts programs are vast. The program Fun in Boys Shorts was a joyful eclectic mix of films. Highlights included Cold Star (d. Kai Stanicke), a music video where a young boy forced onto a high diving board gets the assistance from an effervescent elderly drag queen resulting in an orgy in the pool reminiscent of the “Don’t Dream It” musical number in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Revolution (d. Abdi Nazemian) sees a 16 year-old Iranian boy living in California staging his own small revolution within his conservative family by hiding a stray pug in the basement with the housemaid’s son. Winner of the audience award for best short film was Norwegian musical Skalla Mann (Bald Guy, d. Maria Block), where a young gay man comes out to his parents with the news he kissed a bald guy. Shocked at what the neighbours would think, they all burst into song, involving all the local townsfolk. All the films in this well-curated shorts program received a rapturous applause and rightly so.
Contrastingly, Fun in Girls Shorts was not as entertaining. The two standouts were Slow Burn by Christine Chew, whose previous film Falling for Caroline was also an audience favourite, and Flyers (d. Laura Terruso), where a woman confronts a hooded individual passing out flyers claiming she is a lesbian only to discover this individual is herself. It was such a shame that this year’s selection of female shorts films were of a lower standard than the boys. The disparity in lesbian and gay filmmaking is perhaps, however, beyond the scope of this film festival review.
Dyke Delights was a strange collection of short films that didn’t quite gel. As the name suggests, the program is a compilation of fun and quirky short films. I was very pleased that the opening short was Sam Berliner’s Genderbusters, where we see a ragtag crew of gender deviant superheroes that save those that are trapped or excluded by the gender binary. By including this film in the Dyke Delights program, the festival programmers themselves defy the gender binary inherent in the LGBT label. Following this film was a collection of short films variant in quality. Of the following films, my personal highlights were Lesbian Cliché Song (d. Bob Koher), from the filmmakers of Frameline 33 favourite The U-Haul Rap, and Miserable Animal (d. Desiree Akhavan and Ingrid Jungermann), where a lesbian couple argue over who is more lesbian between the two. While I should be extremely pleased to see two Australian short films screened at the Castro, neither of them fitted into the program. Vigilante! Healthy! Wholesome! (d. Lauren Anderson) is an amazing piece of work whose production qualities were of an infinitely higher quality than that of its counterparts. The film looked simply divine on the large screen. However, having a slow moving ‘arty’ film (a label given by audience members behind me) screened towards the end of a shorts program that was intended to be light hearted and delightful didn’t really work.
Wrapping up the shorts program was Why Me? (d. Victoria Stanford), where 16 year-old Cheryl falls in love with her piano teacher. At 22 minutes long the film simply was not funny enough to sustain the audience’s attention throughout. What confused me greatly was why this film was given a spot in two shorts programs, as it also featuring in the campy Zombies! Aussies! Musicals! Oh My!, which on a side note, actually featured a selection of significantly stronger Australian short films in Slashed (d. Rebecca Thompson), Slut – The Musical (d. Tonnette Stanford) and Cupcake: A Lesbian Zombie Musical (d. Rebecca Thompson), of which the latter was arguable more deserving of having two screening positions in the festival. While individually, the films in the Dyke Delights shorts package were fine, their programming seemed rather sloppy.
There were four key documentaries worth noting this year. The audience award for best documentary went to Gen Silent (d. Stu Maddox), a film that brings to light homophobia rampant in elderly care services. The Jury Award for best documentary went to Wish Me Away (d. Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf), which chronicles the coming out journey of country music star Chely Wright. The film also notably received the longest standing ovation of the festival. I will be very interested to see how this very American film plays out with an Australian audience. Becoming Chaz (d. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato) documents Chaz Bono’s gender reassignment. Perhaps the most interesting part of this session was an audience member’s comment that the depiction of Chaz’s relationship with his partner Jenny reinforces traditional gender stereotypes, a sentiment I agree with. Chaz’s response was simply that this film is simply their own story and should not be taken as a generalisation for all relationships that experience an FTM transition.
My personal highlight of the documentaries was The Advocate for Fagdom (d. Angelique Bosio), which was programmed at the same time during the more hyped up Wish Me Away. As a result it received a limited audience in the Roxie theatre. Bosio’s film paints us a picture of notorious queer director Bruce LaBruce. Featuring great candid interviews with the man himself, John Waters, Bruce Benderson, Harmony Korine, Gus Van Sant amongst others, the film not only gives us an insight in the influences of this director but chronicles a very important and under studied movement in queer cinema.
Frameline is a festival that is continuously growing with the support of its community. It’s a festival that I plan to return to because the ritualistic act of walking through the Castro to see my dearest San Franciscan friends to watch a film with my community is an experience that is at the very core soul-nourishing. While at times I am confused by the programming choices or disappointed with the quality in some films, I will never stop attending queer film festivals, as the experience will always beat watching narrow representation we see outside of the film festival.
San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival
16-26 June 2011
Festival website: http://www.frameline.org/index.aspx