Audiences attending the Frameline San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival earlier this year for San Francisco Pride month were, as always, vocal in their love of queer cinema. The quality of LGBT films currently being produced is exceptionally high, which is demonstrated through many of these films also appearing in larger international film festivals. The city of San Francisco is undergoing considerable change, most notable in the rapid gentrification of the Mission District where two of the festival theatres reside, the Roxie and the Victoria Theatre. The Valencia and Mission streets were almost unrecognisable. There now seem to be more boutique furniture stores and craft beer bars than taqerías and thrift stores. The mission is no longer the queer suburb it once was. As such the future of the festival will be very interesting, as a significant portion of the festival’s audience are now living in Oakland and Berkeley.
Frameline is also undergoing considerable change. Frameline stalwarts K.C. Price and Jennifer Morris have left the organisation. Des Buford has been the Director of Exhibition and Programming for a few years now, joined by Senior Programmer Peter L. Stein. At the opening night screening of The Case Against 8, Frances Wallace was announced as the newly appointed Executive Director of Frameline. The warm reception she received throughout the festival suggests she is perhaps one of the most popular women in San Francisco right now.
Supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Frameline conducted three panels on New Storytelling in LGBT Cinema. “Past (Im)perfect: Filming Queer History” looked at both proven and emerging tactics to presenting cinematic explorations of the past. Included on this panel was Stefan Haupt, whose film The Circle was a showcase screening in the festival. “From Crowdfunding to Social Media to Distribution Leveraging Emerging Digital Platforms and Technologies” featured representatives from Wolfe Video, Section II and Seed & Spark, along with Dean Hamer, co-director of showcase documentary Kuma Hina. The final panel, and perhaps the most popular, was “Change Makers: In Conversation with Women Filmmakers,” featuring Rose Troche, Guinevere Turner, Kimberley Peirce and Desiree Akhavan, director of the brilliant Appropriate Behaviour.
Frameline presented a spotlight on LGBT Films in Today’s Russia, with supported from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies. Featured in the line up were strong dramas Stand and Winter Journey, a shorts package, which included the documentary Pussy vs. Putin, and documentary Campaign of Hate: Russia & Gay Propaganda. The former featured interviews with the Side by Side Festival International LGBT Film Festival in St. Petersburg, who recounted the experience of having to organise taxis for an entire theatre audience to avoid any physical violence from a nearby mob, a salient point to make for those living in the rainbow bubble of San Francisco.
It was fantastic to see a collection of films the had already been programmed in the Melbourne Queer Film Festival: Bruce LaBruce’s film Gerontophilia, the beautifully choreographed Five Dances, the innovative Australian film 52 Tuesdays, campy First Period, Bananot (Cupcakes) and the quirky French film Les Rencontres d’après minuit (You and the Night).
Consistent with previous years’ programming, Frameline had a strong line up of shorts sessions programmed. It was wonderful to see sessions on both queer horror and animation genres, the former of which featured the touching Australian film Tegan. Other stand out short sessions were the Bi Candy, Fun in Girls Shorts and Fun in Boy Shorts programs, featuring Australian film Trunk and my personal favourite, MeTube: August Sings Carmen ‘Habanera.’ The Realness and Revelations session of shorts featuring queer and/or trans* people of colour included the Frameline Festival Audience Award-winning Black is Blue Black is Blue by Cheryl Dunye.
Other notable short sessions included Transtastic, featuring Mymy by Anna Helme, and the World Affairs and Worldly Women shorts. While Worldly Women presented a nice diversity of shorts, with films from South Korea, Malaysia, Germany, Poland and Senegal, Worldly Affairs included two American films, two British productions and a Canadian film, which isn’t really all that worldly.
2014 has been an incredible year for LGBT documentary. Frameline 38 presented a vast array of films that explored many different subject matters. Der Kreis (The Circle) is possibly one of the strongest docu-dramas I have seen in some time. The film recounts a 1950s period drama revealing the production of ground-breaking gay publication Der Kreis and the collection of friends and lovers who formed one of the earliest homophile societies documented. At the heart of this story is the budding relationship between closeted schoolteacher Ernst Ostertag and performer Röbi Rapp, which is conveyed in the documentary portions of the film by the couple themselves in their contemporary Switzerland’s apartment. Director Haupt interweaves the conversations with Ostertag and Rapp gorgeously with the period scenes. The transitions between the two genres are seamless.
Winning the Jury Award for Best Documentary, Kuma Hina presents the balancing of traditional Pacific Islander culture with a Western culture. The film allows us into the life of Native Hawaiian woman, Hinaleimoana Wong Kalu. Kalu is a Mahu, a transgender person, and a Kumu, a respected cultural teacher and community leader. The film sees Kalu take on a community leadership role as traditional Hawaian burial sites are disturbed; Kalu’s status Kumu sees her teach her male high school students as they prepare for a end of performance, accompanied by sixth grade tomboy Ho’onani, who is also “in the middle” like Kalu. The film is an intimate portrait of a community leader striving to maintain her traditional heritage. For a woman who is confident around her students and colleagues, the film reveals a vulnerable woman dealing with tension with her Fijian husband. The film was received well, demonstrated by Kalu getting one of the longest standing ovations of the festival. Kuma Hina offers something very novel to a queer film festival program as we get a queer narrative while also learning about a personal take on Hawaiian culture.
One of the films in the festival that will no doubt receive mainstream attention is To Be Takei, which looks at the life and career of Star Trek legend George Takei and his husband Brad. The Takeis were present, receiving this year’s Frameline Award, previously won by queer icons Barbara Hammer, Divine and Christine Vachon. The documentary follows more contemporary aspects of Takei’s career, interviews on Howard Stern’s radio show, his marriage equality activism and his Facebook popularity (he currently has over 7.2 million Facebook likes). These more light-hearted moments are broken up with more personal accounts of the Takeis’ lives. As a child, Takei and his family were forced into Japanese-American internment camps. Before taking on the eponymous role of Helmsman Sulu, Takei battled the limitations racism offered in Hollywood at the time. We learn about George and Brad’s relationship with their parents and the idiosyncrasies of their relationship with each other, as Brad plays the role of husband and manager of Takei’s career. The documentary is conventional in form, making it easily digestible to a mainstream audience.
Perhaps the most memorable documentary of the festival was Out in the Night. In August 2006, seven African American lesbians were arrested for attacking a male admirer who threatened to “screw them straight.” Following their arrest, the media headlines had a field day with titles such as “Attack of the Killer Lesbians”, “Lesbian Wolf Pack Guilty” and “Girls Gone Wilding”. The film follows the lives of The New Jersey 4, who pleaded not guilty to the attack, as they battled the criminal justice system over numerous, exhausting years. I am reminded of West of Memphis, a film that detailed the trial of three teenagers from West Memphis, wrongly convicted of murdering three boys as both films act as thrillers, as information is slowly released to the spectator, moment by moment. Details of the incident, and subsequent court cases are provided by intimate interviews with the four women, their families, journalists (including one writer who is still proud of her “seething Sapphic septet” label) and social justice activists. We receive police accounts, CCTV footage and court transcripts. The film is a damning account of four women who were marginalised by a criminal justice system and media publications steeped in misogyny, homophobia and racism.
First feature directors, however, ruled this festival. The competition for the Frameline38 Wells Fargo First Feature award was incredibly strong, with Ester Martin Bergsmark winning with Something Must Break. Sophie Hyde and Yann Gonzales were also first feature directors, of aforementioned 52 Tuesdays and You and the Night respectively. Hong Khou’s Lilting, which previously received good reviews at Sundance, is a fine portrait of two individuals striving to overcome a language barrier and the privacy of their mourning. June has recently lost her son Kai in tragic and unexpected circumstances. Her son’s “friend” Richard visits her at the nursing home, where she now resides. It becomes apparent that Richard and Kai were more than just friends. The morning scenes of the two in bed are rather quite sweet. At the nursing home, Richard brings along friend Vann to be an interpreter for June and Alan as they pleasantly flirt with each other. The developing connection between both Richard and June deepens as Vann begins to translate longer and more painful dialogue. Khou displays an incredible control over the multilingual scenes, relying on the astute Vann to act as the connection between the two grieving, isolated individuals. While both June and Richard do reach a breaking point, there is no overly melodramatic conclusion to this narrative, which is very welcome. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for Hong Khou’s future projects.
Another film that was popular at Sundance was Desiree Akhavan’s first feature Appropriate Behaviour. Akhavan’s previous short Miserable Animals had previously screened at Frameline and was incredibly popular on the queer film festival circuit. Appropriate Behaviour taps into that New York “hipster” comedy, which appears to be very popular at the moment, most typified by Lena Dunham’s Girls – although I found Akhavan’s Shirin much more likable than any of the quartet in Girls. Shirin appears to be having a quarter life crisis: her career is directionless; she is closeted to her Iranian family; and is in the process of breaking up with her very cool girlfriend, Maxine. Akhavan’s Q&A afterwards was hilarious and endearing and her star is no doubt on the rise. It is also very refreshing to see a film with a queer female lead that is so well produced.
A film that took me by complete surprise (I love it when this happens at film festivals) was Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Anita’s Last Cha Cha). Director, Sigrid Andrea Bernardo has had a few films play on the queer film festival circuit, however this was her first feature. Bernardo is a very charming presence on stage, joking how she had to have a glass of red wine with her to calm her nerves. Her film sees young Anita and her two close friends growing up in a rural Filipino village. With the sultry Pilar’s arrival, Anita develops her first enveloping crush. The film is beautifully shot and Bernardo successfully transports you to the warming summer nights of the small town. Particular mention must go to the three young cast members of the film, who demonstrate a natural screen presence.
Winning the Audience Award for best feature, Hoje Eu Quero Volta Sozinho (The Way He Looks) was my standout film of the festival. Being Daniel Ribeiro’s first feature length work, the film is an expansion of his short I Don’t Want To Go Back Alone, which won significant praise on the queer film festival circuit. Ribeiro deals with a conventional gay narrative – a coming of age film about young love – and constructs a film that is unquestionably tender. While blind from birth, young Leo is well adjusted in his school. With the help of his admirer and close friend Giovanna, Leo can face the trials that accompany being the only blind student in school. This all changes when the charming Gabriel moves into their class and befriends the pair. As the two become closer, Giovanna increasingly becomes jaded and shut out – and adolescent angst ensues. The film has already picked up a few accolades on the film festival circuit and has been picked up by Strand Releasing for a North American theatrical release. It’s hard not to like this film, as everyone involved is just so darn enjoyable.
Frameline San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival
19-29 June 2014
Festival website: http://www.frameline.org