Vancouver Queer Film Festival 2014: final thoughts

Right, another festival under my belt! Let’s do a recap, by the numbers.

Number of shows I planned to see: 20. Which I realised was insane unless I took the entire week off or something.

Number of shows I actually saw: 11. Last year I saw 17, fell way behind on my reviews, and then felt guilty and stressed out about it. It looks like this is about the optimal number if I want to balance the festival with work and non-queer-film-related life.

Favourite feature film: A tie between The Way He Looks and Drunktown’s Finest. Honourable mention goes to Children 404.

Favourite short film: A three-way tie between Stop Calling Me Honey Bunny, Orbits / Orbitas (shown in Grrls in Space) and StandStill (shown in The Coast is Queer)

Movies I wanted to see but didn’t:

Drunktown’s Finest would have been listed here, but some movies pulled out of the festival at the last minute, and the Monday night late show was graced with an additional showing of Drunktown’s Finest.

There were a couple other movies I’d planned to see, but I’m not that broken up about missing.

Percentage of subtitled films I saw: 5 / 9 feature films, or 55%. (6 / 9, I guess, if you count the Navajo dialog in Drunktown’s Finest.) Not as high as last year, but still respectable. I managed to see films from Argentina, Brazil, Morocco/France/Switzerland, the Netherlands and Russia. Also Australia, Spain (no dialog) and the United States.

Percentage of films I saw that were directed by women: This year, over 50% of the festival feature films are directed by women. This is a big, big deal, since the percentage in mainstream cinema is apparently 8%. Dropping to 6% if you only look at Hollywood. How does my festival experience add up? Well, out of the 9 feature films I saw 4 were directed by women, so that looks about right at 44%. Incidentally, I had to look up the name of Boys’ director, Mischa Kamp, but it turns out she’s a woman. Counting short films, the percentage is 17.5 / 33 (Trenchcoat Lesbians was co-directed by Ryan Steele and Amy Goodmurphy) which just edges it over the 50% mark.

GIRLTRASH: All Night Long

This is an awesomely hilarious movie about sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, lesbianism, heartbreak, fantasies and lies. It’s silly and over-the-top, knows how silly and over-the-top it is, and just merrily rolls with it. And rocks with it. (See what I did there?) And did I mention it’s a musical? With some really catchy songs?

There’s not a lot more I can say. I mean, you don’t really care about the plot, do you? There’s a battle of the bands that must be won with pluck and determination, one girl’s in love with another who’s in love with a third but it turns out she really isn’t and actually bonds with girl #1 and in the end they totally do it. And we all learn valuable lessons about how wrong (or at least, really inconvenient) it is to lie to get what you want.

A great way to conclude this year’s VQFF! You always need to start and end on a high note, and this film absolutely delivered.

Salvation Army / L’Armée du Salut

This is the story of a man forever stuck between worlds: men and women, Morocco and Europe, rich and poor. The movie is based on an autobiographical novel by Abdellah Taïa and recounts the author’s adolescence in a small town in Morocco, followed by his emigration to Switzerland.

It’s a beautiful and fascinating look at conservative Muslim North Africa: a place where men and women are very much segregated, where public homosexuality does not belong but single men can still find action with a fifteen-year-old boy if they know how to look. Teen Abdellah is very much a cypher: he’s very stoic, hardly ever cracks a smile, quietly going through the motions: running errands, cleaning the house, meeting adult men for trysts… It’s not clear what he gets out of it: they’re never shown giving him monet or gifts, except for a fresh watermelon from the fruit merchant, just once. Abdellah seems very disconnected both from his emotions and his sexuality, and though I appreciate that this is probably true to the book, I’m not sure it works in a purely visual medium.

Fast forward 10 years and Abdellah has moved to a pretty touristy seaside town, still in Morocco, and shacked up with an older, rich Swiss gentleman. Though he’s taken up speaking French and has his eye on Western culture, it’s clear his sugar saddy does not see him as an equal and hasn’t cared to integrate at all in Moroccan society, not even speaking a word of Arabic. The locals do still call Abdellah “brother” and don’t mind that he’s a kept boy, but again it means he doesn’t quite belong in either world, and the space he occupies is a lonely one with no room for peers.

Four months later Abdellah has arrived in Geneva to begin his studies. Unfortunately he has arrived early and his grant doesn’t kick in for another month, so he has no money and no place to stay. After wandering around the university for a bit, he runs into his ex-sugar daddy. It seems their breakup was not a friendly one, and they have a very bitter argument. Abdellah gets called a heartless whore but doesn’t let it get to him, proudly claiming he’s free, both of Morocco and of his ex.

Free or not, though, he still has no place to stay. Happening upon a Salvation Army homeless shelter, he decides this is as good a place as any. His new roommate is another Moroccan man who offers to sing a song while sharing a snack; Abdellah chooses what I assume is a traditional Moroccan song and as the roommate sings, Abdellah starts crying.

Cut to credits.

Really, it was that abrupt. I guess it was a deliberate artistic choice, and I’m guessing also that it reflects the novel, but it was extremely jarring and took me out of the story right at the wrong moment (talking to other audience members later, I wasn’t alone).

What I’m getting out of that last scene is that Abdellah isn’t nearly as free of Morocco as he’d like to think he is. He doesn’t have to live by its rules anymore, true, but the culture is still with him, for better or for worse (depending on how much he wants to assimilate in mainstream Swiss society). And we’re left with the unhappy thought that this may be his lot in life: to never really belong anywhere, to always have bits of his past calling to him in the present, clouding his future.

Or that’s what I’m getting out of the film, anyway. I can’t be sure because, as I said, it’s hard to get into Abdellah’s head. I found the look at Moroccan life fascinating, but without a personal connection to ground it, I felt as detached from most of the story as Abdellah himself. Maybe this is the kind of story that works better as a book.

The Third One / El Tercero

The Third One is not exactly a deep movie, but it is definitely engaging and steamy.

This is the story of Fede, a young college student who starts chatting online with older, suave Franco. It’s going well, and Franco bringing his boyfriend into the chat just makes things better. Fede plays the part of the hungry bottom perfectly: showing off in his underwear, talking about sucking both their dicks at once, claiming not to be scared of anything.

They meet for dinner at Franco’s superb apartment, and the cracks immediately start appearing: Fede is excited but visibly nervous, Franco and his boyfriend bicker a bit, but they all sit down to eat and get to know each other. Over dinner and a couple bottles of wine, the couple talk about how they met, Fede shares some of his family history. These are some very intimate scenes that humanise the participants after all that chatroom posturing, but what’s remarkable is how they’re filmed: the director chose to set this part up as a few very long static shots, but they don’t feel static. Thanks to the dialog and the actors’ body language, I was completely captivated by the conversation and didn’t even notice the direction in hindsight. That’s great work right there.

And then they have sex. It’s very hot. Fede heads off to class in the morning after a nice shower, and a promise to get together the couple again. The last scene had no subtitles so I was forced to guess at the content with what Spanish I remembered from high school, but I think the topic was trigonometry. There was talk of talk of angles, variables (A, B, C and D), and I think the teacher said something like “point of focus”. Probably a lot of jokes about Fede’s new situation; since he was smiling, I think I guessed right.

The Third One was a good movie; not great, but very well done and definitely got my interest (the hot guys certainly didn’t hurt). I was a little disappointed by the sudden shift in tone from conversation to sex; I wish they’d kept talking a little longer because in hindsight, that part was a lot more interesting.

Children 404

Children 404 is an online support forum for Russian LGBT teens that was created in reaction to Putin’s notorious “gay propaganda” law. Kids who access it get to connect with their peers; they learn that they’re not crazy, they’re not sick, and most importantly that they’re not alone. There’s also a private area where teens can get help from professional counselors donating their time.

This intensely moving documentary focuses on two people: Elena Klimova, the site’s creator; Pasha, an openly gay teen who’s moving to Toronto to study journalism. They talk about their hopes and wishes: for a better future, where Putin-fueled homophobia will be as unimaginable as segregation; for a family, kids, a house, just having a normal life, something that would never be possible in today’s Russia. They never asked to be activists, but what choice do they have? As Elena points out one one scene, even hiding won’t ensure your safety, and you’d constantly be looking over your shoulder anyway.

Interspersed with their scenes are several dozen short testimonies from Children 404 teens—anonymous, of course: we just hear their voices, and see shaky homemade footage of their schools or neighbourhoods. They talk about getting bullied, beat up, having to hide relationships from classmates, growing up believing they’re sick or abnormal or sinners. Hearing those voices drives home what a difference the site makes, every day, for hundreds of teens.

What surprised me about Children 404 is how positive it is. Yes, things are terribly hard now, but these amazingly brave souls are truly making a difference, changing hearts and minds. Not just queer ones, either: in an April screening of the movie in Moscow, the audience successfully resisted protesters’ and police’s attempts to shut the event down. To the straight audience members, this was a wake-up call that the hate is very real, and it does affect them too.

In the post-film Q&A, director Askold Kurov told us of more happy endings: Pasha is now in Toronto, and doing well in his studies. There’s been an uptick in refugee claims from Russia by GLBT people, but it looks like they’ve all been accepted. And best of all, the site’s legal troubles are over: the charge of containing homosexual propaganda that was laid against it, has been dismissed. They’ll keep on helping queer teens for a while to come.

Hope springs eternal. Russia will need a lot of it, but it looks like some people are moving it in the right direction.

The Coast is Queer 2014

I missed out on the last day of grass volleyball to see The Coast is Queer, that’s how dedicated I am! I would never miss this wonderful showcase of local queer talent.

Sissy

As fun now as when it first showed last Saturday. Sissy power!

Trench Coat Lesbians

Hilarious and weird flirting between two “lesbians”, in the style of a 60′s B movie. Bonus: I learned more slang terms for “vagina” in those five minutes than I ever have in my entire life.

A Love Story

Michael Vonn fondly reminisces about her relationship with Billy, a drag queen who died of AIDS in 1988, and how it continues to haunt her (in a good way) to this day.

Up and Down

The story of a tomboy learning how to play the yoyo and hang with the boys. It’s not actually queer since she is interested in one of those boys, at least until her girlier older sister swoops in. But in a refreshing twist, the happy ending was not to end up in a couple, but rather to make friends and keep doing what she loved best.

Body.Cake.Lake.

A naked woman. By a lake. Eating a cake. Smearing all over herself. A fun little short by Michael V Smith.

Queer Arts Festival – SD Holman interview

Artist, photographer and Pride In Art Society Artistic Director SD Holman talks passionately about her work, the Queer Arts Festival, and why it’s so important to make space for queer / trans creatives.

StandStill

In this moving documentary, Joella Cabalu turns the camera on her gay younger brother and her devoutly Catholic parents, bringing them together in one room for an interview. It’s hard to watch, since it’s less a conversation than people talking at each other… but it’s a start.

Interestingly, Joella narrates that she feels responsible for mediating between her brother and parents. It’s good that she brought herself into the documentary as more than a dispassionate observer because she is part of the story.

StandStill is tied for favourite with Orbitas and Stop Calling Me Honey Bunny (shown in Saturday’s Grrrls in Space.

Whispers of Life

An intriguing little short of a mysterious man who talks a bullied teen out of suicide. Gorgeous visuals and delicious hints of magic.

A Message

Who else but Clark Nikolai would do a short movie about an apocalyptic deluge of ejaculate from a distant galaxy threatening life on Earth? I hear he’s doing a sci-fi movie, too. Can’t wait!

Exempli Gratia

Clark Nikolai’s second offering, and it kind of went over my head. Found footage with lists of mental disorders? Maybe I need to watch it a second time for it to make sense…

Hall of Mirrors

A manically mysterious short. I don’t think I got this one either, but I still enjoyed it!

All Good Things

You start out both laughing and squirming in your seat as these two hilariously incompatible guys try to have sex. but the very last bit was disturbing since Guy #1 did not appear to consent to being fucked. There and gone, and honestly it’s only in hindsight that it started bothering me. Is this what the filmmakers were going for?

Punch My Tammy

A catchy little song about anal love…

Pierrot Lunaire: Butch Dandy

A bit of history: in 1884, Belgian poet Albert Giraud wrote a collection of poems based on the Commedia dell’Arte figure of Pierrot, the sad clown always pining for Columbine. 21 of these poems were adapted into an operatic melodrama by Arnold Schoenberg in 1912. And then Bruce LaBruce got his hands on it.

What we end up with is a deliriously weird movie that as far as I can see only has the slimmest of connections with the original material: a black-and-white silent movie that feels like an experimental art-house piece, juxtaposed with the complete operatic score (with subtitles, since it’s in German), with a plot that has to be seen to be believed. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, but not everyone did. I could hear some audience members fidgeting during slow bits and some straight up walked out halfway through. I get it, though: the (very fake) gore and murder might have crossed a few lines, and the whole thing was probably way too out there if you weren’t in the right mood.

In this reimagining Pierrot is a butch lesbian, already going out with her lady Columbine. But Columbine’s fat capitalist pig of a father susses out that Pierrot (who actually passes pretty well) is in fact a woman! Much drama ensues as the fat capitalist pig drags Columbine away, and Pierrot operatically curses her female body. If only she could change it, and show the fat capitalist pig she can be a man worthy of wooing his daughter! Cutting off her breasts is easy enough, but that’s only half the job. So Pierrot decides to check out strippers and hustlers in order to find the perfect penis to steal. A few attempted murders later Pierrot finds her prize, and shows it off to Columbine and her fat capitalist pig of a father. She’s horrified, but he seems to approve. The film ends on this ambiguous note.

Weird enough for you? On a scale of 1 to WTF, it still doesn’t beat gay zombies fucking each other’s open wounds, but the operatic dimension as well as the old-school film atmosphere puts it in a class of its own. Superb.

Fun fact: Susanne Sachsse, who plays Pierrot, also sings the operatic vocals. That’s damn impressive.

Boy + Sikat + Das Phallometer

These are three short films dealing with queer refugees or migrant workers. Heartbreaking, infuriating, but also thoughtful and nuanced.

Sikat

Sikat is a Filipina live-in domestic and nanny, eagerly awaiting the arrival of her husband and son to Canada. But when they do arrive her son doesn’t even recognise her…

The intertitle at the end explains that caregivers such as Sikat have to work in the same household for at least 24 months before they can begin the process of sponsoring their families for immigration, which takes at least three more years. In practice they may be separated from their loved ones for even longer than that, since many Filipino/a workers come to Canada by way of the Middle East or Western Europe.

Das Phallometer

Not knowing the show’s theme, I thought would be something weird and kinky. I was partly right: phallometric testing is a real thing! In this darkly humorous short it is used on an Iranian refugee at the Czech Republic border to test his claim that he really is homosexual. He passes the test, and the border guards welcome him with open arms.

Incidentally, this procedure was ruled by the EU to be demeaning and a violation of human rights, and discontinued several years ago.

Boy

Boy is the story of a Filipino illegal immigrant worker, living in a big city in (I think) the Netherlands. Semi-invisibly he makes the beds and cleans the counters, safely eavesdropping on his employers’ affairs and goings-on. When they do see him, it’s mostly as a submissive piece of ass, an idealised noble poor person, or a greedy ignorant poor person always on the lookout for the next sugar daddy.

All of this is true, none of this is true. Our unnamed protagonist is far from perfect, but he’s got a sharp mind, had a genuine (non-romantic) bond with one of his employers, the only one who enjoyed talking to him, and all his spare money goes to either his parents back home or to support his boyfriend’s budding dance career. He’s a fully fleshed out individual that no one else (not his boyfriend, not even the audience) can see truly.

Boy is a quietly intense, thoughtful piece that lets us step in the shoes not only of migrant workers but of any person considered “other” by the dominant culture.

Drunktown’s Finest

Drunktown’s Finest is writer/director Sydney Freeland’s look at life on a Navajo reservation reservation in New Mexico. It is harsh and brutally honest, but also loving and hopeful.

In the pre-show intro, Ms Freeland said that the movie was basically a coming of age story for three genders, and that sounds about right. Good girl Nizhoni, adopted by white parents but eager to find her roots; Sick Boy, waiting to ship out for the army but unable to stay out of trouble; two-spirited trans girl Felixia, dreaming of being a model while still respecting her heritage.

As a coming of age tale, the themes are about choices, recognising the consequences of your actions, and figuring out which of your dreams to hold onto. For Felixia and Sick Boy those dreams involved leaving, but in the end, maybe they found something better. Nizhoni already lived abroad but wished to reconnect with her biological family. She got exactly what she wanted and more, facing the unpleasant truth that her adopted parents had been lying to her for years.

But what I got out of the movie isn’t as trite as “stick with your people” or “follow traditions”. What I saw was a nurturing community with a culture of respect for gender variance… but also a lot of violence, homophobia, drug use and alcoholism, and people with neither solid roots not a future to look forward to. Nothing is glossed over, and no one is pretending there are easy answers. There’s no telling where Sick Boy, Felixia and Nizhoni will go from here—but the movie’s conclusion was a new beginning rather than an end. There’s hope. There’s always hope.

Incidentally, it was an unusual (and welcome) experience for me to see see the world through another culture’s eyes, and white people as “others”: Nizhoni’s well-meaning but condescending parents; the ditzy blonde girl who (for whatever reason) tried out for a Navajo women’s calendar shoot; Felixia’s could-have-been sugar daddy on Facebook. It’s refreshing.

Boys / Jongens

This movie is a feast for the eyes with gorgeous cinematography of the Dutch countryside, and equally beautiful actors, but the story itself wasn’t anything special. With some variations on a theme, this is a tale as old as time (or at least, gay liberation) that we’ve seen a hundred times before. Still, knowing how things would turn out didn’t keep me from thoroughly enjoying it.

Quiet, withdrawn Sieger has just been promoted to his high school’s higher level track team where he meets the relaxed, outgoing Marc. The two hit it off right away, though Sieger backs off after their first kiss, claiming he’s not gay. What with the intense training for an upcoming regional relay race the two end up spending a lot of time together, both on and off the track. Sieger is clearly attracted to Marc but confused about what he wants, half-heartedly double-dating a girl with his friend Stef. Marc finds out, is understandably upset, and for a while it seems even the race is in jeopardy. But all’s well that ends well, as the two make up, their school handily wins the race, and they (literally) ride off into the sunset.

Though Boys‘ tropes are, to put it gently, well-worn, I believe in this case it’s the execution that matters. It’s a very sweet and beautifully produced movie, with fine acting and directing (and the aforementioned visuals). I will mention one thing that sets it apart from similar movies, though: no big coming-out drama. In fact, no coming-out at all. During the course of the film Sieg and Marc never told anybody they were dating, or that they liked boys (though it’s possible Marc’s family already knew). Stef did put 2 and 2 together when he wasn’t macking on his girlfriend, but he never said anything until the very end, and even then it was to be quietly supportive.

Which I find fascinating. I could blame it on questionable writing—the movie was short on character development and skipped over a couple of key scenes, including Sieg and Marc’s post-race reconciliation—but one could see it as a sign of the times. Traditionally teen coming-out stories are supposed to be accompanied by huge drama, anger, disownment or tears, with the occasional bashing from local bigots. But here? Apart from Sieg’s “I’m not gay” line (which you could take in any number of ways), there’s nothing to suggest being gay would be a big deal. Are things that relaxed in the Netherlands? Awesome if true.

Boys / Jongens is not a perfect movie, but a greatly enjoyable one if you don’t mind its flaws. Come for the visuals, stay for the running tips.