Sunday, 28 December 2008

Barcelona (un mapa) (Barcelona (A Map), Spain, 2007)

Director: Ventura Pons.

Principal cast: Núria Espert, Josep Maria Pou, Rosa Maria Sardà, Jordi Bosch.

It is peculiar how dictators across the world, nominally professing to different ideologies, are always adamant to be seen as defenders of the „traditional” family values. There is, of course, nothing particularly suprising in that – people coerced into appearing and acting as a homogenous and „happy” mass are much easier to control. Anybody sticking out can be instantly identified and eliminated. However, to great chagrin of all dictators, this only means that the „exemplary” citizens quickly learn double speak and double act while all behaviour inconsistent with the „traditional values” endorsed by the regime is simply consigned to the shadowed fringes of the society. Dictators are disposed of or die, regimes change but their highly harmful legacy of secrets and lies can last for many generations. Still, sooner or later the façades of the „exemplary traditional families” will inevitably crumble and the shadowed fringes will come to light, just like it happens in „Barcelona (A Map)”, a film by Ventura Pons set in the Catalonian capital some 30 years after Franco’s death, based on a novel by Lluïsa Cunille „Barcelona, A Map Of Shadows”.

Rosa and Ramon are an elderly couple who are living in a spacious old Barcelona flat. Not requiring all the space themselves, over the years they have rented out some of the rooms. But now, as terminally ill Ramon is slowly preparing for his final moments on this planet, the couple have asked the three current tenants to move out as quickly as possible. The film’s account takes place over the course of one night. As tenants come home one by one, the pair take their time to urge them to keep their promise and vacate the premises before Monday. The film’s story is displayed as five dialogues with a striking pattern – while Rosa talks to the only male tenant, Ramon takes care of the two ladies. This, however, only emphasises the contrast between the ingrown „traditional” façade of the couple and the dark secrets they are about to reveal.

The three tenants – a 40 something lady giving private French lessons, a 31-year-old failed football player working as a security guard at a shopping mall and a pregnant Argentinian migrant worker – can all be described as examples of urban solitude. They all have one thing in common – they have no where else to go, nor do they really care about moving on. The French teacher doesn’t get along with her son and can only moan about God and French vanishing from the local people’s lives at the same time. The guard is separated from his wife and his only ambition seems to be beating up his wife’s new lover with his service gun. The Argentinian girl has no family or friends in this city and generally has difficulties communicating with people in Barcelona which isn’t only down to her inability to speak Catalonian. At one point she exclaims that „here, for someone to look into your eyes you have to fall down”. And in a figurative sense, in these conversations they all have to fall down before they can truly look into each other’s eyes.

During the course of the night we learn that Ramon has one particular secret (one of many). When he worked as an usher at the city’s Opera House, he often sneaked into the artists’ wardrobes and dressed up in the different outfits found there, preferably women’s clothes. A secret favourite pastime which has survived to this day and which has once been accidentally witnessed by the Argentinian girl. In his conversation with the French teacher, Ramon actually confesses to that himself. When asked by her if he would have liked to have been found out, his answer is no. His answer is the same when the French teacher gives him a departing gift, a black and white photograph of a naked man dancing over the body of his murdered mother, and asks him if he’s never felt the need to get undressed just to be really looked at? In many ways crossdressing and undressing have the same quality – they can reveal your true self. But while crossdressing will ruin your official façade, full nudity will be seen as the ultimate intimacy, baring yourself completely in the eyes of the beholder. There is no place for either in a shadow existence.

The fourth conversation takes place between Rosa and her homosexual brother who had just picked up a hustler in a sauna but left him at home since the guy managed to fall asleep before any action took place. He wants her to run away with him while she wants him to attend to her ill husband. But the brother and sister turn out to be something quite different when we learn another secret during the fifth and final conversation which takes place between the two old spouses themselves. During this conversation Ramon also gives Rosa an old map of Barcelona where he, having once worked as a courier on foot, marked all the shadowed streets to avoid too much direct sunlight - a map of shadows.

True to its title, „Barcelona (A Map)” maps the shadowed lives of people trapped behind the façades of „traditional values”, secretly wishing to set the whole city ablaze, especially Sagrada Família, the famous cathedral designed by Gaudí which still stands unfinished, a symbol of uncompleted lives of our protagonists. To burn something down may also be necessary to be able to build something new. It is a slowly-paced film whose characters are full of surprises with a distinct similarity, however seemingly unlikely, to Pedro Almodovar’s universe. By dissecting its characters, the film also reveals Franco’s legacy in the fabric of the Spanish society. Fascism begins in the family, as everything else. At one point, Rosa who recently watched the traditional Spanish bullfight, notes with a certain surprise that the mostly foreign spectators were cheering the bulls instead of the bullfighters. This was a note of optimism, of changed times. Siding with the underdogs and opposing the brutality of force is the opposite of fascism. The map of shadows needs not exist anymore.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Avant que j'oublie (Before I Forget, France, 2007)

Director: Jacques Nolot.

Principal cast: Jacques Nolot, Marc Rioufol, Bruno Moneglia, Bastien d'Asnières.

Ageing isn’t a kind process to most people but it can be a lot worse if your dashing looks and athletic body used to be your main source of income. „Before I Forget”, the final installment of Jacques Nolot’s trilogy about gay life in Paris follows the daily routines of a 58-year-old former hustler (or gigolo as he prefers to be called himself) Pierre whose seemingly well-off life cannot conceal the fact that his decaying body is only the visible tip of the chilly iceberg which his life has become. The film’s director, Jacques Nolot stars himself as Pierre in this rather melancholic, still surprisingly unsentimental account of a person’s dusk on the fringes of the society.

The film opens with a black circle emerging as a dot on a white screen. Slowly but steadily the circle grows bigger until it swallows the entire screen, thus making the viewer take a plunge into the kind of oblivion which Pierre is facing. Living off the money provided by former wealthy lovers, Pierre spends his days meeting old gigolo friends, going to a psycho- therapist, trying to write, engaging young hustlers or just watching life pass by at his local bistro over a beer and a sandwich.

Conversations with his friends and acquaintances are devoid of any passion or real interest in what the other has to say. All topics seem to circle around the prices of rentboys and how poorly they are doing moneywise themselves while trying to convince the counterpart that he should feel lucky and privileged. There is no room for genuine compassion or empathy in these conversations, so the only people who can stand Pierre’s moaning are the ones he pays, namely his psychotherapist and the hustlers who treat it as a professional duty to listen to him. Pierre sometimes talks of suicide and how even seemingly well-adjusted people do it but his composed façade won’t let his surroundings take him seriously and only ascribe such talk to his attention seeking. The thought of his death approaching has never really been absent in Pierre’s mind. Already at the age of 25 he decided not to make any investments since he didn’t expect to live much longer. And for the past 24 years Pierre has had his HIV-positive status hanging over him as the Sword of Damocles, always expecting the worst but never actually succumbing to the virus.

He did, however, make some investments. At the age of 25 when he had already put a cross on himself, he met Tountoune, a former society gigolo who became his lover and benefactor. Although they never lived under the same roof, they were together for almost 35 years. Tountoune had also willed his entire fortune to Pierre but his will was never registered with a lawyer because of some quarrels the two had in their last years, so when Tountoune suddenly died on the day they were supposed to meet for lunch, Pierre was only left with two life insurances in his name as his benefactor’s family naturally removed the handwritten will from the desk drawer where it was kept for many years. Pierre feels cheated out of his old lover’s inheritance, the only pension a former hustler can hope for, but the whole ordeal only seems to motivate him to put a bigger effort behind writing.

Despite his writing ambitions, Pierre has never been much of a reader himself. Although the bookshelves in his flat (which he actually owns) don’t display much empty space, he claims that he falls asleep after the first page he’s trying to read. He laments his lack of culture when he visits his shrink, still he is driven to put his own thoughts on paper for others to read. His apparent inability to concentrate in order to read seems to be the same force that makes him write – his fear of the oblivion, the black circle which threatens to devour him before it’s too late to leave a footprint in the world of the living. Before he forgets. And despite his talk of suicide and Pasolini’s beautiful death, he doesn’t really want to go as yet. Although he claims that nothing interests him anymore, he spitefully resists a new HIV treatment since it may have side effects – loss of hair and looks. He still dresses elegantly and rarely lets his guard down in front of others. His obvious vanity at 58 suggests that he is still the same defiant and proud person behind his fatalistic façade. The final scene of the film, powerfully supported by Mahler’s music, masterfully shows this defiance of the oblivion he’s inevitably facing with all the dignity you can expect from an old unbroken queen.

„Before I Forget” is a stylistically flawless film which leaves the discerning viewer with a sense of empowerment. Unmistakeably French in its existentialist outlook and poetic camera work, this film is a sombre study of what may be in store for a person outside of the mainstream society toward the end of his days.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Shelter (USA, 2007)

Director: Jonah Markowitz.

Principal cast: Trevor Wright, Brad Rowe, Tina Holmes, Katie Walder.

American cinematography has a relatively long tradition of easy-to-digest- and-drop-a-tear-or-two coming of age and coming out films. In a way, it has set a standard for such films for the mainstream queer audiences for as long as such films have been available for the very same target group. Here! TV’s first own feature “Shelter” is in many ways nothing but a continuation of this tradition, only with gay parenting issues thrown in as an extra subplot to try and catch the tides of the time. But while professional critics are busy calling this film flat and uninnovative, the average gay viewer out there is in a hurry to order this film on DVD after having given it numerous Audience Awards at this year’s queer film festivals. And that is utterly unsurprising – a romantic drama with a seemingly happy ending where the two main characters, played by hunky straight actors, use every excuse to show a bit of skin (either surfing or during some more intimate exercises), cannot be any further away from the gloom and doom of “Brokeback Mountain” and Prop 8. And that certainly sells.

The film’s plot evolves around Zach, a serious looking fellow in his early twenties and his rather dysfunctional family – his sister Jeanne, a single mother whose 5-year-old son Cody has found a fatherly figure in Zach as well as their ill and rather absent-minded father who seems to be more of a burden than a support. Feeling responsible for his family’s well-being, Zach has put his own future plans and needs on hold playing a surrogate father to Cody while his sister is busy finding a new man in her life. He spends his free time painting artsy graffitti on the walls of his neighbourhood, dreaming of an artist’s career and, since the film is set in the LA suburb of San Pedro, taming waves with his surfboard. Occasionally, he hangs out with his childhood friend Gaby and even dates Tori, a local girl. His relationship with her can at best be described as half-hearted – it is clear that she expects a lot more from him than he is willing or capable of giving. The pace of life is slow and physically undemanding but still there isn’t much that seems to put a smile on Zach’s face.

One day at the beach, he runs into Gabe’s brother, Shaun whom he hasn’t seen for some time. Shaun, an aspiring writer, has come down to San Pedro from his home somewhere in urban LA after an ended relationship to spend some time at his family’s house by the beach which is obviously only used every now and then as a getaway by different members of his family. The two hook up reminiscing about old times, surfing and burning midnight oil on Shaun’s terrace. Life seems easy and unrestrained. Only Zach’s sister seems to be worried – “doesn’t Zach know that Shaun’s gay?” In fact, he does – he even read Shaun’s first novel when it came out and, apparently, this novel was rather clear on the subject matter. Shaun is surprised but delighted. However, it isn’t long before first clouds appear on their sky – one night after a few beers on his terrace, Shaun kisses Zach. On the following day, Zach is all sullen and cold towards Shaun who, however, doesn’t seem to take his sudden change of mood too seriously. But it’s a different story for Zach – his unexpected feelings for Shaun are a torture – he’s torn between his loveless but comfortable life on one hand and this whole new world of homosexual desire on the other. Torn or not, he still chooses to embrace the latter and they are soon involved in a passionate relationship. A relationship which despite all the happiness that it brings to both protagonists, is kept a secret to the outside world.

Having an affair with Shaun doesn’t prevent Zach from continuing with his role as the de facto head of the family. Jeanne never fails to seize an opportunity to force Zach to babysit Cody while she’s working on her love interest Alan whose current interests in life as well as future plans haven’t got much room for the little boy. Instead, Cody gets to spend a lot of time in Shaun’s house and becomes very infatuated with his new adult friend. It is also Cody who unintentionally brings the secret affair to light. This sudden disclosure not only becomes a true test for Zach and Shaun’s relationship but also forces Zach to take a fight with his inner demons and choose his own path in life.

The inner struggle that Zach experiences seems to have three dimensions. Coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and coming out to the outside world are two that are known all to well to most non-heterosexual people. The third one is about finding a balance between one’s own needs and those of the others. Sacrificing oneself for the sake of one’s family or, for that matter, even one’s country usually only creates self-appointed martyrs who often end up bitter and lonesome, having driven away other people by their self-righteousness and beforehand doomed expectations from these very same people that they are allegedly sacrificing themselves for. Others just let objects of their selfless care tread all over them and take them for granted. And that which is taken for granted seldom yields any respect or is even generally noticed or appreciated. Needless to say, finding this balance is a lot more difficult process in real life than it may sound. For those who don’t automatically fit into the categories of either “Mother Theresa” at one end of the spectrum or “The Absolute Selfish Bastard” at the other, this process is a never-ending story. However, all these three dimensions can also be directly intertwined. Often people who cannot find acceptance in society or themselves due to their sexuality seek to apply their energy and emotions to tasks which make them forget, if only for a time, their own needs and personal life. By filling his days and his head with his family’s needs, Zach mentally postponed having to deal with questions like: why wasn’t he really interested in physical contact with the girl he was dating or any other girls for that matter? Why did he read Shaun’s gay novel in the first place? There is a significant number of people out there who spend their lives taking care of other people’s problems and needs simply because they don’t have a personal life themselves, or are too afraid to even think of having one. Finding self-respect and creating respect for oneself in others are two very essential steps one must take to be able to live a fullfilling life. And somebody who lives a fullfilling life also has a much stronger capacity to reach out to others in need of help. Toward the end of the film we see Zach finally attempting to take these steps.

Still, the whole gay parenting aspect in the film’s plot is more of a way of letting Zach have his cake and eat it than a real take on the issue. In the end, Zach isn’t forced to choose between his love life and taking care of Cody after his mother deserts him to move to Oregon with her boyfriend. Being a responsible young man in need of both a physical and emotional shelter, he and Cody simply move in with Shaun who seems to be more than happy with the arrangement. And surprise, surprise – Shaun’s home in LA is basicly next door to the art school where Zach has just been enrolled. Hmmm, a little too convenient?

This is clearly the film’s biggest and most obvious flaw. To the eye not completely blurred by the tears of happiness felt towards the budding family, Zach actually appears to be more of a gold-digging opportunist than someone passionately in love with Shaun. Also Shaun’s amazing availability and accommodation of Zach’s every tantrum just leaves me wondering if that Shaun character is for real and hasn’t been planted on Earth by a hostile alien race whose objective is to lull us into false security and then eat us? Or will he now turn out to be the real Mother Theresa of the two?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing seems certain – these apparent flaws in the film’s script will not deter most viewers from loving this film. And if you wish to have a relaxed and romantic evening at home with your boyfriend (or just wishing you had one) at Christmas and still feel that you’re watching something deep and meaningful without drowning yourself in existential anxieties afterwards, this might just be the film.

Here you can watch the film's trailer

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Campillo Sí, Quiero (Campillo Yes, I Do, Spain, 2007)

Director: Andrés Rubio.

Editing: Daniel Ramo.

When, in July 2005, the Spanish parliament finally passed the law which granted the right to marry to homosexual couples, the battle for equality was still far from over. With the Catholic church at the helm of the opposition, mayors and civil registrars in several major Spanish cities refused to implement the new law claiming freedom of conscience which, of course, was nothing more than plain old religious bigotry. At the same time, Francisco Maroto, the mayor of Campillo de Ranas, a village of about 50 inhabitants deep in the mountains of Guadalajara north of Madrid, stepped forward and said that everyone was welcome to be wed in his town hall. Since then, Campillo de Ranas has not only become somewhat of a gay wedding Las Vegas but also substantially revived its economy.

„Campillo Yes, I Do” takes us on a journey to a picturesque village set in an area which has experienced decades of stagnation and decay. Unable to find work or create any meaningful existence for themselves, people born and raised here fled to the cities or other, more prosperous regions. It was therefore a radical decision on Francisco Maroto’s part when he decided to leave his native Madrid and settle as a beekeeper in this remote countryside area. It should also be mentioned here that Francisco is himself gay and being gay outside of the big cities in Spain is usually as difficult as in most other countries. Being a lot younger than most of his new neighbours and full of energy, he ran for Mayor in 2003 and got himself elected to manage the local community which in this case was an unpaid job. But soon enough his rural adventure took a dramatic turn and he found himself at the centre of attention of the whole country’s media when he publicly announced that all those same-sex couples turned down in other places could come and be wed in his tiny village. It was a bold step in a rural community whose most precious building was an old stone church in need of repair. When he came back to his office after the announcement had been made, he saw that there were 18 messages on his answering machine. He really had to pull himself together to listen to them, expecting the worst kind of verbal abuse and threats from neo-nazis and their like. To his great relief, every single message expressed support for his brave actions and wished him luck. Also, on the day of the first same-sex wedding, almost the whole community, mostly elderly people, showed up at the town hall to protect their mayor since they also expected protesters. Only no protesters came.

„Campillo Yes, I Do” doesn’t just take us on a journey to a picturesque Spanish village. In a sense, it takes us to a different world. A new world. A world of tolerance and acceptance. Utopia, if you like, where villagers go in their weekly Catholic processions carrying a statue of Virgin Mary on their shoulders and then later greet the newlywed gay and lesbian couples with the same sense of joy and pride in their local community. Yes, it does sound like utopia. Only in this case it’s real – Campillo de Ranas is an actual village in an actual country. So, how can it be?

I once asked a Spanish gay rights activist how come Spain, a country which is still perceived as one of the strongholds of the Catholic church, has introduced the institution of same-sex marriage and how come there hasn’t been a counter-revolution yet, especially seen as 80% of the population consider themselves Catholic? To which he replied that much of the explanation had to be sought in Spain’s turbulent past. During the many decades of Franco’s dictatorship the local Catholic church discredited itself in the eyes of many a Spaniard by actively and willingly co-operating with the oppressing regime. Therefore the words of the church carry a lot less weight here than in, say, Italy. Associating oneself with a particular religion is often just a question of tradition. And it doesn’t automatically entail following the words of that religion’s self-appointed representatives blindly. A nationwide poll conducted around the time the law was passed showed that 66% of the population supported it and roughly 50% of the population also supported the rights of homosexual couples to adopt children. I guess this is as far as a self-proclaimed Catholic country can veer from the official Vatican dogma and it’s nothing short of impressive. When the Spanish people were liberated from the yoke of Franco’s regime, a great majority of them embraced the free world and its diversity with an enthusiasm and passion only rivalled by flamenco. And just as Campillo de Ranas saw a boom in its hospitality business with old taverns and inns re-opened and new ones added, the whole country, too, has blossomed economically in the past decades. And it’s just self-evident that there is a direct connection.

It might be needless to add that Francisco Maroto was re-elected as Mayor in 2007 with an absolute majority of votes. It is also somewhat ironic that the old church has now had the necessary repairs as a result of the village's new niche in the wedding industry.

Andrés Rubio’s first documentary is a powerful testimony to the virtues of love and tolerance, mutual respect and acceptance. A world devoid of bigotry and imagined divisions is also a prosperous one. The only thing that remains to be said is - ¡Viva Campillo! And I’m absolutely certain that if Jesus ever existed, he would have thrived here unconditionally!

Here you can watch a short fragment from the film

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Born Again (USA, 2006)

Director: Markie Hancock.

Producer: Kathryn Gregorio.

There is a great divide in the American society – one that is based upon religion. Ever since the (in)famous „Mayflower” docked in Plymouth, Massachusets back in 1620, the US has been home to a significant share of the world’s Christian fundamentalist population. The alarming news is that it still is and it’s fighting like never before not to lose its deadly grip on the policy-makers in the world’s most influential nation. Markie Hancock’s documentary „Born Again” is a personal account of how she has saved herself from the clutches of fundamentalist religion (into which she has had the misfortune to be born) and how through the process of personal liberation she has indeed been born again.

For Markie Hancock religious indoctrination began as soon as she was able to comprehend anything. Most of her childhood memories have to do with religion. There were Sunday morning services and Sunday evening services, Wednesday night prayer meetings and Friday night Bible school, vacation Bible camps, baptisms, youth meetings, missionary weeks and missionary conferences, morning devotions and evening devotions, Bible memory and bedtime stories - a seemingly never-ending process of worshipping God and confirming one's faith. In her own words, it was difficult to tell where the religion ended and the family began. Most of all, she was afraid not to go to Heaven and she would do anything her parents asked her to. When she was at school, she couldn’t go to any parties because of all the „lewd things” happening there. And instead of the highlight of most American teenagers’ school life - the prom, she would have to go to the alternative organised by the church – in every way as drab and devoid of any of the usual suspense as it sounds. And while a wave of youth rebellion swept across the Western world in the late 60s and 70s, there was definitely not a hint of it in Markie’s life.

Things started to change when Markie enrolled at the evangelical Wheaton College in West Chicago. Despite the fact that all the students were forced to sign the pledge of not drinking, smoking or even dancing, facing immediate expulsion if violating these rules, life at the Academy was the beginning of the end of her Christian years. It was here that she began to develop feelings for other girls and realised that there was a world to be explored beyond the thick walls of her parental home. After studying theology at Princeton for a year, she moved to Berlin under the pretext of studying theology and German there. In reality, she needed to get as far away from home as possible. Berlin for Markie became synonymous with falling in love and exploring her lesbian sexuality in an atmosphere of personal freedom which she had never experienced before. But these were exciting and troubled years at the same time – a divided soul in a divided city. She knew that by leaving religion she would lose her family but she also realised that by not leaving it, she would lose herself. The time had come for Markie to make a decision and face the music – it was her life as an individual that was at stake and leading a double life suddenly was no longer an option.

Markie Hancock uses footage from her family’s personal archives and conducts interviews with the members of her family on camera, allowing everyone to have a word. There is her mom taking time to explain why it would be wrong for her to allow Markie to sleep in their guest room together with her partner. There is her father who is adamant to explain the beauty of being an evangelical Christian. And there are also Markie’s siblings – Nathan and Mike. But while Mike dreamingly imagines a childhood minus all the religion and how that would have made him a more confident and stable person without losing half of his life trying to get de-programmed after years of religious brainwashing, Nathan is still praying for his older sister to return to God and His Kingdom. It’s obvious that there is a divide in her family as big as it is unsurmountable. Markie compares this divide to that in the American society - a divide between the religious fundamentalism and the worldview shaped by it on one hand and the people who wish to think for themselves and bring America forward, socially and politically, on the other hand, a divide between the exclusive and inclusive America.

The film was made shortly after George W. Bush secured his second term in office. At the same time, 11 states had voted to ban same-sex marriages. It looked at the time as if the fundamentalist America, the one that her parents represented, was taking over in this battle and Markie's tolerant and inclusive America was losing. Things have changed slightly since then but it’s definitely far too early to claim that the fundamentalist and intolerant America has been flushed down the drain. Despite Obama’s victory in the recent presidential elections, a majority of Californians voted to ban same-sex marriages. And that is definitely a bad omen when something like that happens in what is considered to be one of the most liberal states in the country. Markie’s journey of personal liberation may have been completed but it will be some time before the whole American nation liberates itself from its fundamentalist chains.

„Born Again” is an important testimony of one person who has had the inner courage and strength to find her true self and live with the consequences. It is also a well-made and heartfelt documentary about her lost family and the sacrifices she has been forced to endure. Stalin once said that the death of one person is a tragedy while the death of millions is statistics. In this case, the personal liberation of one person is a triumph which should inspire, if not millions, then certainly thousands.

Here you can watch the entire film if you happen to live in the US

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Mein Freund aus Faro (To Faro, Germany, 2008)

Director: Nana Neul.

Principal cast: Anjorka Strechel, Lucie Hollmann, Manuel Cortez, Florian Panzner.

Gender perception can play tricks not only on those perceiving but also those perceived. And in a world with deeply rooted gender roles and appearances, can you achieve your ultimate goal by pretending to the bitter end that you are something that you are not, too infatuated with the process and too confused to foresee the consequences? The new German coming-of-age drama „To Faro” does not attempt to be moralistic, nor does it victimise any of its characters – it simply shows a possible turn of events and offers a plausible (if not the only) way out.

Mel is a tomboyish girl in her early twenties who works in a catering factory wrapping up endless meals to be had by passengers on the airplanes she longingly observes taking off and landing in the nearby airport in her spare time. Her drab routines at work only liven up somewhat when she meets her new colleague – a Portuguese guy called Nuno with his non-German mannerisms and attitudes. Also at home, Mel’s life is dull and hardly bearable. Her brother Knut, whose pregnant girlfriend is about to move in with them into their father’s house, constantly teases her about not having a boyfriend and that by the looks of her she could be his brother. And the truth is – her appearance and manners suggest a lot more a young heterosexual male than a young heterosexual female. In fact, so much more that when the 14-year-old Jenny, whom she one night almost runs over on a badly lit road assumes that the driver is a young guy, it seems comic but still quite believable. Persuaded by Jenny and her equally underaged friend, Mel helps them get into a local night club where she quickly falls for the young girl and decides to play along by inventing a new identity for herself – Miguel from Faro in Portugal. Soon enough the love interest appears to be mutual but in the morning they part and there seems to be no need for any further deception.

Intent on gaining more respect and less scorn at home, Mel pays Nuno to play along as her boyfriend. The initially sceptical family quickly embrace her „love interest” and are more than willing to include him into their circle. At the same time Mel is unable to forget Jenny. She is in love with her but obviously clueless about how to proceed and what to do about it. And when they accidentally run into each other again, Mel simply can’t help throwing herself into the flames of her agonising love. Romance between the two girls becomes reality but how much reality is there really about it? Inevitably, her lies and deceptions lead to entanglements which hang over her like the sword of Damocles. It’s time for the ultimate revelation which will lead to the ultimate judgement.

„To Faro” is not the first German film to deal with mixed identities and the price there is to pay for leading a double life. Although the film’s promoters emphasise its kinship with „Boys Don’t Cry”, my immediate association is with Angelina Maccarone’s „Unveiled” (Fremde Haut). Both films are set in the German province, they both use airports as a metaphor for longing to escape one’s miserable existence and not the least, in both films women are forced to pretend to be men to achieve their goals. But while the Iranian refugee in „Unveiled” uses crossdressing to avoid being expelled to her home country where she is persecuted for her homosexuality, Mel’s deception is her own choice – it’s the only way that she deems possible to be intimate with her beloved. In both cases the truth cannot remain concealed forever but while the main character in „Unveiled” is put on a plane back to Iran, Mel can decide her own fate and move on with her life. Growing up surrounded by heteronormativity (which has befallen most of us), Mel never had a real chance to explore her sexuality. The ordeal of her first love has served as a bucket of cold water which prompted her to act. The acclaimed Danish writer Per Hultberg has once said that one must break up with one’s home in order to find one’s true self. In many cases this is a forced action. Nonetheless, a necessary one. A lot can be said about the ethics or rather the lack thereof when it comes to deception, especially in love matters. However, the sad reality is that especially in love matters critical faculties tend to fail even the sharpest minds, let alone confused youngsters with a sexuality diverging from what is broadly perceived as the norm. Only personal experience and courage to be what you really are will help you find your own path, not a blind adherence to someone else’s perception of normality.

„To Faro” is a rather slowly-paced drama with an unmistakable German flavour. Although the acting is a bit uneven at times and certain scenes can seem implausible, the film has a solid plot and can be recommended to all those concerned with the issues of coming to terms with one’s own sexuality. Despite the fact that the main protagonist of the film is in her early twenties, the issues that „To Faro” touches upon certainly aren’t restricted to that age category.

You can watch the film's trailer here (in German)

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Rak haeng Siam (The Love Of Siam, Thailand, 2007)

Director: Chukiat Sakveerakul.

Principal cast: Witwisit Hiranyawongkul, Mario Maurer, Sinjai Plengpanit, Kanya Rattapetch.

When Thailand is mentioned, first things that come to my mind are long, paradise-like beaches overcrowded with Western charter tourists and gay life pulsing around the clock in Bangkok with its world famous ladyboys and prostitution. Somehow, the word ’conservative’ doesn’t fit into the overall image of the place. But I guess the Thai society outside of the beaches and gay bars is a rather different story. In fact so different that when „The Love of Siam” was released in cinemas across the country the promotors did everything they could to conceal the fact that the focal point of this almost 3 hour long film was a gay teen romance. Basicly advertised as a straight teen romance flick (a very popular genre in Thailand, it seems), the film’s posters feature two girls and two boys, there are hardly any promotional photos on the film’s website showing the two main characters together and the film’s trailer clearly misleads viewers making them assume that this will be another one of those sugarsweet „boy meets girl” Asian productions. I can just imagine the unsuspecting „traditional family” movie-goers coughing their popcorn back up when realising what they have been „tricked” into watching, especially if they have brought their „innocent” prodigy with them. I’m a little surprised the director hasn’t gone into hiding as a result.

The plot of „The Love of Siam” centers around two boys and their families who live as neighbours in one of the suburbs of Bangkok. We meet them first time when they’re aged about 11 or 12. Mew lives with his ailing grandmother. He is a bit of a loner, picked on by others at school and not really having other friends than his late grandpa’s piano. One day, when Mew is attacked in the school’s toilets, his neighbour Tong comes to his rescue. Eventually, the two boys bond and become inseparable. In the meantime, Tong’s older sister Tang (yes, the choice of names isn’t very helpful for non-Thai audiences) goes missing on a trekking tour in the jungles around Chiangmai in the north of the country. Her disappearance without a trace leaves her bereaved family stunned. Especially her father seems to be overwhelmed with grief and tries to drown his sorrows in whiskey. Not being able to cope with the situation, Tong’s family moves away leaving Mew without his best friend.

We meet the two families again after what seems to have been five years. After Mew’s grandmother’s death he now lives with his aunt and is a lead singer in a boyband called August. He is also the composer of all the songs that the band performs. One day, when Tong (not knowing the identity of the lead singer) wants to buy their latest album from a records stall, the stall-keeper informs him that the album has been sold out but quickly points in the direction of the band itself since he has talked to them a moment earlier. Tong follows after the band and recognises to his big surprise his long-lost friend Mew in their midst. They exchange phone numbers, and soon Tong finds himself drawn to Mew in a way he has never felt with Donut, the girl he’s officially dating. At the same time, a Chinese girl named Ying whose family moved into Tong’s house after his had left, spends her free time practising „white magic” which she is learning from a book, hoping to make Mew fall in love with her, just like she is with him. Her somewhat unconventional tricks – flipping Mew’s shoes on his porch and stuffing his hair into her teddy bear – don’t really bring about the desired results. Instead, Mew finds himself emotionally involved with Tong and can now (surprise, surprise!) finally write the love song so needed for their band to reach new heights of popularity with the teen girl crowd. He performs the song at a garden party arranged by Tong’s delusional father who is celebrating the return of his lost daughter (in fact just a decoy planted by his desperate wife) and the two end up kissing in the garden after the guests are gone. This is witnessed by Tong’s mother who is all but happy (’a hard drinking husband, a missing daughter and now a gay son’). She tells Mew to end their relationship behind Tong’s back. Mew and Tong are thrown apart but Mew’s love song performed at Siam Square (hence the name of the film) brings them back together. Or does it? The ending is in fact surprisingly ambigious and begs for a sequel. Well, maybe that was the intention.

„The Love of Siam” could have been set as a TV soap opera as it certainly has all the ingredients for it – several parallell drama subplots with rather weird twists on a par with anything „Santa Barbara” has had to offer. At the same time, the acting on the part of most actors, especially our pair in love, is surprisingly realistic, balanced and „non-soapy”. Another thing that separates this film from the mainstream Thai cinematography is the diversity of the society it portrays, even if it doesn’t seem so seen with Western eyes. Tong’s family are Catholics, and apparently the controversy of having a Catholic family as main characters in a Thai film meant for the masses has been almost as big as portraying a gay teen romance. But as for the gay aspect, the main shock is said to have been that the two boys at the heart of the story aren’t shown particularly effeminate. The Thai society can evidently live with those „poor creatures born with the wrong genitalia” (there are even special toilets for transsexuals across the country) but still finds it rather difficult to accept that a man can be gay without constantly having to wiggle his behind and squeak instead of speaking. Nor are the two boys in question forced into prostitution and dying of AIDS. Actually, they seem to be just like any other kid on the block and I guess that is the main point of controversy of this film. With this in mind, I believe that we can safely call this film groundbreaking in contemporary Thai cinematography. Here I have to add that when the film was recently shown on Thai TV the pivotal scene with the two boys kissing was omitted. It seems that the ground in question hasn't been broken with the Thai TV broadcasters yet.

As for concealing the true nature of the film in its marketing, the director himself has admitted that his objective was to reach a wider audience. It reminds me of my own experience at this year’s Kratkofil, a short film festival in Bosnia, when the festival’s organisers completely omitted any reference to gay and lesbian when they included my selection of gay and lesbian short films in their programme. Most of the people who had come to watch my selection had no idea that it was a queer one but only a few left. Had they announced it so that everybody would know beforehand, maybe no one would have come at all. Seen from that perspective the director of „The Love of Siam” might have been right in his tactics: by „tricking” the audiences he made them watch a different reality which in the end wasn’t that different from their own.

„The Love of Siam” is a sincere and rather convincingly made film about family ties and different kinds of love – Tong’s father’s self-destructive love for his lost daughter, his mother’s love for both him and her estranged husband and, of course, Mew’s and Tong’s first aspirations to find love for another human being outside of their families. While one kind of love is desired and even encouraged, another kind of love can be seen as dangerous and a threat to the other love. In a way, this films aspires to show that no love can be a threat to any other love and for that it deserves an immense credit. I can definitely recommend this film, especially if you don't find it all too tiresome to read subtitles for 3 hours. This aspect is certainly compensated by the charm and beauty of the two main leads.

Here is a video compilation of some of the romantic scenes from the film with Mew's love song presented as a karaoke sing-along both in Thai and English

Monday, 20 October 2008

Na sončni strani Alp (On The Sunny Side Of The Alps, Slovenia, 2007)

Director: Janez Burger.

Principal cast: Ibrahim Nouhoum, Kany Michel Obenga, Samuel Camara.

"On The Sunny Side Of The Alps" is not directly an LGBT-related film. However, I believe it deserves to be mentioned here since it's about racism and xenophobia which are soulmates of homophobia. This short film is set in Slovenia and depicts what seems to be everyday lives of ordinary Slovenes. Nothing extraordinary except the entire cast is African.

Here is the director's statement:

""On The Sunny Side Of The Alps" used to be the slogan of a promotion campaign of the Slovene Tourist Board which wanted to present Slovenia in the best possible light - as a beautiful subalpine country, full of hospitable and friendly people. However, recent racist and xenophobic events present Slovenia in a far darker light. It is most concerning that racist and xenophobic rhetoric is being used also by political elites, but even more concerning is the fact that their populist tendencies find fertile ground which helps their political credit to grow. This film is a reaction to the increasingly bizzare situation in my country. A film about a typical Slovene family which would never find shape if finance officials knew that this is the first Slovene black-African film."

Indeed. Apparently, he made the Slovene film funders believe that he was about to make a film which could basicly be used for promotion of tourism to Slovenia, intending to cast a number of popular Slovene actors, but when he got the funding he simply hired black actors for all the roles in the script and the result is simply hilarious. I guess he won't be getting more money from the Slovene film funders, but something tells me he doesn't really care about that. To my knowledge, he's already got funding for his new full-length film in Ireland. Now it remains to be seen if the Irish Tourist Board will be equally upset with the outcome!

"On The Sunny Side Of The Alps" is a witty comedy with subtle humour and an unmistakable Alpine (or, should I say, subalpine?) touch. Still, you don't have to have visited the country to fully enjoy it. And since cinematography is a visual art form, the message won't be lost on most viewers either.

Here you can watch a fragment from the film

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Queer Sarajevo Festival, a highly personal account

Photo by Rašid Krupalija.

If you had come to Sarajevo last week you would have seen large billboards across the city in connection with the forthcoming municipal elections. Quite a few of them state in massive letters – Sarajevo na evropskom putu or Sarajevo on Road to Europe. Yeah, sure – what about a fast track? Municipal elections have rarely got anything to do with pan-European issues but in this case the billboards’ authors might just have struck the chord with what’s at stake in their city and country, unknowingly.

Queer Sarajevo Festival was opened on Wednesday, 24 September in the premises of the Academy of Fine Arts. The occasion was also used for the opening of several exhibitions – a photo exhibition by Irfan Redžović, a sculpture exhibition by Alma Selimović (both from Bosnia) and a number of queer art works from different parts of former Yugoslavia. The hall with the art exhibitions where the opening took place was bursting with people – the organisers clearly weren´t counting on so many people showing up. In fact, it was almost impossible to see the art works for all the people. At one point, a representative of the Dutch embassy, being one of the main funders of the festival, gave a speech in English concluding it with „Long live the Queers!” followed by a speech in Bosnian made by Boba, one of the local organisers from Organisation Q. The crowds cheered and the whole atmosphere was lively but rather relaxed – the weeks of hate speech from parts of the Bosnian media and most political parties seemed rather distant.

In the meantime, the opposing crowd outside was growing bigger – the daily Ramadan meal at 7 pm was over. As the opening was coming to a close, I and three Bosnian friends of mine decided to move further and went outside. The crowd didn’t look particularly friendly but on the other side, at least at that moment they weren’t shouting or chanting anything and looked relatively calm, no doubt largely due to the presence of the police in front of the building. When we decided to start walking, a guy standing next to me silently tried to block my passage and pushed me. I asked him what his problem was but he didn’t reply. We started walking and I noticed that a group of those people also started walking in the same direction. One of the two girls in our group decided that we´d better get into her car which was parked on the other side of the Academy, not far away, so we turned right and walked through a line of policemen who were standing outside. The other side was badly lit and deserted – no civilians, no police. I kept watching our backs but nobody seemed to follow us at that point. But that was only a moment of calm before the storm. As we had reached the parking lot, I suddenly saw with the back of my eye that a group of people were running at us and a second later we were attacked from behind. I tried to turn around to defend myself and get away from them but fell and found myself surrounded by what seemed to be four young guys who started kicking the living daylights out of me from all sides. Somehow, I managed to get back on my feet and get out of the circle, so I started running all I could without looking back. As I was running, I noticed I was basically blind on my left eye and my hands were covered in blood. I also couldn’t help noticing how badly lit and deserted the streets were at that point. Absolutely no police presence 50 meters from the Academy. I eventually reached a place where I felt I was safe and my friends collected me from there. Most of that night was spent in a local hospital where they kept sending me from one clinic to another and eventually stitched me up. At the emergency room we also saw some other victims of the attacks that night. Two guys who had left the venue in a taxi were followed for four kilometers, then brutally dragged out of the car, threatened with guns and then beaten with them.

Towards dawn we were all taken to a police station where we gave our statements. This process took an incredible amount of time and the police officers in charge found it important to ask questions like what the maiden name of my mother was. Eventually, I and a friend of mine were driven to my hotel room with some police escort and we could finally get some sleep.

On the following day I was taken back to the hospital for some further checks but otherwise stayed in my hotel room all day watching TV including an episode of JAG with one of the main characters hospitalised after he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan. It seemed somehow appropriate. In the evening I was visited by some of the organisers who told me that the Festival as a public event wouldn´t continue since the police claimed that they couldn´t provide any protection for the participants or the organisers but that they would try to stage some of the planned events in secret locations for specifically invited guests. I was supposed to take part in a panel debate after the screening of John Greyson’s Lilies together with the director himself on Friday and although in a poor physical condition I still wanted to go through with it.

The day after, on Friday, I had to go back to the clinic of „facial reconstruction”. The organisers suggested that I go to their office after that as they were planning to take me and the other guests of the festival to „the only safe restaurant” in town for a dinner later that day. What I couldn´t quite foresee was that I was to stay inside that office for about 24 hours. Plans kept changing as the phones never went silent around me. The organisers even used my phone at times (I had my own Bosnian pay as you go SIM card) as they weren´t sure if their phones weren’t bugged. „Bugged by the police?” – „Yes, you never know who they are really working for”. At one point some of the organisers left for the airport to collect an artist who was coming to the festival to stage a performance. A car had followed them. Boba, the girl who remained in the office with me, switched off the lights, I sat down on the floor – just in case. After a number of calls back and forth we learned that they were now safe – they drove back from the airport with a police escort which they finally managed to get. Although offered, I decided not to leave. If they followed after me, they would learn where I´m staying and that place was definitely not safe. Not knowing who was lurking outside and what those people could come up with during the night, I decided to seek protection from a different source. Being a Danish national, I phoned the emergency number of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. About twenty minutes later I got a phone call from the Danish embassy. It turned out to be the ambassador himself. After some negotiations the embassy managed to persuade the Bosnian police to dispatch a police car to the area which was to keep an eye on us all night long. I guess it did, I never saw the actual car but that night will probably go down in my personal history as the longest night I had ever experienced, full of sounds of stopping cars and slammed car doors. At some point toward the morning I finally fell asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I knew I didn’t want to spend another night in that city. The organisers put me on a plane to Zagreb on Saturday afternoon after a rather remarkable drive through the city, first to my hotel room and then to the airport, which seemed rather surreal and, if anything, a bad reprise of some crap Hollywood film with Svetlana in the front seat trying to hide her face under a hood and me at the back seat constantly looking back. The day had come that I felt I had to be airlifted out of Sarajevo, just like those people in the early spring of 1992 as the Bosnian war was becoming a reality. The only difference being that there now wasn’t a war or any shelling or shooting and the other people at the airport didn’t seem to be in distress. This was pure terrorism and not many ordinary people in Sarajevo seemed to care. I left but the local organisers stayed and so did thousands of Bosnian queers, many of them too afraid to leave their houses after what had happened.

One of the parties contesting at the municipal elections in Sarajevo on 5 October, Stranka za BiH or Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina which is led by Haris Silajdžić, one of the three rotating presidents in that country, has the whole city plastered with another set of billboards – these ones read 100% Europe. It is also the same party that has been the most ferocious opponent of Queer Sarajevo Festival publicly. What can I say to this? They probably mean 100% Europe as of 1933 when Hitler was democratically elected as Germany´s chancellor. There is, of course, no connection between people governing Sarajevo and Bosnia, people like Haris Silajdžić, and Europe as of 2008. Whichever road to Europe these people believe they are travelling, it hasn´t existed for decades and at the moment it certainly resembles the Old Bridge in Mostar after it was blown up in 1993. I sincerely hope the events from last week will serve as an eye-opener to the larger public.

Queer Sarajevo Festival was opened on 24 September but it was never closed. All the performances, film screenings and other events never took place and are still waiting for their audience. An audience which is there and which will not disappear, no matter how much certain parts of the Bosnian society may wish them away. It is therefore up to the Bosnian public, but also the international community, to make sure that these events DO take place and a significant part of this EU candidate member state's population can feel free from both the state and private terrorism which characterises the country at the moment.

Here is some footage made by Croatian TV on the opening night

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Behikvot Hahatiha Hahasera (The Quest for the Missing Piece, Israel, 2007)

Director: Oded Lotan.

Producer: Claudia Levin.

Male circumcision as a concept was virtually unknown to me until my early twenties when I crossed some American guys' path in Europe and learned to my big surprise that a great deal of the planet’s male population had their willies snipped after they were born. The whole idea of having your most private organ mutilated for (as I was told then) hygienic reasons only incensed my imagination and produced horrific images of sharp scissors swaying at my manhood like a set of ruthless shark jaws. I’ve never been particularly squeamish but this concept just seemed too disconcerting. The premise of Oded Lotan’s documentary „The Quest for the Missing Piece” is exactly the opposite – when he moves to Germany he soon realises that most guys there have something he hardly knew existed, namely foreskins. He then decides to set out on a quest to find his missing piece – the foreskin which was taken away from him shortly after birth.

Oded Lotan is a Jewish gay man who lives in Israel with his German husband. The main reason why it is possible for a gay couple to live openly in Israel, especially in Tel-Aviv is that despite all, this is a secular, modern society and no beard-shaking ultra-Orthodox rabbies have the power to prevent secular Jews from living accoding to their sexuality or their beliefs. It is explained early on in the film that circumcision is an ancient ritual which is a commandment from God in Judaism, thus establishing a link between God and the circumcised (no hygienic reasons are given in any holy Jewish scripts, I must add). So why does an overwhelming majority of people in Israel who are not particularly religious still practice this old tradition? The answer is simple: everybody else does it, it’s a Jewish tradition – brit milah or the Convent of Judaism. If it isn’t done, your friends and relatives will be all over you accusing you of all possible sins, so it’s easier just to fit in, not to stand out. The film even shows a couple of immigrants from Russia in their mid-twenties serving in the Israeli army who’ve had enough of being ridiculed by their comrades in arms and decide to go through with the procedure just to fit in and be accepted as real Jews. That’s what one can call integration by circumcision!

There is, however, resistance to this ancient practice also among Jews in Israel. The documentary takes us to an almost secret meeting of a group of people who call themselves Parents for Intact Children which consists of parents who have refused to circumcise their children as well as pregnant women seeking advice on how to avoid the procedure for their soon-to-be- born ones. The arguments voiced here echo the statement made by the American Medical Association in 1999 – the procedure is medically unnecessary, it inflicts pain and is done without the child’s consent and therefore not recommended as long as it isn’t intended as therapeutic. But there is obviously such peer pressure in the Israeli society that these people still find that they have to hide away from the public eye in order to discuss these matters.

It is evident that circumcision in Jewish culture isn’t just a question of removing a piece of skin from your penis. Brit milah is a tribal ritual which puts you into the fold of the chosen people. It brandishes you, if I may say so, as a Jew. The psychologist who is interviewed by Oded Lotan only confirms it – you may remove all the external signs of Jewdom but you will never be able to restore your foreskin, you become a Jew for life. Since circumcision here is a question of identity, another question begs to be asked – when so much of your Jewish heritage and identity-bearing culture is so rigid and defies modern, secular logic, is it possible to be a gay Jew, i.e. to have both your Jewish and gay identities at the same time? Would Oded and his beloved circumcise their children if they ever were to have any? But our inquisitor only asks the questions and makes no attempt to answer them, thus leaving all doors open.

"The Quest for the Missing Piece" is a rather humorous, semi-animated documentary which touches upon subjects which aren’t in themselves perceived as particularly light-hearted. It deserves credit for attempting to create a debate both in Israel and among the Jewish diaspora worldwide about modernity versus tradition in the Jewish culture and putting question marks to the notion of only one proper Jewish identity. As the film isn’t very graphic in its depiction of the circumcision rituals, only the most squeamish of you should skip it – for the most part it's kosher!

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Kratkofil, the 2nd International Short Film Festival in Banja Luka, Bosnia & Herzegovina

The International Short Film Festival Kratkofil is a very young addition to the festival circuit in Europe. It was held only for the second time this year but the organisers already claim it is the second largest of its kind in the Balkans. Well, they might be right. However, the most important thing is that the people behind it are trying to put Banja Luka on the map for other reasons than the ones the city became (in)famous for just a little over a decade ago. And that is highly commendable in itself.

The festival took place between 11 and 15 June and the competition programme consisted of 55 films from all over the world. Apart from that the festival offered a number of different programmes with various themes including my own selection of gay and lesbian shorts.

The festival had its own hub on the premises of the local Youth Centre (Omladeni Centar) which had an official reception with a hospitality team, a press centre and workshop space.

Inside the centre there was also a lounge area which basically worked as a meeting point. These cushion-like chairs were in fact made of tyres.

An original solution, I guess, although not always too comfortable to sit on. From the left: Thomas Pors, a maker of animated films from Denmark, Alejandro Andrade Pease, a Mexican/Spanish documentalist and Alistair Paxman, a Scottish musician from New York.

My programme was scheduled for Friday, 13 June. Since I'm not a superstitious person I didn't object to that and nothing unfortunate happened either! Here I'm presenting my programme in a cinema called Kozara.

There was no mentioning anywhere of my programme actually being a gay and lesbian one. It was simply titled Over The Rainbow and marked with a discreet Q by the organisers, so quite a few people in the audience had no idea what they had come to see. My presentation made some people giggle nervously and some of them left during the screening. On the other hand, I have the suspicion that not many people would have shown up at all, had it been promoted as a gay and lesbian programme. Not that there aren't enough queer people in Banja Luka but for all the same reasons why I have difficulties attracting large audiences during my very own LGBT Film Days in Riga. So, in a way I guess I ended up forcing these people to deal with homosexuality and that may be seen as a reward in itself.

The opening and closing ceremonies were held on the roof of an old trade centre called Boska which was apparently seen as very classy when it was opened back in the 1970's. I must admit that that the idea was not bad at all, especially seen as neither of the two cinemas used for screenings during the festival could have accommodated all the people who wanted to attend the ceremonies in question. The late night competition screenings each day were supposed to take place on the roof too. However, it rained most nights, so "the open air experience" frequently had to be moved to the nearby cinema Palas.
On the right - Darija Buzaković, the festival's director giving a speech during the opening ceremony. Behind her - some of Kratkofil's volunteers.

Heinz Hermanns, the manager of Interfilm in Berlin, one of the largest short film festivals in the world, headed Kratkofil's jury.

The Audience Award as well as The Best Fiction Film Award went to the Swiss-German co-production "Auf der Strecke" ("On The Line"). Thomas Bachmann, the film's editing director was there to collect both prizes.

The Grand Prix of the festival went to "Brædrabylta" ("Wrestling"), an Icelandic film by Grímur Hákonarson (who wasn't himself present at the festival) which is a tale of two gay wrestlers living in rural Iceland who grapple with their love for one another. An interesting choice, especially seen as it was the only gay-themed film in the competition. Without diminishing the qualities of the film (although I must admit that this short has never appealed to me personally), I find it somewhat intriguing that the jury's choice fell on this mini version of "Brokeback Mountain". But be it as it may, it can also be considered a small victory for gay equality in a society that can hardly be described as other than rampantly macho and homophobic.

All things come to an end - last drinks on the roof of Boska. From the left - Alistair Paxman from Scotland/NYC, Kevin Kirchenbauer from Berlin, Thomas Pors from Denmark and Mattias Wright from Munich.

All photos with the exception of the last two by Māra Pētersone.

And here is the festival's official video

Kiril Džajkovski came to town and performed at the old fortress during the festival together with Duke Bijadzijev and TK Wonder from New York. Here is my own recording of one of the songs

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

LGBT Film Days Riga (Latvia)

Between 8 and 11 May the film gallery K-Suns hosted the third annual LGBT Film Days in Riga. This event is being organised by me personally in co-operation with a few embassies and foreign cultural representations. Needless to say, an absolute majority of Latvian institutions do not wish to have anything to do with this festival. But hey, I am an optimist - the only way is up!

A total of 26 films was shown - 7 full length feature films, 3 documentaries and 16 short films divided into two programmes - You & Me and Colourful World. To my surprise, the biggest audience magnet turned out to be a German documentary about Indian hijras - Between the Lines/India's Third Gender. Well, maybe I should review it sometime soon then!

This year's poster (as well as the one last year) was designed by Paul Sixta, a Dutch multimedia artist and filmmaker. And this is what it looks like

The film days were opened with "Keillers Park", a Swedish thriller which I reviewed here some time ago. The film's director, Susanna Edwards came to Riga in this connection and presented it to the audience. And this is what she looks like

And here both of us are standing in front of the cinema where all the films were screened

Both photos by Māra Pētersone.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Latter Days (USA, 2003)

Director: C. Jay Cox.

Principal cast: Steve Sandvoss, Wes Ramsey, Reb. Johnson, Jacqueline Bisset.

Homosexuality and religion have always been a troubled tandem, to say the least. While in the past homophobia used to be an undisputed and integral part of the institutionalised religion or rather its officially preached dogma, today the issue seems to be splitting entire churches right in the middle. But then again - there are churches openly debating the issue and there are those trying to silence it to death. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons, certainly doesn't belong to the former group. But can it stay in the latter category forever?

Elder Davis (Aaron to those few who know him personally) is sent from his native Idaho to Los Angeles to spread the Mormon faith together with three other guys. They move into a flat in a residential area from where they are to launch their soul-saving operation. Things become a little awkward when they realise that their closest neighbour is Christian (an interesting choice of name, I might add), an openly gay and flashy party queen who is in no way intimidated by his new residential entourage. He soon lays his eyes on the pretty boy Aaron and even makes a bet at work (surprise, surprise – he works in a trendy downtown restaurant owned by a former Hollywood actress) that before long he’ll get him into bed. Aaron, who is intrigued by this apparently completely uninhibited and oversexed apparition that is Christian and evidently not so uninterested himself, falls into a trap masterminded by the latter so that Christian almost succeeds in his endeavour. But only almost, because Aaron is quick enough to realise that he is about to become just another one of Christian’s uncountable conquests. And that is definitely not what he wants, especially because he is in fact still a virgin. In disappointment, he calls him “a walking, talking marshmellow Peep” and walks away. Under normal circumstances Christian would probably just shrug it off but he doesn’t seem to be able to get Aaron out of his head and becomes determined to prove that he is more than he appears to be on the outside by volunteering for an early morning home delivery service for a housebound AIDS patient. Eventually, his determination seems to pay off with regard to Aaron but as the two of them are about to have an intimate moment, Aaron’s missionary mates happen to walk in on them.

In most cases, being found out this way causes embarrassment and a great deal of initial panic, especially if you weren’t planning on leaving the closet as yet. However, if you happen to be a Mormon missionary, this turn of events has dire consequences. Aaron is immediately sent home and subsequently excommunicated by his own hard-faced and unforgiving father while his mother can’t even look him into the eyes. Homosexuality is one of the worst sins you can be accused of in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints and if you don’t seem to be set on “praying the gay away”, you actually may end up in a clinic where they give your penis an electric shock treatment while they force you to watch gay porn and put you in a bathtub filled with ice until you literally turn light blue. As outrageous as it is, this treatment is in fact still practised in certain clinics in the US to turn people, especially youngsters, straight. Alas, this gruesome fate also befalls our Aaron. And there is only one thing that helps him survive the rejection of his family and the torture in the clinic – the love that he and Christian share.

According to many gay people who come from a Mormon background, the portrayal of the Mormons and their ways in this film is convincing and realistic. As I lack firsthand experience myself, I can only shudder at the thought that there seem to be so many religions in this world which in the name of their dogmatic teachings are ready to maim people physically and mentally because they don’t seem to fit these very same dogmatic teachings. Somehow, the words “Jesus loves you” cannot but sound utterly and ultimately meaningless and devoid of any relevance in this context. Unfortunately, the brainwashing that these religions do still keeps many a tortured soul trapped in a limbo that is hell on earth. And I’m not so sure they will have a reward for their pain in an afterlife.

“Latter Days” is not a masterpiece of cinematography. In fact, it is at times fairly cheesy and badly acted, especially when it comes to the use of religious symbolisms throughout the film which have made my toes cringe. But it is a heartfelt and convincing attempt to liberate many of these trapped souls that are still out there trying to undo the harm done to them by the “loving and caring” religions. And as such it is priceless.

And here you can watch the film's trailer:

Friday, 29 February 2008

Proteus (Canada, 2003)

Director: John Greyson.

Principal cast: Rouxnet Brown, Shaun Smyth, Neil Sandilands, Kristen Thomson.

John Greyson's ability to create aesthetically pleasing films in somewhat unconventional ways has always been accompanied by his unquenchable desire to speak up against the injustices of this world. While the issues of AIDS and human rights for homosexuals comprise the main bulk of his work, "Proteus" addresses an even broader range of issues including colonialism and racism which are, still, closely related to homophobia and fight for the universal right to love whoever it may be that you fall in love with, regardless of the gender and colour of the object of your affection.

The film is based on a true story about the fate of Rijkhart Jacobsz, a Dutch sailor and Claas Blank, a black native of South Africa who had assumed a Dutch name. Their story was dug up in the archives related to the infamous Robben Island prison just off shore from Cape Town by Jack Lewis, the script’s co-writer and a South African human rights activist who was adamant that it deserved the attention of a broader audience. The records found in the archives were from 1735 and when carefully studied, they suggested that the pair had been together for at least ten years prior to being convicted of sodomy at the height of the “sodomy panic” which had gripped the Netherlands at that time. In 1730, 70 people were executed in Amsterdam alone for “crimes against nature and mankind” which meant nothing other than that they were gay men, either caught in the act or named by others under torture. South Africa being in the hands of the Dutch settlers protected by the colonial Dutch army apparently succumbed to the same wave of witchhunting. What caught the attention of Jack Lewis was that the record of their trial didn’t contain any references to what they both were and what it was that they had together. It was indeed love that didn’t dare speak its name and Jack Lewis decided that it was about time for it to speak. It took about 7 years of raising funds for the project and carrying it out in collaboration with John Greyson, and the result was a poetic, yet angry film about love versus prejudice and intolerance, humanity versus barbarity.

It isn’t random that the events take place on Robben Island, for it was also there that Nelson Mandela was sent to serve his life sentence in 1964. The film’s authors took a creative approach to drawing parallells between the two eras incorporating elements of the 20th century into what is essentially an 18th century drama. The court’s clerks look like they are taken directly out of the 60’s with their beehive perms and heavily framed glasses. The main sadist among the prison guards is wearing a contemporary uniform. And the bloodthirsty Boer settlers wearing 18th century outfits go chasing after one of our protagonists in a jeep. The mixture of period elements is, of course, fully intentional. And it only emphasises the continued relevance of the film’s message today. In 2008, homosexuality is still punishable by death in Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. And one can only speculate whether courts in these countries still follow the Dutch 18th century practice of sending the bill for the executions on to the families of the executed.

The story begins to unfold when Claas Blank is brought before the court after being captured by a local Boer settler and accused of stealing his cattle. Due to lack of evidence he is acquitted of these charges, but is still sentenced to 10 years of hard labour on Robben Island for simply opposing a white settler. On the island, he encounters Rijkhart Jakobz who has ended up in prison after having been caught copulating with another man. Eventually, the two are drawn to each other and start a relationship which they must protect from the watchful eyes of their fellow inmates at all costs. However, their sexual encounters are soon discovered by Virgil Niven, a Scottish botanist who has come to South Africa to study and give names to the different species of Protea, a genus of flowering plants specific to the Cape region first discovered by European botanists in the 17th century. Commissioned by the legendary Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist Carl Linnaeus, he enlists the help of Claas Blank who provides him with Bushman names for the plants and tells him about the local beliefs connected to these plants, otherwise known as sugarbushes. Virgil Niven, who has a wife and a child in Amsterdam, is in fact just another example of a gay man doing what is required of him in front of the society while struggling with his true sexuality. He, too, harbours feelings for Claas Blank but is unable to do anything about it, so he remains just an observer, albeit an active one, of both his own inevitable demise and that of our imprisoned pair.

It was purely coincidental that the former South African Prime Minister and architect of apartheid, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd suggested that protea be included in the new design of the South African flag, thus almost becoming the country’s national symbol the same year as Nelson Mandela was sentenced to a life in prison. However, it wasn’t random that Virgil Niven was studying these beautiful flowers and giving them names in the film. He named one of the species Protea Blankia, thus paying a tribute to his secret infactuation with Claas Blank who in return said the words which were very central to the film’s message – “I’m proud to be a name”. In all essence, he was saying - I’m proud to have a name, I’m proud to have an identity. It was a clear recognition of him as a human being and his dignity as a human being. Earlier in the film, Virgil explained to Claas not only the new system of nomenclature which Carl Linnaeus had introduced in botanics but also the distinguished scientist's racial classification which consisted of five categories - Africanus, Americanus, Asiaticus, Europeanus and Monstrosus. The “monstrous” humans included not only mythological creatures like the dwarf of the Alps and the Patagonian giant but also the "monorchid" Hottentots, the African people of whom Claas was one himself. Hottentots (now known as Khoikhoi) were basically considered just a more developed form of apes, and Virgil was even quick to point out that they had a Hottentot’s skeleton with horns on display at the Museum of Natural History in Amsterdam. Shockingly, this worldview has still survived among some fundamentalist Christians in South Africa and beyond. In all essence, their point is that since the only humans on Noah’s Arc were white, all the black people must have derived from the apes!

This kind of marginalisation and dehumanisation is also known all too well in connection with homophobia which is still fairly rampant across this planet. “Proteus”, although poetic in tone, is full of outrage and a powerful reminder to all of us why we have to continue our fight for the human rights of all people and that we still have a long way to go before we all “have a name”. Needless to say, Linnaeus eventually changed all the names for the different species of protea invented by Virgil Niven. In a manner of speech, this film restores the name of Protea Blankia to its rightful owner.

Here you can watch the film's trailer (in German)