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)