An appreciation of the 12th annual Dayton LGBT Film Festival
It was a beautiful mid-October weekend in Southern Ohio, and a modest-but-dedicated crowd of midwesterners congregated in the lobby of Dayton’s Neon Movies for its annual LGBT Film Festival. Over the course of the weekend, a total of seven feature-length films and ten shorts would be screened for the festival’s attendees (Yours Truly made it to five of the features and nine of the shorts). The films ranged in subject matter: from high school rom-com, to maudlin countryside English drama, to a documentary about the most world-renowned drag ballet troupe, to a family portrait set in a small Alaskan town. Collectively, the films seemed (to this viewer, at least) to represent the best and, on one or two occasions, the worst of LGBTQ culture in the 21st century. Which is a testament to the quality of the festival and its selection process: for the dregs only make the gems pop that much more; and as in every year prior, there were far more gems than dregs.
The festival opened on Friday the 13th with Trudie Styler’s independently-produced teen comedy-drama, Freak Show. For want to move on and discuss some of the more worthwhile features showcased during the festival, I am tempted to fall back on the old adage “the less said about it, the better.” But of the few disappointing features this writer endured over the weekend, Freak Show actually presents a substantial number of worthwhile talking points. Sadly, the finished film appears mostly oblivious to its own potential; and when the filmmakers seize upon the opportunity to say something of substance in the picture, they either lack the vocabulary to communicate it effectively, or forfeit the opportunity altogether in order to fall back on easy clichés and grossly oversimplified (not to mention divisive) rhetoric. In fact, it is more-than-likely that anyone with anti-LGBT inclinations would not only have their fears reinforced, but emboldened by the film’s misguided perspective.
For starters, it is impossible to read Freak Show as anything but a direct descendant of the prolific American television entrepreneur Ryan Murphy—and more specifically, the zeitgeist-defining Glee franchise on Fox television. From the outset, Styler makes her stylistic template all-too-clear: from the upscale school environment, to the character (stereo)types (the hunky-jock-with-a-heart-of-gold; the Christian goody-two-shoes cheerleader; the loud-and-proud queer kids) to the generic, broadly stylized photography and editing, Freak Show lives and breathes the DNA of the cultural harbinger that preceded it. With one key difference—which the picture wears on its sleeve rather clumsily and cluelessly: that whereas Glee emerged during the Obama years of “hope and change,” Freak Show is presented as a product of desperation in “the age of 45.” Which makes it all the more disappointing that, rather than presenting alternatives and proposing solutions to the mean-spirited cynicism of the country’s cultural hurricane, Styler & co. seem to have gotten lost somewhere in the storm.
I find it especially interesting to note that Freak Show (a borderline cruel comedy) was helmed by a woman director: in my personal reading of the picture, the fundamental mistakes made by Styler’s production were the product of good intentions—yet they seem to echo an unhealthy trend permeating the country in 2017. Namely, the trend of going to bat for an identity/gender/ethnicity outside one’s own, but resorting to blindly aggressive (verging on plain mean) tactics that many of the persecuted individuals stuck in the limelight might well feel inclined to reject—if given a chance to speak. It is all-too-apparent that Styler has an emotional investment in her protagonist, the precociously flamboyant Billy Bloom: one questions, however, whether this same emotional investment has been applied towards any of the other characters in the picture. For it appears that Styler’s empathetic range is about as myopic as the picture’s screenplay (adapted from a book that I’ve never read, and am in no position to criticize), and her specific lack of empathy for one of the narrative’s primary antagonists—the goody-two-shoes cheerleader, Tiffany (played capably—perhaps too much so—by Willa Fitzgerald)—is telling. The narrative’s intentions backfire with each cringe-inducing line forced upon Fitzgerald’s caricatured cheerleader (an archetype one could surely recognize without the undue delineation granted here), espousing every bigoted stereotype of the religious Right, but without even a hint at the human fallibility that enables such nonsense. (For comparison, note that Billy is never painted as anything less than a victim, though his distinctly privileged and narrow worldview just as readily coincides with that of a bully.) Styler & co. have gone to such great lengths to mock and vilify their antagonist, that any viewer with a modicum of trained compassion might feel compelled to jump to Tiffany’s defense.
As for our protagonist, Billy Bloom represents pretty much all the negative sterotypes of queer youth, with few identifiable virtues. For instance, Billy is frequently seen quoting Oscar Wilde, yet in practice he represents none of Wilde’s resiliency, wisdom, or empathy for his peers. He bemoans his ostracization at school, yet intentionally exacerbates the problem by presenting increasingly rarefied and flamboyant incarnations of himself from day to day—simultaneously expecting and lamenting criticism. Looking back on the picture, I am reminded of an insight shared in the documentary Rebels on Pointe, screened Sunday afternoon: speaking in relation to the ethos of the film’s subject (a drag ballet troupe), one commentator insists that dancers “don’t have to fit in, but they have to be able to function.” When in Freak Show, the blame for the protagonist’s inability to do either is foisted upon a cheerleader, I can only hope that no one buys the implication (particularly LGBTQ teenagers, for whom the picture was most clearly intended; what kind of message is this?)
Our protagonist (and the film he fronts, for that matter) waves a banner of blind acceptance and tolerance, but he routinely displays a lack of awareness, empathy, and respect for those outside his sphere of influence. In a particularly telling sequence, Billy decides to compete against Tiffany for the title of homecoming queen, and subsequently attempts to outshine his competition at a stadium pep rally. Tiffany, who proudly states she has been preparing for this occasion since 7th grade, presents herself on a predictably decorative float with a banner announcing her candidacy; Billy ostensibly one-ups her by riding in on a float shaped like an enormous high-heeled platform shoe—holding a guitar and playfully pantomiming the act of making music. Watching the broadly painted scene unfold, I found myself struck less by the grandiosity of the protagonist’s presentation, and more by the way the scene inadvertently highlights the empty ambition of Billy’s character, and the movie in general: for while they both offer an occasionally credible guise of substance—fragments of a message: an increased awareness and understanding of LGBTQ issues, perhaps; or some vague missive of empowerment—they evidently lack the ability to make any real music with the tools at their disposal. By the film’s long-awaited close, its creators have succeeded only in drawing our attention to the weakness of their own propositions; never having bothered to investigate (much less address) the source of the bigotry they feigned to condemn. (On a more positive note, I will take a moment here to champion the never-ending talents of Bette Midler and Celia Weston: two beacons of on-screen light who never fail to shine brightly.)
But the night was’t a total wash: the short that preceded Freak Show, a 12-minute drama centered upon a young man of color who enters the world of drag and discovers his queer family (in the same vein mined by Jennie Livingston 27 years prior), presented us with an endearing portrait of queer family dynamics. The boy’s mother (played smartly by Yolonda Ross) convincingly represents the real-life struggle of mothers around the world—recognizing their own distance from the cultural orientation of their offspring, but ill-equipped to traverse the gap and (in some cases) reluctant to even try, for fear of challenging one’s own convictions (the dual meaning of the film’s title, “Walk For Me,” further highlights this theme). Driving home at the end of the night, I found myself regretting the disparity in runtimes between the two features.
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Saturday’s offerings proved much more rewarding—starting with a selection of “Top Drawer Shorts” (seven in total): three of which were forgettable, three of which were good, and one that was outstanding. The first entry, “Something New,” assumes the form of a light-hearted romantic comedy (the writer and star, Ben Baur, was present for the screening and explained during a brief Q&A that he found inspiration in the romantic comedies of Meg Ryan: having never personally acquired a taste for Ms. Ryan’s whitebreaded brand of bourgeois lovesickness, I confess to having no horse in this race, and will temper my criticism accordingly). While essentially innocuous, the script is tepid at best, and outright callow in its lowest moments. Which isn’t to say that queer comedies haven’t traditionally been shaded in tones of callowness; but when no other qualities can be discerned, one wonders if this might be all the filmmakers have to offer.
The second short in the series, “The Devil is in the Details,” offered us something more substantial—but juxtaposed against its hollow predecessor, it almost felt over-compensatory. A period piece set in a 19th century French borstal for girls, the film centers on a young woman achieving the realization that she was born with hermaphroditic genitalia. As her testes painfully descend throughout the short’s exposition, the faculty grapples with the boundaries of gender identity and ultimately decides to transfer the student to an all-boys school. Beautifully shot and impeccably acted, the only shortcoming I could perceive in “The Devil…” was its somewhat constrictive running length; which is, in film terms, a definitive compliment.
Next up, the festival’s first “true story” offering: titled “Imago,” this quasi-documentary explores life through the eyes of a 15-year-old transgendered girl, who decides to write a letter to her father outlining the reasons she cannot bring herself to spend time with him anymore (the end credits explain that the screenplay took this real-life letter as its source material/inspiration). The film is short, effective, and memorable: one gleans the distinct impression that the filmmakers bit off just as much as they could chew within the budgeted amount of screen time. The film was followed by what read to me like a failed Saturday Night Live skit (“Haygood Eats”), and then came the cream of this anthology’s crop—a short documentary entitled “Bootwmn.”
Somewhere between Christopher Guest and Louis Malle’s American documentaries from the 1980s (God’s Country; …And the Pursuit of Happiness), “Bootwmn” is a charmingly earnest, refreshingly non-abrasive portrait of a self-proclaimed Texan bulldyke named Deana McGuffin. Charting her journey from apprentice to her grandfather’s boot-making enterprise, to a visionary boot designer/boot-maker in her own right, the film toys thoughtfully and playfully with themes of authenticity, communication through creativity, and the objective value of a work ethic. Throughout the film we meet two of Deana’s employees, and join them as a fly on the wall during their adventurous decision to enter a pair of queerly decorated boots (known as the “Gay State” boots) into a highly traditional Texan boot-making competition. For fear of spoiling the outcome of this altogether remarkable celebration of the human spirit, I will refrain from saying more.
The penultimate short, an Australian drag piece titled “Picking Up,” was fine but forgettable. And while not as forgettable, Danny DeVito’s cute and aptly titled “Curmudgeons” left me wanting (of what exactly, I’m not sure). My vote for Best Short is cast for “Bootwmn.”
Up next—and following immediately on the heels of the “top-drawer shorts”—one of two full-length documentaries included in this year’s line-up: The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. Comprehensive in scope and scintillating in detail (including the sultry anecdote of a threeway with Rock Hudson), Untold Tales is a delight, and is bound to win over fans and first-timers in equal measure. In classic documentary form, filmmaker Jennifer Kroot places Armistead’s first-person narrative of his own life’s story within a well-rounded framework of objective context from third party sources. For example, when Maupin explains his defense for having outed other celebrities at the height of his own fame, Kroot quickly jumps to the perspective of other LGBT voices who alternately support and criticize his motives—with a pause added for the viewer to reach their own conclusion. At no point does Kroot’s focus stray far from her central subject, but the sheer range of perspectives, stories, and insights shared throughout presents a veritable kaleidoscope of 20th century queer culture. Ultimately, Maupin emerges (like all great documentary subjects) a fascinating, admirable, and flawed character—whose life work (and story) raises as many questions as it provides answers. It goes on to win this year’s Audience Favorite award.
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While I regretfully missed the Saturday evening screening of Sensitivity Training (directed by Melissa Finell), I returned for the late-night showing of Shaz Bennett’s commendable feature-length debut, Alaska is a Drag. Filmed in rural Michigan but inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences gutting fish for a living in a small Alaskan town (while dreaming of making it big in the movie industry), Alaska comes across as an honest, assured, and pretense-free family drama—raising issues of identity and conformity with all the wisdom and humor denied us by Friday night’s feature. The star of the film, Martin L. Washington, Jr., delivers an absorbing and memorable turn as Leo—the twenty-something Alaskan drag queen who dreams of making it big and moving to the big city, but is trapped gutting fish for a living and tending family wounds. At times reminiscent of characters in a Jarmusch movie, Martin’s tangible rapport with his on-screen sibling (played by Maya Washington; no relation) gives the film life and frequently compensates for the frailties of its writing. The film is shot simply and effectively, and the photography is, at times, inspired—particularly during the sequences of the family RV at night, and the transitional sequences of the siblings strutting home down a dirt path. The exceptional supporting cast of Alaska is rounded out by Matt Dallas, Christopher O’Shea, and Kevin Daniels—with smart cameos by Jason Scott Lee (Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story) as Leo’s affable employer, and Margaret Cho as the town’s drag king bartender.
Leaving the theater at the end of this second night, it struck me that Alaska is a Drag handled many of the same issues and themes marketed by the opening night’s misfire: the queering of masculinity and jock culture; interpersonal conflict and religious conviction; the tension between longing to fit in and wanting to stand out. What worked in the latter film, but not in the first? For starters, Bennett’s film leaves something to the imagination—a quality I can only speculate is closely linked to a filmmaker’s respect for the audience’s intelligence. More importantly, Bennett (who wrote the film as well as having directed it) insists upon an understanding of each character in her film’s tapestry; which isn’t to say she allocates equal screen time to each character, but simply that she refrains from taking any cheap shots, and commits herself to practicing the fundamental message queer culture has been striving to convey for well over a century. The message: that everyone deserves the dignity of their own personhood—and the plight (read: struggle) of humankind is to recognize and respect this universal dignity.
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The third and final day of the Dayton LGBT Film Festival read like a victory lap. I missed the first feature (Pushing Dead, directed by Tom E. Brown), but made it for the two final screenings: Bobbi Jo Hart’s documentary on the (in)famous Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, titled Rebels on Pointe; and this year’s heavily-hyped British import, God’s Own Country—touted as a more explicit Brokeback Mountain. Both films successfully live up to the hype surrounding them (a second screening of Rebels on Pointe was added, at the last minute, to accommodate the Dayton Ballet dancers who could not make it to the first screening), and it is authenticity that emerges as the weekend’s clear winner.
In Rebels on Pointe, the viewer is introduced to the world of drag ballet through an all-access pass into the real lives of dancers for the world-renowned Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo—the first and foremost all-male (and all-gay) ballet company; committed to rendering post-modern (and frequently comical) interpretations of historically celebrated ballet works. The film is gentle, intelligent, smartly pieced together, and irreverent in all the right places. As we get to know each of the dancers profiled by Hart & co., we discover an eclectic range of personalities, family backgrounds, dance résumés, and cultural origins. One dancer is a young Cuban emigre whose mother was a dancer of note in his homeland; another is a thirty-year-old American who struggled to fit in with the orthodox ballet company he had initially joined—finding himself more properly challenged by the the more experimental director of the Trockadero; another is a forty-year-old man whose parents underwent a generational struggle to embrace their son’s life pursuit (they eventually came around, and are featured memorably among the filmed interviews); yet another has chosen to relocate from his native land of Italy, in order to follow his dream and make his family proud. Hart expertly weaves the dancers’ stories together with selected snippets from live Trockadero performances, and the finished product emerges as something between a behind-the-scenes Madonna tour documentary, and one of Jean Rouch’s sociological studies.
Speaking of studies, God’s Own Country wound the weekend down on a note of decided realism. Set in the stunningly photogenic Yorkshire countryside, this feature-length debut by director Francis Lee is likely to acquire a fair share of international accolades before the year is up: and rightly so. Filmed with the same grace regularly displayed by one of its two main protagonists, the Romanian heartthrob Gheorghe (played with quiet magnetism by Alec Secareanu), God’s Own Country tells the tragicomic tale of a young Englishman (played by Josh O’Connor) following in the footsteps of his father—a modest sheep farmer—and willfully suppressing his own dreams of finding romantic fulfillment with another man. As his repressed inclinations toward tenderness habitually transfer themselves into acts of rage and brutality, Johnny (O’Connor) embarks upon a gradual but believable journey of self-discovery; visually, his journey is matched by the characters’ endeavor to surmount the harsher elements of the stark, cold country.
There are many directions in which Lee’s film could have easily mis-stepped, but it is a testament to his skills as a budding filmmaker that he managed to avoid every opportunity to genericize (or scandalize) his subject matter. As with any film of note, the photography merges with the sound design and the chemistry of the actors’ performances to create a fully-formed piece of moving poetry: a whole that can be read both as an eloquent sum of its parts, and as an entity onto itself. O’Connor deserves special commendation for the complex definition of his lead performance, which successfully elicits every audience response imaginable over the course of the film’s roughly two-hour runtime: from disgust to sadness; from anger to empathy; from laughter to scrutiny. In Johnny, we find a protagonist with both the nuanced pathology of Terry Malloy or Jim Stark, and the primal force of Jake La Motta. Here’s looking forward to what Lee (and O’Connor, for that matter) have to offer us next.
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Seen together, the films selected for the 12th annual Dayton LGBT Film Festival effectively presented a sort of running dialogue between disparate perspectives and ideologies throughout the queer community: a dialogue that transcends time and identity, but occasionally gets hung up on or the other (or both). In granting the auspice of victory to the notion of “authenticity,” I propose that the finest observations presented throughout this dialogue emerged from a place of genuine creative expression, whereas the weakest commentary appeared wrapped up in a shiny bow of commodified entertainment. A contrast that resonates most markedly in our contemporary cultural climate—in which these same factors of commodification and hollow entertainment, which have regrettably (but nevertheless, successfully) embedded themselves within our cultural and political landscapes, threaten daily to consume all forms of genuine interest in (and expression of) the human condition.
We see it in the contrast between Freak Show and Rebels on Pointe; or the chasm of perspective (and intention) separating “Something New” from “Bootwmn.” We also see it in the recurring re-appearance of negative gay stereotypes: the callow sex addict who treats his fellow humans like objects; the pompous and shallow histrionics of a young queer kid who expects the world to bow at his feet; the self-righteous rebukes directed at anyone and everyone whose politics conflict with, or simply stray (no matter how minutely) from the advancement of one’s own interests. Perhaps these stereotypes exist to remind us that these character flaws still exist; in which case, point taken. But one could just as easily argue that these character flaws persist to this day as a byproduct of perpetuated stereotypes; in which case, maybe we would all be better served by letting such vacuity go, once and for all. Maybe we would be better off by simply embracing the compassionate perspective outlined in the work of Shaz Bennett, Francis Lee, Bobbi Jo Hart, and Jennifer Kroot (and the works of Louis Malle and Jean Rouch before them): that everyone is entitled to the dignity of their own personhood—and it is our charge to recognize and respect this dignity in others, as much as it is our journey to discover it for ourselves. In the immortal words of St. Francis: to understand is to be understood.