The display of some 3,000 panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Golden Gate Park last weekend—and overhearing visitors having to explain the AIDS era to younger companions—provided one reminder that, yes, in many respects things have indeed gotten better for LGBTQ+ communities.
Then again, the rising tide of conservative legislation targeting those communities, usually from some bogus “Think about the children!!” angle, can only make you despair that in other respects we’re right back in Anita Bryant territory. (The latest is a proposed Texas ban on minors watching drag shows, or as the lawmaker put it, “perverted adults.” Of course, minors can’t enter bars anyway, and will this extend to drag in mainstream entertainment? Will Texans be burning copies of Mrs. Doubtfire?) Well over 300 such “anti-gay” bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year alone—and we’re not halfway through 2022 yet.
Ergo Frameline, aka the San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Festival Festival, opens its 46th edition this week in an atmosphere of renewed culture wars where gays are once again the bulls-eye for far-right attacks. Yeesh, will this event ever simply become a celebration of hard-won progress? Must any such progress continue to act as a trigger for the dim and reactionary? Will our nation’s epitaph be “OK, global warming won, but at least we shut down the mortal threat of drag shows first”?
Needless to say, the kind of globe-trotting insight and affirmation Frameline offers is particularly welcome in that political context. Stretching June 16-26 at multiple SF venues plus Oakland’s New Parkway (with home streaming options), the festival opens this Thursday at the Castro with one upbeat proof that gay talent and stories are more broadly popular than ever: Two episodes from new Amazon Prime series A League of Their Own, a small-screen reimagining of the 1992 film that starred Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna about the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s and ’50s. We’re promised a “deeper look at race and sexuality” than the movie afforded, with lesbian director Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader) helming the episodes shown.
There are other programs of an episodic nature, including the Taiwanese Fragrance of the First Flower (offered in a feature form distilled from its original six-part broadcast version) and the first two segments of a “Queer As Folk” reboot, this time set in New Orleans.
But as usual, Frameline’s expansive program of 125+ leans heavily towards feature films, as well as shorts mostly packaged together in nine themed shows. Designated “Centerpiece” highlights are documentary Last Dance (about a fabled Parisian drag performer—quick, hide the children!) and Finnish coming-out drama Girl Picture. The official closing-night selection is esteemed “out” French director Francois Ozon’s Peter von Kant, a gender-swapped remake of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (also being shown) with European film luminaries including Isabelle Adjani and Hanna Schygulla.
The schedule also encompasses films from Belgium and Brazil, India and Iran, Japan, and Jordan, Chile, China and the Czech Republic—two dozen nations spanning the globe. For those in search of home-grown stories, there are documentaries about local drag star Donna Persona (Donna), artists David Faulk and Michael Johnson (The Unabridged Mrs. Vera’s Daybook), filmmaker/celebrity-tribute showman Marc Huestis (Impresario), and the late Real World cast member who educated many MTV viewers about AIDS (Keep the Cameras Rolling: The Pedro Zamora Way). Plus Bay Area-set comedies about gay men newly single again (All Kinds of Love) and a fictive ’90s riot grrrl band staging a comeback (Vulveeta).
There’s too much on tap to cover here, but we’ve provided 10 advanced-screened recommendations from Frameline 45 below:
All Man: The International Male Story
This documentary about what’s called “Victoria’s Secret for men” profiles the saga of International Male, a mail-order business that emerged as a reaction to the dull conformity of guy’s fashions in the 1950s. It then gradually turned into a forum for attire’s wild side, running a flamboyant, racy referential gamut from Liberace to Chippendale’s—plus, as models, “really masculine guys in pretty not-masculine outfits” providing beefcake allure. Not an expose like the recent Abercrombie & Fitch doc, the film is a fond if well-padded look at a brand that was both liberating and a bit silly.
Attack, Decay, Release
Local musician-filmmaker H.P. Mendoza (Colma: The Musical) created a suite of songs as a birthday gift to his spouse, then adapted them into this unique, playfully imaginative “visual album.” It begins with a lot of library footage from the Prelinger Archive, portraying 20th-century American life, then leaps into a sci-fi future of miniatures, animation, and off-planet continued existence. Presented mostly in triptych imagery, it’s an audiovisual delight that will be shown for free at the PROXY outdoor screen in Hayes Valley on Sun/19. That morning, the festival is hosting another free show at the Castro, of Disney/Pixar’s new prequel ‘toon Lightyear.
Teenaged Nedjma (Lina El Arabi) is a tough, tomboyish denizen of a housing project on Paris’ outskirts, where she hangs out with a tight posse of girls from fellow Algerian-emigre families. She experiences undeniable attraction towards new-to-the-neighborhood peer Zina, and those feelings seem mutual. But Zina’s own pals don’t like Nedjma’s. Between that quasi-gang rivalry and the community’s general homophobia, this romance will experience more than a few rough speed bumps. Marion Desseigne-Ravel’s first feature is a first-rate urban drama that is at once gritty and pleasingly low-key, with excellent performances by a hitherto unknown cast.
Black As U R
Likewise, Micheal Rice’s documentary probes homophobia within another minority community. Echoing Marlon Riggs’ pioneering works, this survey asks how the same African-American communities supporting Black Lives Matter can nonetheless often turn a blind eye—or a clenched fist—towards its own gay members. There is hard-to-watch footage here of (among other instances) a trans teen being viciously beaten by a mob just days after George Floyd’s death, and of Black heterosexuals rotely dismissing the “choice” or “lifestyle” of being LGBTQ+ as incomparable to racial prejudice. There’s also consideration of such gay civil rights giants as Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin.
After pursuing the enigma of jazz bandleader Billy Tipton, whose “passing” as a man for over 40 years was only discovered upon his death at age 74, Canadian filmmaker Chase Joynt similarly ponders the lives of lesser-known transpersons who followed in the wake of Christine Jorgensen’s sex-reassignment surgeries in the early 1950s. He draws on long-buried UCLA archival materials to find intriguing interviews from over half a century ago, which are then re-enacted by actors and discussed by latterday observers and participants. As with No Ordinary Man (about Tipton), this documentary’s endless dwelling on its own process can be maddening. Still, it opens a window into a past that was more diverse than we knew. Other Frameline features of particular trans-related interest this year include narratives from Spain (My Emptiness and I), Brazil (Three Tidy Tigers Tied a Tie Tighter), Ireland (When Men Were Men), plus documentaries from the US (Boy I Am, A Run for More), Mexico (Finlandia), France (Bambi) and Brazil again (Uyra: The Rising Forest).
One of the slickest dramatic features at Frameline this year, write-director C.B. Yi’s Taiwan-made, mainland China-set debut is like a more emotionally and stylistically cool version of the Filipino call-boy melodramas Lino Brocka popularized with 1988’s Macho Dancer. To support his poor rural family back home, Fei (Kai Ko) becomes a gay hustler in the city, where he crosses paths—and falls in love with—more experienced pro Xiaolai (J.C. Lin). But the criminality and dangers of their work eventually pry the two apart, reuniting them years later under very different circumstances. Though downbeat, the film is notable for its refusal to judge or pity the protagonists, even as their society does just that.
Please Baby Please
This singular phantasmagoria from Amanda Kramer (Ladyworld, Paris Window) is a bizarre, quasi-musical fantasia in hues of magenta and neon blue, landing somewhere between Crybaby and Querelle. It begins with a “West Side Story” send-up, then turns things over to Andrea Riseborough’s Suze, a John Waters-worthy notion of Beatnik Chick nihilism. Harry Melling from the Harry Potter films is her unsuitably peaceniky husband Arthur, a “sensitive, artistic” type who becomes attracted to biker boy Teddy (Karl Glusman). Meanwhile, Suze gets interested in a mysterious upstairs neighbor (Demi Moore). This Gender Studies abstraction is a major self-indulgence, but just distinctive and amusingly performed enough to get away with it. Those looking for more consciously camp entertainment might want to check out Spanish drag-giallo Cut!, Australian Carrie homage Sissy, or Charles Busch’s farce The Sixth Reel.
So Damn Easy Going
They say redheads are mercurial, but teenage Jojo’s (Nikki Hanseblad) emotional swings are off the Richter scale. Her mother having recently died, and her father immobilized with grieving depression, she fights off ADHD, panic attacks, “flashing lights,” and other significant health issues by self-medicating—only her prescriptions have run out, and there’s no money. Meanwhile she may well be experiencing first love with a new female classmate. But that happy development is imperiled by our heroine’s escalating addiction-related behaviors: Lying, stealing, breaking promises, burning bridges, destroying trust amongst people she needs as support. Christopher Sandler’s Swedish feature does an impressive job balancing high school romantic tropes with an intense, inside-out look at mental illness.
Three Headed Beast
Texas may be anti-LGBTQ+ AF in general, but that doesn’t faze the Austinites in Fernando Andres and Tyler Rugh’s innovative feature. We first meet Peter (Jacob Schatz) and Nina (Dani Hurtado) when they’re each enjoying sex with other people—it takes a while to realize that they are even a couple. Theirs is a non-monogamous, unmarried relationship, though conventional in other ways. But when his involvement with younger Alex (Cody Shook) develops beyond the recreational, even a heterosexual union this “open” may require some rethinking. While there’s not a lot of depth to the characters (or plot), this offbeat slice of life excels in illustrating unusual lives with unusual stylistic techniques, including split screen effects, music video-style montages, and very little dialogue.
A seaside village in Georgia—not the Southern state, but the nation in the Caucasus—is setting for Elene Naveriani’s poker-faced drama, which begins with a local resident hanging himself. Eliko had terminal cancer, or so he said. But was he also exhausted by a life estranged from his family, living in a burg where after two decades the locals still treat him like an “outsider”? When the brusque, butch granddaughter (Bebe Sesitashvili) who didn’t know he was still alive arrives to orchestrate his funeral, she finds the community he’d exited a hornet’s nest of xenophobia and homophobia, alleviated only by cafe owner Amnon (Gia Agumava) and his employee Fleshka (Megi Kobaladze). Terse and slow, with characters that stubbornly refuse to ingratiate, this is nonetheless a powerful tale of small-mindedness ultimately transcended.
Frameline46 runs June 16-26 at various San Francisco venues, plus the New Parkway in Oakland; most programs are also available for streaming. For full program, schedule, location and ticket info, go to www.frameline.org