‘American Factory’ a tale of two blue collars: US and Chinese

'American Factory'

As the United States grows more urbanized and service-oriented—not to mention politically polarized—the image of the blue collar factory worker becomes more remote to many, something of a composite character from a song by Bruce Springsteen or John Mellencamp. The Rust Belt is more a mental landscape of ruin porn and abandoned dreams than a thriving nexus of American innovation and labor.

But American Factory (out August 21 on Netflix)—the latest eye-opening docudrama from acclaimed producer-directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar (The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, A Lion in the House, Seeing Red)—about the closing and reopening of a factory outside of Dayton, OH, really brings blue collar workers back into focus and reminds us why paying attention to their existence and transformation is crucial.

Reichert and Bognar had previously lived in Dayton for decades, so they bring a unique sensitivity and understanding to the hardships that these factory workers face. They start their film poignantly, with the announcement on December 23, 2008, that the General Motors Plant in Moraine, OH, is closing. If this closure was ignored by most Americans, it certainly wasn’t by the thousands of longtime employees left without any source of income.

Just one year into the Great Recession, jobs were hard to recoup, particularly in an area already in an economic decline since the shrinking of the area’s once-powerful industrial sector in the early 1980s. Homes were foreclosed upon, vehicles lost, and the American Dream seemed like a lie.

The documentary next picks up in 2016, when the same factory is reopened. Not by GM nor another US manufacturer, but by Fuyao Glass Industry Group, one of the largest auto glass producers in the world, supplying major automobile manufacturers—including Ford, GM, BMW, Honda, and Bentley—with car and truck windows, windshields, and sunroofs. The Chinese company dubs its new American outpost Fuyao Glass America.

Early on, there is an air of excitement as Fuyao, run by Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, invests hundreds of millions of dollars into the new factory and creates thousands of jobs for area residents. Shift hours would remain the same as they had been at GM, many employees would be rehired (rounded out by Chinese immigrants), and the company would maintain its American identity.

‘American Factory’

Dewang, referred to as The Chairman or Chairman Cao by employees, says through his interpreter, on one of his first visits to his premier American outpost: “I love Ohio and I love the place where I invest significantly here in Dayton.”

Company Vice President Dave Burrows mirrors his new boss’s sentiment that the deal is very pro-American. “This is a historic project that is going to help grow this community, give people jobs, and give a future to your kids and my kids,” he says. “The future is bright.”

Many of the Americans, who are used to camaraderie among their peers on the factory floor, desperately cling to the hope that they’re still “all as one.” But the melding of Eastern and Western cultures proves more difficult than anyone anticipated. When Chairman Cao’s unrealistic first months’ profit goals aren’t met and the American employees begin complaining about unfair and unsafe working conditions, the Chinese executives act quickly and fiercely.

The Chairman fires President John Gauthier and VP Dave Burrows and every other American with any power, replacing them with Chinese employees. Lower-level Chinese employees, who were originally encouraged to integrate into liberal American culture are now trained to reject the US and its way of life.

Americans, now referred to as “foreigners,” are regarded as lazy, since they only work eight hours a day with two breaks and get weekends off—in contrast with the Chinese, who work 12-hour shifts and only take one day a week off. American fingers are deemed “too fat” to operate certain machines.

“We need to use our wisdom to guide and help them because we are better than them,” says new Fuyao Glass America president Jeff Liu.

‘American Factory’

Nationalism and xenophobia are sweeping the company from the top down. The Chairman reminds Chinese employees that they come from Chinese mothers and that China, not America, will always be their home. Chinese posters and flags appear everywhere inside the factory, and propaganda videos of Chinese children singing and praying fill the breakroom where American employees eat.

Reichert and Bognar’s candid interviews with the American employees inside and outside the workplace help to personalize their painful new reality, as they’re expected to work twice as hard for half their previous pay at GM.

Bobby, a furnace offloader, can’t work up to Fuyao’s standards and ends up at home with a workplace injury. Shawnea, a glass inspector, can no longer provide for her family in the same way. Rob, a furnace supervisor, is terminated for taking two to three minutes to pull up a report. Jill, a forklift operator, desperately battling her way back to middle class after losing everything, is now fighting for better working conditions.

Soon 11 safety complaints are filed against Fuyao Glass America. Still others claim employees are receiving unfair treatment by their Chinese supervisors.

Tempting as it may be, the documentarians are careful not to crucify the Chinese employees. It devotes as much time and understanding to them as they do to their American colleagues.  Most of the Chinese immigrants, for example, are not only working for low wages themselves, but are also dealing with the added pressures of moving to an unfamiliar country far from their families and hardly speaking any English.

Wong, a furnace engineer for over 20 years, with multiple burns on his arms to prove it, is particularly tender toward the Americans. Surviving on a two-Twinkie-a-day lunch, he says he misses his life back in China with his family and admits to crying when no one else is around. He also complains that his people have become too greedy. Quickly making friends with his American colleagues, whom he begins to regard as “brothers,” he has a harder time chastising them.

“I think the most important thing is mutual understanding,” he says later, after realizing how hard Americans work, some of them two to three jobs just to make ends meet on their reduced salaries. “I always thought Americans lived a comfortable and superior life. I thought they didn’t have to make sacrifices.”

Even Chairman Cao is given an opportunity to redeem himself, on a visit to a temple back in his Fuqing, Fujian province in China. Between shots of him praying, he wistfully reminisces about the poor and undeveloped pastoral China of his youth. He also admits to being happier living among the croaking frogs, chirping bugs, and blooming flowers.

“Now I live in a new era of prosperity and modernity but I have a sense of loss,” he says. “Have I taken the peace away and destroyed the environment? I don’t know if I’m a contributor or a sinner.”

But any chance of finding common ground between the Chinese and Americans is quashed when the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union begins to push for the company to unionize. To Chairman Cao, the union is a dark, subversive force that will decrease the company’s efficiency, but to the disempowered Americans, it’s their only way to regain their lost voices.

The Chairman is not interested in hearing them, but he’s all ears when a hired band performs a song about lean manufacturing at one of his corporate events. His dream of achieving maximum output using minimum employees is finally in reach as he begins cutting workers and replacing them with robotic arms in the name of speed and efficiency.

With The Chairman’s initiatives in place, Fuyao Glass America finally starts to show a profit. But the documentary—the first of seven projects from the former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama’s new production company, Higher Ground—seems to ask, “At what cost?” That’s left to audiences to answer for themselves.

‘American Factory’

The filmmakers and the Obamas have stressed that they want to stay out of politics with the documentary, simply showing things as they are without taking sides.

That’s why the elephant in the room during the making of the film, Trump’s campaign for president, is noticeably pushed out, except when State Sen. Sherrod Brown complains that both of the 2016 US presidential candidates disparagingly refer to the manufacturing heartland as the “Rust Belt,” and Fuyao Glass America president Jeff Liu tells employees, “Let’s make American great again.”

But that doesn’t mean that the film is without political undertones. Audiences might remember that Trump won the 2016 presidential election largely because he carried states like Ohio by falsely promising to put factory workers, like the ones in the film, back to work. Also, it’s impossible to watch this documentary without contemplating how the ramifications of the US’s rivalry with China over the last two decades and Trump’s ongoing tariffs against China will impact Fuyao’s future operations.

The filmmakers understand that the greatest problem raised in American Factory can’t be solved by a divided nation or international trade wars. So they leave viewers with a message of unity, recommending that America and China and Democrats and Republicans all band together to battle what they call one of the biggest employment crises of the 21st century—automation—expected to impact over 375 million people globally.

Premieres Wed/21
More info here.

‘The Great Hack’: They’ve got your data, and yes they’ve used it

British writer Paul Hilder in 'The Great Hack' on Netflix

Social network Facebook has faced fierce criticism for its dubious privacy practices for years. In the beginning, it was tracking user activity via “Like” button clicks and selling it to advertisers along with personally identifiable information. This info would be used to serve users with relevant digital ads.

“Maybe it’s because I grew up with the Internet as a reality, the ads don’t bother me all that much,” says a student in a Parsons School of Design ad targeting class, in the beginning of Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s new Netflix documentary The Great Hack, out July 24. Then she pauses for a moment as if reevaluating her comment, before asking, “When does it turn sour?”

That’s what her instructor, David Carroll—an associate professor at Parsons teaching digital media and developing apps—and a slew of others including journalists and politicians aim to uncover in the highly informative, almost two-hour expose of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Being served relevant ads for products and services like microwave ovens, custom kitchen deliveries, refrigerators, and color TVs is one thing.

But once the news broke in March of 2018 that Facebook had allowed Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, to steal the personal data of 87 million-plus users, intending to target them with propaganda in order to sway their votes in the 2016 presidential election in the US and Brexit in the UK, the public finally began to understand the dangers of sharing their personal data with the social media giant.

The thrilling documentary, which follows the Cambridge Analytica scandal as it happened, demonstrates that the consequences of this breach in user trust is worse than ever previously imagined. But how did Facebook go from a “connected world where everybody could share each others’ experiences and feel less alone” to a battlefield that divided nations?

Such a transformation required a lot of effort and “The Great Hack” introduces many of the key players in the scandal, explaining their roles and motivations.

There’s Alexander Nix, the former CEO of the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, which billed itself as the world’s leading data-driven communications firm on the path to becoming a billion-dollar company. Nix, who doesn’t take part in the film but appears in plenty of footage, including a damning hidden video, had already used communication warfare to help sway elections in developing countries and felt that his “weapon-grade” tactics on Facebook were finally perfected enough to use on Britain and the US.

Focused on building a strong elections business for Republican politicians in the US, Cambridge Analytica started working with Ted Cruz and propelled him to a Republican nomination frontrunner. Once Trump secured the spot, however, the company began working with him, using the existing voter data and research that it had already collected.

Carole Cadwalladr broke the Cambridge Analytica story for the Guardian.

But how did the company amass its 5000 data points on every American user in the US? Enter ex-Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie. Wylie was the first of whistleblower prepared to talk to Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist for The Guardian who broke the story of Cambridge Analytica and its connection to the Brexit campaign.

Wylie is the data scientist who helped set up the company’s “full-service propaganda machine” by first getting his paws on University of Cambridge research associate Aleksandr Kogan’s app that allowed Cambridge Analytica to collect the personal details of millions of Facebook users.

Facebookers would be presented with a personality quiz, for example, and the underlying app had special permission to harvest not only their data, including status updates, likes, work info, payments, and locations but also that of their friends. So with a couple hundred thousand profiles, Cambridge Analytica could now make predictions about their personalities, which can deduce behavior, and ultimately voting choices. Now it was time to target every “persuadable” voter in the US, with fear-stoking personalized content — blogs, websites, articles, videos, and ads—so they’d vote more conservatively, experimenting with psychology to obstruct the traditional democratic process.

But is Wylie coming forward because he’s repentant or bitter? Julian Wheatland, the former COO/CFO of Cambridge Analytica/SCL Group, is the sole establishment figure interviewed in the film. He mourns the demise of the company that he believes was a hotbed of innovation—and suggests that Wylie only came forward as a whistleblower because, after leaving Cambridge Analytica for another company in 2014, he was resentful about losing the Trump account to Cambridge Analytica.

But the most compelling voice in the film has to be Brittany Kaiser’s. The one-time idealistic intern in former president Barack Obama’s groundbreaking political campaign, she helped run his Facebook account—and revolutionize the way social media reaches voters—before turning to human rights campaigning and lobbying. When she didn’t see the monetary gain she had hoped for, she was only too eager to take her expertise to Cambridge Analytica in December of 2014 and pitch far-right political companies as the company’s new Director of Business Development.

Yet after Cambridge Analytica closed and a friend asked her if this was how she wanted to be remembered by history, she switched sides yet again. With the encouragement of British writer Paul Hilder, whose own goal is to shine a light on how data’s been misused and abused, Kaiser, who’s been hiding out from “two administrations and the most powerful companies in the world” in infinity pools in Thailand, is ready to come clean about her former company’s nefarious activities.

On her way to testifying before the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee’s fake news inquiry, to which Wylie and Nix were also compelled to give testimony, she says she’s “not that interested in standing up for powerful white men anymore who obviously don’t have everybody’s best interest at heart.”

Brittany Kaiser went from Obama employee, to Cambridge Analytica executive, to whistleblower.

What’s troubling is that Kaiser, who so eloquently describes how Cambridge Analytica swayed voters on engagement-heavy Facebook, can also say without irony, “The problem in politics is that people can’t understand or work together so nothing gets done,” without understanding her role in perpetuating that divide.

In another scene, after it emerges that during Kaiser’s time with Cambridge Analytica she’d traveled to Russia, visited with WikiLeaks founder Jullian Assange (who leaked Hillary Clinton’s emails after they were stolen by Russia), and donated to WikiLeaks, the former Business Development director who first pitched the Trump campaign can’t fathom why she’d be perceived to be at the center of “some big, crazy thing.”

At other points, she seems to alternate between defensiveness and glee about her part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In one particularly strange moment, she gets giggly when Nix, her former boss, mentor, and friend, texts her with some kind words and a winking emoji after she testifies before the DCMS fake news inquiry. It’s as if she’s still under the spell of the man who upon meeting her threatened to get her drunk so she’d spill all of her secrets.

Noticeably absent from the film is Facebook. The closest viewers get is a quick interview with Facebook-investor-turned-critic Roger McNamee, who claims he had once attempted to admonish Facebook about creating a set of tools that allowed advertisers to exploit that emotional, fear, and anger audience with individual-level targeting. There is also a few minutes of footage of Mark Zuckerberg denying any knowledge of working with Cambridge Analytica or providing anything other than sales support to the Trump campaign while testifying before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees.

Even though Cambridge Analytica filed for bankruptcy and closed in the wake of the scandal, Facebook remains widely used and is still a targeted platform for election meddling. But the story is bigger than even Facebook.

As professor Carroll and journalist Cadwalladr point out, we mustn’t stop the inquiries into how tech companies, “the good ones,” run by “nice guys in hoodies connecting the world” including Twitter, Alphabet, and many more, are still using and misusing our data.

For Carroll, it meant attempting to get his data from SCL, Cambridge Analytica’s parent company in Great Britain, so he can learn how our digital traces on apps that are supposed to connect us, like Facebook, which was used to incite genocide in Myanmar, and WhatsApp, which was recently implicated in the dissemination of fake news that swayed Brazil’s elections, are being used against us.

For Cadwalladr, it’s about whether it’s possible to ever have a free or fair election again. After an 18-month investigation, the UK Parliament ruled “no” as long as Facebook and other tech giants remain unaccountable.

So the journalist makes an appeal to tech leaders, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Jack Dorsey at a recent TED Talk, asking, “Is this what you want? Is this how you want history to remember you, as the handmaidens to authoritarianism?”

Then she turns to the audience. “And my question to everybody else is, ‘Is this what we want? To sit back and play with our phones as darkness falls?’”

In other words, instead of joining that next Facebook Group or watching a fake Nancy Pelosi video on the app, users’ time might be better spent off the app fighting authoritarianism, at least until the social media giant begins putting customers ahead of diabolical advertisers.

Premieres Wed/24
More info here.

Jewish Film Festival sparks with romance, tragedy, fiddler on roof


Though it has programmed its share of controversial fare over the years, the 39th edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival will open this Thursday with perhaps the most non-controversial movie imaginable: A documentary about Fiddler on the Roof (see details below), probably the most beloved, not to mention inescapable, stage musical ever.

Eleven days later the fest will wade into more characteristically political waters with The Red Sea Diving Resort, a fact-based drama with Chris Evans, Alessandro Nivola, Ben Kingsley and other luminaries. It portrays the efforts about four decades ago to smuggle Jewish refugees from religious persecution in Ethiopia to safety in Israel.

That’s hardly the end of JFF 2019, however, since as usual the event’s Castro Theatre residency (July 18-28) will be overlapped and/or followed by ones elsewhere around the Bay Area: July 20-25 at Palo Alto’s Cinearts, July 25-Aug. 1 at Berkeley’s Albany Twin, and Aug. 2-4 at both Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre and Marin’s Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. Here’s a survey of some highlights:

Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles
Once the longest-running show in Broadway history (its original hitch was for eight years), Fiddler on the Roof is no longer even in the top 10. But you could still make a case for it as possibly the most popular stage musical ever, given numerous touring editions, innumerable amateur and school productions, multiple major revivals, enduring international success, and so forth. It never became an “old” musical in the way that most other hugely popular ones did, and it will surely still be raking in the royalties when Wicked, Cats and even A Chorus Line finally fade into the theatrical past.

This opening-night documentary looks at the 45-year phenomenon adapted from Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye stories, which seemed one of Broadway’s riskier gambles in 1964 yet has played continuously around the world since. Admirers from Stephen Sondheim to Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda are among those discussing its influence in a film that also draws upon rich, diverse archival materials.

Other documentaries of note in the program run a subject gamut encompassing underwater photography (Picture Of His Life), the Catskills resort circuit’s craze for Afro-Cuban music (The Mamboniks), “the Palestine question” (Advocate, Afterward), the Holocaust (Made in Auschwitz, You Only Die Twice), anti-Semitism on the left (This Is Personal), expanding U.S. Hasidic communities (City of Joel), late Russian-Jewish emigre actor Anton Yelchin (Love, Antosha), cool jazz (It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story), current immigration currents (The Passengers, The Rabbi Goes West), and more—including the self-explanatory politician portraits Golda and King Bibi.

Curtiz and Carl Laemmle
Scratch a racist of any stripe—amazing how easy they are to find these days—and it generally takes no time at all to get them parroting age-old conspiracy theories about how the Jews control “everything,” from international economics (of course) to Hollywood. Well, they’re at least somewhat right about that last part: Perhaps precisely because the movie industry wasn’t initially considered “respectable,” Jewish entrepreneurs, executives and artists got a firm early foothold, and continue to be arguably better-represented than in many other professions. (Even though some distanced themselves from any ethic or religious identity by changing their names, particularly back in the day.) These new features look at two of the greatest such contributors to Hollywood’s first decades.

Curtiz is a biographical drama about Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian expat who became one of Warner Brothers’ leading directors, helming classic vehicles for Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Bogart, Cagney, Joan Crawford (notably Mildred Pierce) and others. Fellow countryman Tamas Yvan Topolanszky’s debut feature is a B&W period piece that re-creates the conflicts behind the scenes of 1942’s Casablanca—now considered a world classic, as well as Curtiz’s most famed achievement. But its making was fraught with problems, from an unfinished script to the Jewish director’s own family woes, including fears (which turned out to be all too well-founded) that his relatives back in Europe were in grave danger under Nazi occupation.

James L. Freedman’s documentary Carl Laemmle celebrates the legacy of another immigrant, who went from operating nickelodeons to founding Universal Pictures, one of Hollywood’s great movie studios. When financial woes during the Great Depression (including a series of flops championed by his son Carl Jr.) forced Laemmle to sell Universal, he used that money to rescue hundreds of Jews from his native Germany—dying just days after the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, at age 72. It’s a remarkable rags-to-riches story whose successes include the launching of “Universal Monsters” Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, who almost single-handedly invented the screen horror genre.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael
It’s a testament to the simultaneous “democratization” of the internet and the shrinking relevance of the written word that this documentary tribute to the late New Yorker movie reviewer has to keep explaining who Kael was and why she mattered—things that were well-known to every film lover not so long ago. But viewers under 40 may well find it weird that a professional critic (practically an insult in itself these days) in a weekly magazine not only wielded great influence, but was considered one of her era’s most significant writers.

Whether you agreed with her sometimes-controversial taste or not, Kael made reading about the movies exciting, and personal. She sought to replicate the adrenaline rush of the popular cinema itself in the headlong energy of her prose. Starting out as a repertory house and radio taste-maker in Berkeley, hers was assertive, sometimes blunt personality who not-infrequently ruffled the feathers of her editors as well as offended filmmakers. Rob Garver’s posthumous portrait is a good introduction to her work, though more knowledgable fans may puzzle over the choice of clips—some from films she wasn’t enthused or didn’t even write about.

Other films in JFF this year of particular local interest include Seder-Masochism, former SF resident Nina Paley’s first feature since the delightful Sita Sings the Blues—another animated wonder for grownups, this one bringing her impudent humor and rich visual imagination to bear on stories from the Book of Exodus. The Ten Commandments, it isn’t.

Fig Tree and Dolce Fine Giornata
The flight of Jews from Ethiopia depicted by an all-star cast in the closing-night U.S. production The Red Sea Diving Resort noted above is portrayed from a different angle in Aalam-Warque Davidian’s semi-autobiographical first feature, Fig Tree. Set in 1989, it focuses on a 16-year-old girl largely oblivious to the roiling political conflicts that have not yet reached her village on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. But they will, and her elders are increasingly frantic to gain passage to Israel before hit by the sectarian violence that has already terrorized Jews elsewhere in their nation. It’s a fine, subtle, complex coming-of-age story, capturing both the self-absorption of youth and the deceptive calm that precedes

Another very good foreign drama is Polish director Jacek Borcuch’s Dolce Fine Giornata, with that country’s veteran star Krystyna Janda as a Nobel-winning expat poet. Her rather idyllic life in the Tuscan countryside is imperiled when she uses a public podium to say something about terrorism—an ambiguous, poorly-contextualized statement that instantly goes “viral,” creating controversy in the worst possible sense. At once a complicated ensemble piece and an arresting portrait of bold (sometimes even obnoxious) “artistic temperament” in a politically-correct era, this is the kind of movie that doesn’t tell you what to think. Instead, its presents a number of troubling issues and thorny personalities you’ll have to sort out yourself.

Other international highlights in the program include Sameh Zoabi’s political-crossfire comedy Tel Aviv on Fire, the bittersweet French My Polish Honeymoon, sardonic Russian The Humorist, and Mexican drama Leona.

The titular character played by Nicholas Alexander is a No. Cal. high schooler who finagles his way out of another summer with his helicopter parents by proposing he visit his older sister in Manhattan. Casey (Margaret Qualley) is a college student already jadedly blase about the gender-blurred LGBTQ scene she hangs in, and which she tosses Adam sans preamble. How is virginal little bro ever going to find a girlfriend in this crowd of variably butch dykes? To his surprise, he sparks with Gillian (Bobbi Salvor Menuez)—realizing too late that she has assumed he is a transgender person somewhere along the female-to-male transition line. Being 16, of course he’s too embarrassed to clarify her error.

Like the graphic novel by Ariel Shrag that it’s based on, Rhys Ernst’s debut feature was somewhat controversial at Sundance for the perceived tastelessness of its “mistaken identity” premise. But Adam (which does have several transgender performers in its cast) is hardly a crass exploitative of a trendy cultural theme. Instead, it’s a sweetly engaging portrait of youthful inexperience getting schooled on today’s complex gender issues in a comically unlikely (yet credibly portrayed) crash-course manner. This charming movie defuses a lot of topics older viewers may perceive as a political minefield.

Additional titles of gay interest in JFF 2019 include the documentaries Latter Day Jew, about a Mormon-raised midwestern queer comedian’s religious conversion at age 35, and Army of Lovers in the Holy Land, which centers on the Swedish electropop band’s frontman Jean-Pierre Barda and his decision to “return” to Israel as a man of French-Algerian Jewish heritage.

The 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs Thurs/18-Sun 28 at the Castro Theatre in SF. It also plays through August 4 at various Palo Alto, Albany, Oakland and San Rafael locations. See for complete details.

Lulu Wang on good lies and immigrant family ties in ‘The Farewell’

Lulu Wang's 'The Farewell.' Photo by Nick West/Courtesy of A24

Director Lulu Wang’s films are built on secrets and lies.

Her 2014 directorial debut, Posthumous, explores what happens when a struggling artist (Jack Huston), who learns that his work is more valuable after his “death,” concocts a shady scheme to reap the rewards of his “posthumous” success.

Her second and most recent movie, The Farewell (opening Friday), follows a young Chinese-American woman named Billi (Awkwafina), who returns with her family to China for what on the surface appears to be a big red envelope wedding.

But, in actuality, the wedding is just a ruse so the family can gather around its head matriarch, Billi’s beloved and terminally ill grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), one last time. Complicating matters further, the family has decided not to tell Nai-Nai (grandmother in Chinese) about her impending fate.

The lying by omission to maintain Nai-Nai’s joyful spirit in her final weeks in this semi-autobiographical film hits close to home for Wang, whose own family has kept the director’s now 86-year-old grandmother from discovering her own dire health prognosis.

I spoke to Wang about her grandmother, her decision to keep her new film judgment-free, and how, looked at differently, lies can be another way of getting at the truth.

48 HILLS I have to start by asking, how is your grandmother doing now?  

LULU WANG She does have cancer, but she’s still alive. She’s 86 and has outlived the doctor’s prognosis of three months to live. But she’s not doing great. It’s not a very positive story. She’s been around much longer and got to see me direct the movie but still doesn’t know.

48 HILLS When Billi says, in the film, that she thinks it’s wrong that her family keep this secret from her grandmother, her uncle tells her that while she’s been out West and has been influenced to think more independently, in China it’s all about putting the family’s happiness first. In other words, not telling Nai-Nai and watching her become dispirited is the best way to ensure everyone’s happiness. 

As someone who’s lived in the East and the West, how have these opposing ways of thinking impacted your life?

LULU WANG I think it’s very complicated because, in many ways, yes, the Eastern philosophy is that the collective as a unit is more important than the individual, and it’s the way society functions, for the greater good.

But, at the same time, my parents left China to come to America to live the American dream and pull themselves up by their bootstraps to give me a better life. So, in many ways, they must also believe in the Western values of individualism and independence.

So yeah, I think it’s difficult, because I still struggle with it, like how much will I do for myself? How much do I do for my family and where do those two things intercept?

Director Lulu Wang on set. Photo by Casi Moss /Courtesy of A24

48 HILLS You don’t seem to judge those who choose to keep the secret from Nai-Nai as harshly as others might. Because the secret is never uncovered, no one gets into trouble and there’s no cathartic moment like there is at the end of films like “Tootsie,” “Secrets and Lies,” or “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” 

LULU WANG Yeah, that’s where something is so fundamentally Western. Even this idea of “We’re writing a screenplay and a screenplay has to have a climax and it’s gotta have catharsis.” Says who? Life doesn’t work that way. We don’t oftentimes get catharsis, denouement, and resolution. I also think part of the drama and part of the climax is this desire for catharsis, and the more you want it, what does that do to a person?

So instead of having a real catharsis, I looked more for the moment the characters, who are performing joy, are performing a wedding for the sake of the grandmother, broke down and showed their humanity. When you are inauthentic, there comes a time when you just lose it and that’s a very human thing regardless of what culture you’re from and what you believe your behavior should be.

48 HILLS One of the interesting things that happens in the film is that a family with such different points of view can still come together. With politics tearing many families apart in 2019, this couldn’t be more timely.

LULU WANG I think, as an immigrant, I’ve always had to negotiate between two different cultures and different worlds, not just China and America, but also my family versus my friends, my school, and my own independence.

When I was younger, it used to be this push and pull, where it felt like a war between these two different sides. But as I get older, it’s about how to bring all of these things together. So this movie is very much that same kind of melding, of saying we don’t have to pick a side.

What most people say is that one thing has to be wrong so they can be right. I don’t want to contribute to that kind of divide, so I don’t want to make a film that’s ultimately about judgment. Instead, the film is an exploration of differences and not even about agreeing to these differences. It’s about how do you disagree in a respectful way. Maybe something is not right for you, but that doesn’t mean that it’s also wrong for them.

Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina in ‘The Farewell.’ Photo by Casi Moss/Courtesy of A24

48 HILLS With both Posthumous and The Farewell, you’ve certainly demonstrated an interest in stories built around lies. What’s the appeal?

LULU WANG As a storyteller, I’m very interested in the stories that we tell each other and the stories that we tell ourselves to get through life. It’s the way that we are able to own our own narrative and justify decisions that we make. Guilt only exists through storytelling. If you tell yourself you don’t feel bad about that, then there’s no guilt, right? I believe that we all do it all the time and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. It’s just a survival mechanism.

I think in both stories, what I found is that even though people are lying, they’re getting at a greater truth. And the lie doesn’t take up all the importance. That in many ways, the lie is the surface and there are deeper truths to excavate that we can get to even though we may be telling a fiction.

And that’s what I do, too, right? I’ve made a fictionalized film. It’s autobiographical in some ways, but it’s a fictionalized version. But it was actually only through fictionalizing that I was able to get to some of the deeper truths.

Opens Fri/19
Various Bay Area theaters
Tickets and more info here.

Vanessa Williams on her fearless Frameline ‘Luv Tale’

'A Luv Tale'

Professional growth was always critical for actress Vanessa Williams. Going from supporting roles like gun moll Keisha in 1991’s crime thriller New Jack City and aerobics instructor Rhonda on Fox’s primetime soap opera “Melrose Place,” to the meatier role of mother Maxine on Showtime series “Soul Food,” she was always game to test her acting mettle.

But when it came time to portray Candice, a high-powered businesswoman in Sidra Smith’s A Luv Tale: The Series (playing June 27 at Frameline)—an eight-episode dramedy, examining the lives, loves, and careers of four girlfriends of color—she dove into something new.

“As an actor, I want to evolve and do things that I haven’t done before, so I’m always looking for characters with a twist,” she told 48 Hills. “Certainly, this character is a woman who’s nothing like any character I’ve played before.”

Unlike Williams, Candice follows the rules, doesn’t make waves, and allows her husband to lead. She’s also forced to grapple with her feelings for Taylor, a young artist whom she encounters at a Harlem bar. To complicate matters further, Taylor happens to be a woman.

Williams spoke with 48 Hills about playing gay for the first time, what she learned about herself in the process, and how a series like “A Luv Tale,” which screens at the Frameline film festival on June 27, can inspire cultural change.

48 HILLS Talk to me about your first experience playing a gay character.

VANESSA WILLIAMS When I first heard about it, I thought, “Oh, this is a very interesting and extremely provocative role for someone who doesn’t identify as a lesbian.” So it was a little bit scary in terms of how will I be seen and how the sex scenes might be represented on screen.

But once I read the project and got to know the roots of the storyline and what I could bring to it, I thought, “OK, this is an interesting and dynamic project to be involved with.”

48 HILLS Did playing the role of a closeted woman hiding in an unhappy marriage bring more of an understanding of what the LGBTQ community has to face?

VANESSA WILLIAMS What I learned from playing the role was that it wasn’t such a departure because love is love as is sexual energy and prowess because anyone can turn you on if you lay back and let it happen and vice versa.

So my whole thing was the letting down of the guard to be able to explore, and it was a nice way to explore a different kind of human connection without having to put a label on it. It was like a perk, like, “Oh, I get to be this person now who kisses girls and isn’t that fun?” It was a release to allow yourself to be in that situation, so it was beautiful. And I was like “Oh, I get this. It’s not my flavor, but I get it.”

48 HILLS What’s the value in bringing a story like this to light in 2019?

VANESSA WILLIAMS I was happy that the response we’ve gotten so far is that people who’ve seen me in other roles felt some sort of validation from having a straight actor shine a light on their experience.

I felt very honored to bring whatever value I have as an artist to this story because maybe some people who wouldn’t necessarily look at a story like this will now because I’m in it. So if I can bring my talents to tell this story about a part of my community that’s been ignored, marginalized, and not celebrated, then I’m down to do it, so others can take this ride with us.

48 HILLS A story about four black LGBTQ women seems so groundbreaking, even in 2019.  But we’ve come so far since your breakout role on “Melrose Place,” playing a side character among an otherwise all-Caucasian cast, who was quickly written off after just one season. 

VANESSA WILLIAMS It’s revolutionary and I’m really proud to have been a part of that forward-moving trajectory. I also played the love interest of a bisexual black man in the film Punks. So in terms of my advocacy for the LGBTQ community, both in my work as an actress and as 1st Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Black AIDS Institute, it’s about a love for my community and all the different ways that it lives and loves.

I re-watched Paris is Burning over the weekend and seeing those stars of the documentary talking about their pain, anguish, and longing to be loved and accepted is heartbreaking. But seeing how the needle has moved from being a pipe dream that can only be manufactured in the Elks Lodge in Harlem to being on the “Pose” show on FX and at the Met Ball, where Billy Porter comes out and slays, is amazing.

He and the other folks whose shoulders he stands on have been preparing for this moment all of their lives, so it’s just a victorious day to see that now we’re ready to have the whole kit and kaboodle.

48 HILLS You’ve said before that the reason your character was written off “Melrose Place” was that the show’s writers didn’t make the effort to hire a black writer or ask you things that would help them better write to the black experience. That seems to be happening less today.

VANESSA WILLIAMS Even when [Caucasian] people are trying to be inclusive, they can only tell that story from their experience of privilege and who their friends are, so certain things won’t occur to them.

What is certainly moving the trajectory forward with its being more authentic and people getting to truly see themselves is the inclusion of black and other people of color in the writer’s room saying how this story or character should play out.

48 HILLS In “A Luv Tale,” you play a woman on the down low, and as an actress working in the entertainment industry all these years, you must have encountered a lot of people in the same situation. Do you see a day when more prominent actors will feel comfortable enough to come out publicly?

VANESSA WILLIAMS As a woman of a certain age, of course I’ve experienced the down-low phenomenon as it relates to the African-American community.

So to the extent that people, particularly younger people, who’ve benefited from all this conversation and needle-moving, become more self-aware and feel the freedom to live honestly, it becomes a conversation that people are more willing to have.

I’ve been around to witness a bunch of cultural shifts and the kind of storytelling you’ll see in “A Luv Tale” is part of that vital cultural change.

June 27, 6:45pm, $20
Castro Theatre, SF
Tickets and more info here.

From ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ to Frameline: Kate Walsh on acting and activism

Kate Walsh and Scott Evans in 'Sell By.' Courtesy of Sell By Film

More is what six friends living in New York City are striving for in Sell By, Mike Doyle’s new romantic comedy.

In the film, premiering at Frameline on June 26, longtime boyfriends Adam (Scott Evans) and Marklin (Augustus Prew) yearn for more passion in their relationship. On the career front, Adam, an artist, also wants more money, and Marklin, a social media influencer, is always pushing for more followers.

Their friend Cammy (Michelle Buteau) would be glad to find a partner who isn’t homeless and her boyfriend Henry (Colin Donnell) wants nothing more than to be housed. Another chum, Haley (Zoe Chao), is desperately seeking a lover who isn’t underage, but her young student Scott (Christopher Gray) just wants her.

Elizabeth (Kate Walsh) and Damon (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), the most “stable” of the bunch, still want to be married—just to other people.

Actress Kate Walsh (“The Drew Carey Show,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” 13 Reasons Why)—who waited tables in New York City for a good decade before “making it”—told 48 Hills, in a recent interview, that she related all too well to these characters’ aspirations for career advancement and a successful relationship.

She also spoke about playing LGBT characters before it was trendy, why she gets along so famously with gay men on and off-screen, and the importance of giving back once you’ve finally achieved success.

48 HILLS What sold you on “Sell By”?

KATE WALSH The writing is what drew me in. I loved the whole ensemble nature of the film, the love, the celebration of modern relationships and struggles, and the reality of having to work through things.

And having a gay-themed relationship front and center among a big group of [gay and straight] friends is something we haven’t seen before. It’s a slice of life that I would want to be a part of. There’s definitely some crossover in my life with friendships and relationships that I have.

48 HILLS The six characters in the film are struggling to make their career and romantic goals come true. What were yours when you were coming up?  

KATE WALSH The end game was always to become an actress and my dream came true after a lot of hard work and many plates later.

I was the quintessential bitter waitress, waitressing and acting for 10 years. I remember getting a gig here or there and then it’d be, “See ya guys.” Then, two weeks later, I’d be coming back, trying to pick up shifts and I’d be like, “Anybody?” Of course, I was demoralized

But I always wanted a relationship, too, and definitely had boyfriends and a brief Hollywood marriage [to movie producer Alexander Morgan Young] in there along the way.

I still want a partnership, but I love what I do. Now I’m at an age where I’m like, “Life is so short and I’m not going to get to do all the things that I want,” but I will definitely try for more.

Augustus Prew and Scott Evans in ‘Sell By.’ Courtesy of Sell By Film

48 HILLS You play the straight best friend of Scott, the gay protagonist in the film. Why do so many straight women seem to form such strong friendships with gay men?

KATE WALSH For me, growing up female in this very patriarchal male culture, I identified with all the heroes in books men wrote, so I was a tomboy and adventurous. But I also learned the vulnerabilities of being female and the susceptibility to dangers like sexual assault and having to hide who I am or toughen up and really learn how to defend myself when being bullied as a little kid.

I think sometimes with straight men, still, as a middle-aged person, I end up reverting to a 14-year-old girl and “Should I not text this or say that?” But I get to be whoever I really am with my gay friends, meaning I don’t have to edit myself, shrink myself, or hide who I am. None of us should ever have to hide or shrink ourselves.

48 HILLS In one hilarious line in the movie, after Scott tells you he’s not interested in getting married, you say, “I marched my ass in the snow for your rights.“ That made me think of all the work you’ve done over the years for Planned Parenthood of America, Operation Smile, and Oceana. Why did you become an activist?

KATE WALSH I had been a quietly and gratefully working actor for many years, but “Grey’s Anatomy” put me in a big way in a public profile, so it became that time of maybe I could help people by just their identifying with me.

Planned Parenthood was the first thing that I added my support for because when I didn’t have health insurance and was a hardworking waitress-actor for 10 years, Planned Parenthood was my only provider, so I could speak about that.

My dad was a big union guy working for big labor and advocating for worker’s rights, my mother was a social worker, and my stepfather was a psychologist in the state prison system for his entire career, and they were always socially active as far as contributing to the community, so that was in my DNA.

I feel like I’m so #blessed that I can do what I want and love, so it’s a no-brainer to give back wherever I can. I’m still marching for gun laws, women’s rights, and healthcare and I’d be happy to drive a woman across the country to a Planned Parenthood center.

48 HILLS You’ve twice played a lesbian, opposite Sandra Oh in Under the Tuscan Sun and opposite Nia Peeples in Inside Out.  You’ve also played a trans woman on “CSI.” What draws you to LGBTQ roles?

KATE WALSH I’ve always identified with being an outsider, from how I grew up, coming from a divorced home, moving a lot, and always having to be the new kid. Also, coming from a theatre background and being a bit of a gypsy, I’ve always identified.

One of the reasons I wanted to act was to experience and understand and bring empathy and compassion to others’ experiences that I, in my own way, can relate to.

48 HILLS “Grey’s Anatomy,” which you starred on for several seasons, is famous for tackling LGBTQ issues. One character, Dr. Levi Schmitt, famously came out on the show, along with Jake Borelli, the actor who played him. Would you ever go back?

KATE WALSH I really loved it, loved the writing, and loved my character, and was thrilled to have the spinoff, Private Practice. But I feel like, after a decade of playing Dr. Addison Montgomery, I put her to bed. But at the same time, I would go back, yes, for a special goodbye episode. But I did everything I could with her.

Back to Sell By, I’m so excited it’s premiering at Frameline. You never know what’s going to happen. This was a tiny little film that we all leaned in to make and loved so much from the bottom of our cold black hearts and were like, “What will happen to it?”

June 26, 9:15pm, $15
Castro Theatre, SF
Tickets and more info here.

Burger Queens in Berlin

'City of Lost Souls'

FRAMELINE They just don’t make movies like City of Lost Souls anymore (playing at Frameline Film Fest Mon/24). What’s the last one you’ve seen that crams two anarchic song-and-dance-and-flog numbers, a giant hamburger, sausage fellatio, a trapeze duo, dark magic, full-frontal orgiastic group therapy, an elephant trainer, a gleefully racist little boy, deep gluteal massage and Ronald Reagan into its first 20 or so minutes? Rest assured, there’s never a dull moment in Rosa von Praunheim’s vignette-laden 1983 musical comedy.

Set in Berlin, primarily at the seedy Hamburger Queen diner and connected Pension Stardust, Praunheim’s movie flirts with biography and burlesque in its passive rendering of three decidedly active trans women: Angie Stardust, Jayne County and Tara O’Hara. It also trains its eye on erotic trapeze artists Tron von Hollywood and Judith Flex, taboo-flouting occult guru Gary, and Joaquin de la Habana, who functions as a melodic cheerleader of sorts. But under the thick and elaborate icing of the movie’s campy surface, there are true insights into the unmaking and remaking of identity.

Singing a knockout cabaret number about exile in front of a pointillist New York cityscape complete with the Statue of Liberty and Godzilla, Angie, with her arched brows and lashes, is tough and business-minded. However, one of the movie’s tenderest, quietest moments captures her in bed with her soft butch girlfriend. In comparison, the gap-toothed County—recipient of at least one ultra-glam Sternberg-style close-up—favors whipped cream slapstick comedy. Fond of crossing her eyes and prone to frenzied gesticulations, she’s also the only queen to embody a character with a different name. Her Lila somersaults from the groping of a craven nationalist politician to seduction by a caviar Communist before performing a punk rock anthem on East German TV.

City’s Venus Xtravaganza figure, young Southern belle Tara, uncovers serious topics through her casual approach to sex and passing. Referring to Angie as “old school,” she incites a necessary history lesson. “Hush and listen well, child,” says Angie, kicking off a monologue that concludes, “To you it’s the ‘old school,’ but someone had to take the first steps.” Later, when Tara brings a muscular blond himbo back to her spider-webbed boudoir, it’s a relief when her suspenseful verbal striptease has a happy ending. As Amos Mac observes in the queer film journal Dirty Looks, “Welcome to the contemporary, still-completely-valid-and-happening-every-day dating and sex life of a trans person.”

Not as disaffected as in Warhol (though County was an acolyte of Jackie Curtis), and more naturalistic than in Waters (there’s ample room for improv), City’s performances are nothing if not energetic and outsized. Petulant Tron von Hollywood is a hoot. There’s a bit of Marilyn Monroe’s ditsy genius and Andrea Feldman’s talent for tantrums in County’s performance, especially when childish Lila is forced to confront potential motherhood. In the queer movie periodical Little Joe, writer Adam Keleman describes Praunheim’s flair for “wildly amusing, soulful portraits of marginalized, idiosyncratic talents finding their place within a normative state,” and City, despite its frequent lampooning of entitled Americans, certainly fits the bill.

“In filmmaking, the private life must become public … in order to grow as a society you have to be open,” Praunheim tells Keleman. He adds that—rather than the “life is shit” depictions of bourgeois life favored by his contemporary Rainer Werner Fassbinder—he is drawn to “outstanding” characters and motivated by an “intense of love of people.” But in fact, as Vito Russo takes pains to detail within The Celluloid Closet, Praunheim’s early works are controversially unflattering “home movies of the gay movement.” From 1971, It Is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse, But the Society In Which He Lives inspired scorn and discord from its target audience. By contrast, City is celebratory.

An activist leaflet of the era finds Russo heralding It Is Not the Homosexual…. as “Europe’s first gay liberation film.” By now, the 76-year-old Praunheim has made more than 150 films, partly because at the age of 70 he was challenged to make 70 movies, a monumental task he happily accepted. (“I don’t do computer sex, I’m afraid to lose time,” Praunheim also tells Keleman.) Within this impossibly large output, City of Lost Souls still stands out as a visionary and influential work. Whatever one thinks of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, many reviews note that City and County are major influences on it.

Dirty Looks’ editor and programmer Bradford Nordeen has been key to City’s rediscovery, and his essay “Playback Queens with Broken Dreams” provides extensive background about the movie and its three lead queens. Angie began performing at the age of 14. The first Black star at New York’s 82 Club, she broke from drag’s rules of showmanship with hormones and transsexual perspective and embodiment, and was fired for it. Punk trans trailblazers such as County—and San Francisco’s own Bambi Lake—followed in Angie’s high-heeled footsteps by emigrating to Berlin; Nordeen notes that City of Lost Souls “was first screened as part of a punk rock roadshow.”

Midnight movie and historical treasure, City of Lost Souls is, as Mac writes, “not only an important historical piece to the trans puzzle, but it views like a bible … a gold mine of authentic experiences of trans people in the form of a campy film.” Just as Angie schools Tara, Mac tells the “trans people of today” that “it is of the utmost importance for us to accept, recognize and most importantly HONOR the people who came before us … It is up to us to continue the family tree.” If watching City is one way of doing this, well then, it’s certainly a pleasure, not a chore. The living and the dead sing and dance together. Care to join?

June 24, 9:15pm, $13-15
Victoria Theatre, SF.
Tickets and more info here

What happened to Halston? New doc dives deep into designer’s story

Halston in the '60s. Photo by John-Barthet

In Halston, the new biopic about the visionary American fashion designer, director Frédéric Tcheng makes every effort to remain objective when portraying the contentious legal battle between Halston and his parent company, ESMARK.

But it was impossible for the Dior and I and Valentino: The Last Emperor director to maintain total impartiality when he described to 48 Hills the gross degradations that the mega-corporation perpetrated against Halston⁠—selling off his precious dress samples and erasing all of his videotapes, full of rare archival footage,⁠ after firing him for insubordination.

“The dresses were sold in a fire sale, so now it’s hard for any museum to have a substantial collection because it’s all here and there,” Tcheng mourned. “They erased the tapes to make blank tapes to sell to the next tenant, which is ridiculous. They must have made $200 at most. [Halston’s boss] Carl Epstein and others have said it was a business decision, but Carl was just trying to humiliate him.”

Many of those close to Halston saw the move as a blatant attempt to erase the memory of the creative genius who put the pillbox hat on Jacqueline Kennedy before rising to international fame in the 1970s with his unstructured dress designs that moved with his clientele’s bodies and becoming “the most successful single individual in the history of American fashion,” according to talk show host Phil Donohue.

Thankfully, Halston had previously made copies of the tapes, many of which serve as the basis for the documentary, along with rare archival footage and interviews with the designer’s family, friends, and collaborators including Liza Minelli, Pat Cleveland, Elsa Peretti, Naeem Khan, and Marissa Berenson.

I spoke to Tcheng and producer Roland Ballester about uncovering the man behind the sunglasses, the legal battles that tore his company apart, his time in San Francisco, and why he should be remembered as an LGBTQ trailblazer.

48 HILLS There have been other Halston documentaries on TV and the silver screen. How would you make yours different?

FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG When I first met Roland, I was a little bit on the fence because of these other portraits of Halston that were out in the world. I had this idea that he was just a one-dimensional guy that was out at Studio 54 and it was all about the drugs and partying, and that’s what those projects have focused on, unfortunately.

Halston’s niece, Lesley Frowick, whom Roland had personal contact with—she had written a book [2014’s Halston: Inventing American Fashion] and was now interested in collaborating on a film with Roland—opened up a completely different side of Halston, the personal side, the family side and that made a huge difference to me as a filmmaker.

ROLAND BALLESTER Not only did we have a lot of access to the personal side but also to the business side. We also got to see documents that no one had seen before given to us by the business and legal people on both sides of the Halston dilemma, both from his attorney and also the business people from his camp and also the ones from the ESMARK camp.

48 HILLS How impartial can you be in your portrayal of Halston with the family involved?

FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG I can be totally unbiased. We had no one breathing down our neck at all. Leslie Frowick saw the film one week before Sundance. It was part of the agreement from the beginning. I was very adamant that I want final cut, so even though we worked with great partners at CNN and Amazon, they never told us what to do and we were able to make it on our own and say what we want to say.

Director Frédéric Tcheng

48 HILLS How did you overcome challenging moments during interviews for the documentary, such as when Liza said she wouldn’t talk about Halston’s drug use, or when you confronted Halston’s attorney about changing the locks to his office, or Carl Epstein about selling off Halston’s sample dresses?

FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG The challenge is to walk that line between making people comfortable and having a lot of empathy, so they open up and tell their story to you but not forgetting that the other part of my job is also to confront them with some of the shortcomings of their contributions. Or if they’re saying something wrong, to rectify it and probe them.

I get that I’m not a journalist, but I do a lot of homework and I’m very diligent about reading absolutely everything, knowing the timeline like the back of my hand. That’s the only way you can begin to understand the story and try to decipher what’s wrong between the corporation’s narrative and Halston’s narrative.

It’s an investigation, not just trying to find a person’s character and emotions but also into the facts of what happened, especially that year because there were two narratives fighting against each other.

48 HILLS After all your research, who do you believe is more to blame: Halston or ESMARK?

FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG What the corporation said was that Halston was out of control and incapacitated, and Halston’s side was saying the corporation was being completely unreasonable and doing something that was almost illegal. I don’t think one side is more to blame than the other side. I think it’s really just two different worlds with different world views.

Halston comes in with the belief that he’s built this grand 100-percent-him business and his name is on the door and he worked tirelessly for 20 years to build it, so he feels like he owns it. The corporation comes at it from a purely business-legal standpoint where they feel that he’s sold his name, so it’s theirs. He’s just an employee. So I think Halston was on a winning streak but then his feet lost touch with the earth and the corporations knocked him over.

Halton with Liza Minelli. Photo by Berry Berenson Perkins

48 HILLS The movie gives us the tiniest glimpse of Halston’s time in Northern California, as he began suffering complications from AIDS. We learn that he bought a Rolls-Royce and would go on long drives with his brother along the coast. What more can you tell us about this time in his life?

ROLAND BALLESTER We know quite a bit about his time in California. He moved there in the late fall of ‘89. First, he stayed for a month at the Mark Hopkins Hotel and then he was seen seeking treatment at Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center [now California Pacific Medical Center.] And then after that he was staying with his brother and sister in Santa Rosa, where he enjoyed time with them and his niece Leslie Frowick who was then living in the Bay Area. They were planning on living together, but his illness progressed so that couldn’t be possible. Then he passed away at Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center.

One thing I find really interesting about him is that even though he clearly knew what his fate would be, he was still planning on building a spectacular house in Santa Rosa. I always find that so characteristic of his optimism, that he was going to keep pressing forward, having projects, and keeping busy.

48 HILLS The documentary begins with a difficult anecdote about Halston and his assistant being shunned by society for being gay. With June being Pride month, what is Halston’s legacy as a gay man?

FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG I think it’s huge, and in Halston fashion, it’s understated and he never bragged about it, of course, because it was a different generation. But I really wanted to bring that aspect forth in the film, so I choose to have the first significant anecdote in the film be about homophobia and being rejected at a society dinner because I think it was crucial for me to understand how he built his life and his world based on that rejection.

You could make a strong case that when you’re that ambitious and have someone tell you, “You can’t sit at a table,” you’re going to build a life where you’re at the table and you decide who gets to be at the table. I think that’s exactly what he did when he started his own fashion brand that was opposite from Bergdorf Goodman and also what he did when he started embracing Studio 54.

He and Truman Capote and Andy Warhol were these gay men who came from other places and came to New York to change society and change what the rules of acceptance were. And in doing that, he made an incredible mark on gay history.

Opens Fri/14
Various Bay Area theaters
Tickets and more info here.

From Scream Queens to Queer Genius: Frameline LGBTQ Film Fest takes it in

'This is Not Berlin'

It’s always a political moment for the world’s oldest/largest LGBTQ film festival. But this year is extra-special, alas: When was the last time we had a POTUS who claims he’s “loved” by “the gays” while he methodically advances legislation protecting that minority from bias to please his homophobic fanbase?

Though the moment may not be as nationally galvanizing as Anita Bryant or AIDS—though it should be—this year’s Frameline nonetheless strikes a particularly oppositional note. We thought we were well en route to mainstream acceptance, and perhaps we are (with society in general, if not the powers-that-be). But the venomous blowback currently at work makes it clear that the fight isn’t just “not over,” it’s turning into WW3.

Frameline’s 2019 edition—its forty-third—offers a typically diverse slate of work from around the world. The Castro Theatre opening-nighter on Thurs/20 is Chanya Button’s Vita and Virginia, a costume drama about two of the most fascinating early 20th century English literary figures—sometime lovers Virginia Woolf (played by Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). It ends on Gay Pride Day with David Charles Rodrigues’ documentary Gay Chorus Deep South, about the SF Gay Chorus’ recent tour into the more humid regions of American conservatism.

In between there are many attractions, including a Frameline Award salute to Rodney Evans on June 26. (His Brother to Brother and new Vision Portraits will be screened as part of the tribute.) Plus numerous carry-overs from Sundance: The dysfunctional family comedy Before You Know It, period lesbian romance To The Stars, evangelical biopic Sister Aimee, and documentary The Disappearance of My Mother, in which gay filmmaker Beniamino Barrese endlessly pesters his former supermodel mum. There’s also State of Pride, a new documentary from SF’s greatest gay filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, albeit a lesser effort patently promoting gay YouTube “stars.”

Here’s just a few highlights among Frameline’s imposing 2019 program:

This Is Not Berlin
This exceptional period piece is a marvel, portraying the high times of two restless, privileged Mexico City adolescents as they get sucked (ahem) into the wild life of that sprawling burg’s punk scene circa 1986. It’s a polymorphously perverse joy ride that shouldn’t be missed.

Lovers just briefly, but long-term political and business soulmates, Selma Miriam and Noel Furie were among the founders of a Bridgeport, CT restaurant that blazed a trail of vegetarian lesbian feminism starting nearly fifty years ago. It’s a testament to the appeal of Douglas Tirola’s documentary that their personalities remain as improvingly tasty as the cuisine photographed with salivation-triggering aplomb here.

One of many SF-centric features at this year’s festival, Tom Shepard’s documentary profiles four real-life protagonists escaping persecution (in Syria, the Congo and Angola) to seek hopeful shelter in our fair city. But even before the immigration-unfriendly advent of the Trump administration, their flight is hobbled by the considerable barriers of U.S. governmental red tape.

Queer Genius
A loving look at the artistic legacy of pioneering lesbian filmmaker and multimedia artist Barbara Hammer, who died last year of ovarian cancer in SF earlier this year at age 79. It’s a treasure trove of archival footage from one of the most important American artists of the last half-century.

You Don’t Nomi
Though unavailable for preview, we can hardly resist this documentary about the movie that has displaced Valley of the Dolls as possibly the gayest movie ever. Yes, that would be Showgirls, the 1995 campsterpiece that pretty much destroyed the careers of everyone involved, though it certainly did a favor to a whole lotta drag queens. Another film-centric film in Frameline is Scream Queen, about the closeted gay actor who saw his career destroyed by a deliberately if covertly queer 1986 sequel to the horror hit A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Marc Heustis: Impresario of Castro Street
Dragged (ahem) back to the Castro Theatre where he’s feted so many retro stars is SF legend Heustis, a filmmaker (Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?, Sex Is…) turned celebrated celebator of cinematic celebrities. Multiple stars of the aforementionedValley of the Dolls, The Poseidon Adventure, Mommy Dearest, Carrie, and umpteen other celluloid gems have enjoyed his live extravaganzas. He’ll be taking the spotlight at last at this Sun/23 tribute…though it takes place at the Victoria Theatre, not the Castro.

Thurs/20-Sun/30, various SF venues.

Hopes, fears, dreams, and ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

Director Joe Talbot and star Jimmie Fails of 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco.' Photo by Peter Prato, Courtesy of A24

Two African American dreamers, Jimmie (first-time actor Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) are struggling to survive in the unforgiving reality of the City by the Bay in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” out Friday.

While they’re not technically the last two African Americans in SF, in the poignant surrealist film loosely based on Fails’s own life, it can surely feel like it in the heart of The City from where people of color are increasingly exiled, thanks to wave after wave of gentrification.

In the movie, which opens Fri/7, Jimmie grew up in the Fillmore District, in a beautiful Victorian house that his grandfather was said to have built when the so-called “Harlem of the West” still boasted a thriving black community and a vibrant jazz scene. Now, Jimmie is hanging on to a proverbial life raft, living a meager existence amid the Bayview–Hunters Point projects with his aspiring playwright friend Mont and Mont’s grandfather (Danny Glover). He wants to reclaim his childhood home, calling in Mont for reinforcement in the Plan B Entertainment-produced film. [Read critic Dennis Harvey’s review here.]

I spoke to actor Jimmie Fails, 24, and first-time director Joe Talbot, 28, who’ve been buddies since childhood about their longtime friendship—Fails grew up in the Mission and Talbot in Bernal Heights; they met in Precita Park—and how it inspired The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

48 HILLS How did you two meet? 

JIMMIE FAILS We were in the same general neighborhood for a long time and we’d see each other around from the time I had moved to that neighborhood at age nine. Once I got settled there and went out and started meeting more people the next year, I saw Joe when I was 10 and then met him when I was 11.

48 HILLS Why did it take so long to meet?

JOE TALBOT So it was the kind of thing where you see him around, and if I was more confident, I’d have said, “Hey, you seem cool, you wanna be friends?” kind of thing. It took a little while, but there was a silent acknowledgment of “I kind of think we would bond,” and then we had one really long heart-to-heart one night.

He came over to my house with a friend of ours and I was there with my girlfriend, and it was a house where there were kids in and out, making music, making movies, and we just ended up talking all night.

48 HILLS I read that after meeting, you’d have epic nights walking around and chatting about your hopes and dreams, your fears and jealousies, and, of course, girls. Tell me more about those early conversations.

JIMMIE FAILS You always have talks with your friends, right? But there’s a difference with Joe because we have a different relationship and are closer in a different way, that we get to a deeper place because we’re so open and vulnerable with each other. This movie couldn’t have been made if not for that.

48 HILLS So what exactly were your hopes, dreams, and fears?

JOE TALBOT I think we were still working out things. It’s interesting to think back to certain things we talked about. We both made music. We made music together, so we’d talk about music and get excited about the same things. Other times, it was specific to stuff we were going through like a specific drama with a girlfriend or we didn’t have a lot of other guy friends that we could even open up to, feeling sad or jealous.

JIMMIE FAILS Outside of each other, our friends are women because those were the only other people we could be vulnerable in that way with.

JOE TALBOT Especially when you’re younger, but we would have friends, too, that’d be around us that would try to tap into a more vulnerable side, but then when they’d be around other kids, you’d see them kind of turn in a way, like Kofi in the movie.

JIMMIE FAILS It’s crazy that word “masculine” because it’s like a mask. It’s like you’re putting on a mask. That’s how I feel about it sometimes. We shouldn’t have to be that way, and that’s what we’re trying to explore in the movie. You don’t have to be that way all the time.

48 HILLS The two of you have such a strong friendship and an interesting backstory. So why didn’t you just make “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” about your friendship?  

JOE TALBOT The honest to G-d truth was that it was never a thought that crossed my mind. I think when we first started talking about it, the earliest iteration was Jimmie in this house because that was the story that I’d known. But then I thought there’s something interesting about putting him with someone who’s different than him.

So half of it is the shit that happened and pulling from that. But the other half is the fun of movies, particularly narratives. You go into your imagination and think about what would be the interesting story? And thinking about this friendship and creating a character, obviously, our friendship is what brought us together to make this movie, so it’s natural to ask how much of the friendship onscreen is us.

But Jonathan is such a brilliant dude, that he really invented a character. He took what was in the script to a whole ‘nother level and they created a bond that I see shades of our vulnerability with each other in. But it’s its own thing and it’s weirdly its own thing in real life, too. They have their own really close connection that they formed.

48 HILLS Were you the least bit jealous?

JOE TALBOT Yes, I was, although Jonathan and I have our own connection, too. So Jimmie was jealous of him, too. [Laughs]

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in ‘The Last Black Man in San Francsco.’ Photo by Peter Prato, Courtesy of A24

48 HILLS So many young people are trying to get their first movie made. What advice can you give them, from your own experience?

JOE TALBOT I never knew what collaboration meant till this movie. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. We shot the concept trailer five years ago and put it online and it became this accidental calling card, where all these people were writing us and saying, “I feel like I’m the last whatever in the Bay,” so we through that built this core team of people that all had complementary skill sets and were all learning together.

And people were wearing many hats, by turn helping with casting, location scouting, doing background and script supervising, as well as writing with us—and that’s one person. But it needed that. I actually want to take that to every production we do—this bigger collaborative nature—because then everyone has more of a bigger ownership of the whole thing. They commit more of themselves to it because they’re not just there in service of something; they’re there helping create the whole film.

Also, we lived in my parents’ house to get this movie made for five years. That speaks to San Francisco. Brad Pitt can be your executive producer, but you’re still living at your parents’ house.

Opens Fri/7
Various Bay Area theaters
Tickets and more info here.