The San Francisco International LGBT Festival, aka Frameline31, is far and away the biggest hodge-podge on the Bay Area film calendar. This is the place to go if you enjoy the flea-market approach of rooting around for gems, or crave seeing your non-mainstream identity or experience projected on the big screen. For a lot of folks, what's onscreen is occasionally secondary to the pleasure of sitting (or cruising) in a theater full of people with shared orientation, values or even sorrows.
Given its unique status as both a cultural and a community event, Frameline really can't be anything but a grab-bag. It's one thing to program the best films available, but frankly that's incompatible with the fest's marvelous commitment to (re)presenting the breadth of the LGBT experience. Given the paucity of, say, African American transgender feature-length comedies made every year, the odds of finding a masterpiece are miniscule. In other words, a certain number of films make the cut because they're the only ones in a niche genre. C'est la vie, as they say.
The fest kicks off tonight with The Witnesses, Andre Techine's highly regarded look at the effect of AIDS on four memorable characters in 1984 Paris, and wraps June 24 with the anthemic Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a lesbian coming-of-age romantic comedy with a welcome political edge by Jamie Babbitt (But I'm a Cheerleader).
In between, there's a flick for every flavor, color and permutation. Here's a slim, selective guide to some of the more provocative films on display.
Sex = politics:
Israeli ace Eytan Fox (Yossi and Jagger, Walk On Water) has a knack for blending frothy pop culture with profound social commentary. The Bubble, honored with the fest's Centerpiece slot, slams the sex-and-drugs complacency of young bohos in Tel Aviv into the reality of Palestinian life in the West Bank. A richly satisfying yarn marred slightly by some overly schematic plotting, the film also screens in July during the Berkeley leg of the Jewish Film Festival and returns in the fall for a theatrical run.
Chick flick, Tough Girls Division:
Four Minutes screened in the Goethe-Institut's Berlin & Beyond series in January, but returns anointed with the Lola award for best German film of 2006. A once-promising and still-young pianist, now imprisoned for killing her boyfriend, is confronted with an elderly music teacher (best actress winner Monica Bleibtrau). Rebels from vastly different generations, they battle and reconcile and battle some more in a uniquely German examination of the lingering echoes of World War II.
Chick flick, Nice Girls Division:
You don't have to be queer to enjoy Out at the Wedding, a swirling Manhattan farce directed by Lee Friedlander (The 10 Rules). But it does help to have more of an appreciation than I do for the building blocks of screwball comedyÂ—crucial miscommunications (that don't get corrected), dumb behavior compounded by even dumber behavior and impossible coincidences.
Poetry in motion:
Kirk Shannon-Butts' wonderful debut feature, Blueprint, falls in that delicate, rarefied area between a character study and an experimental narrative. Two black college students, a straight-laced guy from L.A. and a street-smart Brooklynite, meet and end up spending the day together. The filmmaker has two primary ambitions, to immerse the viewer in his off-kilter but hypnotic rhythm and to upend stereotypes at every turn. Fans of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep will detect an influence, while everyone else will be amazed at the beauty that Shannon-Butts finds in the everyday.
If you're more comfortable with familiar names, the documentary program is the place to go. Black, White + Gray name-checks Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith all the way from the first frame to the last, but it's a kind of sleight-of-hand. James Crump's real subject is Sam Wagstaff, a closeted preppie who grew up to become an important New York collector and curator of photography (and Mapplethorpe's older lover in the Â‘70s and Â‘80s). Photography buffs will swoon at the smorgasbord of amazing pictures that Wagstaff amassed, while Patti's fans will wait in vain for her to short-circuit her interview and sing instead.
Another household name, the loony Baptist preacher Fred Phelps, commandeers the camera in the informative but overlong doc Fall From Grace. There's enough material here to make a good half-hour film; alas, it runs 71 repetitive minutes. Filmmaker Ryan Jones got terrific access, and here are the highlights of what he uncovered: The only members of Phelps' Topeka church appear to be his children and their families, it's more of a cult than a movement and Phelps has one serious fixation with "fags." Maybe he should pray with Ted Haggert.
You'll notice the subtle geographical progression of this survey is bringing us ever closer to home. We end on a down note in the East Bay, where transgendered teenager Gwen Araujo was murdered in 2002 by three young men with whom she'd been intimate. Local documentary filmmaker Shelly Provost's Trained in the Ways of Men is an impassioned work that not only tracks the course of justice through two trials but veers into discussions of identity, gender and social change. The quality of the filmmaking is secondary to the content, as is the case with a few other movies in Frameline31, but that's quibbling when a work is so successful at conveying the perspective of a group of people. Now it's up to the rest of us to open our eyes and ears. If there's one thing we've learned from four decades of gay liberation, it's that hearts and minds will follow.
Frameline31, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival runs June14-24. For program and ticket info, visit www.frameline.org.