A great irony, or paradox, accompanies the opening of the 32nd annual San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival today. This is a moment of unabashed joy in the gay and lesbian community, with the California Supreme Court recently ruling in favor of gay marriage and thousands of couples around the state tying the knot. But queer cinema, like independent film in general, is having a heck of a time finding a theatrical audience. At a time when gays and lesbians are enjoying a smoother road to living satisfying, expressive lives, queer filmmakers are increasingly stymied and frustrated. So is the festival (aka Frameline32) a cause for celebration, or concern?
Rest assured I'm not here to sprinkle on anyone's parade. From a community standpoint, Frameline32 is an unambiguously self-confident affirmation of LGBT identity. As an artistic event, the festival encompasses every genre of filmmaking, and every corner and side street of queer society, with insight and passion. But it's hard to ignore the larger forces at work.
In the post-Will & Grace world, the average American is less threatened and more tolerant of gays and lesbians. The other chunk of good news is the affordability of digital moviemaking, which ensures a steady stream of first-time filmmakers. But once a gay or lesbian director has made a couple movies, and is ready to step up to a bigger canvas requiring a bigger budget and top-drawer actors, he or she finds few options. The studios aren't pushing gay-themed films (excepting the one that's got Milk), in part because straight audiences got all the exercise they wanted climbing Brokeback Mountain.
The upshot is that queer filmmakers are turning to television to advance their careers. Perhaps it's not the end of the world, especially with gay and lesbian audiences (like their straight counterparts) increasingly used to watching movies on DVD on that very same screen. Maybe the provocatively written, beautifully produced ensemble series on cable television (which are replete with gay and lesbian characters) have supplanted adult-oriented films in American culture, and cultural commentators like myself should simply stop lamenting the fact that Hollywood has all but ceased making movies for anyone other than teenagers.
I'd love to hear what Michelle Ehlen, the L.A.-based writer, director and star of Butch Jamie has to say about all this. Her endearing and truth-filled no-budget comedy centers on an actress so eager to work (yet shut out of feminine parts by her butchness) that she agrees to pretend to be a man playing a man in an indie film. The movie needs another subplot or two, but the very fact that Ehlen plays her storyline for bemusement and gentle romance rather than anger illustrates how evolved our species has become.
Daryl Wein's Sex Positive honors a more traditional, bare-knuckled political activist. Well, perhaps not quite traditional. New Yorker Richard Berkowitz was a safe sex (and anti-bath house) proponent in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when gay men didn't want to hear it. Self-identified by hedonistic sexual freedom (aka promiscuity), and demonized for it by mainstream society, many gays were livid at what they saw as Berkowitz's campaign to clamp down on gay lifestyles. Sex Positive isn't a great documentary, but it illuminates an important recent chapter of history and spotlights a man whose contribution has yet to be acknowledged.
Berkowitz is far from the only social-justice advocate to turn up on the silver screen. The powerful documentary Citizen Nawi profiles a middle-aged Israeli plumber who, catalyzed by his love affair with a younger Palestinian, was awakened to the harsh treatment endured by Palestinians. We ride along with Ezra Nawi into the hills outside Hebron, where ultra-religious Jewish settlers actively harass villagers subsisting on olive trees and little else.
Veteran British director Isaac Julien and beloved actress Tilda Swinton team up for an inspiring and touching biography/tribute to their late friend, filmmaker Derek Jarman. Fresh off its Grand Jury Prize in the documentary competition at the Seattle International Film Festival, Derek is constructed around an extensive 1990 interview with the witty, self-effacing Jarman. A courageous and fearless figure in his own right -- he went public with his AIDS diagnosis as a kind of political statement -- Jarman is a prime example of a rare filmmaker able to simultaneously be true to his art, his moment and his audience.
Berkowitz and Jarman would recognize the circle of handsome young friends, acquaintances and lovers that populate Antarctica, a wistful and often funny ensemble drama set among the gay community in Tel Aviv. By and large, these guys (plus one lesbian couple) have all the sex they can handle; it's just love, trust and commitment that are missing from their lives. The themes of Antarctica transcend borders, and speak to what's going on in a hundred cities around the globe.
Everybody knows the San Francisco-based Kinsey Sicks as a politically savvy, vocally gifted, one-of-a-kind drag revue. (They're also a quartet, by the by.) The Kinsey Sicks: Almost Infamous follows the troupe en route to and during its potentially life-changing booking in that godless den of iniquity, that Sodom-and-Gomorrah-of-the desert, Las Vegas. Inspiring and sobering in equal measure, Ken Bielenberg's doc is a poignant record of a drive-by collision between San Francisco values and Vegas mores.
Without wishing to dissuade anyone from seeing them at the festival, herewith is a list of films that will get a theatrical release over the summer: The Edge of Heaven (July 11), Chris & Don: A Love Story (July 18), XXY (Aug. 1) and A Jihad For Love (Aug. 22).
Finally, Frameline32 marks the last stand of longtime director Michael Lumpkin, who has elevated the fest from a scraggly neighborhood event into one of the premier lesbian and gay film bashes in the universe. The fest will present a sidebar of some of his faves of the last 20 years, from Mala Noche to Lilies to Yes Nurse! No Nurse!. A trip down Memory Lane will no doubt be sufficient to banish any doubts and inspire optimism about the future of queer cinema. But let's talk again in a year.
Frameline32 runs June 19-29, 2008 at the Castro, Roxie and Victoria Theatres in San Francisco, and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit frameline.org.