The S.F. International LGBT Film Festival prides itself on having something for everybody, no matter which color he or she identifies with on the rainbow flag. I'm staking out a jingoist orientation for my purposes, talking up the long-form documentaries and lone narrative feature by Bay Area filmmakers.
The docs celebrate the two driving forces most closely identified with the vital Bay Area documentary scene: history and social activism. As its title suggests, Debra Chasnoff's hour-long Celebrating the Life of Del Martin (Friday, June 17, 11:30am, Castro Theatre), looks back on the pioneering work of the San Francisco gay rights champion who died in 2008 after half a century of aggressive as well as diplomatic efforts to win acceptance, self-respect and political power for lesbians.
Martin's contributions notwithstanding, one would expect a wider, national mainstream audience for With You (Saturday, June 18, 4pm, Castro Theatre), Scott Gracheff's smoothly crafted tribute to Flight 93's Mark Bingham and his mother Alice Hoagland. A friend remembers Bingham as a "human Labrador retriever," and the husky former U.C. Berkeley rugby captain comes across as the kind of oversize personality -- gregarious, charismatic, self-confident and caring -- that made every acquaintance feel like a lifelong friend.
Bingham was far from a gay activist -- his mother took on some of that role after his death, honoring his memory by organizing an annual rugby tournament of gay teams from around the world -- but rather a great guy who happened to be gay. In the year 2011, that's sufficient for most people; the fact that he was a hero (as well as a victim) on 9/11 makes his orientation moot to another chunk of the public. I don't wish to sound cynical, not least because With You is an avowedly feel-good film (as improbable as that may sound) that takes its title from a rugby term that evokes reliability, teamwork and friendship. But in its own way, Gracheff's doc is a non-confrontational nudge for those who still aren't used to the queers being here.
Dain Percifield's Running in Heels: The Glendon "Anna Conda" Hyde Story (Saturday, June 19, 11am, Victoria Theater) won't provoke the same response, although it's unlikely to be seen much outside the Bay Area. A cross between a character study and a record of an electoral campaign, the rough-edged but endearing hour-long doc tracks the titular drag queen's 2010 race for District 6 supervisor. The filmmaker is clearly in Anna's corner, but the candidate is such an independent thinker, and so much his/her own person, that there's no chance of anyone's perspective or interpretation trumping Anna's. That said, Percifield's great accomplishment is going beyond his subject's sensationalist, performance-oriented persona and revealing Anna/Glendon's seriousness and determination.
The Grove (Tuesday, June 21, 1:30pm, Castro Theatre) marks the first collaboration between talented veteran filmmakers Andy Abrahams Wilson and Tom Shepard, and it's an ambitious one. The National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park is perhaps the least-known national memorial in the country, which is fine with some of its founders and volunteers (who hold the place as a personal space for reflection and comfort) but bothers other folks enough to propose erecting a monument commemorating the disease's massive, nationwide toll and raising the memorial's profile. The Grove revisits familiar history -- the arrival of the disease, the Reagan Administration's pointed indifference, the pervasive and prolonged cloud of grief, and the process of healing and living -- but the film largely unfolds in the present, with the board's fraught decision to hold a design contest to commission an artistic and symbolic monument.
Wilson and Shepard have sought a new entry point to revisit the AIDS crisis and its lingering effects, and there's no question that they succeed in spotlighting a memorial that's unknown even to most San Franciscans. (Perhaps the S.F. Convention and Visitors Bureau should assist the film's national marketing efforts.) Frankly, though, the film will be most effective among those who haven't seen numerous films about the pandemic.
Hitting a much, much lighter note, David Lewis's low-budget, independent feature Longhorns (Saturday, June 25, 11am, Castro Theatre) is a lusty lark set in an '80s dorm at the University of Texas at Austin. It's a smiling, smirking look at male bravado that comes out of the world of Friday Night Lights football, where scoring with girls (and bragging about it) is a sign of status. In such a setting, of course, the homosexual Kevin (the likable Jacob Newton) must not only conceal the fact, and deny it to himself, but act even more aggressively macho.
Lewis's amusing conceit is that every Texas stud we meet is at least bisexual, if not outright gay. (Hmmm. Maybe that's the source of the underlying tension in Terence Malick's Texas-set The Tree of Life.) The crux of the matter in Longhorns is that all the guys are hiding the same secret from each other. A kiss serves to throw their self-denial into relief: No matter what you do in bed with another man, you're not gay unless your lips lock.
Longhorns needs a little more plot to put it squarely in the end zone (don't we love our double entendres) but its many pleasures include winning performances and original songs by H.P. Mendoza (Colma: The Musical). Avowedly audience-friendly, the movie shamelessly includes gratuitous nudity but, interestingly, the love scenes are suggestive rather than revealing (and much funnier as a result). As is true for all of the local films discussed here, it's easy to root for the home team.
Frameline35 runs June 16-26, 2011 at the Castro, Roxie and Victoria Theatres in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley. For more information visit frameline.org.