O.K. I know. One major reason to go to the annual San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival is to see and be seen. We stand in long lines checking out the various characters in the inevitably large crowd while waiting to be let into the theater. Once inside, we watch hot and humorous fantasies or stirring melodramas featuring attractive, and often half-nude, characters as they frolic across the big screen. Even by today's standards, when LGBT characters real and imagined are much more visible than they were 36 years ago, the festival remains vital by collecting a diversity of queer images from around the world and presenting them in concentrated form for eleven glorious days.
As the years roll on, I find myself increasingly drawn to the festival's documentary section. Even though the history of the gay liberation movement is short, it is populated with heroic (and sexy) characters whose brave and often outrageous exploits secured the relative freedom I enjoy today. So, consider this a big thanks to the filmmakers who spend years researching these lives and this history and then struggle (also heroically) to bring these stories to screens large and small all around the globe.
This year's festival opens with Jeffrey Schwarz's Vito (Thursday, June 14, 7pm, Castro Theatre), a loving portrait of Vito Russo, the gay activist and cinema pioneer. Russo is most famous for his book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, which unearthed queer images from throughout film history and showed how Hollywood had devolved from a nuanced depiction of gays and lesbians in early silent cinema to the development of various stereotypes that marginalized homosexuality as the medium progressed. These portrayals went through a particularly brutal period in the '60s and early '70s, when gay and lesbian characters were often portrayed as either homicidal or suicidal. Russo's book, which he developed and presented as a traveling clip-show for over a decade, caused change by unearthing these images, identifying patterns, and bringing this insidious homophobia to light.
What I found most interesting about Vito was how deeply it explores the creative process of researching and developing an idea (a life's work, really) over a long period of time. The Celluloid Closet is a seminal work of LGBT history, so it is a unique pleasure to be able to see how it arose from humble beginnings. The seed of the idea came from film screenings that Russo organized at the Gay Activists Alliance, an old New York fire house that was host to various LGBT groups in the early 1970s. It was heartening to see such a monumental achievement begin so simply and then grow and develop in scope and power, inhabiting the life of its creator as it slowly took shape.
There are amazing images throughout the film; especially poignant are scenes from an infamous Gay Pride rally in New York's Central Park, when brewing discord between various splinter groups suddenly burst out into the open and threatened to tear the burgeoning Gay Rights movement apart. Russo was the unfortunate master of ceremonies that day, presiding as gracefully as possible over an increasingly agitated crowd.
Russo was very connected to San Francisco in the late '70s and throughout the '80s. He met his partner, Jeffrey Sevcik, at the SF International LGBT Film Festival while Sevcik was literally putting Russo's name up in lights on the Castro Theatre's marquee. After learning that both he and Sevcik had come down with AIDS, Russo became a founding member of ACT-UP, the radical group that organized to fight for the lives of the men and women who had been diagnosed with the disease.
Which brings me to United In Anger: A History of ACT UP (Tuesday, June 19, 11am, Castro Theatre), Jim Hubbard's electric documentary that tells the story of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Mostly centered around the organization's founding chapter in New York, which was put into motion by Vito Russo and Larry Kramer, the documentary presents incredible footage of this uniquely diverse activist community, which managed to bring the government's neglect of the AIDS epidemic into sharp focus.
Hubbard and his co-producer Sarah Schulman are also the co-founders of MIX, the New York LGBT Experimental Film Festival, an underground version of Frameline. As such, their film is informed with a sense of immediacy that is usually not found in traditional documentaries. They manage to capture the urgency present in a new line of LGBT activists who were reacting to the illnesses and deaths of their loved ones.
The film benefits from dramatic footage documenting the group's direct actions, which often used highly-charged, theatrical symbolism to get the attention of the mainstream media. And, given the state of the current health care debates, which are pathetic by comparison, it is beneficial to note how ACT UP's unusual organizational structure made the connection between this country's poor treatment of AIDS victims and the woefully inadequate system providing healthcare to women.
It is amazing to experience once again how long it took for the Reagan Administration to even acknowledge the disease's existence, as well as the prejudice and discrimination that informed public reaction to the epidemic (because its primary victims were gay men, women of color, and IV drug users). But what United in Anger captures best is the outrageous intelligence and wit with which this amazing group of activists combated this negligence, creating some of the most iconic images and slogans of the period. And it is also great to be reminded how tough a pissed off lesbian or gay man can be -- and how sexy.
Frameline 36, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival opens Thursday, June 14 and runs through Sunday, June 24, 2012 at various Bay Area locations. For tickets and information visit frameline.org.