Amir here, reporting from the Hot Docs documentary festival in Toronto. There are a few films at the festival this year that deal with LGBT issues. Paolo has already reviewed one of them – though I’m using the term “issue” very loosely with regards to that one - but on a more serious note, here are three more documentaries about the gay community.
First up is Valentine Road, which explores the story of a 15 year old student, named Larry King, in Oxnard, California who was fatally shot by a classmate, Brandon McInerney, during school hours for confessing his love for him in front of a group of friends. Larry, a biracial boy who had always shown female tendencies, had begun to dress in girls’ clothing and put on heels and make-up to school. On the face of it, the crime is one born of hatred, homophobia and racism, but director Marta Cunningham isn’t satisfied with such reductive explanations. Her film is a wild ride that smacks the audience right out of their conclusions every time one is apparently reached, digging layer after layer of evidence to uncover the complexity of the case.
Valentine Road spends its entire running time exploring the grey areas of human psyche. It’s a gut-wrenching film that patiently and intelligently unravels the background to the dark events of that fateful February 2008 day [more...]
and it does this without constructing a black and white narrative between Larry and his murderer. Brandon is as much a victim of a society that breeds intolerance and a family that abused him beyond his limits as Larry is of that society’s unending potential for violence. Cunningham never makes explicit political statements, and it’s a remarkable achievement that such an emotionally intense film never feels politically manipulative or in search of a particular agenda. Viewed through her compassionate lens and with the occasional, much-needed humor that is mostly drawn from the ill-bred views of some jury members and the defendant’s lawyers, Valentine Road is easily one of the best films of the festival and a film I’m sure you’ll hear a lot more of during the awards season.
Travelling across the ocean to Africa, there is God Love Uganda. This film isn’t focused strictly on the lives of LGBTs in Uganda; its reach actually extends far beyond that to a story of how American conservative Christians are enforcing a cultural and religious divide that is ruining the lives of many and giving power to a small few in the country. The film particularly focuses on IHOP – no, not that one, International House of Prayer – a conservative organization from Kansas City, Missouri, that is sending missionaries to preach Christian values in Uganda. On the surface, their mission seems harmless enough, but get to the details of the hatred they are perpetuating and the problem is clear as day. These organizations that are finding it harder by the day to advertise their antiquated ideologies in the Western world have now found Africa – particularly Uganda, one of Africa’s most religious countries - a fertile ground for the spread of religiously motivated hatred. Naturally, the LGBT community is the biggest victim of such odious motivations in a country where vigilante justice is too often at the core of violence.
Director Roger Ross Williams knows better than to criticize the faith of the people outright. After all, several Ugandan Christian ministers are exactly the ones fighting back against oppression alongside the LGBT activists, but there are two big impediments on their way: the overwhelming support of an undereducated population for an anti-homosexuality bill, and the threat of cutting funds from the U.S. as a consequence of the Bush regime’s frustratingly ignorant policies. God Loves Uganda isn’t a groundbreaking achievement on any cinematic level; rather, it’s a film on a mission to expose the hypocrisy of the pastors who have financially and socially exploited Ugandan people with American help. One gets the sense that Mr. Williams – a gay African American man whose family members are church ministers – wholeheartedly believes that a story so personal to him can create the same emotional impact on an audience less directly involved; and indeed, it does. You’ll leave the theatre grieving the lives of those affected by extreme violence but also with an optimism derived from Williams’s hopeful outlook. (If you are willing to help their cause by organizing a screening of the film at your local church, by the way, you can let the producers know and they will organize it for you. It’s a worthy cause.)
On a much lighter note, there is Malcolm Ingram’s Continental, which tells the story of the famous Continental baths in New York City in the 70s. Founded by now Opera singer Steve Ostrow, the baths were the perfect destination for gay men who wanted to have fun – by which I mean lots of anonymous sex and orgies – without having to deal with the filthy environment of other gay clubs in New York at the time. Ostrow, who was married but later came out with the support of his wife, got together an eclectic group of entertainers that shaped the baths’ image and in turn, made successful careers for themselves. Chief among them was Bette Midler, whose shows grew to become one of the biggest attractions of the baths. Her absence from this film is also the main reason Continental is one of the festival’s biggest letdowns.
Needless to say, there is very minimal footage from Continental’s heyday, mostly because the patrons wanted their identities kept secret, but Ingram makes no attempt to overcome that problem. Continental is the equivalent of sitting in a room with your uncles and aunts and listening to them recounting all the fun they had in the 70s without sharing pictures. Worse still, your coolest aunt isn’t even at the party. For an entire construct that revolves around talking head interviews, the vivacious presence of Bette Midler is sorely missing from the film. But for all its lack of imagination and tedious structure, Continental is still essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of gay rights in America. This isn’t a film merely about the spicy details of the bathhouse – though there’s quite a lot of those, like the fact that Alfred Hitchcock showed up in disguise just to see what's going on – but one that shines a light on the political climate of Gay America during that period.