As Pui, a young Taiwanese girl, roughhouses with some neighborhood boys on the street outside her home, the camera cuts to her mother — stern face, arms folded, staring intently at her child. A short while later, the two are shown in a surgically sterile kitchen as the mother tutors her child in the (ostensibly) feminine art of cutting and arranging flowers. "You can be friends with boys," she tells the girl, "but don't imitate them." Something in Pui's face — the fact that it barely registers emotion — suggests that this may not be the first time this conversation, or some variation of it, has been held.
The short film Pui, directed by Rujiroj Thanasankittiwat, runs down the checklist of standard queer-cinema fare — the child coloring outside the lines of gender conformity, the parent as scold, efforts to corral the child into more acceptable behavior. But the film ends with Pui pulling an act of defiance that is both low-key (it's out of her mother's line of vision) and jaw-dropping at once, raising more questions than it settles and quietly subverting formula.
Pui is part of the "No I.D. Required" shorts program in this year's Outfest Fusion film festival, the offshoot festival of Outfest, which focuses on works by LGBT filmmakers of color from around the world.
The shorts programs are always the Fusion festival's highlight. It's where Dee Rees' gorgeous Colonial Gods and the short version of her Pariah made a splash before the feature version of Pariah was released to critical acclaim. It's where Julien Breece's cult classic The Young & Evil, about a young African-American man trying to get infected with HIV, made a splash, and the short film version of Patrik Ian-Polk's Noah's Arc whetted appetites before going on to become a hit series on the Logo channel. (Ian-Polk's much buzzed about new feature, Blackbird, starring Mo'Nique and Isaiah Washington, which recently played to a sold-out crowd at the Pan African Film Festival, is Fusion's opening-night film; it was unavailable for preview.)
But while its status as a launching pad is impressive, what the shorts programs accomplish most notably year after year is the gathering of filmgoers, across race, gender, sexual orientation and even nationality, to view films whose content and makers span all identity markers.
Audiences who might eschew fare that doesn't speak directly to their own gender, race or orientation are exposed to work that takes them into other worlds and experiences — a film festival ideal that isn't always realized.
Two especially strong programs this year are the "No I.D. Required" and "Fight the Power" playlists. The former focuses on childhood and adolescence, with films from France (the Afropean Le Retour, about a teenager struggling with the queerness of his adored elder sibling), India (a young girl navigates the evolution of her growing love for her best friend in Big Time), the United States (an African-American teen in a white household grapples with multiple identity issues in Bounty) and more.
The "Fight the Power" set, meanwhile, is especially topical. Subject matter ranges from a gay, Arab-American lawyer whose work involves defending Muslims from racial profiling (Omar Hakim's Al-Basir) to the community of black Muslim lesbians living in Atlanta (Red Summer's Al-Nisa).
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Some of the most urgent work deals with homophobia across Africa, particularly Uganda. City of the Damned, from Uganda, co-directed by Nate Skeen, Matt Rogers, Mor Albalak, Shaneika Lai and Stephanie Lee, documents the Youth on Rock Foundation's efforts to combat the much-publicized homophobic government legislation that demonizes the country's queer community. Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine's experimental and meditative Kuhani, which he adapted from his play of the same name, traces the struggles of a conflicted Ugandan priest as he attempts to minister to his flock.
Of the previewed features offered this year, the best of the batch is Leesong Hee-il's White Night. In it, Leesong — best known for his 2006 South Korean queer hit, No Regret — is on familiar ground of his cinematic obsessions: The internalized homophobia of one man is challenged by the wholly self-accepting man he meets through a one-night stand, but whose presence and impact turn out to be life-changing. Beautifully shot and acted, the film channels its tale through prickly class tensions between the two lead characters (a flight attendant and a bike messenger, both gorgeous), while slowly illuminating the psyche-crippling aftermath of a brutal gay-bashing. The film manages to be sexy and unflinching all at once.
OUTFEST FUSION | Egyptian Theatre | March 14-16 | outfest.org/fusion2014
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the actor starring in Blackbird. The correct name is Isaiah Washington.