Entering its 27th year, Outfest remains an inherently political affair. No matter how much cultural currency the LGBT community accrues, or how much political progress is scored, the vibrant text and subtext of the festival is that it serves as a much-needed artistic and social outlet — because access and equality are far from the reality most queer folk live within. This year, in which “opposite marriage” entered the popular vernacular as a cringe-inducing marker of bubble-headed bigotry, the energy around Outfest is especially charged, irradiated by the political power emanating from acronyms: ENDA, DADT, DOMA, et al. Obviously, it’s far too soon for the world of queer cinema to have grappled with the volatile fallout from these issues this year, but it’s difficult not to process almost everything in the festival through the prism of 2009’s sociopolitical upheaval. Luckily, most of the fare doesn’t need that crutch to make it worthwhile viewing.
One of the most noteworthy things about this year’s lineup is the significant presence and prominence of work by and about people of color. The opening night film, Peter Bratt’s La Mission, stars his heart-throb brother Benjamin (Law & Order) as a volatile, alcoholic Latino coming to terms with his son’s gayness, while Tina Mabry’s fantastic black family drama Mississippi Damned screens as the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Centerpiece film.
Films about gender identity and building alternative families are well-represented amongst the usual homo romantic comedies and historical documentaries. A retrospective of the films of Strand Releasing (including Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels and John Maybury’s Love is the Devil) offers a much-deserved tribute to the pioneering indie distributor, while longtime queer icon Sharon Gless will likely set hearts aflutter in her turn as a feisty, unapologetically sexual, elderly lesbian in Hannah Free. And if you get a chance to catch the revival screening of 1990’s Without You, I’m Nothing, try to watch it not as a vehicle for Sandra Bernhard but as a tribute to the vast talents of the late queer writer-director John Boskovich, whose staggering vision it really is. Following is our guide to the best films made available for preview from this year’s Outfest program. For more festival info, go to www.outfest.org.
AGAINST A TRANS NARRATIVE (USA) Directed by Jules Rosskam, this wittily innovative essay film mixes interviews, dramatic fragments, poetry, declarative statements and quasidocumentary re-enactments as it deals with the subject of transsexuality in a way that recalls Godard’s famous quip that films should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order. Instead of a prefabricated starting point, where the subject “realizes” they’re “in the wrong body,” Rosskam’s film views gender reconfiguration as a constant process. Whether the subject wishes to “pass” as male or female to the world at large, or desires a more personal sense of a regenderized self, is the principal issue. Against a Trans Narrative may not be quite as much fun as John Cameron Mitchell’s kick-ass queer-punk musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but it’s enormously entertaining and enlightening on its own terms and is highly recommended to those who’ve never even thought about the subject. (REDCAT, Sat., July 11, 2:30 p.m.) (DE)
GREEK PETE (U.K.) “London Boy Pete,” whose real name is Peter Pittaros, is a gay prostitute who dreams of being named “International Escort of the Year” (yes, hookers have award shows, too), but mostly he wants to “make as much money as possible.” In a documentary that reportedly includes several staged sequences, filmmaker Andrew Haigh captures the charismatic Pete and his fellow rent boys as they hang out between gigs, sharing drugs and tales of weird customers, and occasionally fucking one another. Greek Pete is titillating and also depressingly mundane, which makes it, one suspects, a not inaccurate portrayal of what it feels like to play for pay. (DGA, Wed., July 15, 9:45 p.m.) (CW)
HANNAH FREE (USA) In what may be her biggest role since Cagney and Lacey went their separate ways, Sharon Gless stars as Hannah, an elderly woman denied permission to see her dying lesbian lover. Hannah and Rachel (Maureen Gallagher) have been together for 40 years, even during the time that Rachel was married. In flashbacks, Hannah recalls their life together, which, it must be said, isn’t terribly interesting — the women bicker, but mostly, they make out. Directed by Wendy Jo Carlton and written by Claudia Allen (adapting her 1992 play), Hannah Free is as predictable as a Hallmark Channel movie, yet there’s an undeniable pleasure to be had from watching Gless mumble and grumble and generally chew the scenery. Cagney lives, and she’s as cranky as ever. (DGA, Fri., July 10, 7 p.m.) (CW)
IT CAME FROM KUCHAR (USA) Jennifer Kroot’s documentary on underground filmmaking icons George and Mike Kuchar isn’t just a hugely enjoyable appreciation for the siblings whose work has influenced directors from Guy Maddin to John Waters (both of whom appear as talking heads), it’s also a celebration of artists making art for its — and their — own sake. Crammed with film clips from the brothers’ solo and collaborative works, which wonderfully illustrate their idiosyncratic DIY aesthetic, the film resonates with an elevation of queerness in all forms. Kroot locates that quality in the Kuchars’ work, in their early family life, in the creative types they drew and were drawn to, in their romances, and in their participation in everything from early ’60s underground New York filmmaking to the brief utopia that was ’70s San Francisco. (Fairfax, Thurs., July 16, 9:30 p.m.) (EH)
LADY TROJANS (USA) Bell Biv Devoe’s classic ’90s hit “Poison” is cheekily played a few times in Elizabeth and Annameekee Hesik’s densely packed documentary about the baby-dyke drama that fueled the Lady Trojans, a champion girls basketball team in early ’90s Tucson, Arizona. At times, the film is confusing because it mirrors the tangent-laden talk of friends who make nonlinear conversational leaps, and it may take the viewer a moment to track what’s going on. Part of the confusion, though, lies in keeping track of who was zooming whom on the team. Emerging from the dramatic re-creations, copious home-movie footage and present-day interviews, however, is an engrossing look at fledgling lesbian sexuality shaped by heartache, puppy love, sexual coercion and more than a little wistful regret. (Fairfax, Sat., July 11, 4:30 p.m.) (EH)
MISSISSIPPI DAMNED (USA) Its title nods hard toward Nina Simone’s incendiary protest song, “Mississippi Goddamn,” and its soulful, often heartrending depiction of damaged, dysfunctional Southern blackness (cycles of sexual abuse and domestic violence, poverty, and substance abuse) is shaded with more than a little of The Color Purple. But writer-director Tina Mabry’s based-on-a-true-story tale is filled with lovely visual details (a simple cutaway to a dead fly is poetic in context), and such deeply drawn, wonderfully acted characters (there’s not a bad performance in the ensemble) that even those who quibble with elements will likely be moved by what is ultimately a story of spiritual resilience and hard-won victory. (DGA, Tues., July 14, 8 p.m.) (EH)
STILL BLACK: A PORTRAIT OF BLACK TRANSMEN (USA) Kortney Ryan Ziegler’s documentary has racked up countless accolades on the festival circuit for its straightforward look at the world of black transmen, but what makes it powerful are its subtle subversions. Largely a point-and-shoot affair that simply lets its subjects analyze and contextualize their own realities, Still Black eschews the language of academia, which has swamped too many conversations around transgender identity. The film moves to the cadences of a working-class minister and his wife, and to the (admittedly clichéd) flow of a spoken-word artist, among others. More importantly, as the title makes clear, these are men who have not fled or allowed themselves to be driven from their racial identities as they have (re)created themselves. (REDCAT, Sun., July 12, 6:30 p.m.) (EH)
TWO SPIRITS: SEXUALITY, GENDER AND THE MURDER OF FRED MARTINEZ (USA) In terms of craftsmanship, Lydia Nibley’s documentary is rudimentary and could be refined in its editing, sound and pacing. But its core tale of the brief life and brutal murder of teenager Fred Martinez, and how his Navajo culture supported his queerness, is so riveting that the viewer forgives the film’s technical weaknesses. Nibley cuts back and forth between assorted talking heads (Martinez’s mother; community people who knew him; fellow Navajos), who detail their culture’s sophisticated, ancient-but-visionary beliefs about gender, giving us a crash course on Navajo history and culture while illuminating the struggles of Martinez, whose detailed murder and mother’s grief are devastating. (Fairfax, Thurs., July 16, 7:15 p.m.) (EH)