Thursday, April 02, 2009

23rd London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

Happily abbreviated as LLGFF. I like the way the letters line up. OK so I'm not thinking about the Indian elections 24/7, but more on that in a bit. There's a great 5 for 4 deal at the LLGFF and I lied my way into a student discount (spare me your moral outrage; or bring my rent down).

The great attraction of I Can't Think Straight was the opportunity to see two gorgeous desi women play queer roles on screen (sleaze disclaimer: I am not a straight man with pervy lesbian fantasies; in fact I have no lesbian fantasies whatsoever). Lisa Ray is usually too ethereally beautiful for the roles she plays (remember Water?). This can be a real problem, particularly if you're meant to be playing a woman brutalised by life in a widow's hostel in Varanasi. Fortunately in this film, she plays a spoilt brat (Tala) from a wealthy Palestinian family based in London, who has broken off engagements to eligible young men four times. A chance encounter with Leyla, a British Indian woman (played by Sheetal Sheth), sends her into a tizzy. Will she go through with the wedding, or will she finally follow her heart? If you're thinking serious movie about arranged marriages and clashing civilisations, you're quite wrong. This is a light hearted romantic comedy, fun to watch, but not - I think - destined to become a classic. The humour is slapstick and a bit too predictable (the mothers in both families are neurotic ogres, in the style of Hindi movie mothers-in-law; the fathers gentle and indulgent). I thought film maker Shamim Sarif was much more of a hit than her movie - something about her hilariously OTT responses to every question in the Q&A that followed the screening, delivered in deadpan style reminded me of what I liked about British humour. I suppose the humour in the film was more...South Asian. Speaking of which, although she'd tried hard to find an Arab woman to play the role of Tala, this proved to be a tough ask. No one wanted to play a lesbian role for fear of family izzat and sharaafat bullshit. The best she could come up with was a British-Arab woman who agreed to do 'light kissing in a body suit'. This was far kinkier than she'd bargained for, Sarif noted sardonically, so she eventually went with Ray and Sheth, in large part because there was no discussion about what they would and wouldn't do - indeed, no discussion about this being a 'lesbian' film at all. In response to a question about why the film was set in a very upper class milieu, she said that she wanted to undermine the notion that posh people were more progressive about this sort of thing. Right on.

Before Stonewall is a masterpiece of gay history film-making. 25 years after it premiered at the 1984 Toronto Film Festival, this is a film that still feels new and urgent. As its title suggests, it tells the stories of people who lived and loved and came out and fought before the Stonewall riots of 1969 that are usually taken to mark the birth of an explicit movement for LGBT rights. Before Stonewall is about the necessary prehistory of that moment. A lot of the film is about people's experiences of coming out in a time when they had no notion of what they were coming out as ('we didn't call it, we just did it' said one interviewee, sounding a bit like a Nike ad). The film makes some interesting arguments about the role of the world wars in opening up space for queer life mostly via the creation of homosocial spaces, given the very gendered division of war labour. There's a great interview with a woman who served in one of the women's corps. The commanding officer - one Dwight Eisenhower - had gotten word that there were more than a few lesbians in this corps and ordered its leader (for someone who teaches security studies, I have an appalling grasp of military rank names) - this interviewee - to identify said lesbians so that they could be dismissed. She replied that she would do so if the general pleased, but that she'd have to be the first to go. Ike's secretary, standing next to him, said 'If it would please the General, sir, she may be second but I would be the first.' I would like to have seen the expression on his face, but Eisenhower rescinded the order immediately. Almost no one in the film is famous, except for Allen Ginsberg and Audre Lorde. Director Greta Schiller (who was also around for a Q&A) had some interesting things to say about the process of making the film. Trawling through film archives, she found nothing under 'gay and lesbian', but tonnes of material under 'perversion', 'prostitution', 'deviance', 'transvestism'. The subaltern leaves traces in the master's archive, but never on her own terms.

Then after Before Stonewall ended, an unexpected treat: Tiny and Ruby, a half hour documentary film about two elderly black lesbians in their 70s. And not just any two - Tiny Davis, a legendary jazz trumpeter and drummer-pianist Ruby Lucas, partners of 42 years at the time the film was made. You never see old queer people on film, you never see old black queer people on film, you never ever ever see old black lesbians on film or any-bloody-where. And I have to say this again: in their 70s; one playing the trumpet, the other playing the drums. The centre of their families and communities, the life and soul of the party. This was an utterly gorgeous, moving, hilarious, inspirational portrait of people we never see.

Later in the Southbank centre, I saw a poster for an event entitled 'Foreign Trade: the House of Homosexual Culture'. The event is billed as one about queer people from all over the world who come to live in London ('What draws them here? What do they find when they arrive and what are they leaving behind? We hear from queer Londoners from every continent about their reasons for coming to the city, and about gay culture in the countries that they've come from.') And yet the publicity picture for this event - which is supposed to be about the queer international in London - prominently features the obligatory buff white man. Who are these freaks and why do they colonise every square inch of queer media? Does Naomi Woolf have to write The Beauty Myth again - perhaps with the word 'woman' replaced with 'homosexual', so that these stupid people get it? Bah. Another moment of queer rage.

3/4: Two movies about activist mayors who conduct gay weddings against the odds. The juxtaposition of these films foregrounds a stark difference in the sources of pressure for change in different countries. In the US, the federal government is of course against gay marriage, with the pressure for legalisation coming from the bottom-up. In Spain, the state is in favour, with the opposition coming from conservative mayors - except, remarkably, in the tiny and otherwise traditional town of Campillo (50 inhabitants). Campillo is an endearing documentary, at the centre of which is its sweet and almost child-like gay mayor who has managed to win the affections of its very rustic people. Of the two movies, this one felt less compelling - perhaps because of the lack of representation of any opposition to what the mayor was doing. Conversations with local inhabitants about their mayor and his proactive stance on gay marriage alternate with scenes of life in the town, which make clear that it is a very small and rural place. Everyone seems to be very supportive and if there is social disapproval, the movie only hints at it (when asked what the most difficult aspect of making the film was, the director unhesitatingly replied 'finding a lesbian couple who were willing to be filmed getting married'). 

Social and political battles take centre-stage in One Summer in New Paltz, which is told in the style of a fairy tale. There once was a land with a king who had the most powerful army the world had ever seen, but who never felt safe. Just when he thought the people were going to kick him off the throne, he tried to distract them by promising to change the constitution to make it impossible for gay people to marry. But a revolt was brewing in a small town in the hills. You know the plot. It's a very simple and powerful story, made especially poignant by the scores of queer couples of all shapes, sizes, genders and colours who just want their love for each other to be socially affirmed in the ways that straight people take for granted - and a 26 year old straight kid who happens to be mayor of the town and feels so strongly that they cannot be denied this right that he conducts their weddings at great political and personal risk to himself. When the state puts an end to this with criminal charges and a restraining order, a local priest and a mayor in a neighbouring town (respectively lesbian and gay) eagerly take on the task of solemnizing gay weddings. A grassroots civil disobedience movement had begun. There are a couple of memorable scenes. In one, a group of clergy from different religious denominations conduct weddings on the steps of New York City Hall and also read in unison a kind of protest litany, which is very stirring. I loved in particular the two women rabbis, one of whom joyfully says 'by the authority vested in me by the state of New York to conduct any wedding except this one...' to the sound of much laughter and applause. The other scene that stuck in my mind was of the 'God hates fags' lot protesting outside the church in New Paltz. There's a queer-supportive counter protest on the other side of the road and what's really striking is that both sides are singing patriotic songs and hymns at each other (God Bless America etc.) - it's a great scene because it demonstrates just how versatile and, well, empty our most cherished political concepts are, so amenable to being infused with whatever content we want to give them at any given moment. I got home to an email in my inbox saying that the Iowa Supreme Court legalised gay marriage today. I'm beginning to feel that although we're losing many individual battles, we're winning the war. 

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