Film festivals are often as much about community as they are about cinema, particularly in the case of niche events like the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Of course, “niche” hardly seems an appropriate description for the oldest and largest festival of its kind in the world, now in its 24th year.
Over those years the SFILGFF has become increasingly democratic, something that's caused great chagrin amongst purists like the late Warren Sonbert. This local filmmaker wasn't alone in complaining that the festival had become so democratic it had no standards, allowing in practically anything that conceivably fell under the queer rubric. For Sonbert this was a disturbing sign of insularity and immaturity, but though this year's festival indeed has its share of turkeys, despite the high ratio of accepted works to rejected ones — about 2-to-1 — there are plenty of worthwhile films to please both the “pure cinema” crowd and those who see the event as a platform for celebration, reclamation, and social change.
For the latter group, reclaiming history and re-establishing the queer voice are crucial processes. This year's fest answers that need very well indeed with a number of fine documentaries that cover a wide geography of time and place. One of the best is Zackie Achmat's Apostles of Civilised Vice, a witty history of South Africa's treatment of homosexuality from colonial times to the Mandela era, when it was decriminalized. Re-enactments, often the bane of the documentary, skillfully illuminate a hidden past, depicting such outré (to Western audiences) phenomena as mock marriages between miners working far from their wives.
Sometimes received history, and its participants, can deceive even the jaundiced eye. Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's The Eyes of Tammy Faye reveals inside the mascara queen and Jesus freak a self-invented, eccentric, ultimately simpatico character whose sheer expansiveness made her embrace gay people and AIDS patients, a rarity indeed in the cutthroat world of commercial Christianity. In her own way, the Tammy Faye on view here is as deviant — that's a compliment — as any of the more outrageous personalities in this year's fest. Her polar opposite in self-revelation must be the Beatles' legendary gay manager. Anthony Wall's The Brian Epstein Story exhaustively pursues its subject, in the process presenting a wildly entertaining panorama of Swinging London. But Epstein — a respected, upright public figure who privately indulged in an endless pill parade and numerous furtive affairs — remains elusive at film's end.
If Epstein represents the queer voice unheard, other queer voices — not always homosexual — resonate throughout the festival in a series of intriguing documentaries. Peter Sempel's Nina Hagen = Punk + Glory is a gritty précis of the aging punk-camp diva who still manages to pull off stage appearances wearing a leather harness and a pink dildo. Equally gritty and a lot more grim is Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen's Benjamin Smoke, a portrait of a drag queen cult singer for Atlanta's art-punk band Smoke. Ravaged by speed, alcohol, and AIDS, he has an authenticity and bravado hailed by Patti Smith, who reads his eulogy at the end. The subject of Jacqui North's heartbreaking Chrissy, a lesbian in her late 20s who, like Benjamin, is dying from AIDS, speaks in her own voice after years of withdrawal, self-suppression, and self-mutilation. This too-brief film (52 minutes) offers sure proof that if hell is other people, per Sartre, so is heaven — in this case, Chrissy's devoted family and friends.
The queer community wrestles endlessly with the idea of mainstream acceptance vs. maintaining distance and difference from that mainstream. The festival explores both possibilities. Thomas Bezucha's Big Eden is an enchanting, if not quite believable, story of a transformed heartland, one in which “heart” can be taken literally. A New York artist returns to his rustic hometown to care for his ailing grandfather and discovers a world in which every grizzled good old boy and busybody heartily encourages him to bed the local hunks. The film's “amicizing” of the kind of insular Podunk that regularly produces gay-bashers and homophobic laws seems more like fantasy or fable than locatable reality, but it does offer a sweet vision of a world that revels in differences.
Of course, the line between the mainstream and the queer subcultures it spawns isn't always clear — certainly not in Mark Achbar's Two Brides and a Scalpel. This moving documentary traces the progress of a burly Canadian tractor driver from George to Georgia, and in spite of extensive close-up medical footage and campy quotes from tranny exploitation flicks like Let Me Die a Woman, Georgia's pairing off with lesbian Linda Fraser ultimately seems as rewarding as any hetero marriage.
The festival has its share of more edgy works that show not every homo wants a house and marriage. The lesbians of Hard Love and How to Fuck in High Heels, both directed by Shar Rednour and Jackie Strand, unabashedly explore their own and each other's bodies, aided by a dandy selection of candy-colored dildos. Even more controversial will be James Bolton's Eban and Charley, a feature shot on video that's drawn praise from Gus Van Sant for obvious reasons. This sincere but sometimes maudlin film pivots on a romance between 15-year-old Charley and 29-year-old Eban, and ends any hope of wide distribution by unapologetically opting for love over legalities.
Some of the stronger features that deserve a commercial run are Gerardo Vera's Second Skin, a passionate love triangle drama starring two of Spain's hunkiest actors; Rodrique Jean's Full Blast, a solid slice of working-class life, gay and straight, in a remote Canadian coastal town; Aisling Walsh's Forgive and Forget, a well-acted coming-out drama that proves that television — at least Scottish TV — can be a rich source of queer imagery; and Liu Bingjian's Men and Women, a subtly comic tale of a straight country boy's initiation into the wicked ways of the big city (Beijing).
More upbeat fun can be found in the fest's opening and closing nights' films. Taking them in reverse order, Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader has a bright, colorful quality and a farcical approach to the subject of forced conversion of gay teens to heterosexuality that makes it easy to swallow, if ultimately forgettable. Natasha Lyonne shines as the 17-year-old cheerleader who must learn the abiding pleasures of the straight life. Patrik-Ian Polk's Punks is a rarity: a black, gay Friends. Set in Los Angeles and shot in vivid pastels, this film too veers between bathos and farce but gets points for some witty lines and a buoyancy that extends to the ending, which is far indeed from the “happy homosexual = gay corpse” formula that used to be de rigueur in queer film.
Finally, murderous dykes were once as common in movies as gay corpses, but that's mostly changed now. Still, the festival deserves credit for revisiting “killer lesbians” in a special program of that title. The series has six films and a slide show, but most significant here is the revival of Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct. Some will recall that this 1992 film caused wild protests, letter-writing campaigns, and general hand-wringing amongst many gays and lesbians. The fact that it no longer triggers such reactions shows that it's perceived as an innocent artifact of another time, and that the gay community can now afford to be more democratic and open about such things. In this sense, even Warren Sonbert might say the queer community is finally growing up.
2000 San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival
Screening June 15-25 at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro (at Market); the Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St. (at Capp); and the Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia). For more information on tickets and show times of individual films call the festival's hot line at 703-8663 or visit www.frameline.org/festival.