This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Mainstream was once anathema at LGBTQ+ film festivals, back when “gay” was the go-to descriptor for a cinema scene marginalized by sexual orientation. That’s another expression outdated as insufficiently inclusive of lesbian/ gay/bisexual/trans/queer plus variant gender-nonconforming identities under the rainbow banner.
Yet mainstream could describe much of the fare in the 33rd Reeling: Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival. Narrative-normative features marry familiar story styles to LGBTQ+ lifestyles. Two of the higher profile entries– “Freeheld” and “Stonewall”—get theatrical releases later this month. There’s also a retrospective 10th anniversary screening of Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” slated for September 19th (2:15pm).
The eight-day festival—billed as “the second-oldest LGBTQ+ film festival in the world"—is presented by Chicago Filmmakers, a longtime non-profit devoted to alternative film.
Executive director Brenda Webb says she started the fest in 1981 after asking herself: “I wonder if the gay community even knows about Kenneth Anger and Barbara Hammer?” Largely straight audiences were coming to her 16mm screenings of experimental and personal films by those two underground icons, among many other non-mainstream artists.
The unexpected turnout by the lesbian and gay community for her first festival prompted Webb to adopt an agenda of outreach. She programmed more narratives and documentaries relevant to this audience. Chicago Filmmakers similarly enabled Women in the Director’s Chair and BlackLight, later renamed Black Harvest, to launch their local festivals serving women and African-Americans, respectively.
"We are counter-attacking the invisibility of gay and lesbian people,” Webb told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1991, when the annual event was called the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival. “In light of the media's impact on self-image, just seeing one's identity validated on the screen can sometimes be a very powerful experience.”
That year’s line up included Lily Tomlin’s feature "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.” More transgressive fare was directed by Sadie Benning, Bruce la Bruce, Isaac Julien and Gus Van Sant, who made a short starring William Burroughs reading a nasty poem.
Webb points out one historic plot shift in both Reeling entries and mainstream entertainment—from “the shame of being gay” to “the shame of being homophobic.” Stigma is reversed in a sea change reflected on screen and in court. Not surprisingly, this year there’s no film with a forthright title like “It's Not the Homosexual That is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives,” a campy provocation by Rosa von Prauheim that Webb screened at a past festival.
Webb and co-programmer Richard Knight, Jr. selected almost 40 features for the 2015 fest. Sarah M. Rubin, Rebecca Lavoie and Sharon Zurek picked over 60 shorts. Most screenings are booked at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema at 2828 N. Clark St., a multiplex on the route of the annual Chicago Pride Parade.
The Opening Night feature is “Fourth Man Out” that screens September 17th (6pm) at Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Actors Parker Young, Evan Todd and Kate Flannery are scheduled to walk a red carpet and participate in a Q&A after screening their likable coming-out comedy. In the film, an auto mechanic throws a monkey wrench in the sports-beer-chicks routine of his three straight pals, who swap such queries as: “How do you know what Grindr is?—"How do you know what Grindr is?” All is resolved at an all-American 4th of July barbecue.
“Stonewall” screens on September 20th (7pm) as the Festival Centerpiece by Roland Emmerich, the gay director of “White House Down,” “Anonymous,” “2012,” “Godzilla” and “Independence Day.” Cast headliners are Jeremy Irvine, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ron Perlman in this period drama inspired by the historic 1969 Stonewall Inn riots against New York Police Department’s persecution of the LGBTQ+ community.
Though "Stonewall" has not yet screened for critics, the production notes for Emmerich's film shed light on its mainstream orientation. Of Irvine’s character Danny, a teen fleeing his homophobic hometown, “Stonewall” producer Mark Frydman offers: “Some people would say he’s gay, some would say he’s not gay, but it’s difficult to figure out— in the little town he lives in in Indiana, nobody knows he’s gay. It makes him the universal character that you’re looking for, that can be the entry point for everyone into your movie.” “'Danny is a very straight-acting kid,’ explains Emmerich, who says Danny serves as the eyes of the audience. `They can relate more strongly to him and through Danny’s eyes they’ll experience the more extreme situations depicted in the film.’”
Reeling’s real coup is an advance screening of “Freeheld” on September 21st (7pm). Julianne Moore plays an Ocean County, New Jersey police detective with stage-four lung cancer. Ellen Page plays her much younger domestic partner, an auto mechanic. Michael Shannon’s character is the detective’s partner on the force. Wearing a lavender yarmulke, Steve Carell plays a self-caricaturing activist using a pension benefits policy to leverage support for gay marriage in the New Jersey legislature. Peter Sollett directs this true-life drama based on a 38-minute documentary made by Cynthia Wade in 2007. Wade, Page and the real woman she recreates on screen, Stacie Andree, are among the producers.
Expected to make an appearance is “Freeheld” screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who wrote the medical melodramas “The Painted Veil” (2006) and “Philadelphia” (1993) about cholera and AIDS, respectively. He is also bringing his first documentary, “She’s the Best Thing in It,” on September 21st (9pm). Its subject, actor Mary Louise Wilson, is coming too.
Reeling scores an international sampler of LGBTQ+ features. One filmmaker well known on the festival and art house circuit is François Ozon. Reeling earlier brought his “Sitcom” and “Criminal Lovers.” Ozon’s latest, “The New Girlfriend,” screening on September 18th (7pm), is a warm, if perversely ironic, tale of two very close childhood friends. Both marry men. One has a baby girl, then dies soon after. Her husband David (Romain Duris) secretly cross-dresses in his late wife’s clothes, ostensibly for the sake of soothing the baby.
His wife’s best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) names David’s alternate persona Virginia. Despite the all-around mourning, Claire takes the slightly morbid step of befriending her late friend’s stand-in, the title character. Virginia says she wants to “Start a new life. As a woman.” Claire asks, “What’s life as a woman?” Virginia beams: “A life doing everything I’m not allowed to do as a man.” An unnerving denouement—“Seven years later”—makes clear why Ozon nods to the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" television series in this press notes.
Couples with more conventional troubles might describe several dramas at Reeling. From Australia comes “All About E” by Louise Wadley, playing September 19th (9pm). Too cute to commit, the emotionally immature Elmira Malouf goes by “E.” This Sydney DJ forsakes her clarinet studies but not her Lebanese roots. E. and her loyal gay pal skip town after accidentally acquiring a bag of cash. They head for the outback where her ex-lover Trish just might forgive her. Many plot points are nonsensical but Mandahla Rose is nearly irresistible in the title role.
“The Summer of Sangaile,” Lithuania’s entry for 88th Academy Awards, dotes on the blossoming bond between a cutter with vertigo and an ebullient artist who recruits her as a model and heals her. Screening on September 18th (9:30pm), Alanté Kavaïté’s love story risks overdoing its symbolic linking of perilous climbs to rooftops and towers, vistas of birds in flight, a dancer’s interrupted career, and her daughter’s unlikely calling as a stunt plane skywriter.
“How to Win At Checkers (Every Time)” is a Thailand/Hong Kong/USA/Indonesia co-production written and directed by Josh Kim scheduled for September 21st (7:15pm). This social issue drama observes two lovers from opposite classes dealing with the military draft lottery. The 11-year-old younger brother of the poor boy furnishes our perspective on Thai corruption, from street extortion to the perks of wealth. Curiously, a kick-ass pre-op transexual named Kitty from Cafe Lovely is not disqualified by the army’s examining physician as quickly as you might imagine.
“Margarita with a Straw” is the most sentimentally crafted entry I previewed. Shonali Bose directs Kalki Koechlin playing a young woman with cerebral palsy. She discovers her bisexuality after transferring from Delhi University to New York University, where she meets a blind lesbian activist and a male creative writing helper. Her mother’s stage-four colorectal cancer leads to a cloying coda of self-affirmation involving a date with a mirror and the title cocktail. September 20th (4:45pm).
“Naz and Maalik,” showing on September 20th (3pm), is writer-directorJay Dockendorf’s long walk around Brooklyn with the title lovers, two African-American Muslims in the closet. These high school seniors work the sidewalks by hawking lottery tickets, saint cards and fragrant potions for their “college fund,” per dialogue by Yale University alum Dockendorf. Friction arises when an FBI agent—do counter-terrorist details really have neighborhood beats like NYPD precinct cops?—catches the couple in a lie about the address of last night’s hook-up. Profiling by homeland security segues to coming out on the home front in this promising debut indie.
“Death in Buenos Aires,” the Closing Night Film on September 24th (9:30pm), pairs a straight inspector and a hunky young beat cop with a questionable knack for showing up at unlikely turns in the investigation of a high-society homicide. A watchable thriller about sleepwalking, polo, drug exporting, and workplace trust and lust, this genre exercise sports noir details and obvious twists.
For comedy, Reeling gets laughs with “Guidance,” a tastefully outré comedy about an Canadian alcoholic fired from his non-union voiceover gig and facing eviction. Writer-director Pat Mills stars as this lovable loser who finds work as a high school guidance counselor. Adolescent uplift by unconventional means ensues. Screens on September 19th (9:15pm). Dated camp is also on display in Billy Clift’s parodic “Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte” about Southern scheming psycho queens. September 24th (9:15pm).
All that’s on view of the upcoming “L.A.: A Queer History” is an impressive 17-minute teaser for writer-director-editor Gregorio Davila’s documentary. “The Hollywood dream was created by gay men and lesbians,” testifies one insider. Alexei Romanoff revisits his decades of struggle for dignity in Los Angeles and concludes: "If you haven’t done something to leave your community and the world as a whole in a better place than you found it—you haven’t lived.” Screens in a “Spectacular Queers” program with other shorts at the Comfort Station, 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave., on September 20th (8:30pm).
Davila excerpts an interview from his work-in-progress to make the short “Nancy From East Side Clover.” Now in her eighties, Nancy says she dressed in men’s clothes “for comfort,” and thereby ran afoul an 1889 ordinance that outlawed “masquerading.” Starting in 1949, she was jailed regularly. Davila, for some reason, edits her talking-head scenes with a really distracting focus effect. This short is part of “Then and Now, A Dyke Delicious Program” at Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark St., on September 19th (5:30pm).
“A Sinner in Mecca,” playing on September 20th (5pm), suffers from faults more serious. Director and narrator Parvez Sharma foregrounds his first-person presence in an ill-conceived attempt to implicate his life—and a chance of his death—in the matter of Muslim persecution of LGBTQ+ Muslims.
Sharma narrows the focus of “A Jihad for Love.” In that better documentary, released in September 2007 in Toronto, he surveyed the oppression of LGBTQ+ people in Egypt, India, Iran, South Africa, Turkey and elsewhere. In October 2007 he emailed a Cairo reporter at Daily News Egypt that the Prophet Mohammed would deem his filmmaking “an act of courage that befits a true Muslim.”
Now this New Yorker will test his mettle and tempt fate by undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca. “I am now faced with a crisis of faith,” Sharma confides. “I need to prove that I can be a good Muslim and be gay.” His atheist spouse back home doesn’t get it.
Secretively recording a sign that reads “Filming is Forbidden in the Kingdom” is apparently part of his own private jihad (struggle) against homophobia. Violating a religious prohibition against making images in a sacred place hardly counts as a cri de coeur for human rights. Sharma stages his reportage as a potential prelude to martyrdom.
“Armed with my iPhone, I’m filming my Hajj in secret,” Sharma whispers. “I need evidence that my faith is strong enough to survive this journey.” He endures throngs of pilgrims shoving one another and stepping on his feet.
In Saudi Arabia, he finds “an Islam of fear,” and admits, “I’m consumed by my fear of death at the hands of the Saudis.” Most disconcerting is his decision to open “A Sinner in Mecca” with an online video posted at LiveLeak. It looks like cell phone footage taken by a bystander at a public beheading. Sharma cuts away from the clip just as the sword nears the neck of the victim.
The 33rd Reeling: Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival runs from September 17-24.
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