Movie posters dot the background of Ida Hansen Eldøen’s charming animated short “This Is Katharine.” More than mere easter eggs, they’re a shorthand for how the film's characters express and understand their queerness. And they remind us why we have queer film festivals in the first place.
Like Katharine, many queer people look for themselves at the cinema. Festivals like Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival create a space for queer folks to encounter like-minded cinema and community members. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, this year’s Reeling Film Festival delivered a dazzling slate of movies highlighting queer issues and voices through bold cinematic visions.
Many films this year celebrated queer community, and “Vulveeta” does so with honesty and humor. This hilarious mockumentary by Maria Breaux observes the titular band as they attempt to reunite after their glory days in the 1990s riot grrrl scene. Back under the direction of their egotistical but well-intentioned lead singer (cunningly played by Breaux), the band members have to heal old wounds and learn how to come together and make music again.
It’s a familiar story told with a witty single-camera style that allows Breaux to deliver comedic moments that are awkward, heartfelt, or both. For all its wicked barbs, "Vulveeta" keeps its cynicism under a comforting layer of delicious cheese. With a studied use of documentary tropes and witty, original songs (co-written with co-star StormMiguel Florez), Breaux cleverly honors the original music scene while also carving out a space for queer people within its legacy and history.
Where Breaux uses nostalgia to reconcile the past with today, others turn the camera around to help us reclaim the queer past. In Charlene A. Carruthers’ illuminating short “The Funnel,” our main character, Trina (Cat Christmas), has a vision in which a queer Black couple navigates a semi-private life in Chicago’s public housing during the early 1900s. Instantly immersed in a well-scripted world of code, we watch how a queer woman interacts with her neighbors and how they express their tolerance or indifference towards her. In mere minutes, we get the complete sense of a lived queer experience from the past with its secrets, anxieties, and life-giving moments of joy. When we’re snapped back to the present, we must hear well-intentioned people erase the queerness for their comfort. But like Trina, we’ve seen differently and thus can imagine differently.
Seeing and imagining differently is the essence of queer cinema. Carruthers recreates the past with discerning attention to historical detail. Other visionaries like Amanda Kramer explode our image of it through hyper-styled surrealism. Kramer’s visual talents compile camp elements from midcentury cinema and irons them together. The result is a kaleidoscopic trip to the past that comments on historical sexuality while remaining contemporary.
Kramer's “Please Baby Please” is a fluorescent tear through the 1950s and '60s, a soundstage extravaganza of one couple’s demented emergence into sexual exploration. Featuring masterful main performances by Harry Melling as the clammed-up Arthur and the limitless Andrea Riseborough as Suze, this orgy draws you into its world and pins you with a sexy, leather-bound grip. Alongside jaw-dropping supporting turns from Cole Escola and Demi Moore, "Please Baby Please" boldly forces us to confront the rot of repression before allowing a queer, neon-lit release.
The stories offered by Hong Kong director Scud also bend time and are very, very kinky. Announcing his retirement with the North American debut of two films, Scud cements himself as a profoundly perverse and philosophical auteur who erotically knots his body of work together. His film “Apostles” is a seductive Socratic symposium about a philosopher claiming to be immortal who calls together a group of male disciples for a charged mountaintop retreat to contemplate the fleshly experiences of life and death.
Like "Apostles," Scud’s second film “Bodyshop” is a free-roaming, reflexive narrative that interacts with his previous work. This time, we’re taking on a journey across a distance as we join a ghost traveling around the world through different queer bodies on his way to visit his trans-sister. Like a mischievous Puck, this naked ghost meddles in the relationships he possesses. But when he meets another wandering ghost, his soulmate, the film's different plot lines collide and reveal the depth of their dark undertones. Both of these films explore the narrative and cinematic possibilities of the erotic with their brazen sexuality. But by employing a traveling ghost as his central character, floating between bodies and space with little apparent connection, Scud transforms "Bodyshop" into a sensational example of how differently queer cinema can visualize and imagine geography.
Another remarkable film that traces the tremors of queerness across the globe, “Finlandia” is about a family of nonbinary folks who live in Mexico outside of Oaxaca. When a white fashion assistant from Finland arrives to spy on the local colors and textures of the Muxe, the community is forced to confront the dramas of their lives and reaffirm their authenticity. What makes this film so exciting is that, along with its poignancy, it demonstrates a queer Indigenous relationship to the land on both local and global levels.
The endearing folks we meet, Delirio (Noé Hernández), Amaranta (Cuauhtli Jiménez), and Mariano (Erick Israel Consuelo), are involved in their social and religious communities. They have a solid ancestral community bond that they will rise to protect. Director Horacio Alcala reaffirms that the globalized, commercialized, Indigenous image is false and bloodied by confronting Marta (Andrea Guasch) about her duplicitous “journalistic integrity” from multiple angles. In one divinely cutting monologue and with a fully realized conviction, Delirio lays out the process of colonial poaching that’s been happening in the area for centuries.
Moving between Mexico and Finland, Alcala helps us see and sense appropriation as it's happening. Having built up this dramatic irony, Alcala validates Delirio’s knowledge of history and the Muxe role as culture-keepers. History is repeating, and the audience is a witness. A showcase of dynamic and emotional performances, "Finlandia" is a also richly humanist film that forms a sacred triangle connecting the Muxe, the land, and the audience. So deep and palpable is this bond that the loss of Indigenous ways seems to make the Earth split.
Juliana Curi’s compelling documentary, "Uýra: The Rising Forest," packs a similar political punch. As we follow Uýra, an Indigenous non-binary performance activist from Brazil, we are privy to transformative moments of community and moving art exhibitions. Using materials provided by nature, Uýra and their troupe create vibrant costumes that embody the otherworldly spirits of the forest. The objective for Curi and Uýra is to produce something that makes the lives and crises of the Amazon more visible to others. They both succeed, majestically.
If there’s one film that combines a queer cinematic sensibility with ideas of community, history, and visibility, it’s Mohammad Shawky Hassan’s outstanding “Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?.” Hassan has created a poetic exploration of polyamory with this short but powerful film. It not only celebrates queer forms of love but bricolages different film styles and techniques to luxuriate in queer forms of film narrative. This intoxicating tour de force twists folklore, pop music, and film to create a unique vision of queer Arab life. Each chapter is a tale about trysts or relationships by a super-imposed Scheherazade. Like the original “Thousand and One Nights,” it is a dazzling story of survival.
Like Hasan’s film, Dania Bdeir’s sublime short film “Warsha” climbs to the heights of queer cinematic expression. In the short climb to the top of a construction crane in Beirut, Bdeir’s film shows queer cinema at its wondrous heights. As our protagonist swings above the city, living his full crimson fantasy, we’re fully transported to a world where beauty is accessible and life-affirming. High above the construction, with our character’s back sensually arched, queer cinema does what it does best: it offers new ways of seeing. Film festivals like Reeling remind us that we are also building a new world and that queerness can help us look at history, place, and identity from a fresh and fabulous perspective.