The 2014 Atlanta Film Festival, opening tonight and running through April 6, has twice as many documentaries as narrative features with significant LGBT content, most of them in the Pink Peach section. That may just mean our real lives are more interesting than the dramas we create.
But isn’t the drama we create what makes our lives so interesting?
There are also LGBT shorts which illustrate how some people can tell a complete story in three minutes while others can go on for 20 or 30 and seem incomplete.
As a lover of all kinds of music, I’m shocked and ashamed at how unaware I was of James Booker (1939-1983) before seeing Lily Keber’s about him.
Although it’s in the Pink Peach and Music sections of the festival, it’s far more relevant to the latter. Booker was gay, but that’s only mentioned a couple of times in the film. As Vernel Bagneris says, it was “just an element” of who he was; his extraordinary piano skills are far more significant.
Harry Connick, Jr., who considered Booker a mentor, analyzes his playing. Basically he could do more with each hand than most pianists do with both. He toured with everyone from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to Jerry Garcia and the Doobie Brothers, playing jazz, soul and the blues with a touch of classical, plus the distinctive sound of his New Orleans hometown.
Heroin addiction made Booker too unreliable and unmanageable to reach the heights his talent merited, but this film celebrates his genius in a funky, jazzy style that’s quite fitting. If there’s more to say about his gay life, someone else will have to say it.
(Thursday, April 3, 9:15 p.m., Plaza Theatre, Chipotle Auditorium)
If all you know about burlesque you learned from “Gypsy,” you’re in for some surprises when documentarian Beth B introduces you to “new burlesque,” a form of exhibitionism without inhibitionism.
Although nudity is a common denominator of most acts, comedy and politics also figure heavily in many of them. B’s film is about the diversity (other than racial) of the performers, especially along the gender spectrum. Rose Wood is a man who does drag but also plays a comic rabbi; he gets breast implants to enhance his genderfuck performances. World Famous *Bob* is a woman who was raised by drag queens and wanted to be one. After considering a sex change she settled for performing as a woman but with a male sensibility in her head.
Dirty Martini was influenced by the classic strippers of the 1950s and taught Rose to emulate Vickie Lynn, the first drag stripper. Mat Fraser, a Thalidomide baby born with freakishly short arms, keeps his sense of humor and gets audiences laughing with him. With these and others opening up to her, B doesn’t seem to have had the heart to cut anyone.
Likewise there are dozens of performance snippets, most of which don’t work well out of context and don’t create the desire to see more. Like the new burlesque it profiles, “Exposed” is not entertainment for the masses.
(Friday, April 4, 9 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
THE FOXY MERKINS
One of my problems with “The Foxy Merkins” was high expectations, because I was such of fan of director Madeleine Olnek’s “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.” The other was that the script, by Olnek and two others, lacks an arc; too many scenes seem to be in random order. But that’s a “critic thing” that shouldn’t bother ordinary viewers, and I still liked a whole lot of it a whole lot.
Some of the characters could come from early John Waters movies. Margaret (Lisa Haas, who would like to try fried okra while she’s in Atlanta for the festival) is a New York newbie who tries hooking when she can’t get other work. She’s befriended and mentored by Jo (Jackie Monahan), who shows her how to make a home in the women’s bathroom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
Unless I missed a line, we don’t learn until late in the game that Jo is straight. The movie’s mostly about their friendship and has almost no sexual activity, just a bit of talk. Alex Karpovsky of “Girls” shows up selling merkins, which he describes as “a toupee for your vagina.”
The dry wit, style and surreal situations keep the movie off-the-wall and the viewer off-guard. Who can resist a line like, “I couldn’t sell a sex tape with Mussolini and Phyllis Diller,” whatever the context?
(Thursday, April 3, 9 p.m., Plaza Theatre, Main Theatre)
In one of my favorite TV shows, “Shameless,” William H. Macy plays the despicable Frank Gallagher, an alcoholic welfare cheat who virtually abandons his five children except when he needs their help. You wouldn’t want to encounter him in real life, but safely fictional and on the other side of the screen he always manages to say something ingratiating to keep you somewhat on his side.
Lucky (real name Waleska Torres-Ruiz) is a real person who, as profiled by Laura Checkoway, is as difficult to love or hate as Frank. She was raised an orphan and has a four-year-old son of her own. (Her first child, a daughter, was taken from her when Lucky was 14.) Covered in tats and piercings, she can’t get hired for even menial work; a modeling agency offers to look for jobs for her “type” but doesn’t find any (and probably rips her off for headshots).
After years of going from shelter to shelter she finds a way to play the system for a free apartment. She has her likable moments but is more often confrontational. At the risk of sounding conservative, I couldn’t help wondering where the money came from for the tats, piercings and frequent hair treatments―the film’s time span isn’t specified but Lucky’s hair is rarely the same color or style twice.
That she’s a lesbian is almost incidental. She loses one girlfriend and gains another along the way. You’ll form your own opinion―or opinions―about Lucky. What I like about the film is that Checkoway doesn’t try to force you to feel one way or the other.
(Sunday, March 30, 8:45 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
ONE: A STORY OF LOVE AND EQUALITY
Here’s a lovely movie that has no audience. The people who should see it, won’t. The people who will see it have seen so many similar films, they’re supersaturated.
When, two years ago, North Carolina became the last state in the South to put a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage (and civil unions and domestic partnerships, in their case) on the ballot, filmmaker Becca Roth and her girlfriend, Melina Marini, went down there from New York, where Marriage Equality had just been legalized, to study both sides of the issue.
Word quickly spread among pro-amendment forces, who warned their followers not to talk to the “liberal media,” so Roth had a hard time getting their perspective. As a result their side takes up less than ten percent of the film, making it as “fair and balanced” as Fox News.
The rest is time well spent with people fighting the amendment, including the eloquent Tracy Hollister and lesbian, gay and transgender poster couples who show the kind of families the amendment would disenfranchise. Both sides need to hear the film’s message about the importance of dialogue. We can’t win anyone over by ignoring or demonizing them, only by getting to know them and letting them know us, so we can find points we agree on and work from there.
(Wednesday, April 2, 7 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
QUEENS & COWBOYS
I’m not a big animal lover (although horses are my favorite), and I’ve never taken a position on whether rodeos are harmless entertainment or the four-legged equivalent of SeaWorld, without the water.
“Queens & Cowboys,” Matt Livadary’s documentary about the gay rodeo circuit, totally sidesteps the controversy rather than addressing it, which is disingenuous if not dishonest. For a film about competition, it devotes amazingly little time to showing actual rodeo events. Instead it does a wonderful job of telling the stories of a few human participants as they strive to reach their goals in 2012.
Wade Earp, a descendant of Wyatt, hopes to win the All-Around Champion award after being runner-up the last two years. Char Duran, a bull-ridin’ bulldyke who’s been injured more times than Jackie Chan, hopes she can finally stay on a bull the full six seconds.
International Gay Rodeo Association events are equal-opportunity, open to men and women, gay and straight. Like many groundbreaking LGBT organizations the IGRA is graying―average age of competitors is 42―and facing declining membership and attendance. Hence this film, the equivalent of what newspapers call a “puff piece” or “advertorial.”
If you can ignore what happens to animals at rodeos―and “Queens & Cowboys” makes it easy to do that―this is a well-made documentary about a nice bunch of LGBTs doing what they love. It’s your call.
(Wednesday, April 2, 9:30 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
Here’s my favorite dialogue from “Speak Now,” a melodrama set around a wedding. After the ceremony a couple (not the newlyweds) have a quiet moment. “I’m pregnant,” she tells him. “I’m gay,” he replies. That gives you an idea of what to expect as the film teeters on the edge of self-parody without ever going over.
Except for the bride’s lesbian sister and her wife, who flew in from Los Angeles, all these 30ish people have been in each other’s lives since school, so you wouldn’t think a lot of secrets could come spilling out like at a reunion.
But a brief fling, a longstanding crush, an attempted seduction, a lingering grudge, a new hookup and other tidbits keep the movie moving along at a good pace for soap fans. While the characters are mostly hetero, one of the lesbians rightly points out, “We are the most normal couple here.”
(Saturday, March 29, 9 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
TWO MEN AND A WEDDING
Until the end of 2009 Malawi was known primarily as an African mall where Madonna shopped for children to adopt. Then two gay men, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, held a public engagement party and their arrest brought the country international attention.
Sara Blecher’s polished documentary covers all sides of the story in under an hour, with news clips of the country’s president, courthouse demonstrations and such, and interviews with the prisoners, their families, Tiwonge’s employer (who let him use her facility because she thought he was a woman), police, lawyers, preachers, activists, a reporter, a UN representative, etc.
When the world exerts financial pressure on Malawi to get the men’s 14-year prison sentence overturned, the question is raised of how many other innocents will die if aid is cut off. It’s also established that Monjeza is no angel, with a criminal record before and after these events.
To learn about the influence of American churches on the more than two-thirds of African countries with anti-homosexuality laws, see “God Loves Uganda” (on DVD May 19). For a balanced report on how the law was applied in Malawi in 2009-10, see “Two Men and a Wedding.”
(Saturday, March 29, 7 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
If you can’t attend the entire festival, “The Unwanted” lets you see an entire festival in one film. It’s an indie family drama, a campy midnight horror flick, a Southern gothic mystery, a thriller and, of greatest relevance here, a kinky lesbian love story. Make that twokinky lesbian love stories.
Carmilla (out actress Christen Orr) is a rootless young woman who arrives in a small Georgia town looking for the mother she never knew. Mom’s last known address is a house occupied by widower Troy (William Katt, a onetime screen hunk who now eerily resembles Bruce Dern) and his apparently naïve daughter Laura (Hannah Fierman).
Events of a generation ago are revealed sparingly and, in the protracted ending, somewhat confusingly. Suffice it to say, with minimal spoilage, that lesbian relationships develop in the past and present, and they involve more bloodletting than an episode of “The Vampire Diaries.”
Atlanta writer-director Bret Wood has obviously studied some lesbian classics for their erotic beats, but the film’s ultimate impact is closer to that of “Showgirls.”
(Monday, March 31, 9:30 p.m., Plaza Theatre, Main Theatre)
Written, directed and edited by Vic Coram, “Gum” gets its story across in three short scenes. It’s about a small town lesbian teenager trying to figure out how to come out to her conservative parents. While the outcome is left to your imagination, Coram manages a surprising amount of depth and even some humor in about three minutes (plus credits).
(screens with “Speak Now,” Saturday, March 29, 9 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
A professional-looking German school project by Benjamin Teske, “Escaping Gravity” should spawn a feature-length version in short order. A transgender woman (Sabin Tambrea) returns to her family home – dressed as Leo, her former incarnation – when she learns her father is dying. Her parents run a haunted ride at a fun fair, which provides interesting backgrounds. You’ll want Teske and writer Cherokee Agnew to flesh it out and finish the story.
(in Drama Shorts 2, Saturday, April 5, 12 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
“Annalyn” wisely tells a 30-minute story in 30 minutes, instead of trying to stretch it into a feature. It was made in Sweden as Maria Eriksson’s thesis film but is spoken mostly in English (though even that is subtitled). Agnes (Nina Jeppsson) and Lina have a lovers’ quarrel, make up and go to visit Agnes’ father, who―surprise!―has a new bride, Annalyn (Errah Seno), a Filipino woman about Agnes’ age.
The next surprise is how quickly Agnes bonds with Annalyn. They become friends so quickly it’s no surprise when they become more than friends. Based on this sample Eriksson should have some very good work ahead of her.
(in Drama Shorts 1, Sunday, March 30, 3:45 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
Keith Adam Johnson, writer and director of “Little Lies,” appears to have been following a template that called for a dramatic bump at one point; so he inserted an inappropriate line of dialogue that threatens to push the film into a different genre until it proves irrelevant. Otherwise there’s a lot to recommend in the story of Phillip (Dominic McDonald, who should play the lead in John Hurt’s biography if it’s ever filmed), who hires a hustler (Andrew Steel) following the death of his partner of 20 years.
(screens with “Two Men and a Wedding,” Saturday, March 29, 7 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
Not officially gay although there are scenes of one male dancer drooling over another, “5 cm” is worth seeing for some amazing dance snippets, even if its plot confirms the stereotype of Asians as “inscrutable.” Potentially a male version of “Black Swan,” it’s about a dancer (Benjamin Zhang) in the National Ballet of China who constantly loses in competition with another man who’s the director’s favorite; but he gets another chance when a European director comes to audition them.
(in Drama Shorts 2, Saturday, April 5, 12 p.m., 7 Stages Theatre, Main Stage)
Atlanta Film Festival
March 28-April 6
Screenings at Plaza Theatre and 7 Stages Theatre