BEST OF THE FEST:
Sept. 25, 1pm, Midtown Art Cinema; virtual
President Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil sets the backdrop of Gabriel Martins’ Mars One, a film that paints a delicate yet despairing portrait of the Black working class family known as the Martins. The father of the family, Wellington (Carlos Francisco), works with a young leftist as a maintenance man at a condo resort. His son Deivinho (Cícero Lucas) attempts to fulfill his father’s wish for him to be a soccer player, but he secretly aspires to become an astrophysicist and join the Mars One mission. The older sister, Eunice (Camilla Damião) holds a secret desire too: she discovers her identity as a lesbian when she falls for another young woman. All the while, the mother Tércia (Rejane Faria) is shocked by a traumatizing event that convinces her she is destined to have bad luck.
The genius of Martins’ direction and writing slowly unveils itself over the course of the film. Long, static shots of Wellington and Tércia become the gateway through which Bolsonaro’s far-right policies unravel a serene family environment. But Martins also recognizes that individual lives change independently of larger societal trends: Deivinho was always going to find his own interests, and Eunice was always going to be a lesbian, regardless of Bolsonaro. Still, the exploration of involvement in inter- and intra-class struggles, of being queer in a conservative country, of being a woman in a world that fails to take women’s issues seriously, of being a dreamer without the funds to realize these dreams — Martins manages to develop all these themes with the utmost authenticity, heart, and intellectual prowess. Everything ends up culminating in a resounding ending that shows how the pureness of familial love can bring people through the worst of times, even if the re-emergence of fascism makes us all wish to escape to Mars.
Oct. 1, 7:30pm, Out Front Theatre; virtual
Judy (Todd Flaherty) is running out of time before Chrissy Judy even begins. The 30-something New Yorker is certain his drag queen show is about to take off when his best friend and creative partner Chrissy (Wyatt Fenner) decides he wants to settle down with his boyfriend Sean (Kiyon Spencer) in Philadelphia. This sends Judy into a tailspin in which he must confront the reality that he’s getting older, his drag show worse, and his single, career-less lifestyle less sustainable.
Chrissy Judy marks director, writer, and star Todd Flaherty’s feature film debut, although the stellar black-and-white cinematography and compelling writing would suggest otherwise. While the comedy of this film ranges from the observational to the coarse, moments of poignant drama highlight Flaherty’s insights into the pains of becoming an adult and the difficulties of this transition when lacking social safety networks as a gay man. Indeed, some of the most compelling moments of “Chrissy Judy” contain a wondrous mixture of humor and melancholy, such as unpleasantly brief sexual encounters and rude bar book readers like Marcus (Joey Taranto) ruining drag shows. While certain formalistic aspects such as the editing and sound design may remind audiences that Chrissy Judy is a debut film, Flaherty nonetheless puts together a hilarious yet sad coming of age tale about friendship, codependence, and deferred adulthood.
Sept. 29, 7pm, Out Front Theatre; virtual
Swallowed is about a drug run that goes from bad to worse to downright vile. This passion-project horror film by Carter Smith follows aspiring gay porn star Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and his close friend Dom (Jose Colon) as they get wrapped up in a smuggling job that Dom opts into so that he can send Benjamin off to LA with money for his first porn shoot. However, things quickly get out of control when Dom’s supplier Alice (Jena Malone) forces Dom and Benjamin to swallow the mysterious merchandise in order to keep it concealed. Swallowed is a film better experienced without knowing much about it, so I will stop describing it here. But what I can say about the film is that its thriller and body horror elements become incredibly compelling as it nears its end. This is thanks to stellar performances by the doe-eyed Koch and Colon (names that feel almost purposefully chosen by the casting director) and Andrew W. Lewis’s beautiful yet claustrophobic cinematography. But perhaps the best thing about Carter Smith’s film is that it serves as a nasty, campy reminder that men will create strange rituals and situations as excuses to be intimate with one another.
Art and Pep
Sept. 24, 1pm, Midtown Art Cinema; virtual
A gentle warmth pervades the frames of Art and Pep. Mercedes Kane’s documentary looks into the lives of Arthur “Art” Johnston and Jose “Pepe” Peña, the life partners and co-owners of one of Chicago’s most famous and historic gay bars, Sidetrack. The opening of Sidetrack in 1982 was an important moment in Chicago’s history, as operating a gay bar in the Midwest was practically unheard of at the time. This did not stop Art and Pepe; in fact, it was only the beginning of a long history of LGBTQ activism in the Windy City. But while Art and Pepe’s heroic acts are important to document, the best thing about Art and Pep is how it shows the love the two share for one another. This love fills the rooms of Sidetrack, allowing it to become a second home for LGBTQ people; this love is the source behind their dedicated activism; and this love supports Art and Pepe through the hardest of times. Even when COVID-19 appears to interrupt the filming of Art and Pep and almost takes Art’s life, the bond the two share is as present as ever when Pepe ensures his life partner recovers. In this way, Art and Pep both mythologizes Art and Pepe as LGBTQ icons and humanizes them through the purity of their love.
BLACK AS U R
Sept. 25, 7pm, Midtown Art Cinema; virtual
Following the Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, documentarian Micheal Rice faced a difficult reality: only seven days after the murder of George Floyd and only 10 miles from his vigil, a transwoman named Iyanna Dior was beaten by a group of Black people while fighting to enter a convenience store so she could capture her potential murderers on camera if she died. This propelled Rice to make BLACK AS U R and investigate the roots of homophobia and transphobia within Black communities despite the importance of LGBTQ people in the Black liberation movement. Rice’s film is often harrowing in its authentic, direct approach to documenting bigotry and its tragic consequences on Black queer lives. His amazing direction further emphasizes the pain experienced in Black trans lives, especially; the portion on Chocolate and her dreams of becoming a famous television star is one of the most heart wrenching scenes I have ever seen in a documentary. But the best facet of BLACK AS U R is that despite all the hate spewed toward LGBTQ and Black people, Rice finds a way to reconcile queerness with Blackness as well as present a beautiful hope in the possibility for a Black liberation movement in which all Black lives matter.
Sept. 26, 9pm, Midtown Art Cinema
Writer and director Shariff Nasr’s dreamy style sweeps viewers into a flowing tale of memory and identity in El Houb. At the center of this family drama is Karim, a gay Moroccan man who locks himself in the literal closet of his parents’ home so that his religious family will listen to him as he comes out of the figurative closet. Those outside the closet denigrate Karim and, worse, pretend he isn’t there. Karim in the closet is stuck with himself, however, which means confronting past traumas and mistakes he’s made in his secretive life as a gay man.
The performances in El Houb are stunning in both their cool, Kubrickian quality and their emotional depth. Larhzaoui is a true anchor as Karim, giving the most tortured performance I’ve seen since Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. Nasr’s direction works in tandem with these unique performances, creating a harsh dreamscape that verges on becoming a nightmare at points. But however mean the film can become toward Karim, Nasr manages to remind the audience that “el houb” means “the love” in Arabic and that there is always a potential to learn and grow with a bit of listening and patience.
FLAWED, BUT INTERESTING:
Sept. 26, 7pm, Role Call Theatre; virtual
The power of Intentionally Erased lies in its simplicity. Kimya Motley’s lean 60-minute documentary dissects the discrimination against transgender women by men within the Black community through a Socratic seminar: by sitting three Black transgender women down with three Black men and having them discuss the trans experience. Though this concept sounds as if it would work better in a shorter form, the clarity and pathos with which Breonna McCree, Bryanna Jenkins, and Cate’a Thailand Warr speak on their lives as trans women keeps the film as engaging as it is informative. Equally interesting are the revelations the men have about themselves as they learn from these women. Their seemingly well-meaning but indifferent attitude toward trans people is slowly unveiled to be socially ingrained transphobia (save for one of them who has a secret past). The surprise, pain, and desire to change that washes over these men at this revelation is at once hurtful and hopeful. However, Intentionally Erased is held back because it fails to explore beyond the seminar. If the runtime were longer and the seminar participants were re-contacted, the film’s impact would be stronger and its contents more engaging.
Oct. 1, 2pm, Out Front Theatre; virtual
Agnes became a crucial part of American trans history after anonymously participating in Harold Garfinkle’s gender research study at UCLA in the 1960s as a trans woman. However, Agnes’s fame has come to overshadow the stories of other trans people from the same time and place. Director Chase Joynt attempts to right this wrong with his documentary, Framing Agnes, by looking beyond the historical frame that centers Agnes and peering into the lives of other trans people who participated in Garfinkle’s study.
Joynt embarks on this endeavor by blending reality with artifice, reenacting transcripts of the interviews from Garfinkle’s study with trans actors. This approach captures the performativity of gender while simultaneously recognizing that neither Joynt nor historians can fully know the participants of Garfinkle’s study from just the transcripts. That said, Framing Agnes becomes absorbed with the modern-day actors and their thoughts about their “characters” more so than the actual people the film is based on. This ultimately undercuts Joynt’s honorable effort to bring light to these forgotten lives, leaving Framing Agnes in a state that is both righteous and upsetting. Still, the film has a lot to offer with its ambitious, playful attitude toward the documentary as a form that cannot go unrecognized.
Wonderfully Made – LGBTQ+R(ELIGION)
Sept. 24, 5pm, Midtown Art Cinema; virtual
Emmy winner Yuval David’s documentary, Wonderfully Made, shifts the conversation of bigotry within the Roman Catholic Church to LGBTQ people who desire to reconcile faith with their sexual and gender identities. While exploring the adversities queer worshippers and pastors face in this fight (as well as their small victories), David seeks to assist in the struggle by building a new iconography that the Catholic Church can adopt into the old: David creates a set of photos featuring Jesus represented in multiple ethnicities, races, body types, genders, and sexualities, hoping that these images allow all types of people to identify with Jesus and the Christian god.
Conceptually, David’s photography contains a beautiful idea for a film: the Roman Catholic Church’s iconography allows people to build a closer connection to their god, so films and photography can help do the same even for those cast aside by the religious institution. However, Wonderfully Made never truly does enough to cast aside the inherent bigotry within the Christian faith. For instance, the film briefly glances at homophobic lines in “Leviticus,” and the only way it challenges them is by referencing another Bible verse that says something sweeter. This ultimately makes the film feel as if it has a rosy view of Catholicism despite featuring many harrowing accounts of bigotry perpetrated by the Church. If David had pushed pastors — even those who are allies — to further criticize and negate the homophobia inherent in the Bible and Catholic Church, the power of his photography and Wonderfully Made as a whole would be much more convincing.
Oct. 1, 4pm, Out Front Theatre; virtual
For better and for worse, Scout Durwood’s musical comedy is a digital, cracked-up-on-sugar nightmare. This campy film follows the fictional Scout Durwood (played by the real Durwood), a Los Angeles millennial who is dumped by her girlfriend before accidentally becoming a cult leader. The already insane situation only leans further into the absurd when her cult members begin to be abducted by aliens, some of whom look strikingly similar to Scout’s friends and herself.
In some parts of Youtopia, the audience is greeted with an interesting, idiosyncratic look at the vapidity of modern culture and the general lack of direction characteristic of young millennial life, which are ideas that feel especially poignant in an L.A. setting. However, most of the film’s thematic explorations are muddled by Durwood’s direction and writing. In particular, the songs of Youtopia function less like the expressions of characters’ emotions, as they do in most musicals, and more like YouTube music videos interjecting the story with millennial mantras. While this choice does play into the film’s themes about the modern age, it comes with the added effect of obfuscating the story, as the songs have little to do with what is going on plotwise. This ultimately makes Youtopia hard to follow and its campy aesthetic difficult to enjoy. That said, if you like a film with fun music and insane visuals, Youtopia could be for you.
Miles From Nowhere
Sept. 27, 9pm, Midtown Art Cinema; virtual
Written and directed by Atlanta-based filmmaker Jono Mitchell, Miles from Nowhere follows the titular Miles (Seth Dunlap) as he attempts to reconnect with his two childhood friends, Sammy (Shane Howell) and Victor (Cristian Gonzalez), during a cabin retreat after receiving a cancer diagnosis. However, Miles’ attitude toward life and others is as cancerous as the disease inside him. This doesn’t help Sammy and Victor, who want to use this trip as an opportunity to tell Miles they have been in a gay relationship for the past three years. What unfolds when the friends meet is a melodrama in which Miles must grow accustomed to Sammy and Victor’s sexual identities while facing past failures he has made as a friend.
Despite how powerful the themes of death, cancer, and friendship can be, the drama of Miles from Nowhere never really takes off the ground. While Miles is supposed to serve as a difficult character audiences reluctantly identify with, Sammy and Victor are similarly difficult to enjoy because of how self-centered they are, which leaves the audience with no one to truly care for. This issue is only made worse by how Miles expresses his emotions in strange, inauthentic ways. He chops wood at learning his friends are gay and howls at the moon when Victor reaches a breaking point; such moments call for a clarity and precision of emotion, but these overly dramatic gestures undercut these potentially powerful scenes. The concoction of unlikable characters and unrealistic emotions in Miles from Nowhere ultimately prevents the film from being truly dramatic despite its subject matter being a great vehicle for affecting filmmaking.