By Tom White
The 16th Outfest: The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival celebrated its spiritely age with documentaries of all sizes, shapes and sensibilities. During a summer when the likes of Senator Trent Lott likened queerhood to kleptomania, and ex-gays and lesbians were proclaiming their miraculous convergence, Outfest '98 arrived as a much-needed antedote. All told, there were 48 short and long docs filling the screens of West Hollywood throughout the mid-summer fest, of which this writer viewed seventeen.
Didn't Do It for Love, the latest from German filmmaker Monica Treut, profiles the wildly diver gent life and career of Norway native Eva Norvind, a restless soul who wanders from culture to culture and career to career: Scandinavian sex goddess, movie star, sometime prostitute, and activist for free love in Mexico; dominatrix, sex therapist, counselor to imprisoned sexual predators in New York. Treut takes Eva back to the places and people of her life of plenty, incorporating footage from her films in Mexico, with shots of Eva at work in her S&M dungeon. Didn't Do It for Love is an admirable portrait of an explorer whose adventures have yielded a deeper understanding of her sexuality, and sexuality in general. And yet, as the title suggests and as she admits in the film, she "finds it difficult to stay in one place with (herself)."
The short film Advice to Adventurous Girls, by Kim Wood, also profiles an intrepid, independent spirit—a daredevil named Lily de France. Ms. Wood, whose subject had left the scene long ago, deftly tells her story with old stills and footage, reenactments, and readings from Lily's letters.
Dear Jesse is Tim Kirkman's personal odyssey from his New York base to his native North Carolina, the land of Jesse Helms and Thomas Wolfe—seemingly opposite figures who would conspire, unwittingly, to lure him home. As a gay man, Kirkman felt more than a little ambivalent about identifying his home state, given the virulent conservatism of its Senator. But when matters turned for the worse for Kirkman—his boyfriend left him, and Helms announced his bid for re-election—he headed home to start filming. The result is a strikingly engaging personal documentary that manages to explore not only his own questions, but those of his home state. Dear Jesse director Tim Kirkm recalls the prototype of personal docs, Sherman's March, in its Southern-styled sense of humor that serves to leaven a quest that is often painful. Kirkman first interviews classmates, friends from childhood, a cousin he first came out to, and the family minister—then he broadens his scope and travels all over the state, seeking out both detractors and supporters of Helms. The more Carolinans Kirkman incorporates into his film, the richer it becomes. Writer Alan Gurganus weighs in with his treacly Southern sensibility: 'I'm getting a hernia trying to do [Jesse] honor." And Kirkman's minister maintains wanly that "Jesse is aggressively ignorant." By the end of the film, when Kirkman interviews his own father in a tense, wrenching episode, he has defied Mr. Wolfe and indeed come home again not just to himself, but to the state that he had left behind.
Barbara Hammer's latest, The Female Closet, traces the lives of three female artists—each from a different generation in history—whose identity as lesbians was closeted more by the society they thrived in and contributed to than by the artists themselves. Alice Austin, a turn-of-the-century photographer, made no secret about her sexual persuasion, both in her photograph s and in candid shots of her. Yet the curators at the Alice Austin House in Staten Island would neither acknowledge nor discuss how Austin 's sexuality informed her work. The film's second subject, Hannah Hoch, a Weimer-era photomontagist, was writer Till Brugman 's lover—a fact that is less publicized in Hoch's retrospectives than her relationships with men. The third subject, Nicole Eisenman, is a contemporary artist in her late 20s who discusses both her art and her status as a lesbian artist. While she does acknowledge Hammer's thesis of a female closet, she asks, "How can you be in the closet?"
The preceding short, Dee Mosbacher's Radical Harmonies, was billed as a work-in-progress. The film uses the 1997 Michigan Womyn 's Festival to celebrate the history of women's music. By cutting interviews with such pioneers as Holly Near and Alix Dobkin, with stills from the 60s and 70s, Mosbacher showed the potential of this film as a compelling socio-historical document. Gay Courage: 100 Years of Gay Movement, by Rosa von Praunheim, takes a decidedly campy yet comprehensive look at the history of the gay movement n Germany, with drag queens providing commentary and performing re-enactments. The real heroes of the movement are celebrated in the film as exemplars of courage in a rabidly intolerant society. Gay liberation came to pass in 1969, when lawmakers finally repealed the anti-gay legislation that had been on the books since 1933. Once history is brought up to date in Germany, the film takes an odd turn, focusing henceforth on the gay movement in San Francisco. While the San Francisco footage is compelling in identifying a richly textured culture, one gets the impression of an awkwardly executed cultural exchange program.
Dancing on Pearls was a program of three short films about gay black men. Charles Lofton's O Happy Day investigates a homoerotic subtext in the Black Panther movement, juxtaposing images of the Black Panthers with footage from Black porn films. In Close to Home, Rodney Evans reflects on his experiences growing up gay, coming out to his parents, and exploring a painful relationship with a straight man. Incorporating home movies and stills from his childhood, super impositions of sexual encounters and black and white and color video footage of him addressing the camera, Evans puts a uniquely innovative spin on the personal doc genre. In Dancing on Pearls, K. Brent Hill takes a cross-section of gay black men in Philadelphia and asks them about coming out, self-definition, interracial relationships, AIDS, and the gay black community. With the diversity of vocations, generations and attitudes assembled on screen, Hill puts together a compelling mosaic.
Hallejulah!: Ron Athey, A Story of Deliverance may well be this year's answer to Sick. Indeed, Los Angeles-based performance artist Ron Athey cites Bob Flanagan as an early influence on his work. Catherine Saalfield's film not only documents Athey's life and work, but captures the evolution of his artistic expression and his process of making art. And Athey's story is ripe for art: born into a Pentacostal family in Texas and raised to be a minister, he renounced his faith when he discovered his sexuality. But faith healing and ritual would later inform his work, as would the search for a faith that would have him. In Los Angeles, he struggled with heroin addiction for ten years before he discovered the power of performance art and body rut as an outlet for his personal exploration. And Saalfield captures his performances, replete with piercing, suturing, branding and impaling. While self mutilation may not be suitable family viewing, Athey's reasoning for exploring it clearly demonstrates an artist firmly rooted in his art.
Bringing Up Baby was a shorts program about gay parenting. Becky Neiman 's Unclipped: The Shaving of Andrew Montanez is a witty account of taking one's cat in for his first haircut. Making Babies: The Gay & Lesbian Baby Boom, directed by Martin Bedogne and Stewart Halpern, follows four couples as they go through the process of creating families through adoption and foster and surrogate parenting. Laurel Swenson's Motherf **ers is a four-minute in-the-camera dis to all women who pursue lesbian mothers out of the ideal of doing so. Letter to Maya, by Nancy Brown, documents a lesbian couple's adoption of a baby girl from China and expresses their hopes for her future and a strong sense of self and cultre. Michael Magnaye's Camp Lavender Hill chronicles a week in the life of the first summer camp for children of gay parents.
Perverted Justice documents the prejudice against lesbian defendants—the tendency of prosecutors to stigmatize them, and the fact that most women on death row are lesbian. Director Donna Clark talks to law professors, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike about this troubling bias. By juxtaposing scenes from Hollywood films that demonize lesbians with footage from murder trials of lesbian defendants, Clark makes a convincing case for perverted justice.
Roe v. Roe tells the story of Norma McCorvey, who, as Jane Roe, was the anonymous icon behind the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But the woman behind the icon is the real story: She never had an abortion, and she lived a quiet life for sixteen years before corning out, both as Jane Roe and as a lesbian. From then on, pro-choice and right-to-lifers battled for her allegiance, using her for their own political gains. In the end, although McCorvey had made the troubling conversion to Operation Rescue crusader, she leaves Operation Rescue, resolute in her 28-year lesbian relationship and resolved to engage the choice issue on her own terms.
Thomas White is Assistant Editor of International Documentary.