'Beauty', Filth, and Resilience: The Varying Faces of Outfest Los Angeles
By KJ Relth
Just before the sharp curve in the road where Sunset Boulevard officially becomes the bustling Sunset Strip sits the unassuming Directors Guild of America building, home to a year-round selection of public events and private industry screenings—and this year, the destination for the 31st installment of Outfest Los Angeles. One of the first and only film festivals in the world to focus exclusively on stories made for, by and about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, Outfest is this community’s primary cinematic source for stories otherwise marginalized or flat out ignored by mainstream media.
For 10 days in July, the DGA was transformed into a constant flow of moviegoers buzzing with excitement over the wealth of LGBT programming options. Highlights of the festival were strongly tied to a sense of place and history, with stories straight from the heart of America's Deep South and Central Africa sharing the screen with beautiful and entertaining portraits of famous LGBT figures from recent history and current popular culture. With so many important and contemporary stories mixed into the jam-packed Outfest schedule, having to choose from the 19 documentary features was no easy task. Of the ten nonfiction offerings that I saw, the clear standouts—outside of the three main award winners—were the moving, daring and sometimes shocking profiles of three famous American figures.
If you were tuned in to current events in the summer of 2011, you were probably following the story of long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad's attempt to complete the 103-mile open water swim from Cuba to Florida. While news cameras were primarily covering the aftermath of her three failed attempts, Nyad's nephew Timothy Wheeler was there with his camera for every part of her journey for the making of his debut feature, The Other Shore. Nyad is the narrator throughout the journey, with candid interviews reflecting on her accomplishments and failures intercut with the often excruciating footage of the athlete pushing through each of her three attempts to complete this swim. Tense moments spent struggling with box jellyfish stings and asthma attacks are captured with the little light available to the camera crew out on the open water, but the vérité footage never feels too dark or grainy. Nyad's unflagging tenacity is consistent through even these failures—failures that to a weaker soul might seem dream-crushing. Her incredible strength of character makes The Other Shore one of the most inspirational stories to come out of this year's festival.
For one of the festival's special gala screenings, a packed theater sat engrossed in the life of one of America's most famous and controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning authors during Pratibha Parmar's Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth. Perhaps best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple, Walker has also written dozens of novels, poetry collections and works of nonfiction, many of which are highlighted by scores of her contemporaries, fans and friends who are interviewed throughout the film. Each time the likes of Howard Zinn, Gloria Steinem, Sapphire or Danny Glover appeared onscreen, little stirs and grins of excitement spread through the packed house and added another layer of joy to the viewing experience. Walker herself is a strong presence throughout the film, making the viewer grateful to Parmar for having the ingenuity to make this film while this famous writer is still alive. Somewhat of a living tribute to a woman whose views on love and the world around her are as beautiful as the images Parmar chose to accompany this writer's story, Beauty in Truth stands strong as a worthy portrait of an American literary icon.
A depiction of a famous figure that could not have stood in more direct contrast to the poetic sincerity of Beauty in Truth is Jeffrey Schwartz's I Am Divine, a full-frontal confrontation of John Waters' most glamorous and flamboyant muse. Fans of the self-proclaimed "Queen of Filth" are invited to look deeper into the life of Harris Glenn Milstead, the chubby, queer friend of Waters from their hometown of Baltimore who went on to become one of most iconic and legendary cult figures of the last century. Complete with clips from rare home movies and outrageous live performances, Schwartz's film about this larger-than-life outsider maintains an air of respect and reverence for a figure who stood up for millions in the queer community throughout his short life and career. Schwartz's film emphasizes that this performer was more than a postmodern amalgam of '50s glamor, '70s disco and '80s excess, and the interviews with Divine's late mother reveal this performer's underlying humanity.
Through the stories of four people each affected by the AIDS virus, Special Programming Award for Freedom winner deepsouth (Dir.: Lisa Biagiotti) puts a face on the problem of HIV/AIDS funding in the American South. The narrative floats between the lives of an HIV-positive black gay man, the director of AIDS Alabama, and two women who run a severely underfunded AIDS retreat in Louisiana. With beautiful, impressionistic camerawork and a refreshing lack of first-person in-studio interviews, deepsouth unfolds lyrically to underscore the importance of AIDS policy and awareness. This snapshot of the four figures and those around them whose lives are impacted by HIV/AIDS maintains a neutral tone, allowing the viewer time to develop genuine empathy and compassion for the folks who struggle mostly out of sight from the rest of the country. deepsouth allows those voices to be heard, and allows their plight to not go forgotten.
A similarly impressionistic style of filmmaking is found within Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann's Born This Way, this year's winner of the Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature. The film takes us to Cameroon, where individuals can be sentenced to anywhere from three to five years in jail if they are caught engaging in homosexual activity. We take a look inside Alternative Cameroon, a center for homosexual rights that receives most of its funding for HIV care and treatment, but cameras also spend time in bars, nightclubs and bedrooms documenting the normal routines of gay and lesbian men and women in this Central African nation. Kadlec and Tullmann shot in darkness and through candlelight at times for tone, at times for necessity; keeping the identities of interviewees protected was of the utmost importance. While most of these individuals are not out to their families, they are comfortable enough to live their lives fully around their peers and fellow LGBT activists. Much like deepsouth, Born This Way is far from a cry for help; more so, both films serve to highlight those working on the ground in the constant struggle for hometown representation and appreciation, and global equality.
Katharine Relth is the IDA's Web and Social Media Producer.