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Histories of Acting Up: Frameline at 36

By Frako Loden

During Gay Pride Month in June, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival celebrated its 36th year as the world's longest-running film festival presenting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender programming. Its home is the beloved 1,400-seat Castro Theatre, a 1922 movie palace whose neon façade lures cineastes of every variety. This year's Frameline, as it's known from the name of its parent media-arts nonprofit organization, boasted nearly 50 documentaries, feature-length and short, including its Opening Night and Centerpiece films. This review of only eight of those films, chosen purely for their subject-matter interest, uncovers a high standard of quality and a wide breadth of subject matter, albeit a narrow range of artistic approaches.

The batch of documentaries I watched struck a pleasing balance between themes of victimization and activism. Opening Night's Vito is director Jeffrey Schwarz's enthralling tribute to Vito Russo, the defiant film historian-writer-lecturer and early gay-rights/AIDS activist until his death from HIV in 1990. The film traces Russo's "zap" interventions in the Gay Activists Alliance in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall uprising and the 1970 Snake Pit raid, as well as his fundraising slide-show lectures of same-sex imagery in American cinema and his New York-based Our Time TV talk show. His friendships with Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler, his bicoastal romance with Jeff Sevcik (who died early in the AIDS era), his founding roles in GLAAD and ACT UP, and his passion to live the life he was fighting for make him a preeminent LGBT statesman in this terrific film.


At the Opening Night screening of Vito--left to right: Writer Armistead Maupin, Vito Director Jeffrey Schwartz and IDA Executive Director Michael Lumpkin. Courtesy of Frameline


Another gay-rights activist who died prematurely, in this case by homophobic murder, was David Kato, the first openly gay man in Uganda, eulogized in Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall's Call Me Kuchu, the festival's Centerpiece documentary. "Kuchu" is a synonym for "queer" in the African country apparently dominated by gay-hating fundamentalist Christians (encouraged by American bigots like Lou Engle and Scott Lively) and photo tabloids that out gay men and expose them to vigilante and police violence. In this nightmarish environment a woman who simply cuts her own hair is suspected as a witch, and gays are routinely associated with Western immorality, pedophilia, prostitution and terrorism (One tabloid headline reads "Homo Generals Plotted Kampala Terror Attacks."). Kato's work on a tabloid defamation lawsuit and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' review of Uganda's compliance with principles both result in victories, which he celebrates with his mother and friends. But all along we dread the night he is beaten to death in his home and are appalled when his funeral is turned into an ugly homophobic spectacle by Kato's own community pastor. Still, Kato's martyrdom galvanizes his friends and "other Davids" and leads to an outpouring of member countries' recommendations for the restoration of human rights violations in Uganda.


From Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall's Call Me Kuchu, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Frameline.


A more individual struggle, but no less public, unfolds in Julie Wyman's Strong!. Super-heavyweight weightlifter Cheryl Haworth was US national champion at 15 and a bronze medalist at the Sydney Olympics at 17, the youngest American to medal in Olympic weightlifting. But after suffering an elbow injury in 2003, she has to heal and redouble her training for future games. Hovering near 300 pounds, she is always breaking chairs and never finding clothes in her size 28. Although she's proud of her athletic ability, she would also love somebody to love--and losing weight might make that a possibility. And she's too talented in other things, like drawing and historic building preservation, to stay in one field for long. Like her beloved 1979 Lincoln Continental Mk V, she's dubbed "Mary Todd Lincoln," and maybe she's a little too big to fit in with the rest. Haworth is immensely appealing in this profile that explores attitudes toward a woman's physical strength and appearance.


From Julie Wyman's Strong!. Courtesy of Frameline


If Submerged Queer Spaces was so interesting for this Bay Area resident who only faintly remembers most of the bars and nightclubs it recollects, imagine how fascinating it would be for those who actually frequented hangouts like the Rez-erection, Havoc House or the White Swallow back in the day. Jack Curtis Dubowsky's eccentric but utterly engaging documentary conducts an archaeological expedition of the façades of vanished San Francisco gay and lesbian bars. Somebody in the 1970s took photos of these places in full sunshine, and Dubowsky superimposes them on their present locations. He provides helpful arrows to a still-visible "original sign bracket" or "original tile" as an affirmation of the remains of our queer social history. The film's diverse array of recollectors prominently discuss the roles played by racism and gentrification in the changing neighborhoods. Dubowsky's throbbing electronic music and roving camera create a Gaspar Noé effect, as if the viewer is visiting these places on drugs-which many habitués did in their day.

As Ugandan law professor Sylvia Tamale points out in Call Me Kuchu, legislative bigotry against gays is a Western concept that countries like Britain imposed on their colonial subjects. One hundred fifty years after Section 377, which criminalized homosexuality under British colonial rule, became part of India's penal code, it was repealed by the Delhi High Court in a landmark judgment in 2009. Adele Tulli's 365 Without 377 takes the temperature of this sea change in the year after the historic decriminalization by following the daily activities of a Mumbai lesbian, a transgender kathak dancer and a gay man--culminating in the one-year anniversary of the ruling when they all come together to celebrate. It's a vivacious and optimistic film that always reminds us it's not enough to change laws--we "need a sensitizing along with the rights" by community role models.

Thanks to YouTube, such role models can broadcast their "gay family values" to the world, as seen in Cassie Jaye's The Right to Love: An American Family. This profile of Northern Californians Jay and Bryan Leffew and their adopted children, Daniel and Selena, views their lives through the prism of public policy and all the surrounding media noise. Jay and Bryan got married soon after same-sex marriage was declared legal in California in May 2008. Five months later Proposition 8, limiting marriage to that between a man and a woman, passed. The Leffews began videotaping their family activities on YouTube to show the world that a same-sex marriage, as long as it has love (and maybe a stable income?), preserves the same family values as a heterosexual union. I wish the film had said something about white men adopting children of color, but it contends with enough weighty issues, one of them being the way bigoted media confuses ordinary, if half-asleep, viewers. In one infuriating sequence, Bryan's very ambivalent family inadvertently reveals that they voted for Prop 8, thinking they were voting "for Bryan." I suspect this happened in many other families.


From Cassie Jaye's The Right to Love: An American Family. Courtesy of Frameline


Michael House's Revealing Mr. Maugham is an improvement over his 2009 The Magnificent Tati. In this biography, British author W. Somerset Maugham and his world are brilliantly brought to life thanks to testimonials from the likes of writer Armistead Maupin, biographer Selina Hastings and Alexander McCall-Smith. The film makes a strong case for Maugham's enormous success as playwright, short-story writer and novelist--even as an agent for the British Secret Service--being due to his sensibility as a gay man living in an "illegal world."

Maugham made the mistake of marrying Syrie Wellcome, whom he'd gotten pregnant. If her surname sounds familiar, it's because she was previously married to the founder of the pharmaceutical firm that later became Burroughs-Wellcome--a target of AIDS activists for their overpricing of AZT. It was this movement to protest drug-company profiteering that spurred the 1987 birth of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP. For sheer energy, none of the docs I saw could beat the spirit of United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. Director Jim Hubbard shows how this organization, in its youthful passion, sexiness, creativity and rage, gave people with AIDS the power to control their own response to the AIDS crisis and changed the attitudes and actions of government regulators, medical professionals and politicians. The spirit of acting up lives on through histories like these.

Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at CSU East Bay and Diablo Valley College.