Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Flare online: Our Dance of Revolution

Phillip Pike's documentary on Toronto's black LGBTQ community feels like a throwback to an era when community, coalition and activism were everyday words in the vocabulary. That Black Lives Matter now thrives on these terms is an interesting note thrown up by the film which covers an enormous amount of ground during its 102 minutes.

Our Dance of Revolution
Pike focuses on a handful of key events and groups such as the foundation of a group house, the AIDS crisis and current conflicts. If some of these feel rushed, there is much to discuss. Interspersed throughout the archive footage, interviews and current-day protests are performances of poetry that give another facet to the unfolding story. The use of the arts in this documentary was something I appreciated: dancing, singing and performing are all important ways for a community to express itself. It reminded me very much of the community I came out in in San Francisco in the early 1990s. As one interviewee says, it's hard to be angry all the time.

A few things I found odd: the drag queen Michelle Ross is shown and lauded but never interviewed; singer Faith Nolan appears repeatedly in a group interview, but is never named or interviewed; an activist called Sherona Hall is mourned, but her death is not explained. Perhaps there is a longer version that clears up these points, but the film celebrates a community forge in struggle but moving forward into its power with passion and determination.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Flare online: A Dog Barking at the Moon

A Dog Barking at the Moon is a film about family drama and is also made by family in that it is written and directed by Zi Xiang and the cinematography is by her partner, Jose Val Bal. They also co-produced it. One would think that this would lend it a cohesive feel, but that is not the case. A young woman and her husband fly into China to stay with her parents before her baby is born. The mother is angry, as her husband wants a divorce. The daughter advises her to get the divorce or stop complaining. So, the stage is set for family drama, but the film is a frustrating watch. 

A Dog Barking at the Moon
For one, the cinematography is almost static. Entire scenes play out as wide shots that drag on and on with no camera movement and little action. The story moves back and forth in time with very little explanation and then suddenly scenes are dropped in that make no sense, the actors interacting with no props or costumes on a stage. I wish that lent it an air of intrigue, but I was just bored most of the time.

The actress playing the daughter barely shows a flicker of emotion, massively underplaying, while her mother lashes out in furious rages, chewing the scenery. The other characters barely register and it is confusing to keep track of the different family members, especially as there are so many flashbacks. I had an inkling that two characters shown as young women might develop into something interesting, but this did not seem to be happening. 

And then in the last 15 minutes, wow--suddenly there is drama, character, emotion and a painfully played out reaction shot. I can't say it makes up for the previous 90 minutes but at least there was something to watch. A dance number, flashes of colour and life. And then it ends, oddly. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

Flare online: Rettet das Feuer

Continuing with the oh-so-topical self-isolation viewing, I watched the doc Rettet das Feuer, directed by Jasco Viefhues. I was keen to see this story of an artist living with HIV in 1990s Berlin, although not familiar with him or his work. Sadly, by the end of the film, I still felt I knew very little about him. Jürgen Baldiga, we learn, was a photographer and artist whose words and images fill the screen throughout the film, his diary entries read out by the filmmaker. 

Rettet das Feuer
 But the film spends most of the time in an unnamed archive (I guessed the Schwules Museum) with unnamed people poring over his donated works. I tried to work out who was who but failed. First names are thrown around but it is very hard to assign a name to a face or understand their relationship to this man who seemed to be very important to them.

Nor is any context given for Baldiga's life--where did he come from? What was Berlin like at that time? What was the drag scene that he photographed like? What was the situation for people with HIV? All of this information is withheld from the viewer and so we are left with black and white photos and chaps sitting in white rooms. I was completely nonplussed. It feels like an extended home movie where you have to already know who everybody is. Very frustrating.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Flare online: Good Grief

So, to the first post of this year's Flare, cancelled to all in person, but happening in various forms online. I do not have access to the BFI player where many films are screening, but I do have the limited screeners available to press online, from which I shall be selecting.

The first feature viewed was My Fiona, an impressive debut from writer-director Kelly Walker. Tackling the thorny subject of grief and surviving, My Fiona picks a delicate path through denial, bad object choices, staying put and moving on with great élan. Jane has to pick up the pieces when her business partner Fiona takes her own life. When she takes on caring responsibilities for Fiona's son Bailey to relieve the burden on Fiona's widow Gemma, it leads to drama and a lot of unresolved feelings coming to the surface. Oh, my.

If it loses a bit in the last 15 minutes, that only shows how well the preceding 85 has been presented. I had a giant "Oh, No!" moment about half-way through, which I will decline to reveal. But it's a big 'un. The leads, Jeanette Maus and Corbin Reid, are outstanding and the boy is super cute, displaying his own anguish and anger at the departure of his mother in an understandable way. I quite liked how Walker dropped in bits of dry humour throughout, without it coming off as glib.

I have also viewed several shorts, the outstanding find of which is Fawzia Mirza's I Know Her, a hilariously relatable 3 minutes of pillow talk which features another big reveal which I must keep scrum about. Awkward does not cover it. Mirza was the lead and writer in Signature Move three years ago at Flare, but I have not seen any of her previous directorial work.

Do catch Five Films for Freedom before it ends on the 29th. My favourite is the short doc, When Pride Came to Town, which pits a small-town Norwegian LGBT community against Christian conservatives who don't want Pride to come to town. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the filmmakers interviewed the committed Christian who admitted she once liked women and even looked like a boy (!) but then realised what she really needed was Jesus. Awks.

Friday, March 20, 2020


So, things have taken an odd turn, eh? Two weeks ago I was planning to attend Flare, visit Bristol next month, start a new job, etc. And now I find myself at home most of the time, quite busy but quite  bemused.

Never mind. The last few days have brought a host of social connections, from FaceTime chats about writing, to drag aerobics to an enjoyable cabaret session, the latter two courtesy of Facebook Live.

I intend to cover Flare entirely from online viewing as the festival has been, like so many other social events, cancelled. It won't be the same, of course, but the show must go on.

Keep safe, stay in if you can and keep doing art.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Poly Styrene Weekender

Coming up is the Poly Styrene Weekender, which seems to only be one day, 1 June, but it's packed full of activity.

Disappointingly, I cannot attend but am very excited to hear there are an exhibit, a biography and documentary in existence celebrating the human dynamo that was Poly Styrene. A punk legend, she wrote for and fronted X-ray Spex before going solo and then vanishing from the public eye for many years. I attempted to make contact with her when I arrived in the UK in 1995 but never did and she was taken far too soon, in 2011.

But let's celebrate her wonderful achievements in music. This is one of my favourite songs ever, an excoriating 3-minute examination of identity.

This is a very odd profile of her which appeared on the BBC in 1979, hinting at some existential melancholia.

And this is her last release. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

BFI Flare: the Great Deception

So, to the final day of BFI Flare although I shall avail myself of the online screeners to do more posts later. If there has been a trend in this festival it seems to be a move away from happy endings and even decisive endings. I can only think of one film that offered a conventional happy ending and that was a woman joining a threesome so not that conventional.

JT LeRoy
Tonight's closing film was JT or JT LeRoy or, as imdb has it Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy, so perhaps the distributors have yet to settle on a title. The uncertainty suits its subject, a shape-shifting author revealed to be two women in a great literary scandal that passed me by in the early noughties. I had vaguely heard about it but was never invested in the original books, fictionalised memoirs of a gay teenager who did sex work. Or so the devoted readers and celebrity endorsers thought. In fact, Laura Albert, a frustrated novelist living in San Francisco, had created the works under the LeRoy nom de plume and then enlisted the help of her partner's sister, Savannah, to provide the face of JT. As played out in JT et al, it's quite fascinating to consider their intentions and how caught up they both became in becoming what Savannah (Kristen Stewart playing it low-key) calls a tearaway teen or words to that effect.

I had concerns over just how queer the story would be and how well it would suit Flare, but it turned out to be quite polymorphous. There is an interesting thread about taking on another body that is quite resonant of trans identity issues. Savannah hints at gender dysphoria and is only too happy to avoid carbs in order to keep "curves" away. She also has a fling with a glamourous actress who is apparently based on Asia Argento. Laura (Laura Dern unleashed), for her part, has previously done sex work and dated women and is quite happy to have phone sex with the aforementioned actress to keep her sweet. It's quite astonishing to think that it happened or at least a version of it did: this is Savannah's story and she was heavily involved in making the film. Her brother even provides the music.

Even more bizarrely, Courtney Love, one of the original duped celebs, turns up in a small role as an LA producer who wants to turn one of the novels into a film. I only realised when her name came up in the credits, and I had to go back and work out which role she played as she is unrecognisable. Hole's "Celebrity Skin" is used over the credits, adding an extra meta reference. The film raises many important questions that linger: what is truth? how much reinforcement do we need from others? who gets to be a public voice?
And true to form, the ending leaves us hanging as Savannah looks to New York for her next move. It's worth googling all involved to see what they did next.