Saturday, March 29, 2008

LLGFF: Islam and Queer Identities

The Delegates Centre at the Southbank Centre; photo by Val PhoenixThis year's festival throws up the thorny subject of Islam and queer identity with a host of films exploring different facets.

Parvez Sharma's documentary A Jihad for Love examines the conflict many queer people feel between their identity as Muslims and their queerness because of the religion's hostility to homosexuality.

From South Africa to Egypt to Iran, many of the subjects feel unsafe even having their faces shown. Some have become refugees, escaping to Turkey or France in order to live their lives. Even there, they face an uncertain future, worrying about their families and unable to resolve a conflict between what they feel and what they have been taught. A gay imam offers some hope, insisting that the Qur'an offers no direct condemnation of homosexuality, but rather a denunciation of behaviour in a specific historical situation. But many queer Muslims still feel unsure.

The Birthday (dirs Negin Kianfar, Daisy Mohr) looks at the interesting situation of transsexuals in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Because Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on sex changes, these are allowed. And one surgeon goes so far as to proclaim Iran a paradise for transsexuals. But the testimonies offered by two MTFs and one FTM suggest this is not so. Because of conservative thinking, men transitioning to women face a loss of status and their families are often embarrassed. Interestingly, the brother of the FTM says he is happy his sister is becoming a brother as it is less worry for the family. But still legality is a long way from societal understanding.

Love for Share is an intriguing feature on the practice of polygamy in Indonesia. More to the point, the practice of polygyny, as under Islamic law, a man may have more than one wife.

Using intersecting characters, Nia Dinata's film looks at three such situations, including one in which a new wife falls for one of her husband's other wives. The film depicts many comic, even farcical situations, as the wives chafe at their prescribed roles and seek to live their lives with dignity and personal fulfilment. One of the actresses, speaking after the screening, described the situation as "silly" but said many women will accept it out of ignorance or a desire for increased status.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Saturday, March 22, 2008

London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival preview

Posters for London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; photo by Val Phoenix27 March - 10 April

Less than a week to go before the 22nd LLGFF at London's South Bank and there is much to anticipate, from Alek Keshishian's rom-com Love and Other Disasters to Angelina Maccarone's sensitive drama, Vivere.

Between these two bookends one finds an array of new queer films and material ripe for reconsideration, with films by Seidelman, Bergman and Altman given an airing.

Among the new offerings that catch the eye are: Otto, the latest from aging enfant terrible Bruce LaBruce, in which a queer zombie runs amok in Berlin; Viva, Anna Biller's feminist satire on 1970s' sexual mores; A Jihad for Love, Parvez Sharma's doc which investigates the intersection of Islam and queer identity; and Derek, Isaac Julien's doc on auteur Derek Jarman.

Experimental filmmakers Bev Zalcock and Su Friedrich get retrospectives looking at their decades-long practice, while other strands looks at Queer Dance and Lezploitation. And there's even an all-night musical programme, featuring such guilty pleasures as Can't Stop the Music, for those who don't want to go to bed.

Of the films I have seen, highlights include the closing night gala, Vivere, previously reviewed and recommended. Angelina Maccarone has built up an enviable body of work as a writer/director and it's a mystery to me why she is not as feted as Fatih Akin and other celebrated young German directors and why her work has not reached a wider audience. Having appeared at the LLGFF in 2006 with the brilliant Unveiled, she returns with three intertwined stories of women on the road from Germany to Rotterdam over an eventful Christmas.

Zero Chou won the Teddy at the 2007 Berlinale with Spider Lilies, a highly stylised depiction of online lust and troubling reality between two women in Taiwan.

Lucia Puenzo's XXY, Argentina's entry for the Academy Award, is a ponderously paced but engaging drama of intersex identity and family relations on an island off Uruguay.

The World Unseen (dir Shamim Sarif) features beautiful cinematography and smouldering drama in South Africa. Adapted from her own novel, Sarif's film looks at a growing attraction between two Asian women in 1950s South Africa. As she explained to me, it's partly based on stories her parents told her of living under apartheid and negotiating the thorny social structures. Enjoyable, although the two leads appear to be acting in two different films.

A Walk into the Sea is a very personal film by Esther Robinson exploring her uncle Danny Williams' troubled and mysterious life. A fringe member of Warhol's Factory, Williams shot several short films before he disappeared in 1966 while on a visit home. Robinson explained to me she wanted to make space for his films in her documentary, and his previously unknown footage appears for the first time, alongside sometimes conflicting interviews with survivors of the Warhol scene.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Riot Grrrl: Revolution Girl Style Now!

Black Dog Publishing

There is much to be said about Riot Grrrl, the movement that spawned a phantom army of angry women and girls in the early 1990s and had a brief mainstream moment, before heading back underground. Its influence stretches from Ladyfest to the film Itty Bitty Titty Committee and it deserves proper consideration.

As it happens, this International Women's Day (8 March) is the 15th anniversary of a remarkable gig in Newport, Gwent by Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill, two bands closely associated with Riot Grrrl. I was there and it was a watershed moment for me, not just because I had conducted an intense interview with Kathleen Hanna, but also because I missed my train and ended up staying for the gig which almost became a riot. I watched open-mouthed as Hanna demanded men move to the back and girls and women come to the front by the stage. Despite my tiredness, I was energised and I thought: this is an extraordinary moment. What will happen next?

So to the book. In this long-overdue assessment, four authors give their views on various aspects of Riot Grrrl: writings, activism, punk and art. The intro by editor Nadine Monem promises that these are the authors' personal views, culled from their involvement and their research. But then no biographical information is offered about them, leaving the reader wondering: who are these people and why should I care what they think about Riot Grrrl? This is relevant, because, as is stated in the book, Riot Grrrl had no central committee. Every woman made it her own.

One might expect the information about the authors' backgrounds and, indeed, biases, to come in the actual essays. For example, Red Chidgey, in her assessment of Riot Grrrl writing, gives a brief account of her involvement before discussing the zine network that fuelled Riot Grrrl's spread.

However, the contributions of fellow writers Julia Downes and Cazz Blaze offer little personal perspective and their articles are largely cut-and-paste jobs from old sources.

In fact, the lack of original research in this book is glaringly disappointing. Most footnotes refer to published books and articles, many from the music press, which seems especially odd as the latter's hostility led to a media blackout by Riot Grrrl. Consequently, who cares what the NME said in 1993? Surely, a book coming so long afterward should be able to shed light on what was really going on, at ground level, not rehash old inaccurate material from a male-dominated press.

One bright spot, coming very late on, is Suzy Corrigan's contribution, a well-written, informative essay on the US backdrop to the formation of Riot Grrrl: the Reagan years, the AIDS crisis, the Guerilla Girls, etc. She gives a personal insight into how she felt growing up in this environment and also includes her involvement in the 1993 ICA Bad Girls conference. I take issue with her assertion that art will save us all (though I hope that it does), but I respect it as a strongly held viewpoint. A pity this is the last chapter, coming after so much dross.

The directories at the back give timelines and a list of zines, both selective, leaving one wondering: what is the point? Any novice reader coming to this would be given little to get her going.

And knowledgeable readers (hey, I'm a footnote!) will recognise the plethora of errors. I am dismayed by the shabbiness of the book's presentation: typos, mis-spellings, misnumbered footnotes, factual errors, and ink-smudged pages abound. One might think it was a deliberate attempt to echo the home-made style of zines, but I suspect not. The subject deserves better.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Birds Eye View Festival preview

March 6th – 14th 2008 at the ICA and BFI Southbank, London
Then on tour through the UK

Bird's Eye View (I still struggle with the cheesiness of the name) exists to offer some remedy for the low, low, low representation of female directors in the film industry. Following on from last year's festival, which featured Sarah Polley's Oscar-nominated Away from Her, this year's selection offers similarly acclaimed features by first-time directors: Persepolis (dir Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud), the Oscar-nominated animation about a girl growing up in post-revolution Iran; and the Argentine Oscar entry, XXY, from writer /director LucĂ­a Puenzo, about a teenager of indeterminate gender.

Other features on show are The Unpolished (dir Pia Marais) and Caramel (dir Nadine Labaki), both previously reviewed here and both highly recommended.

New to me:
Ecology (dir Sarah Turner) is an experimental feature in three interchangeable parts exploring a dysfunctional family dynamic while on a holiday. Using split screen, voiceovers and stylised cinematography, it proves to be hard-going and confusing but wildly inventive.

View from a Grain of Sand (dir Meena Nanji) is a fine piece of work documenting the chaos that has enveloped Afghanistan over three decades and how women have fared as a result. Three women tell their stories and a theme emerges of power passing from armed groups of men to armed groups of men, funded by foreign governments, including the USA and UK. In particular, the former used Afghanistan as its Cold War testing ground, funding war lords and the Taliban in order to keep the Soviets at bay. There is, in fact, the intriguing suggestion that the CIA was responsible for the "rebranding" of jihad to mean an external religious war. That certainly came back to bite them. The women's rights group RAWA emerges as a point of resistance to this deadly shell game but as they hold no power in the country, there is little they can do, save recording the abuses suffered by women and pressing for change.

The Fighting Cholitas (dir Mariam Jobrani) is a short doc in which Cholitas (indigenous women who wear layered skirts) claim their identity by wrestling each other in order to distinguish themselves from senoritas (who "wear pants like men", according to one cholita). So not only do we have polarisation between women in society, but in the ring the cholitas are divided into "good" tecnicas and "bad" rudas, punching and kicking each other to the point of drawing blood, in front of an appreciative audience. The spectre of women fighting each other so that men can make money from it is surely a metaphor for capitalism and patriarchy in perfect harmony.

Migration (dir Mira Nair) is a short dramatised public service announcement, in which a farm labourer in the big city has an unprotected sexual encounter with an upper class woman and then infects his partner back home.

Special programmes include two comic seasons at the BFI: Clowning Glories: Women in Film Comedy, a retrospective celebrating early women pioneers in silent comedy; and Screwball Women: the Golden Age of Hollywood Comediennes. Other programmes include a panel on Women in Video Games, a screening of Women in Music Videos and a strand on Fashion on Film. Confirmed guests include: Maureen Lipman, Imogen Heap, Zoe Rahman, Arabella Weir, Jo Brand and Victoria Wood, who appears In Conversation.