Saturday, March 23, 2013

LLGFF: Gender Performance

Diane Torr and participants in Man for a Day
These three features are all concerned with gendered behaviour in disparate ways, reflecting Diane Torr's contention that gender is a performance.

Katarina Peters' Man for a Day presents Diane Torr's titular week-long workshop, staged in Berlin with participants cast by the director (this fact emerged in the Q&A), which rather changes how one views it. As drama it's brilliant, with clear narrative arcs as the women proceed through the stages of learning how to be men for a day. But, just before it gets to the big reveal and they take to the streets as men, it cuts to Torr and her daughter visiting Italy, and we never actually see how the women got on. Was this footage not sufficient dramatic? Were the men not able to pass? It's not clear.

What is quite interesting is how some of the participants react to their week-long "training" to be men (which involves stuffing cotton down their trousers, "owning" the floor with their steps, and projecting their voices into the ground). Susann, the beauty queen, takes to being a man so much, she continues in character afterward, even visiting a strip club with one of her new-found friends--and making out together "man on man". Hmmm. Peters acknowledged afterward that the strip club scene was staged, although Susann and chum requested the visit. Another woman, who works in politics, felt she was able to assert herself better and work smarter as a result of the workshop. So, it does seem that the workshops, dependent though they are on presenting very stereotyped masculine behaviour, do allow women to expand their behavioural options, as Torr suggests is her goal.

Unfortunately, very extreme masculine behaviour can easily spill over into violence, as is shown in Taboo Yardies, Selena Blake's documentary on attitudes to the LGBT community in Jamaica. To say it's not very queer-friendly is an understatement: beatings, rapes and everyday abuse are commonplace, and most participants are shown disguised. Interestingly, Blake also interviews many diasporic Jamaicans in New York and finds that many have left Jamaica just to live openly without fear. They love the country, but hate the bigotry. Other Jamaicans who are able to travel also say they love visiting NYC, just so that they can be themselves. There is rather depressing footage of the then-PM of Jamaica, Bruce Golding, comparing the demands for LGBT rights legislation with demands for protection of--wait for it--incest and bestiality. That old trope. And there is truly heartbreaking footage of a disguised Jamaican lesbian describing how she self-harms and just wants to die, so desperate is her situation.

The comments by so-called "experts" are not so illuminating. The sexologists seem locked into very old-fashioned notions of gender, while another speaker makes a passing reference to "300 years of colonialism" as an explanation for why public displays of same-sex affection might enrage Jamaican men. But, this idea is never developed. Nobody can say from where exactly the taboo emerged, or why it remains so fixed, other than tradition and religious affiliation.

On the other side of the gender normative coin, She Male Snails is a curious Swedish art film directed by Ester Martin Bergsmark, in which two "Boy Hag Ladies" take a very long bath together, while one of them recollects how they met and what they mean to each other. This is interspersed with baffling vignettes which mostly take place in the woods and may suggest that true freedom is only found in an enchanted forest of the imagination. Or possibly not.

By the 60-minute mark, I was rather concerned that the protagonists, still bathing, might be getting wrinkled, while there was still no clear narrative or action developing. In the end, nothing much happened, except for a delightful closing scene in which a bunch of gender-queered folk welcomed a newcomer onto their island for a picnic. Why couldn't the rest of the film been like that?

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