Austin’s AGLIFF — the All Genders, Lifestyles and Identities Film Festival — went virtual for its 33rd edition, because of the coronavirus pandemic. From Aug. 6 to 16, the fest let fans of LGBTQ films stream dozens of narrative, documentary and short films right into their homes.
We rounded up reviews of some of the films we caught during the fest, watching alone but together.
‘The Capote Tapes’
It's hard to fathom the fortitude it took Truman Capote to navigate the murky waters of life in the public eye when he was at the height of his success.
As an effeminate bon vivant with a mousy voice, there was simply no closet that could've possibly contained him. In 1948, when his semi-autobiographical novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms," was released, you could be imprisoned just for being gay.
Over the decades that followed, Capote's literary career blossomed, and he became a staple on television talk shows thanks to his unique personality and penchant for casual cattiness.
Former White House deputy social secretary Ebs Burnough makes his directorial debut with this sensational documentary that uses previously unheard recordings of interviews that George Plimpton conducted with friends for a Capote biography that was never released. These insights are gathered alongside archival interviews with Capote and new on-camera interviews from the likes of author Jay McInerney, talk show host Dick Cavett and the always fabulous André Leon Talley.
Another fascinating interview subject, Kate Harrington, was adopted by Capote after he had an affair with her father (who was, for many years, Capote's manager). Of all the people here, she knew him the best and offers some of the most compelling insights into his motivations and career.
Some of the more intriguing portions of the film have to do with Capote's borderline obsession with the subjects in "In Cold Blood" and his seemingly neverending attempts at finishing a novel called "Answered Prayers." The latter lost him many close friendships due to his decision to exploit the personal stories of people in his inner circle for his own gain. A finished version of that book never saw the light of day (and some here debate whether he even came close to completing it before his death) but had a serious impact on the final years of his life.
While hardly comprehensive, "The Capote Tapes" is a captivating look into the life of one of America's finest authors. It is expected to be released later this year by Greenwich Entertainment.
For the record! In my review of last year’s George Michael-themed holiday rom-com “Last Christmas” (perhaps the only not-scathing review of that movie; I’ll own it), I wrote that Henry Golding was a movie star in waiting who overshadowed the movie’s ostensible lead, Emilia Clarke, at every turn. So, I was disappointed to see him wasted entirely in Guy Ritchie’s “The Gentlemen” earlier this year, and I was excited to see him headline director-writer Hong Khaou’s “Monsoon.”
The gorgeously shot British film centers on Kit (Golding), a man who returns to his native Vietnam to spread the ashes of his parents. They escaped their wartorn country when Kit was very young, so his sense of belonging is tenuous. While there, he hooks up with Lewis (Parker Stevens), who has his own haunted family connection to Vietnam. He also reconnects with a cousin (David Tran); their scenes are unquestionably the film’s best and most painful.
There are not enough nice things to say about the cinematography in “Monsoon,” from Benjamin Kracun. Exhilarating overheads of swarming scooters and lush lotuses, which you can practically smell off the screen. Lithe, barely lit bodies twisting in humid rooms. It’s stunning.
Rhythm-wise, Khaou’s film doesn’t ever turn up the gas; it’s a lazy river float, whispering questions of home and identity from start to finish. It could stand to stage whisper just a little louder at times. But, sure enough, Golding’s got the charisma to hold up the taciturn ramble of an indie drama just as well as a rom-com.
“Monsoon” has been acquired by Strand Releasing, which plans a fall release.
Winner of the best documentary jury prize at AGLIFF 33, this is an unflinching look at the lives of homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City.
The opening credits tell us that 40 percent of queer youth who are homeless are people of color. All too often, these kids are thrown out of their homes, discarded by their families after they come out.
Director Elegance Bratton (Viceland's "My House"), who himself was homeless for years, ran his cameras over the course of several years. The feature mostly focuses on footage shot in 2011 and 2012 at the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan.
By day, this area attracts a more affluent crowd who sit by the water, sunbathing and socializing. Under the cover of night, it is a haven for people who have nowhere else to go, but not without risks, including frequent attention from the NYPD trying to clear the area out.
The breakout subject of the film is Krystal LaBeija, a young trans woman who appears to be doing better than many of the other subjects, even though her life is still difficult. We watch her truly become the house mother to several other young people, forming a chosen family to survive. The cameras follow Krystal back to Kansas City to visit her family, where she has to deal with a mother and aunt who consistently misgender her and watch as she gives them the unconditional love they cannot return, based on their religious beliefs.
Technically, the film is messy — with video captured on the fly, the subjects aren't using any type of microphones. The bustling sounds of the city have a tendency to overtake the interview footage. The editing also is somewhat unfocused and meandering (in particular the ending feels rushed and incomplete), but the intense power of the stories within helps balance out any misgivings about the style.
‘Keith Haring: Street Art Boy’
This documentary from filmmaker Ben Anthony premiered last month as an 89-minute film for BBC. The version screened for AGLIFF is truncated down to a succinct 53 minutes, prepared to air on the PBS series "American Masters." Despite knowing that, the experience didn't feel diminished in any major way.
Keith Haring's art career exploded in a major way in the early 1980s. He went from being an outsider in the graffiti scene around the city to having gallery exhibitions pretty quickly. American culture was not accepting of homosexuality, but as a fearless 20-something, he managed to incorporate queer themes into his work and be embraced in a major way. Once he had the approval of icons like Andy Warhol, things moved fast and he couldn't stop creating.
Thankfully, there is a lot of actual archival footage of Haring at work in this documentary, and we hear from him in his own words frequently, thanks to audio recordings of interviews he gave with his official biographer, John Gruen, over the years. We also sit down with Haring’s parents, who are so kind and loving and who were seemingly very accepting of their son’s sexuality. There is an incredible shot of them showing off art he created as a child, and then we see that his mother is wearing a "Radiant Child" necklace, while his father is wearing bold yellow and red sneakers emblazoned with Haring’s art. “They’re a little bit flashy," he says sheepishly in a charming, unguarded moment.
After six years on top of the NYC art world, Haring was diagnosed with HIV in 1988. As his parents and former assistant discuss, this really pushed him into overdrive, and he began creating new work almost nonstop. The film estimates that he created more than 10,000 pieces of art before dying at age 31.
What if you waited too long? That question might pop into your head when you watch director-writer Ray Yeung’s “Twilight’s Kiss” (“Suk Suk” in its original Hong Kong release).
Pak (Tai-Bo) and Hoi (Ben Yuen) already have lived entire lives, as we might understand the concept. A veteran taxi driver, Pak also is a septuagenarian family man whose car is his daily ticket out of a blandly suffocating marriage. Hoi, meanwhile, lives with his holy roller adult son and his son’s family, idling away his retired days. Both men are gay, though not publicly, and meet in a park. They get to know each other. They share a connection, physically and emotionally. But still, they have to live in three distinct worlds: Pak’s, Hoi’s and the one they steal moments of when they’re together in a bath house.
“Twilight’s Kiss” is an ache of a film, full of sorrow and the weight of sacrifice. The two leads play charmingly off each other, sharing an easy, game-recognize-game chemistry that only a shared understanding of trauma can spark. The supporting players flesh out the world (a lovingly captured, bustling, urban Hong Kong), and some topical detours delve into gay elders’ political fight for self-determination. But it’s all Pak’s and Hoi’s show.
The story’s frame will feel familiar — it would be too easy to cop a “Brokeback Mountain” comparison here, but the men’s attempts to throw their families off the trail kinda invite one in. That might be more a reflection on the hell the world’s put LGBTQ people through, especially older generations. "Twilight’s Kiss“ is not likely to animate your imagination, but Yeung’s still, steady film plays like a sweet, deceptively simple song.
“Twilight’s Kiss” has been acquired by Strand Releasing, which plans a fall release.
‘The Right Girls’
Less a feat of filmmaking and more a body of evidence in support of empathy, Timothy Wolfer’s documentary “The Right Girls” dares you to care. The documentary follows a group of transgender women — Valentyna, Joanne Stefani and Chantal — as they make an arduous journey north from Central America in hope of asylum in the U.S. The women are part of a larger 2018 migrant caravan from places like El Salvador and Honduras, the kind that’s grabbed headlines and been weaponized by xenophobic scaremongers.
As a documentary, “The Right Girls” isn’t sophisticated — at times it feels like long stretches of raw footage stitched together, and there are significant gaps in the narrative that Wolfer breezes right past. The conceit of the film, that the three migrant women find camaraderie in their travels together, doesn’t quite match up with what we see, and the film forgets about two-thirds of the trio about two-thirds of the way through.
But those issues are forgivable, with a shift in expectations. I imagine it would be hard to see the brutal journey of the caravan, and the persecution the women face from their fellow migrants layered on top of that, and walk away without a bigger heart for those involved, living amid a phenomenon often reduced to faceless political football. And if you do watch it and don’t come out with a little more compassion, you might be a lost cause.
“The Right Girls” is available to stream on major platforms like iTunes and Amazon.
‘Ahead of the Curve’
Jen Rainin’s and Rivkah Beth Medow’s slick documentary “Ahead of the Curve” served as AGLIFF 2020’s closing film (though the distinction’s muddy with a virtual fest). It was a smart choice for a couple reasons. One: It’s a glossy and compelling chronicle of a bona fide queer institution. Two: In a year when hard-won queer spaces are vulnerable to disappearance during a pandemic, it hit close to home.
Franco Stevens founded Curve (originally Deneuve) magazine as a proudly lesbian publication. “Ahead of the Curve” tells that story in its entirety (at least from Stevens’ POV), from her fledgling days fresh out of the closet in San Francisco to her current life, having stepped down to cope with physical disability and forced to watch the magazine’s struggle to survive from a painful remove.
Rainin and Medow blend interviews, present-day footage and archival film and photos expertly. It’s tough times for all news media, not to mention LGBTQ media. And lesbian bars are dwindling in America (a phenomenon chronicled in another AGLIFF doc, “All We’ve Got”). “Ahead of the Curve” is both a love letter and a warning plea to not let queer culture slip away to the fog of time.