The Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, founded in 1987, celebrated its 30th anniversary this weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Program director Jim Brunzell spends the first half of the year attending other film festivals across the country and screening submissions to put together the lineup that we get to enjoy each fall.
This year's event got underway Thursday night with the area premiere of the British drama "God's Own Country." With the film already earning favorable comparisons to "Brokeback Mountain," it picked up the best director prize for Francis Lee at Sundance earlier this year and is expected to have a joint release by Orion and Samuel Goldwyn Films here in the U.S.
Over the course of the weekend, "Saturday Church" picked up the narrative competition award. The heartfelt story of a teenager struggling with gender identity and a religious family was recently picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films, which will release it in early 2018. Canadian filmmaker Arshad Khan took home the documentary competition award for "ABU," a story about growing up gay in a Muslim family in Pakistan, where same-sex activity is still illegal and very taboo.
Many LGBT people, especially younger members of the community, may not know much about the history and people who came before them. AGLIFF was packed with terrific narrative features, but I tend to gravitate towards documentary filmmaking here for that very reason. The stories being told throughout the festival were diverse, important and, in some cases, heartbreaking.
Here are few of the best films I saw over the weekend that you should keep an eye out for:
‘THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON’
There has been a tendency over the years to not just overlook the contribution of trans people in gay history but, in some cases, deliberately erase it. When Roland Emmerich made his film "Stonewall" in 2015, he focused his gaze on handsome young white men instead of the trans women of color who were really at the forefront of the Stonewall riot in 1969.
Marsha Johnson and her drag queen friends were a fixture at the mafia-owned bar in New York City that became the front line for gay liberation. At that point in time, the word transgender wasn't really used. Sex changes were a possibility, but not incredibly common. By the time the 1973 Gay Pride Parade happened in New York, Johnson and her best friend Sylvia Rivera were several years deep into running STAR - Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. They were gender nonconforming activists speaking out against the white middle-class gays whose interests did not include standing up for the entire community.
This sobering documentary from David France ("How to Survive a Plague") tells Johnson's story through the lens of Victoria Cruz - a trans activist working for the New York City Anti-Violence Project. Before she retires, she hopes to find justice for Johnson, whose suspicious death in 1992 was ruled a suicide by local cops. Her relentless search for the truth is inspiring, even though it leads to a lot of dark places and one particularly difficult scene where surviving family members consistently misgender Johnson while reminiscing.
France compares Johnson’s death to the Islan Nettles murder trial in 2016, where a man whose lawyers used the "gay panic" defense ended up only being sentenced to 12 years in prison after beating a trans woman to death with his bare hands.
Marsha Johnson's remarkable spirit lives on with previously unseen archival footage and interviews with those who knew her the best. The film has been picked up worldwide by Netflix; the streaming service is expected to premiere it later this year.
‘THE FABULOUS ALLAN CARR’
Allan Carr's life was a whirlwind of high highs and low lows. After getting his start in his hometown of Chicago working as a talent coordinator for the Hugh Hefner-hosted television program "Playboy's Penthouse," he moved on to Los Angeles with the intent of becoming a successful manager. He enjoyed taking on the career of somebody who had hit a rough patch and turning things around for them.
He managed to do this over and over again, with clients like Marlo Thomas, Ann-Margret, Mama Cass and Tony Curtis. Before long he was making big deals and devising bigger plans for himself. He was becoming a valuable asset in Hollywood as a producer and really hit his stride in 1978 when the movie adaptation of "Grease" made him a multi-millionaire.
Director Jeffrey Schwarz sits down with some of Carr's close friends and business associates to tell his story - former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing, Bruce Vilanch, Connie Stevens, and Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft are among the interviews featured - and he also employs some amusing animated sequences to re-create moments where there is no archival footage to show.
Carr became a talk show fixture in the '70s (despite not being a movie star or a director) and his flamboyant nature meant that his queerness was something that, as one subject puts it, was "hiding in plain sight."
The story of Carr's failed production of the 61st Academy Award ceremony in 1989 really takes the cake in this film. If the year doesn't ring a bell to you, maybe Snow White and Rob Lowe inexplicably singing "Proud Mary" will help you remember. It was a disappointment that haunted Carr for the final decade of his life. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to help himself get through tough times the way he helped so many of his clients earlier in life.
Schwarz has previously crafted outstanding documentaries about gay icons Divine and Tab Hunter, so it's no surprise that his latest effort is a total blast.
‘SUSANNE BARTSCH: ON TOP’
The debut feature from filmmaking duo Anthony&Alex tells the outrageous true story of Susanne Bartsch. As a nightlife maven and fashion icon, her life is unlike anything you've ever seen before.
The Swiss native has, for the past 30 years, been known as the "Queen of the Night." She changed the nightclub scene in New York in 1986 with her own special events. As drag icon RuPaul says in the film, "Suzanne picked up where Warhol left off." Kicking off a post-Studio 54 era, she emphasized fashion and uniqueness at all times, often going for a full-scale theatrical experience.
Her home in the infamous Chelsea Hotel is a never-ending archive of her achievements. This film attempts to tell these stories by using the curation of an exhibition of her party outfits for the Fashion Institute of Technology as an anchor. Her explicit attention to detail and copious amounts of photographs and video footage illustrate her unquestionable influence.
Bartsch's life was at least temporarily sidelined by her passion and empathy for others as the AIDS epidemic ravaged her circle of friends in New York. Referring to it as a "cultural holocaust," Bartsch never wavered in her commitment to helping her friends and, in 1989, she hosted an event called the Love Ball at Roseland Ballroom that raised millions for AIDS research through major corporate sponsors while first putting the spotlight on the Harlem drag balls that inspired Madonna's "Vogue."
While never exactly going down a normal path, Bartsch still got married to a bodybuilder and had a child named Bailey who praises his parents' unconventional lifestyles.
Before the film ends, it devotes time to interviews with many gay and gender non-conforming people who have attended Barsch's events over the years who express their gratitude. One man notes that when you went to one of her parties, you "didn't have to hide, at least for one night."
‘TOM OF FINLAND’
Touko Laaksonen was an artist from Finland who got his start in the world of advertising. After being drafted into the Finnish army in 1940, he fought in World War II and had his first sexual encounters with other men. He continued with his artistic endeavors in secret, hiding his homoerotic sketches of hypermasculine men in uniforms and leather jackets.
Pekka Strang stars as Touko, a man living at a time when being outed as gay could have found him in prison. He must live through his artwork initially, signing all of his prints as Tom to maintain a sense of anonymity. He lives in an apartment with his sister in Helsinki after the war ends, and they maintain a close relationship until they both fall in love with the same man.
By the mid-1950s, his drawings were being regularly snuck to the United States, where they were published in beefcake magazines and underground publications under the pseudonym Tom of Finland. These highly detailed pencil drawings that wouldn't make anyone bat an eye in 2017 were incredibly risque at the time and prone to censorship in the United States and abroad.
It took a few decades for his work to become more visible, but it influenced countless gay men around the world and is responsible for countless fetish communities. The fact that this biopic seems relatively tame says less about the intent of the work and more about how far representation has come over the years. What was once considered pornographic is now, compared to images retrievable within five seconds on your cellphone, downright quaint.
Kino Lorber is releasing the film in New York and Los Angeles in late October, with other markets to follow. It is also Finland's official submission for best foreign language film at the 90th Annual Academy Awards next year, although it seems unlikely to make the shortlist for the category.
Austin director Rebecca Adler's documentary had its world premiere at AGLIFF on Saturday morning. She spent four years chronicling the lives of seven young transgender members of the Austin community, and the result is an incredibly intimate and powerful experience.
The subjects of Adler's film are all at various stages of transitioning, and not all of them are out to family members. Winn and Seb begin the film in a relationship, while Faron and Forest are two best friends from Tyler who escaped to Austin where people are more accepting.
Elliot, a film student at the University of Texas, has very conservative parents who have made blatantly anti-trans comments to him at times. He isn't comfortable with telling them his secret, but his increasing desire to begin taking hormones and start the process of transitioning makes him feel as though he must be honest with them. I honestly caught myself holding my breath during a scene that shows him on the phone coming out to his parents. It is a harrowing moment, and one that is incredibly brave to share with the world.
Peter, originally from North Carolina, was outed as a lesbian to his conservative parents by the secretary at his high school. Eventually, he began to realize he was transgender, a revelation that did not improve the relationship with his family. Eventually moving to Austin and planning a wedding with his girlfriend, Peter is able to get his mother to come visit to take care of him while recovering from "top surgery" - the gender reassignment surgery that removes the breasts of a trans man. It's encouraging to see familial relationships begin to heal.
At 25, Ursula is the oldest subject of the film and one of the most inspirational. She is a fixture on the local music scene as a member of the band Mom Jeans and has surrounded herself with good friends and lots of laughter. Even so, during filming, she was faced with personal tragedy. Her vulnerability and honesty while being interviewed is powerful.
At one point, one of the subjects says, "You're better than all the bad (expletive) that's happened to you," and that is something that really resonated with me. In a society where transgender adults are 22 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population, stories like the ones presented here hold great importance. It is vital to show that while it may not always be easy, there is a path to love and happiness out there, and there are people here to support you.
"Trans Youth" introduces us to individuals who are activists by default, just by living openly and visibly as themselves. Adler's film manages to be respectful of them, authentic in expression, and a life-affirming journey.