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AGLIFF is ready to 'Howl'

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Entertainers Jools and Lynda Topp exhibit a love of life in 'The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls.'

"Howl," the narrative feature about the obscenity trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, will be this year's centerpiece at the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, which begins Tuesday and runs through Sept. 11 at the Alamo South.

The film, which screened earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, stars James Franco as the legendary Beat poet, Andrew Rodgers as publisher and City Lights Bookstore owner Ferlinghetti and Jon Hamm as defense attorney Jake Ehrlich. The high-profile 1957 court case centering on the published descriptions of drug use and homosexuality resulted in a landmark victory for free speech.

"Howl" is directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and is scheduled to open in Austin on Oct. 22.

Also screening will be former Austinite Kyle Henry's touching and subtly humorous short film "Fourplay: San Francisco," which details a sexual encounter between a transvestite and a quadriplegic.

Other Austin connections at the festival include "Faith of the Abomination," a documentary about two lesbians going undercover to infiltrate a local evangelical ministry. Ceil Melton and Han Nguyen direct.

The 23rd installment of the festival — which will feature more than 100 narrative features, documentaries and short films — celebrates two firsts this year. It will be holding a juried competition for narrative features, documentaries and shorts. And it will host two world premieres, "Freeing Bernie Baran" and "March On."

In an interesting balance of feature and documentary, the life of Anne Lister — a land-owning lesbian in 18th-century England — is dramatized and examined in "The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister" and "The Real Anne Lister," respectively.

Here's a look at some of the highlights:

'The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls'

"The Flight of the Conchords" might be the most well known musical-comedy duo from New Zealand, but they are not the only such act deserving of international acclaim.

Opening-night film "The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls" features Kiwi twins Jools and Lynda Topp, who have made a career out of entertaining fans with their relentlessly joyful performances.

The documentary, directed by Leanne Pooley, traces the roots of the yodeling lesbian twins who combine country music, oversized humor and their deep convictions to form a sort of Greater Tuna-Joan Baez hybrid.

Raised in the farmlands of New Zealand, the Topps, now in their 50s, began their musical careers busking for spare change. In recent years, they have become human rights activists and drawn praise from musician Billy Bragg and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, both of whom are featured in the documentary.

While the Topps claim to be musicians first, there is no denying their comedic chops.

Scenes late in the movie depicting Jools' battle with breast cancer and her sister's steadfast support further reveal that the twins' laughter is fueled by love of life and one another.

7 p.m. Tuesday.

'Freeing Bernie Baran'

Often, a documentary that retells decades-old injustices simply leaves you feeling angered and heartbroken.

Such is the case with "Freeing Bernie Baran," which has its world premiere at this year's festival. The documentary takes viewers back to the mid-'80s and the hysteria surrounding suspected abuse by day-care workers.

Caught up in the panic was Bernie Baran, a 19-year-old gay man working at the Early Childhood Development Center in rural Massachusetts who was accused by a parent with a questionable past of molesting and raping a child.

The documentary — which is slowed at times by its editing and reliance on choppy captioning — details the prosecution and subsequent conviction of Baran, who spent 21 years of his life behind bars. Baran was granted a new trial in 2006, and all charges were dropped in 2009.

Using court documents and interviews with Baran, his family and the legal team that would eventually come to his aid years after his conviction, director Daniel Alexander depicts the consequences of homophobia and political ambition.

1:30 p.m. Sept. 11.

"The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister"

This lushly photographed costume drama focuses on the Briton Anne Lister, a well-to-do landowner who is often considered to be the first modern lesbian.

In this production by the BBC, Maxine Peake plays Lister, who kept voluminous coded diaries during the 1800s, detailing her personal affairs.

Her first lover marries an elderly man for the financial security he can provide. And Lister has to navigate various relationships afterward, many of which pose threats to her social standing. She does not, however, give in to the pressures of the period.

Peake gives a fine performance of a woman determined to live her life as she sees fit.

7:30 p.m. Sept. 10. The documentary 'The Real Anne Lister' screens at noon Sept. 11.

With additional material from staff writer Charles Ealy.

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Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival

When: Tuesday-Sept. 12

Where: Alamo South, 1120 S. Lamar Blvd.

Tickets: Individual screenings $10; badges start at $80.

More information: agliff.org