Transformers Too

Travis Jeppesen at the 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

Left: Valérie Mitteaux, Girl or Boy, My Sex is Not My Gender, 2011, still from a color film, 61 minutes. Right: Kashou Iizuka, Our Future, 2011, still from a color film, 75 minutes.

WITH ITS FUTURE UNCERTAIN owing to recent Arts Council funding cuts, the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (March 23–April 1) returned with a bang this year, defying anyone who conjectured that it might lose its place as the cream of the queer-festival-circuit crop. In fact, the only real complaint heard among foreign delegates was that hardly anyone stepped foot outside the British Film Institute all week—a testament to the cornucopia of temptations comprising this year’s program.

Indeed, connoisseurs and cognoscenti had a lot to juggle: a newly restored offering of Peter de Rome’s Super 8 porn films from the 1960s; the joy-killing hustlers of Gaël Morel’s Our Paradise; and a much-talked-about biography of film historian and activist Vito Russo. Among the shorts, notable contributions came from festival stalwart Charles Lum, whose Last Kiss depicts the transformation of Oscar Wilde’s final resting place, and Stéphane Reithauser’s Prora, a vision of young love in a deserted Nazi holiday camp.

The coming-of-age/coming-out film has been a staple of queer cinema since people started disclosing nonhetero identities on screen, and while the subgenre often tends toward formulaic stultification, this year’s program offered evidence that it can teach us something about the here and now. There are still parts of the world where “coming out” is a risk (or even an impossibility), as Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance attests. Winner of the audience award at Sundance, the film explores a relationship between two teenage girls in contemporary Tehran, capital of a country whose government barely sees women as humans, let alone sexual beings. Our Future, on the other hand, details the daily humiliations experienced by a transboy growing up in a small town in Japan, demonstrating that bullying is not just a US phenomenon, and that oppression and exclusion of trans people is nearly always supported, even generated, by institutions. (“If you can’t wear a uniform, don’t come to school.”)

In fact, the festival was commendable for showcasing an array of cinema that interrogates the imagined (and thus very real) border at the heart of the gender binary. The need for an expansion of queer consciousness was evident from films like Sexing the Transman by FTM porn star Buck Angel, which uses an occasionally awkward juxtaposition of talking-head interviews and explicit sex scenes to affirm the power of pussy—even when it comes attached to a male body. Of course, a lot has happened since Monika Treut gave us Gendernauts in 1999, the last major documentary on transmen. We’re currently living in an era of trans revolution, and Valérie Mitteaux’s Girl or Boy, My Sex Is Not My Gender focuses on some of the more notable luminaries, including Lynnee Breedlove and Rocco Kayiatos, animating the movement. Then there’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, perhaps the most important documentary on transgender issues in recent years precisely because it stops short of explicitly addressing trans politics. Director Marie Losier’s less-is-more approach aptly contrasts with the lived maximalism of its heroes’ endeavor to transform themselves into each other, and the result is near perfect.

Of course, some of us just wanted to rock. We weren’t disappointed. Popular music is one of the few places where queers have been able to hide in the open for the past half century—or is it? Jobriath A.D., a brilliant new documentary on the sole openly gay—and now largely forgotten—glam rock artist from the 1970s, depicts a tragic case of “too much too soon.” In the “Whatever happened to . . . ?” department, P. David Ebersole’s Hit So Hard follows Patty Schemel, a former drummer for Hole, who found redemption after a downward spiral into drug addiction and homelessness. A classic though somewhat conventional take on the survival-story genre, it features some fascinating gossip and road stories from Courtney and co.

While a case could (rightly) be made that renegade, experimental work—of which there is plenty in the world of queer cinema—was largely ignored, the strength of this year’s program lay in its tightly knit thematic perspective. The implicit significance of the festival’s position is melancholic: These cinematic paeans to shame, regret, self-destruction, and the looming threat of loss affirm that many burdens continue to weigh on those with marginalized sexual and gender identities, no matter how “progressive” we imagine ourselves to have become in the urban West.

The 26th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival ran March 23–April 1.