San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival

Dennis Harvey June 15, 2006

Ah, to be young, gay and arty in the San Francisco of 1977. The Summer of Love’s resinous afterbuzz still hung in the air, the Castro as “Gay Mecca” was on fire, Gay Lib was making national waves — inciting, then as now, panic as well as progress — and rents were still cheap. Needless to say, amidst all this free expression there were a fair number of aspiring filmmakers. But they had a little problem: Even the usual local venues for underground cinema weren’t very interested in works by, about, and for gay men.

Hence a half-dozen or so makers formed a collective and pulled together a free, one-night “Gay Film Festival” to show their own 8mm shorts — if that meant projecting them on a bedsheet in a neighorhood community center basement. The rest is history — or at least the history of the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival (opening tonight) — as well the dozens of gay film festivals worldwide that followed in its wake.

This year the local event, dubbed Frameline30, celebrates the end of its third decade at a time when the future looks brighter than ever. Of course there’s still plenty of room for improvement. But positive, genuinely popular media images of queer life — from “Brokeback Mountain” and “Transamerica” to “The L Word” — are flourishing in ways that would have been unimaginable not so long ago.

Needless to say, the annual 11-day blowout that producing organization Frameline now delivers each June remains dedicated to independent voices rather than those already embraced by the mainstream. This year four S.F. venues (and one in Oakland) will screen a whopping 266 titles — selected from over 500 submissions — encompassing shorts, features, films and videos. They come from 32 countries, including such prior holdouts as Indonesia, Nigeria and Herzegovina.

Not that the festival lacks for glitter and big names. Opening night feature “Puccini for Beginners” tonight brings back director Maria Maggenti — whose memorable debut “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love” occupied the same slot eleven years ago — who’ll show up live with lead Gretchen Mol (“The Notorious Bettie Page”). Closing night on Gay Pride Sunday, June 25, will serve up Gustavo Salmeron and Unax Ugalde, two hunky stars of Manuel Gomez Pereira’s Almodovar-esque gay wedding farce from Spain, “Queens.” Other presentations getting special showcase treatment during the festival include another Spanish flick, Ramon Salazar’s delightful “Nights of Cabiria” meets “Moulin Rouge” musical “20 Centimeters;” Todd Stephens’ “Porky’s”-goes-homo “Another Gay Movie;” Valerie Minetto’s acclaimed French lesbian romance “Looking for Cheyenne;” “Eating Out” director Q. Allan Brocka’s frisky hustler tale “Boy Culture;” and “Strangers With Candy,” the long-awaited feature spinoff of the cult Comedy Central series. As well as documentaries “Follow My Voice: The Music of Hedwig,” “Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner,” and “Pick Up the Mic.” The latter looks at budding gay hiphop talents across the nation; several of them are Bay Area-based, and after the screening (June 22, 6 p.m.) some will perform live on the Castro stage.

A frequent Frameline guest from earlier in his career, French director Francois Ozon will return to accept this year’s Frameline Award for “significant contributions to LGBT film” on Tuesday June 20. He’ll screen his latest, the poignant “Time to Leave,” about a self-absorbed Parisian gay man coming to terms an out-of-the-blue terminal-illness diagnosis. Four other programs will reprise prior works, including the campy musical fave “8 Women” and surreal “Sitcom.”

But as ever, plenty of gems and surprises await to be sorted out in the less-heralded bulk of the program. Cult-film fans should be on the alert for “Queer Duck: The Movie,” which expands from the popular animated shorts on Showtime, and Sharon Zurek’s “Bad Girls Behind Bars,” which ingeniously cuts together four vintage women-in-prison flicks — starring such faves as Barbara Stanwyck, Pam Grier and Anne Heche — to create one campy Sapphic provocation.

On various more serious planes, documentary feature subjects include late British director Derek Jarman, small-town gay bars, experimental film pioneer Jack Smith, crystal-meth addiction, “fag hags,” a confessional George Michael, gay life in oppressive Turkey, the early 1990s New Queer Cinema movement, a summer camp for young gay Christians, incarcerated U.S. transgender persons, and queer rugby (yah!).

Underlining that queer media-making in the Bay Area itself is very much alive and well, fully one-fifth of the festival’s entire program comes from local talents. Not to be missed is “Colma: The Musical,” an utterly fresh seriocomic suburban with catchy original indie-pop songs by lead actor H.P. Mendoza. Also notable is Cam Archer’s Santa Cruz-set “Wild Tigers I Have Known,” a richly stylized adolescent drama redolent of Gus Van Sant’s artier efforts; two world-premiering documentaries, “The Believers” and “Why We Sing,” about queer choral groups; Jeremy Sotterbeck’s gay-Mexican-wrestling-hero (named El Homo Loco!) fantasia “!El Presidente!;” plus such irresistible-sounding shorts as “Dawn of the Drag King Zombies” and “Wrong Bathroom.”

International features already previewed and well worth a look include caustic Icelandic comedy “Eleven Men Out,” Sapphic-tinged French “All About Eve” update “Backstage,” campy yet disturbing New Zealand brink-of-adolescence tale “50 Ways of Saving Fabulous,” and “The Line of Beauty,” a fine three-hour BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel.

These recommendations don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the 18 alluring shorts programs, and myriad other opportunities for discovery. There’s even a special family morning show on Sunday the 18th — who could resist 1977’s TV-program compilation “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh”? (Though one must wonders: did Tigger have a crystal problem? What’s with that bouncing?)

Such diversity suggests not only how the SF Gay Fest, but the SF gay community in general, has gradually become both more various and inclusive over the last three decades. Protests that lesbian images were underrepresented in the programming led to significant changes throughout the 1980s in the initially all-male event.

Work representing people of color, transgendered folks, the differently abled, and more followed — though its critics sometimes failed to appreciate that a festival can’t show movies that aren’t being made yet, or not in sufficient quantity. (Note that it took Maria Maggenti over a decade to follow up the successful “Incredibly True Story” — women and minority filmmakers still have a generally much tougher time securing financing for their projects.)
The AIDS epidemic’s darkest days produced a large body of films on the subject — which Frameline audiences at the time supported only in moderate numbers, being overwhelmed by the issue in their everyday lives. On the upside, that crisis era also pulled together hitherto divided sections of the community, helping create the festival of today. Now audiences are much more blended, interested in each other’s screen reflections, less separated into never-twain-shall-meet all-gay-male or all-lesbian crowds of yore. Even straight people have entered the realm of not-entirely-unexpected (or unwelcome) seatmates.

There’s always been a place for challenging avant-garde stuff at Frameline, as well as heavy politics, drag camp, romantic-comedy fluff, and softcore (sometimes even hardcore) porn.

But it’s only in the last decade that another barrier broke. Shedding one bastion of political correctitude, audiences no longer insisted on the tyranny of exclusively Positive Images, even in the traditionally lightweight opening and closing-night films. (Most notoriously loathed by unhappy gala attendees was 1995’s violent Dennis Cooper-based “Frisk” by Todd Verow, who returns this year with the rather benign “Vacationland.”)

When the packed Castro gave muted respect — and no hissing — to Lisa Cholodenko’s brilliant lesbian downer “High Art” on 1998’s opening night, it was clear we’d all done some growing up, become comfortable enough as a community to no longer demand all artistic portrayals be “affirming.”

Of course, there are always new frontiers for Frameline to explore. As it reaches the age we were once warned never-to-trust-anyone-over, one such topic is the graying of that first generation to live their entire adulthood out of the closet, freed by late ’60s/early ’70s Gay Lib. Many of their lives were later lost to AIDS. But in one marvelous bit of serendipity, Frameline 30 will world-premiere a feature documentary about longtime local drag personality Lulu (nee Louis Biedak) greeting advancing age with a counterattack of modern medical science.

That’s not even the interesting part. “Lulu Gets a Facelift” is directed by Marc Huestis — one of those half-dozen “hippie art fags” (as he’s put it) who first screened gay movies in a 1977 San Francisco basement. Sometimes history repeating itself remains right on the (ahem) cutting edge.

Frameline30 runs June 15-25 at Bay Area venues.

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