Dennis Harvey June 14, 2007

Once upon a time, the San Francisco International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Film Festival — back when it was just plain SF Gay Film Fest — had trouble coming up with even enough titles to fill out one whole weekend. Gay cinema was not exactly plentiful, from any nation; arthouse distributors (let alone Hollywood studios) were loath to let their few relevant titles suffer the taint of playing an explicitly gay event.

Now past its third-decade anniversary, SFILGBTFF — the producing organization keeps trying to change its public-recognition name to something more manageable, which this annum would be Frameline31 — now has filmmakers and distributors banging on its door. They know this is the oldest, largest, most important gay film (and video) fest in the universe. A movie that plays here is likely to travel the whole extensive latterday circuit of gay-skewed festivals worldwide. Then perhaps get picked up for DVD or even theatrical release.

Those concerns don’t mean a helluva lot to the festival’s core audience, which is simply hungry for gay images onscreen — though perhaps not so hungry as 31 years ago, when those images were rare and mostly negative. They’re also hungry for the community celebration that SFILGBTFF has become, almost as much as Gay Pride Day (the Fest’s traditional closing date) itself. And unlike the latter, Frameline’s annual 11-day program offers not just parade-grade toasts to a diverse self. Rather, it affords exposure for the work of myriad artists who question, prod at and reveal flaws in the LGBT universe, as well as pointing out its triumphant strengths and malevolent foes.

What can be said about Frameline31, beyond genuflecting to its extreme range of themes, styles and audiences? Nuthin’. But here goes.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about opening night selection “The Witnesses,” a French ensemble drama by André Téchiné (“Wild Reeds”) that precedes then encompasses the early AIDS years. I haven’t heard ditto about “But I’m a Cheerleader” director Jamie Babbit’s official closer “Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” But who knows — with a title like that, can it be a total wash?

In between, there’s a whole lotta entertainment to be had, of all stripes. Among the specific latter there are numerous films addressing gender change (including the celebrity profile “Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother”), African American gay life “On the Downlow” (one relevant title along with “Blueprint”), adolescent comings-out (“The Curiosity of Chance,” “Glue”), sexual identity in conflict with religious (“Rock Haven,” “Born Again”), “alternative” family-making (“Tick Tock Lullaby,” “2 Mums and a Dad”), forgotten chapters in homo history (“The Fall of ’55,” “Black White + Gray”), the sporting life (roller derby doc “JAM”), the clubbing life (“Godfather of Disco,” “Motherfucker: A Movie”), and queer life where the livin’ ain’t easy (“Two Homelands: Cuba and the Night,” Taiwan in the lesbian drama “Spider Lilies”). Plus shorts programs covering all the above and more.

Picking probable highlights in the expansive catalog, advance buzz is excellent on Alexis Dos Santos’ Argentinean teen tale “Glue” and Leesong Hee-Il’s South Korean ditto “No Regret.” Reviewers elsewhere have already favored three titles from Spain: Emilio Martinez Lazaro’s bi musical comedy “The Two Sides of the Bed,” Daniel Sanchez Arevalo’s homo-sexy “DarkBlueAlmostBlack” and Chus Gutierrez’s ’80s proto-riot-grrl flashback “El Calentito.”

Among documentaries of local interest are the self-explanatory “Bears” (focusing on SF’s Mr. International Bear Contest) and “Trained in the Ways of Men,” about murdered East Bay trans youth Gwen Araujo. Both are empathetic, well-balanced portraits.

There are some movies to look forward just cuz, um, they found fun. “Starrbooty” is a camp superheroine adventure starring none other than RuPaul. Q. Allan Brocka’s “Rick & Steve the Happiest Gay Couple in All the World” expands his career-launching 1999 animated short to caustic but no doubt still dolly-adorable feature length. Queer cinema veteran Pratibha Parmar’s latest is “Nina’s Heavenly Delights,” billed as a Scottish-Indian-romantic-comedy-cum-Bollywood-musical. Oh please: Another one?

I can personally vouch for the quality of several features seen at prior festivals or previewed on DVD. Cyrus Amini’s “25 Cent Preview” is a raw but poignant (and not unsexy) slice of life amongst lower Polk St. hustlers. Though not as memorable as his “Yossi and Jagger,” director Israeli director Eytan Fox’s latest, “The Bubble,” offers a potently political Romeo & Juliet update in the on/off love affair between two men — one a Jew ensconced in Tel Aviv’s über-liberal youth scene, the other a Palestinian who remains deeply tied to conservative family values.

I also quite enjoyed Ed Aldridge’s first feature “Tan Lines,” a quirky tale of youth set in a tiny Aussie surfing town. In thriller terrain, there are some real kicks to be had from the U.K. Sapphire-bloodsucking opus “Vampire Diary,” while the U.S. “You Belong to Me” spins a deftly creepy tale of a gay man who moves into an apartment building that select tenants never leave. (Alive, that is…heh heh heh.)

Possibly my favorite movie already seen at Frameline31 is Pete Jones’ “Outing Riley,” which is sorta the gay equivalent to Judd Aptow’s hit mainstream comedies “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” — in that it’s both raucously funny and utterly warmhearted.

Incredibly, “Riley” doesn’t seem to have a U.S. distributor yet. Despite the alleged mainstreaming of gay images via “The L Word,” “Brokeback Mountain,” et al., there will always be ones the mainstream ain’t ready for yet. They are the reason Frameline’s fest is just as much a must-see occasion as ever, even for jaded Gay Mecca residents. There is much here you might never get to see elsewhere. Or even if you can — supporting it here might turn into a big boost for its future prospects.

The SF International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Film Festival runs June 14-24. More info at Frameline.

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