Maori coming-out story 'Kawa' brought gorgeous landscapes to Frameline35.

Critic's Notebook: A Day in the Life

Stephanie Rosenbaum June 26, 2011

As a woman, there’s definitely something to be said for going to see a feature with a hunky male lead during the Frameline35’s LGBT Film Festival. Shirtless, sexy men, sure, but more importantly, no line for the bathroom. “I just really want to see the scenery,” admitted one woman as she exited a stall at the Castro Theater before Tuesday’s mid-day showing of the New Zealand feature Kawa, directed by Katie Wolfe. And that scenery was well worth skipping the summer-solstice sunshine outside, especially once the action moved from the water-ringed skyline of Auckland out to the green hills that roll down to wide, glittering beaches, against breathtaking sunsets and night skies gaudy with starlight.

Like the landscape, Kawa’s life looks perfect on the surface: He’s successful, loves his family, and has just become head of his Maori clan, a responsibility both ceremonial and familial. Naturally, given the context, we know what’s coming: all is not what it seems, and what Kawa can’t do without, even though it jeopardizes everything he’s created, is sex with men. Like the tumbled, treacherous jetties his young daughter loves to explore, his internal landscape threatens a plunge into unknown waters with every step.

The story isn’t so original, then; After all, what is a straight male character doing in an LGBT film festival but biding his time, counting the expository minutes until he can ditch the wife and kids to follow his true bliss into a soft-focus steam-room dream of sweat-dripping pecs and abs? But the contemporary Maori setting gives this film an edge that sets it apart from similar coming-out tales.

The film, made for a mainstream audience, is based on the novel Nights in the Gardens of Spain, written by Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider). Ihimaera, at the time a married man with two daughters, wrote the novel as part of his own coming out. But, as he said during a Q&A following the film, he masked his own experiences by making all the characters white, of European extraction. When producer Nicole Hoey, the only Maori woman in New Zealand running her own production company, decided to make a film of the book, she gave Ihimaera a challenge: Tell the real story, the Maori story. Ihimaera was terrified, “I just about choked,” he said, but in the end, the Maori element of the story feels both beautifully specific and equally universal. A tight-knit clan hangs onto traditional roles as a bulwark against assimilation, yes, but who hasn’t felt smothered by family expectations and the limitations of such predetermined roles? The lucky ones, like Kawa, can come to realize that such closeness can bind, but it can stretch, too, to support difference, no matter how impossible it may seem at first.

As a man on the cusp of middle age, Kawa doesn’t have the gotta-get-out, gotta-be-me impulse of a teen or twenty-something, aching to light out for the big city and find his real tribe. He has his tribe already, a family, a job, and however much he may resent their obligations and their pull, they are his foundation. His younger, white lover doesn’t wait around for him when he returns, ultimately unsuccessfully, to his wife; his family, anguished as they are by his revelations, will, even as it means remaking a new definition of who and what he is.

If there are many ways to be a man, there are just as many ways to be a woman. Later that same night, at the Roxie, Pasties and Staches was a two-piece program about women performing exaggerated gender roles, with The Faux Real’s “faux queens” twirling their tassles and Norway’s DaKings cueing up the Tom Jones and Elvis. And while transmen and drag kings may get all the attention these days in San Francisco, in this face-off, the high-heeled ladies win.

The World Famous BOB, Dr. Lucky, and Raven Snook weren’t going to let a little something like a lack of Adam’s apple get in the way of their becoming fierce, fabulous drag queens. As you might expect from women who’ve spent years being mentored by “drag mothers” onstage and off, the performers in Suzanne Hillinger’s documentary are sharp, funny, and full of excellent stories. We see clips of their drag and burlesque performances, hear how they messed with audiences’ is-she-or-isn’t-she expectations by taking a hundred little cues from male and male-to-female transsexual performers on how to be so faux they’re real—real faux queens, that is.

But we also see Dr. Lucky, hair in a ponytail, face free of makeup, teaching a class on gender and feminist performance theory at NYU, and Snook, tiny dog on her lap, discussing how becoming a mom has shifted her priorities as well as her ability (and desire) to doll up in the heavy glitter lipstick, false eyelashes, and wigs she’s worn every day for nearly a decade. It’s a fascinating 21 minutes, and after 60 seconds with the dour, amateurish Norwegian drag king troupe DaKings, what audience member wouldn’t want to rush back into these queens’ bosomy, sequined embrace?

As Some Kind of Monster (not to mention This Is Spinal Tap) proved, listening to highly volatile performers talk through their issues can be highly entertaining, even poignant. The key? As any reality-show programmer can tell you, the characters have to be characters—horrible, or funny, or simply, mysteriously, charismatic. Would we care about Lars Ulrich’s issues if he were the self-deluded lead of a no-talent metal band, instead of Metallica’s screaming id? Certainly, the more-or-less interchangeable women that make up DaKings get a kick out of lip-synching to “Sex Bomb” and “Greased Lightning,”but so do all your friends at the Mint after a few vodka tonics. The bits of performance and rehearsal we see are fatally boring; they can’t dance much, fire every instructor who tries to boost their level of performance, and seem content with the thinnest, most derivative imitation of masculinity, edgeless and soft.

Worse, the group processes, endlessly, on a series of IKEA-ish couches, as various cats wander in and out of the frame. There’s no color, anywhere: the women, the couches, the walls, everything, is beige and white and excruciatingly boring, for 58 minutes. It’s hard not to wish instead for the blurriest, most crackly snippet of Gladys Bentley, Ma Rainey, or any of the other suit-wearing queer blues divas featured earlier in the evening at the Victoria Theater in T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness, a 30-minute documentary by Robert Philipson and narrated by Jewelle Gomez, about the tough, sometimes bisexual, sometimes lesbian African American women who became wildly successful entertainers during the 1920s. The doc itself is fairly predictable, its insights limited and hardly fresh on a well-trodden topic. Still, any chance to hear the saucy lyrics of “Prove It on Me Blues” and see these ladies smiling again, in their white satin suits and gleaming top hats, is worth the time, as are the quirky, rambling vignettes of Jay Dreams, the short preceding it, which follows a group of friends and lovers in Baltimore through the real and imagined stories of their days. “Casual sex, for lesbians, means never knowing the cat’s name,” intones a narrator, and no one in the life could disagree.