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Entries in Gay Cinema (3)

Monday
Mar072016

THE CRITIC'S CAPSULE: MARDI GRAS FILM FESTIVAL 2016

As this year’s edition of the Mardi Gras Film Festival wraps its inner city run and prepares for regional screenings, one key programme strategy became clear. In the words of festival director Paul Struthers, “It’s important to choose films that cater for all aspects of the LGBTQI story, but also…cater for all cinema fans as well.” The vast range of narratives and themes that emerged over the 14 day celebration of diversity and inclusivity all shared a common human experience, contextualised by gay community issues. SCREEN-SPACE looks at five films from the 2016 festival line-up that challenged, engaged and entertained audiences…

A GAY GIRL IN DAMASCUS: THE AMINA PROFILE (Dir: Sophie Deraspe / US; 84 mins. Pictured, above)
Of all the repressed voices heard across the globe in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising, few found the immense audience that Syrian lesbian Amina Arraf did via her blog site, “A Gay Girl in Damascus.’ The deeply personal, regime defying content became cause celebre for the gay activist community, human rights advocates and global media giants. But when the site was revealed to be an elaborate fake, no one was as shattered as Canadian Sandra Bagaria, who had become intimate with the ‘Amina’ online presence. From its bare-skin opening shots and text-message grabs that allude to the frank honesty that lays ahead, Sophie Deraspe’s elegant, angry work is part doomed relationship saga, part searing insight into the identity manipulation inherent to the faceless impersonality of the www. A warm and empathic presence, Bagaria bravely steps before the cameras to face the man who perpetrated the hoax and broke her heart. “Am I a sociopath? A schizophrenic?” he poses. Deraspe’s film gives you a wealth of insight then lets you decide.
Rating: 4/5

BARE (Dir: Natalie Leite / US; 88 mins)
The restless small-town girl with a vague but compulsive yearning for more from love and life is a well-trodden path (notably, Donna Deitch’s 1985 arthouse hit, Desert Hearts). Yet writer/director Natalie Leite and her luminous leading lady Dianna Agron explore a fresh, captivating perspective in Bare, a bittersweet, low-key drama of a young woman grasping at any new life experience with an often reckless regard for the consequences. Graduating from the perky camp of TV’s Glee, Agron compels as Sarah, the Nevada dreamer coping with family loss and directionless friends. When drifter Pepper (Paz de la Huerta, enigmatic as ever) befriends Sarah’s kindred lost spirit, an enriching if dangerous new life of drugs, homosexual experimentation and strip-club melodrama takes hold. Leite’s direction is artful and insightful, her dialogue sparse and real; her debut feature signifies she is a talent to watch. The project’s greatest asset is Agron, the next-big-thing starlet exhibiting qualities that suggest a Michelle Williams and/or Sharon Stone trajectory.
Rating: 4/5

GAME FACE (Dir: Michiel Thomas / US; 95 mins)
Embracing one’s own sexuality or transgender nature can be challenging enough, but those hurdles prove nearly insurmountable when they emerge within the rigidly defined traditions of elite sport. The moving and even-handed doco Game Face presents two athletes struggling with their identities while striving to compete in their chosen fields: Fallon Fox is a transgender MMA fighter, while Terrence Clemens is a basketball protégé and gay African-American. Director Michiel Thomas, making his feature documentary debut, gamely balances ‘big picture’ issues (corporate backlash; community acceptance; team mate and competitor tolerance) with the personal cost to his protagonists; the resulting account of the acceptance of diversity in the sporting community, not too surprisingly, plays out as a microcosm of society at large. Both Fox and Clemens are not immediately easy to warm to (a result of a lifetime spent guarding their true selves, perhaps), but Thomas’ embedded camerawork and the hope his subjects inspire ultimately reveal their true nature, making for rousing factual filmmaking.
Rating: 3.5/5

NAZ & MAALIK (Dir: Jay Dockendorf / US; 86 mins)
Two gay teenage African-American Muslims struggle with their faith, feelings and New York’s post 9-11 prejudices in Jay Dockendorf’s debut feature. When not shilling perfume vials and lottery tickets to passersby, the chilled Maalik (Curtis Cook Jr) and the more orthodox, Kufi-adorned Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr) meander from corner to corner, acutely aware of the familial and societal consequences should their affection for each other be revealed. The passionate highs and tension-filled lows of their dynamic provide the essence of Dockendorf’s self-penned narrative, the spirit of Spike Lee’s NYC oeuvre in every frame. Other machinations utilised to structure a traditional three-acts (Anne Grier’s FBI agent’s surveillance of the pair; misbegotten plans to halal-kill a chicken) provide a change of tempo but little dramatic value. As the title suggests, the film is at its best when the focus is the existential struggles of the two leads. Bolstering the pic’s mood are the rich rhythms of Adam Gunther’s pulsating soundtrack.
Rating: 3.5/5

4TH MAN OUT (Dir: Andrew Nackman / US; 86 mins)
Smalltown USA is recoloured red-white-&-pink in 4th Man Out, a blokey coming-out comedy that proves to be both slyly insightful and broadly funny in equal measure. Buds since junior high, a quartet of mid twenty-somethings are confronted with an unexpected development when one of their own opens up about his homosexuality. As gay dude Adam, Evan Todd is likable and sweet; the real personalities in Andrew Nackman’s dramedy are his bros, led by Parker Young as Chris, the bestie who struggles with Adam’s secret and how it might redefine their dynamic. Social and religious prejudice are explored in a succinct comedic manner that doesn’t overstate the issues; ‘young guy’ problems, like sex and partying and parental hassles, are dealt with in a mirthful and perceptive mix of hetero/homo attitudes. Although a bit ‘sitcom-y’ at times, Aaron Dancik’s loose and free-spirited script never looses sight of its feel-good intentions and nails key moments with disarming charm. Despite appearing to be determinedly non-confrontational in its soft-hearted approach, the easy warmth of 4th Man Out ultimately challenges short-sighted bias with a potent effectiveness.
Rating: 4/5

Read our review of festival highlight CHEMSEX here.

The Mardi Gras Film Festival will screen a selection of its 2016 lineup at Parramatta's Riverside Theatre and and the Carrington Hotel in The Blue Mountains in the weeks ahead. Ticketing and venue information can be found at the official website

Saturday
Feb132016

CHEMSEX

Directors: William Fairman and Max Gogarty.

Rating: 4/5

The quest for sexual euphoria is examined as a sad acting-out of disenfranchisement and addiction issues in Chemsex, an achingly intimate and insightful study of a self-destructive sub-culture amongst London’s gay male community.

Backed by global web presence VICE, documentarians William Fairman and Max Gogarty do not flinch in their depiction of a party scene that combines the immediate nature of social media contact platforms with the availability and acceptance of chemicals such as crystal meth (or ‘Tina’), GBL/GBH and mephedrone. Their camera is afforded access to ‘chemsex’ events, in which men of all ages from all social strata ‘slam’ their drugs of choice and partake in orgies with predominantly anonymous partners sourced online.

Fairman and Gogarty present subjects for whom the sex/drug party culture and ‘hook-up’ network has become the singular controlling force in their lives. Each young man relates a story unique and moving in the telling, but which ultimately ends in the depths of depression and that moment of realisation that addiction is upon them. When these instances of clarity are captured on film, it proves undeniably profound; the bravery each subject exhibits in recounting shocking moments of often life-threatening self-abuse makes for heartbreaking footage.

Chemsex also reveals the unhinged personalities for whom young, naïve men seeking validation via a drug-induced haze represent a gateway opportunity to anti-social behaviour. Several of the subjects recount evenings that have veered dangerously off course; one recalls having a cocktail of drugs forced upon him only to awaken hours later battered and bruised on a bathroom floor. At its most shocking, this predatory element is personified by those who partake in HIV transmission as an extreme form of sado-masochistic practice.

The inevitable regret, shame and humiliation that chemsex partygoers experience is central to the documentary’s raison d’etre. In addition to the dungeons and dance clubs, Fairman and Gogarty also visit 56 Dean Street, the U.K.’s only clinic for mental and sexual health issues amongst the LGBTQI community. Here, health worker David Stuart deals with addicts of chemsex culture, while acting as narrator-of-sorts for the production. Himself a recovering sufferer of substance abuse and emotional trauma, Stuart is a square-jawed embodiment of newfound health and maximised potential, his very presence sending a none-to-subtle message as to just how much better a sober life can be.

Those of a weak constitution beware, as the film graphically captures both the free-spirited sexual highs and needle-and-vein desperation that is inherent to chemsex culture. More challenging still is the raw emotionality of the subjects who tell their stories. As shocking as the details of chemsex life are revealed to be, it is the universality of the struggle each of these men face that ultimately defies orientation and gender. The note of hope that the film ends on can and should be felt by everyone.

Read our two-part feature The History of LGBT Cinema in Australia here.

Chemsex will screen as part of the 2016 Mardi Gras Film Festival. Session and ticketing information can be found at the event’s official website.

The film is being distributed in Australia by Bounty Films.

Sunday
Jan172016

SKIN DEEP

Stars: Zara Zoe, Monica Zanetti, Elizabeth Blackmore, Jeanie Drynan, Billie Rose Prichard, Monica Trapaga and Robert Alexander.
Writer: Monica Zanetti
Director: Jon Leahy

Rating: 4/5

A dozen drunken dusk-to-dawn hours on the streets of Sydney’s boho mecca, Newtown, prove ample time for two strangers to find friendship and grapple with existential angst in director Jon Leahy’s impressive debut feature, Skin Deep.

The intoxicating free spirit and soft-hearted toughness synonymous with the arty inner-city enclave pulses through writer and co-lead Monica Zanetti’s simply structured but insightful script. The premise of stereotypes being deconstructed and souls being bared over the course of a night time odyssey is not new; no less than Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy is the genre standard bearer and has inspired many imitators. But Zanetti and Leahy find a freshness in their characters and a frank honesty in the drama that is entirely engaging.

The protagonists are prim Northern Beaches ‘straightie’ Leah (a very fine Zara Zoe), outwardly composed but bravely facing her own young mortality; and, Caitlin (Zanetti, a natural and compelling presence), an out-and-proud lesbian struggling with her own post-breakup inner turmoil. When they ‘meet-cute’ over a CD dump-bin just off King St (one of many nods to local flavour that inner-west audiences will warm to), circumstances lead to a few lip-loosening ales at the Bank Hotel and the new friend’s evening of personal discovery takes flight.

The film symbolically references the outer shell which binds humanity in more ways than just it’s ironic title. Caitlin sports bandages on her forearms, suggesting she ‘cuts’ as an outlet for her anxiety; despite her healthy appearance, Leah is riddled with fatal melanoma cells (the story was inspired by Zanetti’s own struggle to overcome skin cancer). Zoe’s defining on-screen moment is a heartbreaking emotional meltdown in a cemetery, the honesty of their time together finally breaking down her defences.

Caitlin’s sexuality remains a non-issue for much of the film, with fleeting references and precise observations imbued with the same integrity that drives the rest of the production. A very sweet passage of dialogue between Zanetti and Robert Alexander as her broad-minded father is indicative of the film’s positive attitude to Caitlin’s life direction. Fittingly, both mainstream and LGBTIQ festivals have received Leahy’s sensitive, low-key take on the lesbian lifestyle warmly.

At a crisp 72 minutes, there is very little room for padding in the narrative; key moments, including a hilarious detour to a tattoo parlour and an awkward encounter with Caitlin’s ex, Isabel (Elizabeth Blackmore), are kept lean and played with a refreshing bluntness. An encounter with some street toughs in a children’s park feels stagey, if only because so much of what has unfolded previously rings convincingly true.

All tech departments deliver big-budget expertise on the low-budget shoot, particularly DOP Rodrigo Vidal-Dawson’s skilful use of after-dark light sources and Adrian Powers’ artful editing, which provides often lengthy passages of dialogue with crucial pacing.

Skin Deep Theatrical Trailer from ScreenLaunch on Vimeo.