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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.