Highlights from “Boys Shorts”, “Beyond the Binary”, “Drawn This Way – Animated”
& “Faith and Fury” film shorts programs at
Newfest – New York’s LGBT Film Festival
It probably plays to the stereotype of the typical NewFest attendee that the “Boys Shorts” screening of queer film shorts was filled to capacity, but the “Faith and Fury” queer shorts screening the same day was attended mostly by the filmmakers themselves watching each others shorts. That’s a shame, as I would declare the “Faith and Fury” program the most successful as a holistic shorts program, where each individual short was not only worthy (which was the case with most of the shorts I had the pleasure to see throughout the festival) but where the flow from short to short and the adherence to an overriding theme cohered beautifully.
Now, I might be said to be conforming to the typical male NewFest attendee myself by confessing that I took in the “Boys Shorts” screening, but missed his “Girls Shorts” sibling. In my defense, it really was mostly a matter of screening times and availability – luckily plenty of female centric shorts made it into the other screenings, including those in my previous post.
Before I extol the “Faith and Fury” program in full, here are some more highlights from the rest of the queer shorts screenings (I’ll be holding discussion of documentary shorts for a later post):
Writer/Actor Ben Baur confessed “All I wanted to be in the world is America’s Gay Sweetheart”, when explaining why Something New (see picture at top) has such distinctive ’90s romantic comedy vibe, quipping “I always wanted to be Meg Ryan”; which prompted co-star Johnny Sibilly to add “I always wanted to be Tom Hanks”. They succeeded. For future distribution info, Ben advises to look him up on Twitter. Speaking of classic Hollywood tropes, a likeable gay John Hughes revival vibe informs both Beard, where a gay college student forces his best friend to masquerade as his girlfriend, as well as Mrs. McCutcheon, the chosen name by Australian 10 year old Tony, who wears a dress to school and must find a date for the school dance. Think “Pretty in Pink” meets “Murial’s Wedding” for the tweener set to get a sense of this short’s tone and enjoyability factor.
If you have HBO, you will be able to catch Gema in February, 2018. It’s an affecting 13 minute modern riff on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, which director/writer Kendrick Prince hopes to make the basis of an ongoing web series. “Gema” is full of intriguing layers that unpeel themselves gradually, but whether you sense them all from the start or are surprised by the reveals, the complex, sensitive portrayal of a couple nervously anticipating the arrival of one partner’s parents engages throughout.
Walk For Me is Elegance Bratton’s clear-eyed and loving tribute to the Ballroom Scene, which Bratton likens to “a miniature Hollywood”. When Elegance was 16, his/her mother kicked him/her out of the house, and Elegance found family and mothering in this still flourishing subculture (popularized decades ago by “Paris is Burning” and Madonna’s “Vogue”), an experience that is echoed in “Walk For Me” with a hopeful open-ended ending for the young lead and their biological mother. In addition to international distribution “Walk For Me” is being prepared to be made available to schools with dedicated lesson plans.
Time is the Longest Distance also, if very differently, grapples with a child and a parent struggling with the truth of the child’s queer identity. In this case, a thirtysomething gay man is visiting his aged father in the hospital. The son’s homosexuality, known but not much acknowledged over the past years, looms as a newly burning fuse, now that the father’s memory is compromised by Alzheimers and he may be having “one of his bad days”. Director Bryan Powers and his cast navigate this tricky situation with sensitivity and more than a few unexpected twists and turns.
Dealing with a problematic older relative is turned on its head in Dinner with Jeffrey where newly out and awkward Oliver is discomforted by his rather too enthusiastic gay uncle Jeffrey, played note perfect by Tony winner Reed Birney. I wonder whether naming the uncle “Jeffrey” is a conscious nod to Paul Rudnick’s gay classic play and film “Jeffrey”. Look for this short on the Revry App.
The shorts collected in the exemplary “Faith and Fury” program en suite created a moving movie going experience that was even greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the theme of faith and queerness bonded them closer together; but mostly the smart way the curator ordered them created an overall rhythm and flow wherein each short enhanced all the others in the screening in turn. So I will discuss all of them in the order they were presented.
The program began with Route 66, which packs a surfeit of intriguing imagery, a “biker chick” wearing the Star of David, the city, the titular highway, a “muslim damsel” planting shrubs on the side of the road, into a quickly edited 60 seconds, and leaves us with enough food for thought for conversations to last hours. A jump starting prolog for the program.
The next two shorts focused on high schoolers from strictly religious background, dramatized in stylistically opposite modes. Dressed as Girl is like “Heathers” on helium as it follows the very sheltered, naive, religiously home schooled Fern into the mine field of public high school for the first time. The film’s religious epiphany takes place in the drag club “House of Love”, for which the filmmakers resurrected the recently shuttered Connecticut drag club “Triangles”, with many former patrons as extras.
The uplifting finale of “Dressed as Girl” was followed by the darkly downbeat conclusion of Devil Wears a Suit, an Australian short that rather deftly blends “Trembling before G*D” with “Brave New World” by exploring the drama of being a young homosexual in Orthodox Jewish society with a dystopian near future vision of a world where homosexuality can be verified through a simple medical test and cured by the one-time serum injection. Director Eli Mak successfully dramatizes both the personal religious drama and high concept science fiction allegory.
Next played something of an intermezzo, another very short short, Earthly Delights, that would have been just fine as a simple palate cleanser between lengthier editions, except that it closed on a final frame that still haunts me. The set up is simple, a middle aged neighbor, played by Catherine Curtin, wearing a small cross, is delivering a cherry pie as a welcoming gift to a home’s front door when she spies two young men inside engaged in oral sex. She first walks away discreetly only to return to a front window to get an even closer look. Director Evan Dale Karg manages to play this partly for laughs, like an SNL digital short, as when the lady digs her fingers lustily into the pie. But the expression of pained ecstasy on one of the young men and the lingering shot on the woman’s face, full of feeling, takes the audience to another place altogether. And in Catherine Curtin there is an actress whom the camera loves, and who I hope will grace many more movie and home screens to come*. Karg has already wisely cast her in his next short.
*PS: Just started watching Stranger Things 2 and, oops, there’s Catherine Curtin as Dustin’s Mom. Turns out Ms. Curtin is already gracing all sorts of screens, including “Orange is the New Black” and “Insecure”, to name just a few. Maybe I should have done an IMBd search first and said “grace many more movie and home screens in leading roles” instead!
The final two, longer shorts, like the first, dealt with young adults navigating faith and sexuality, this time in Indonesia and Norway, and as straight forward dramas, confidently directed. Pria might be my favorite short of the whole festival (I’m not alone; it would win the Audience Award for Best Narrative Short). The story of a young muslim on the island of Jaffa preparing for an arranged marriage while nursing feelings for the young American English language teacher is told with rich subtleties and beautiful filmmaking. Like his colleagues from Antiman and Sariwala, director Yudho Aditya encountered difficulties filming a gay story in a country where homosexuality is still very much taboo, and so kept certain telling script pages secret from most involved: “They didn’t know what we were filming. The sound guy went Ha! during a pivotal moment because he didn’t have the full script and I had forgotten to tell him.”
Finally Noora captures the oppressive emotional weight a teenage girl feels growing up in a strict religious community and secretly loving a worldly girl in the town a boat and bus ride away. When Noora’s parents decide she is to be married to an older member of their religious sect, Noora is forced to make a decision between both worlds. The intensity of feeling and helplessness a young person in such a situation experiences is made very palpable and drawn out mightily. The hopeful conclusion is conversely staged with a swift lightness.
Finally, I’ll close this post with highlights from the “Drawn This Way: Queer Animation” shorts program. My favorites, and easily also the two most audacious shorts, were Hi, It’s Your Mother (pictured further below) a claymation family slice-of-life (literally; don’t ask, just see for yourself) that’s both wickedly dead pan and shockingly outrageous; and Pussy, whose naively hand drawn animation sweetly softens a wildly hair raising tale of a young woman’s vagina leaving her body and taking matters into her own, er, palm. Update (11/1/17): “Pussy” was submitted for consideration and is one of 63 animated shorts that qualified in the animated short film category of the upcoming Academy Awards. It would be improbably wild if this wicked short would get nominated!
Many of the shorts used first person narration in recorded interviews as the basis of their animation, such as The Night Cleaner, about an employee in a gay bath house, Teagan and For a Change, about transgender transition, and Open Recess, a charming reminiscence of childhood romance. The richest of these, both in the telling and the animation, was Half a Life (pictured at bottom), vividly animating the fraught experiences of a gay man living in Egypt, through repression, revolution, and more repression.
Three of the shorts used animation and narrative techniques, drawn or computer generated, that would feel stylistically familiar to audiences of commercial animation, whether local or foreign. Ama shows an American woman’s sensual awakening through an encounter with a fisherwoman in 1950s Japan. Out of the Box conjures a cartoony circus coming out allegory via a mime who discovers he’d rather be a clown. And in Fishy a desperate cast away on a raft is joined by an outrageously fabulous mermannish sea creature.
The two animated shorts that I found particularly touching were Manivald, about what happens when a young fox who still lives at home with his mother gets his head turned by a sexy wolf repairman; and Fish Curry, a quiet, delicate delight about a young Indian man making his father’s favorite dish in preparation to coming out to him.
Those (and these) are the shorts highlights from the short film series I caught at NewFest 2017. The shorts anthologies I didn’t get to were the aforementioned “Girls Shorts”, plus “Queer + Positive”, “Military Shorts: In Harm’s Way”, and “Ambiguously Yours: Experiments in Sex, Love & Gender”. Plenty there to intrigue me, and based on the 6 shorts anthologies I did get to, plenty of gems there too. But alas, that’s how it is with film festivals, you can’t get to everything.
But I will get to some things more, as in some NewFest feature lengths, some documentaries and a bisexuality panel discussion. Stay tuned.