Features: 100 Men – My Wonderful West Berlin – A Womb of Their Own
Shorts: Bayard and Me – Umbrella – DES!RE – The Son I Never Had – Resist – House of JXN
“We have gay people. Hey, Gay People, come out!” – Kathy Najimy
I heard Kathy Najimy utter that quip about 15 times at NewFest, NYC. It’s a clip from the movie “Dating My Mother” that had been edited with other clips into the NewFest 2017 preamble short that played before every screening at the LGBTQ movie festival. By my third screening I started mouthing along with Kathy. I can still hear her say it in my head, weeks later. Such are the side effects of film festival overconsumption. The movies may differ widely from screening to screening. The promos ahead of them are always the same, the same, the same, the same…
The benefits this year however of festival deep diving were enjoying films that were consistently worthy, good and excellent, long and short form, many of which I already discussed here, here and here. Now it’s time for the documentaries. I caught up with lots of rich gay history and fascinating transgender complexities.
Three very different docs successfully blended the Gay Micro with the Gay Macro, by which I mean (get your head out of the gutter) that deeply personal, specific slice of life details were illuminatingly integrated into narratives that comprehensively spanned decades of gay history. In 100 Men director Paul Oremland lists and tracks down a hundred men he had sex with over the last 40 years of his adult life. Everything from random hook ups to longterm relationships. This is initially as cheekily irreverent and titillatingly provocative as one might expect, but through Oremland’s journeys through New Zealand, The United States, England and Poland, interviews with and remembrances of a variety of people and experiences, covering decades of gay sexual, social, and political revolutions and struggles, “100 Men” becomes an invaluable document of modern gay male experience. As well as a stealth love story.
Similarly, Jochen Hick’s My Wonderful West Berlin covers 40 years of gay history in the historically uniquely situated city of West-Berlin, the liberal Western oasis that was surrounded by the walls of the Iron Curtain; a place like no other in its time (and my childhood home during much of the time Hick’s covers). Many individuals’ personal narratives regularly enrich the complex broader picture of the quiet 1950s, the clandestine 1960s, the revolutionary 1970s, and the devastating 1980s that marked gay life in the divided city, which before German Unification was like a unicorn among the cities of the world: a geopolitical all-time original, a beacon, an outlier, a refuge, a renegade, a subsidized experiment; an unusual condition that contributed greatly to its uniquely evolving queer culture. I was too young at the time to take part in any significant way in any of the varied gay history Hick’s excavates. Still I was deeply drawn by nostalgia to the movie’s depiction of my childhood hometown, brought back in such vivid detail. And many of the film’s featured seminal LGBTQ personalities and locations and events – the Pariser Bar, queer film director Rosa von Praunheim, the Deutsche Oper, intersex Drag Star Romy Haag, gay movie classic “Taxi zum Klo”, the squatters movement, to name a few – made an impression on me too even as just a child mostly consciously unaware of his own burgeoning bisexuality.
The third example of the gay micro/macro history doc I saw is the short Bayard & Me, which lovingly recounts Walter Naegle’s love story with the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. Personal touches are threaded with illuminating historical details, like how Rustin’s Quaker background helped inform the non-violent civil disobedience tactics espoused by Martin Luther King, or how the couple pioneered gay adult adoption as a way to ensure the younger Naegle would be able to inherit and continue to live in Rustin’s apartment in a time long before gay marriage was considered even a distant possibility. When the short concluded during the middle of the “Boys Shorts” compilation screening in which it played, the audience rose in the still darkened theater for a standing ovation .
Transgender concerns dominated most of the rest of the documentaries I saw at NewFest 2017. Here my overriding takeaway is the great variety of distinctive individual experience and expression: in gender, in sexuality, in lives lived. Frankly it was a privilege to share in these stories.
I was going to write that A Womb of Their Own is a feature length documentary about F to M transgender individuals being pregnant, but quickly realized that that description does not really accurately describe each depicted individual and I may be better off just quoting the Newfest brochure, which states that the film explores “the experience of pregnancy among a group of diverse masculine-of-center-identified people”, questioning “what it means to be pregnant and give birth as a masculine person, broadening our understanding of gender, sexuality, and parenthood”. Every individual interviewed is completely unique, as is their story, occupying their own specific corners of personal identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, relationship dynamics, physical experience. As such “A Womb of Their Own” becomes not only an extremely informative, discursive look at a still little understood if sometimes sensationalized aspect of transgender lives, but also a hosanna to celebrating the many multifaceted aspects of our shared humanity.
In that vein, the documentary short Umbrella about four human rights champions with varying transgender experiences provided some quotes that I just had to hastily scribble in the dark theater on my ticket print out: “The world caters way more to the black and white than the gray areas”; “I love being a boy named Jasmine.” and “I was huge when I was pregnant. [My children later] came to me at a young age and asked if they can call me Daddy.”
In the short The Son I Never Had Pidgeon Pagonis’ autobiography shines a devastating light on babies who were born intersex, meaning with a variety of physical and/or hormonal characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies, and on whom doctors performed surgeries to “make them” one sex or the other, usually female, since that was more practically feasible. Doctors provided Pagonis’ parents with limited information and half-truths to justify and explain operating on the newborn child, plus multiple more operations endured over the ensuing years. Pidgeon’s own experience, including a confusing childhood and adolescence, and the ultimately shocking revelations when finally unearthing the full truth, is starkly parceled out in first person narration over black screens, family photos and old educational health film clips. A brutal secret belies the truth behind the images of a young girl playing happily or a young woman looking fetching in a prom dress. Not until the documentary has uncovered all the facts and ramifications of Pidgeon’s physical and emotional history, is an image of the individual as they live now shown.
Speaking of “masculine of center people assigned female at birth”, DES!RE explores an intense attraction to them in a handsomely produced black and white short that is perhaps not so much documentary as a visual poem or cinematic dream journal entry.
Finally the short doc Resist explores identity and the meaning of “queer” through the experience of one college age activist. And House of JXN illuminates the complex and nurturing “families” of queer youth and their “adoptive” mentors in the drag and transgender culture emerging in the American South. That makes it the perfect companion to the short narrative film “Walk for Me”, which I wrote about in “The Fab and the Furious”.