- Elizabeth Latenser
- Jordan Blok
Film festivals have long been a way to showcase ideas and stories outside the mainstream. But as the world in general shifts in its notion of what "mainstream" means, so are film festivals themselves shifting. Which raises one provocative question: In 2019, what does an LGBTQ-themed film festival look like, and what should it look like?
That question is a central one for Davey Davis, film program director for the Utah Film Center and its annual Damn These Heels LGBTQ Film Festival. Now in its 16th year, Damn These Heels showcases more than 30 features and shorts representing a wide range of perspectives, drawing an audience that in 2018 reached more than 3,600 admissions. But Davis acknowledges that every year, that range shifts, and requires programming to shift along with it.
"Every year," Davis says, "we go into the festival thinking, 'OK, do we still need a queer film festival. And if we do still need a queer film festival, what does that look like?' The answer is, invariably, yes, because it's an evolving story of visibility and representation."
That evolution involves, in part, recognizing that certain kinds of queer stories that might have been relegated to the artistic margins in the past are now moving to the center of the cultural conversation. From a gay teen romantic comedy like Love, Simon getting a multiplex theatrical release in 2018 to increased representation of trans and non-binary characters on cable and streaming TV series, many queer stories have a home now they wouldn't have had in previous years. For Davis and the rest of the Damn These Heels programmers, it's important to consider the place of both "safer" stories and potentially edgier ones.
"There's a canon of gay representation which is sort of cute, cisgendered, approachable, palatable mainstream characters who have mainstream stories," Davis says. "And that's great, because that provides a level of visibility to a community that's always been on the margins. So we'll play those films as long as they haven't played elsewhere in Utah, because we want to bring people that story, and people can see things on the screen that maybe they didn't see when they were younger. On the other hand, queerness in a lot of ways is still at the fringes, especially if you're looking at genderqueer stories, or people of color being represented. Or there are certain political elements that mean you're not sure if you're fully accepted by society, because the goalposts keep moving."
Programming any kind of film festival is a challenge, but for Davis, it's particularly important to consider that "rainbow" of representation on a footing equal with that of the films' other artistic merits. Some kinds of stories are simply far less often told than others, making the rare cases where they are told more attractive for programming purposes. As an example, Davis cites the French documentary No Box for Me, about intersex individuals dealing with the stigmas and unique physical and psychological challenges they face. "We fight tooth and nail to have really great representation of genderqueer people and intersex people and people who are outside of traditional representation portrayed on screen," Davis says, "and those kinds of films are really hard to find. You might get a 40-minute-long French documentary where you say, 'Ah, this is the one this year,' where you might get 35 traditional gay love stories every year.
"We have programmers who say [of a given submitted film], 'You know, this is a perfectly good story, but I feel like I've seen it 80 times before.' Then they encounter something that they get excited about."
Past and Present
As part of that ongoing effort to expand representation, Davis reached out to local artist and genderqueer activist Jordan Blok as a guest programmer. Blok was given freedom to make special selections outside of the options from the past 12-18 months that typically make up a small film festival's program—as Blok describes it, "an ancillary slate of films that might have been missed at film festivals in the past." They chose three films: Park Chan-wook's 2016 lesbian-themed thriller The Handmaiden; 1997's Ma Vie en Rose, an early representation of a transgender child in film; and the 1951 French melodrama Olivia, set at a French all-girls boarding school.
"People have access to those films, so we're not programming them necessarily so that people have a chance to see them for the first time—although maybe for some people, they discover them," Davis says. "It's more to see these films on the big screen, and then have a conversation before or after to talk about, what does this say about queerness as it evolves? What do we learn as a culture from looking at this film from 1997? Does it age well or does it not?"
- Elizabeth Latenser
- Davey Davis
Blok also considers the question of how films age a relevant one, but feels it's possible to recognize problematic elements within older stories without needing to "cancel" them. Ma Vie en Rose, Blok says, was a pivotal experience for them seeing gender non-conforming characters on-screen, even though some of the language used in the film to describe a trans character would be considered unacceptable now. "It's a gorgeous film, but there are ways of referring to these characters that is accurate to the time," Blok says. "Despite how that character isn't talked about [in a way] I'd talk about a trans child now, at the time it was a very real depiction of how I was feeling and what I was dealing with. What makes it stand out for me is that, despite the language that we would not or should not use now to describe trans individuals, the depiction itself felt loving and respectful to that character. ... When we talk about historical examples of those portrayals, specifically for trans viewers of films like these, it's never going to be perfect."
Davis, meanwhile, notes the historical significance of Olivia, which appeared at a time when gay stories simply weren't being told openly. "I love Olivia for that," he says, "because it's basically a form of cinematic crate-digging: How did you tell a lesbian story in 1951, when everyone was in the closet? What can you do with subtext?"
Fluidity and Representation
While the older films provide one window on the evolution of queer representation in film, the festival program as a whole touches on another emerging concept: the way more people are embracing a lack of concrete specificity, either in their gender identity or in their sexual orientation. Multiple films in the Damn These Heels 2019 lineup introduce characters—some real, some fictional—crossing back and forth over lines that in previous years might have been considered hard boundaries, allowing them to do so with respect and dignity.
"I wish we could take credit for having that as a theme this year, but I think the conversation is led by the filmmakers," Davis says. "You can see these people pushing sexuality as a concept, pushing gender as a concept, and wanting to be free from these constraints."
"That represents inclusivity in the selection process," Blok adds. "This reckoning with fluidity is an artistic exploration of how a lot of queer people are reckoning with how we get to be more than one thing, things that maybe we don't know how to talk about yet. Queerness can exist in spaces where we don't have finite names for them. The exploration of that through film is kind of how many queer people think of themselves."
These can be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable ideas for straight cisgender audience members to deal with, but for Davis, facilitating the exploration of difficult concepts is part of what a film festival is for—whether that means wrestling with fluidity, or even providing a sympathetic portrait of conservative perspectives on gender and sexuality, as is seen in the documentary Gay Chorus Deep South. "A good film doesn't let you off the hook," Davis says, "because it takes into account that there are many different conversations going on."
And conversation, ultimately, is one thing a film festival has going for it that can't be duplicated by watching films on an electronic device. Damn These Heels encourages these conversations in the onsite lounge (rather than as part of post-film Q&As), and has created a spot for more general "community reflection" about queer representation in film as part of a partnership with The Bee on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. "Seeing [a movie] alone in your home is not going to change you as much as going out to see it and having a conversation, or bonding over seeing it as a community experience," Davis says. With the world and the movies about that world changing as much as they have, there's a lot to talk about.
16th Annual Damn These Heels LGBTQ Film Festival
Friday-Sunday, July 12-14
Rose Wagner Center
138 W. 300 South
$10 general admission (except opening night); $5 youth (under 21)
$80 festival pass includes 10 admissions including Opening Night Party
Tall Heels, Short Reviews
16 films to keep on your DTHFF radar.
By Scott Renshaw, David Riedel and Eric D. Snider
- Little Punk
Adam 2.5 Stars
Gender farce boasts a rich comedic legacy running from Shakespeare to Some Like It Hot to Tootsie; it's hard to know what to do with a take on that genre that isn't particularly interested in the comedy. Director Rhys Ernst and screenwriter Ariel Schrag adapt Schrag's novel set in pre-marriage-equality 2006, when baby-faced sexually-frustrated high-schooler Adam (Nicholas Alexander) heads to New York to spend the summer with his gay older sister, Casey (Margaret Qualley), among her LGBTQ cohorts. There he falls for Gillian (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), and tells a little white lie: that he's a transgender man. Complications, as they are wont to do, ensue, and Alexander makes for a likable, young-Michael-Cera-esque protagonist as he grows up in his understanding. This is a story deeply committed to exploring the fluidity of sexuality and gender identity, and does so with compassion and a deft touch. But Ernst seems unsure what to do with set-ups that should burst with comedic possibilities, like Adam finding himself at a fetish club where Casey also shows up, or how a straight guy handles buckling himself into a strap-on. The pace and timing are that of a drama, but it should be possible to laugh at an idea while still taking it seriously. July 14, 11:15 a.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (Scott Renshaw)
An Almost Ordinary Summer 2.5 Stars
It feels like something unearthed from a time capsule, a buried relic of the era when the Weinsteins would find frothy crowd-pleasers from around the globe. This one tells the story of two families brought together when the two (previously straight) patriarchs—Toni (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) and Carlo (Alessandro Gassman)—announce, much to everyone's surprise, that they plan to get married. The theoretically farcical plot revolves around the efforts of Toni's cynical daughter Penny (Jasmine Trinca) and Carlo's homophobic son Sandro (Filippo Scicchitano) to break up their fathers' relationship. Trinca's performance is the anchor, attempting to capture a woman so messed up by her childhood that she doesn't understand the possibility of a happy romance, but there are too many characters and arcs here wrestling for time, resulting in character interactions that feel thin. More than the characters' big speeches, it feels built around Toni's lavish seaside home, in the kind of tame, "why can't we all just get along" story where you get a bunch of people finding common ground by dancing to a pop song. Maybe it makes you feel good, or maybe it makes you feel like it would have had more to say in 1999. July 14, 3:45 p.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (SR)
- T-rex entertainment productions
Billie & Emma 3 Stars
There's a conventional feel-good energy to Samantha Lee's Filipino teen lesbian romance, even as she complicates it in a variety of interesting ways. When the parents of high school senior Isabelle "Billie" Santos (Zar Donato) find out she's gay, they send her from Manila to the smaller town where Billie's aunt teaches at a Catholic girls' school. There, Billie meets Emma Cagandahan (Gabby Padilla), an ambitious high achiever whose own life is thrown into turmoil when she finds out she's pregnant. Lee deftly teases out the budding friendship/relationship, as Emma and her clique of friends initially reject the weird, clearly not-like-them big-city girl, and gives the two strong central performances room to flourish. But in some ways, there's actually more compelling material as word of Emma's maternal condition gets out, and she faces judgment just as morally righteous as anything Billie has to confront. With the constant undercurrent of their school's (and broader culture's) religious expectations, and a deep respect for all manner of hard choices, Billie & Emma finds a rich intersection of issues surrounding the expectations for how a young woman is expected to live her life. July 13, 9:15 a.m., Black Box Theater (SR)
Bit 2.5 Stars
The narration at the beginning and end (and it's never a good sign when a movie only has narration at the beginning and end) suggests something more satiric and self-aware than what we actually get, which is more like a distaff version of The Lost Boys. But as fun as a lesbian parody of Twilight might have been, the vivacious, slightly cheesy, feels-like-the-pilot-for-a-show-on-The-CW feminist vampire morsel delivered by writer-director Brad Michael Elmore isn't bad either. It concerns disaffected 18-year-old Laurel (Nicole Maines) visiting her brother (James Paxton) in L.A. for the summer, where she falls in with a group of punk vampire girls who have a very strict "no boys allowed" policy—OK as food, not as converts—because men, it seems, tend not to wield vampiric powers responsibly. Laurel's transition to bloodsucker is the focus of the story, with vampire-hunters and resurrected ancient evils in the periphery. It's all about as good as low-budget vampire flicks tend to be, with an added flicker of righteous anger. July 12, 10 p.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (Eric D. Snider)
Changing the Game 4 Stars
Four trans teenagers who are also elite athletes—a cross-country skier, a wrestler and two track stars—find themselves becoming activists by circumstance more than desire, as they're attacked by politicians and everyday adults around them who think, at best, they're competing in the wrong sex class, and at worst, think they're less than human. (How many times can you witness adults scream at children before you pray all those adults end up face down in a ditch?) Watching these kids overcome the odds is refreshing, especially when at times it seems as if the odds will pound them into oblivion (see also: the Trump administration). But the kids reach considerable heights, do it with aplomb and often while a tidal wave of fear and loathing awaits to drown them. (My favorite, admittedly petty part of this documentary is knowing the hateful assholes who appear on camera signed release forms to do so, and will forever be on the wrong side of history.) The transgender teens featured here shouldn't be feared or reviled. They represent the best of humanity, and we should all hope to be as strong, determined and graceful as they are. July 12, 7:30 p.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (David Riedel)
- 6.11 films
Fabulous 2.5 Stars
It's unreasonable to expect that a 45-minute documentary would be able to cover a topic in both depth and breadth; it's reasonable to expect that it shouldn't try. Director Audrey Jean-Baptiste follows drag queen Lasseindra Ninja as they return to their native French Guiana to teach a master class in vogue dancing to the locals. Footage of the classes themselves is engaging, as Lasseindra attempts to whip the rookies into shape. But the story also takes mini-stops as Lasseindra interacts with other local residents—including the ballet teacher from whom they took lessons as a boy—and provides mini-profiles of Guianese gay youth describing their experience in a very gay-unfriendly culture. Few of the anecdotes get much chance to stick, however, as we barely get a sense for the individuals involved beyond Lasseindra's description finding a family of choice in the New York-based house culture. As a chance to watch dancing, it's a blast; as a piece of sociology, it's only half the movie it needs to be. July 14, 11:45 a.m., Black Box Theater (SR)
- DK works
For They Know Not What They Do 4 Stars
A rumination on the effects—positive and negative—far-right Christianity has on LGBTQ youth, this is Daniel Karslake's spiritual (ha) follow-up to For the Bible Tells Me So. This time around, we meet four families of faith who raised four LGBTQ kids very differently. There are the McBrides, whose daughter Sarah was the first openly transgender person to speak at the Democratic National Convention; the Porchers, whose child self-harmed until their parents accepted them; the Robertsons, who made their son undergo conversion therapy; and the Faez/Bebo family, whose son was present at the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. Of note: All the parents are portrayed in as neutral a fashion as a documentary can, regardless of their child's story. Even the Robertsons, who seem to carry enough guilt for seven sets of families, don't come off as monsters, even if what they put their child through was monstrous. There's also a fascinating panel of expert clergy showing what progressive faith can (or should) look like. This masterful work is simultaneously filled with optimism and heartbreak; if you haven't cried at least a dozen times when the credits roll, you're probably not human. July 13, 12:45 p.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (DR)
- courtesy tribeca film festival
Gay Chorus Deep South 3.5 Stars
Why did the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus cross the ideological road for a tour performing in five blood-red Southern states? That's not the setup for a joke, but it's also only the beginning of a richly emotional documentary that follows the celebrated vocal group through Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina in fall 2017. Artistic director Tim Seelig positions it as an attempt to begin conversations in the wake of the divisive 2016 election, and indeed director David Charles Rodrigues captures interactions between strangers that offer a sense of hope that personal contact changes hearts. But it's also a deeply emotional look at how several choir members with Southern, conservative Christian roots—including Seelig himself—attempt to find healing while returning to churches, communities and even family members that previously have rejected them. Not every interaction is sweetness and light—Seelig boldly tells one minister he's no longer willing to settle for "tolerance"—and we do hear the voices of those convinced their Bible tells them these men are damned. The music itself is beautiful; more beautiful still is the chance to see people willing to put down their rhetoric and be human together. July 14, 6:30 p.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (SR)
- moho film
The Handmaiden 4 Stars
Park Chan-wook is always a safe bet to deliver movies that are visually striking and more than a little unsettling; he hasn't typically been given enough credit for his socio-political edge. Adapting Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith from Victorian England to 1930s Japan-occupied Korea, Park tells the story of pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who becomes the servant of the wealthy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) with the purpose of facilitating a fraud by would-be suitor Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo)—except that Lady Hideko's passions may lie elsewhere. The twisty narrative—which circles back multiple times to observe the same events from different points of view—makes for a compelling mystery, seasoned with some explicit sex, queasy-making violence and Park's distinctive art direction of locations like a sinister "reading room" and a moss-covered set of stone steps. But the real punch comes in the way Park explores the manipulation of power dynamics and the different forms abusive relationships take, with more than a token swipe at the role of pornography in perpetuating patriarchy. It may emerge from a dark place, but it's also the director's purest love story yet. July 14, 3:45 p.m., Black Box Theater (SR)
- heymann Bros. films
Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life 3 Stars
By the time Tomer Heymann's documentary profile of Israeli gay porn star Jonathan Agassi—née Yonatan Langer—ends, it's clear that if the title isn't flat-out ironic, it's at least complicated. Heymann follows Agassi through his various professional activities, ranging from films to live sex shows to paid escort gigs, and finds someone who's clearly much more damaged than he initially seems to be. The movie pushes a bit too hard at tying a tidy emotional bow around the origins of Agassi's self-harming behavior, most specifically in its focus on his complicated relationship with his estranged father. But it's flat-out fascinating when we're instead embedded in Agassi's close relationship with his mother, who knows every detail of her son's life and whose facial expressions are a veritable Kuleshov experiment in whether she's unimaginably accepting or silently tolerant. As uncomfortable as it is to watch Agassi fall into a drug-induced stupor that a member of the film crew feels obliged to help save him from, it's more compelling to see Agassi show off his leather gear/lace panties/high heels ensemble to Mom, and have her both compliment him and ask with motherly concern, "Are you going to wear something warm?" July 13, 8 p.m., Black Box Theater (SR)
- Sour peach films
A Night at Switch n' Play 2 Stars
Twice a month, a Brooklyn bar hosts "Switch n' Play"—a showcase of drag queens, drag kings and burlesque performers, most of them with different gender identities from what you see in a "traditional" drag show. A Night at Switch n' Play captures one of these magical evenings, much of it shot awkwardly from the second row so the angle is looking up, the view sometimes partially blocked by the bald guy in front. The parent-at-a-school-talent-show aesthetic notwithstanding, some of the performances are amusing, including a grinning woman dressed in a Twinkie the Kid costume doing a striptease to Fats Domino's "Whole Lotta Lovin'." The behind-the-scenes interviews with the performers are more interesting and professionally done, with insightful discussion of gender fluidity, body positivity, inclusivity and pronouns. But the film, directed by Cody Stickels, provides no context. Switch n' Play seems fine, as drag shows go, but there are a lot of them in New York. What's noteworthy about this one? You get the sense it was chosen because it's the one Stickels happened to be acquainted with. July 13, 10:15 p.m., Black Box Theater (EDS)
No Box for Me: An Intersex Story 3 Stars
A less commonly-explored side of the LGBTQIA story—the "I" part, in particular—gets a short but sweet telling in Floriane Devigne's documentary. It begins with the email correspondence between French sociology doctoral student Déborah Abate and an individual who identifies as "M.", both of whom were assigned as female by their parents after surgical "correction" when they were born with indeterminate sexual characteristics. It's mostly an opportunity for intersex individuals to talk about their experience, and their complicated feelings about undergoing painful surgeries that are generally based around not just gender conformity but heteronormative sexuality. But Devigne adds spark to the film with inventive animations, as well as digitally hiding M.'s face and body behind a digital blur that renders her anonymously asexual. While it's often more informative than emotional in revealing the feelings of people who want to "reappropriate my body," there's still a power to seeing Déborah finally reveal her full self to her sister, releasing exactly the kind of stigma that leads parents like hers to feel compelled to make choices that aren't theirs to make. July 13, 3:30 p.m., Black Box Theater (SR)
- memnon films
Olivia 3 Stars
While more interesting as a fascinating historical artifact, Jacqueline Audry's 1951 adaptation of Dorothy Bussy's pseudonymous 1949 novel brings peak melodrama to an era when "the love that dare not speak its name" was exactly that. At a French boarding school, newly arrived English girl Olivia (Claire Olivia) finds that there is a kind of schism between students devoted to one of the school's two co-founders, charismatic headmistress Mlle. Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and oft-bedridden Mlle. Cara (Simone Simon). The narrative soon comes to focus on Olivia's growing infatuation with Mlle. Julie, even as it makes clear that the relationship between Julie and Cara is not strictly professional. What's startling is that there's very little attempt to euphemize these relationships; the girls and women speak plainly of being in love with one another, with more than just furtive glances conveying their emotions. The conventions of the time ensure plenty of swooning, tearful over-reactions to heartbreak, which makes the bits of comic relief—mostly focused on the interaction between the tart-tongued school cook and the perpetually ravenous math teacher—a welcome part of the package. And it's worthwhile to learn that honest gay stories were being told honestly much longer ago than you might think. July 14, 9 a.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (SR)
- kill claudio productions
Sister Aimee 3 Stars
Onscreen titles tell us up front that Sister Aimee is "5½ percent truth," the rest educated guesses and pure fantasy. What's definitely true is that in 1926, charismatic evangelist, faith-healer, and show-woman Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared in Los Angeles and reappeared several weeks later at the Mexican border, claiming to have been kidnapped but telling a story whose details didn't check out. The movie, written and directed by Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann, speculates on what really happened. Anna Margaret Hollyman is great as the brash, dynamic Sister Aimee, who's charming and spiritual onstage, cynical and crass offstage. She and her radio engineer (Michael Mosley) fake her death, leave their spouses, and drive to Mexico, led by a Mexican guide (Andrea Suarez Paz) who doesn't say much but is good at disarming threats. So it's a picaresque Western with some Chicago-style razzle-dazzle (including a song!) about a confident, successful woman finding out what her limits are. Does it have a point to make? Not really. But it's amusing and lively, and that's enough. July 13, 7:30 p.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (EDS)
- querÔ films
Socrates 2.5 Stars
This low-key Brazilian vérité drama, directed by Alexandre Moratto, was made by a crew of low-income São Paulo teens as part of a UNICEF program to foster social inclusion through filmmaking. It was a fitting project for Moratto to engage them in, requiring only entry-level filmmaking skills in the service of the story of a marginalized kid like themselves: 15-year-old Socrates (Christian Malheiros), whose mother has died, leaving him with no support system whatsoever. While struggling to stay off the streets doing manual labor at a junkyard, Socrates encounters another boy, Maicon (Tales Ordakji), whom he can't keep his eyes off of. It isn't clear whether Socrates already knew he was gay, but if he didn't, meeting Maicon leaves no question. The usual moments of self-doubt, contemplations on masculinity and shirtless making-out ensue, acted well enough by the two newcomers in the main roles, though without much impact. The story is too slight, and the themes too overly familiar, to leave a lasting impression, but the film's deep compassion for its subjects redeems it. July 13, 10:45 a.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (EDS)
- open door productions
Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America 3 Stars
It's disheartening to watch a lesbian refugee couple escape anti-LGBTQ persecution in Angola only to be persecuted by their neighbors in the San Francisco Bay-area. But the United States can be an ugly place—and Unsettled was largely filmed before Trump became president, so things have only gotten worse. The stories of four refugees will tug at your heartstrings, even as two of the four of them remain enigmatic. Syrian refugee Subhi, who reveals his horrifying story in dribs and drabs, is quiet and reserved, and he's pretty guarded about his past (on camera, anyway), even as he becomes a sort-of gay rights celebrity, eventually speaking at the United Nations. Even sadder is Junior, a refugee from Congo whose pastor mother advocates killing gays. Junior survives a series of low-paying jobs and bad relationships only to become homeless, but he's even more reticent than Subhi; it's hard to know just what's going on in his mind. Of course, given his circumstances, it's understandable why he's tight-lipped. But given that director Tom Shepard is a veteran documentarian, it's surprising he couldn't coax more from his subjects. Those narrative shortcomings aside, Unsettled is a powerful portrait of people struggling with powerlessness. July 13, 9:45 p.m., Jeanné Wagner Theater (DR)