Reviews by Rhuaridh Marr, Doug Rule, Randy Shulman, and Kate Wingfield
All films are showing at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW.
Thursday, Nov. 1
An intimate film set amid London’s bohemian subculture, the charm in Carlos Marques-Marcet‘s Anchor and Hope is largely the sum of its intriguing parts. There is the wobbling love affair of Eva and Kat, utterly carefree until they discover what Eva’s need for a baby will do to their relationship. And then there is the powerful evocation of place in Kat’s houseboat plying its way up and down the Camden canal, like a metaphor for the vagaries of life.
None of it is exactly reconciled, but all of it fits Marques-Marcet’s sense of rhythm and is as mesmerizing as it is sensual. One minute we are face-to-face with these two beautiful women, trying to read their eyes and their silences — you can practically smell the duvet, their hemp-shampooed hair, and the hands that pull ropes and push lock gates. The next, we are on deck, gliding slowly along, listening to a strange old song and studying the eclectic banks of the canal beneath a changing sky. Deco apartments mix with ancient houses; gardens mix with graffiti; industrial infrastructure looms. It is by turns trendy, stylish, neglected and sinister.
It all feels rather like life itself: a continuum of the utterly domestic and the momentarily sublime. If this mood works beautifully, the eye here can be a tad too loving, some scenes too long. A montage of river water heralding a drama doesn’t quite work and there are times when the film’s realism begs for more and franker dialogue.
Still, these women feel immensely real and their presence lingers long after the film ends. Oona Chaplin is authentic as Eva, a moody, rather precious young woman unafraid to let her needs and dismay be unlikeable. In her rendering of the guileless Kat, Natalia Tena delivers something quietly extraordinary — a woman with absolutely none of the usual feminine affectation. It feels less about being masculine and far more about being true to oneself, and it is beyond refreshing. If only Hollywood realized how compelling women are when they are free to be people and not a walking bag of tricks. Bringing a good balance between the irreverent and the sensitive, David Verdaguer is convincing as Roger, Kat’s Spanish buddy, while in the small role of Jinx, Lara Rossi truly shines. Finally, stealing her every scene, Geraldine Chaplin speaks volumes with the saddest, subtlest of eyes.
A domestic drama played to the rhythms of London’s most counter-culture canal, this is engaging and poetic storytelling at its near-best. —Kate Wingfield
Thursday, Nov. 1
If Annemarie van de Mond’s romantic comedy about two young men who embark on a relationship feels a bit like a made for TV movie, that’s probably because it is. The Dutch film has a gentle, soothing rhythm to it, and even when it serves up conflict between the two leads, and issues such as racism and homophobia emerge, the movie never abandons its light, frothy air. It’s the epitome of feel good.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These days LGBTQ movies frequently try to push the outer limits, so it’s nice to sit back in what feels like a comfortable armchair and exhale. There is nothing in Just Friends that seasoned veterans of Reel Affirmations haven’t seen before, and that’s just fine. Even when the budding relationship between Joris (Josha Stradowski) and Yad (Majd Mardo) is tested, and the wounded lovebirds fly their separate ways, we know they won’t stay apart for long. Sometimes predictability has its place.
It doesn’t hurt that Stradowski and Mardo are eye-candy of the highest order, with Stradowski in particular carrying off that a broody, young underwear model aesthetic, sometimes literally. Yad is the swarthier of the two and, as such, is the object of scorn from Joris’ preening, vain, bitter mother, Simone (Tanja Jess). “He’s a Muslim type,” she says at one point, noting with scorn that Yad is likely a refugee and can’t be trusted, to which her own mother, Ans (Jenny Arean) replies, “He’s not a refugee. He’s Jewish.” The differences between Joris and Yad, and the way their own mothers respond to their relationship, provides Just Friends a hunk of topical meat, but director van de Mond fails to really chew on it, likely because screenwriter Henk Burger steers clear of any societal deep ends, instead seemingly content to wade.
On the other hand, the movie beautifully captures the freshness and electricity of a new romance, all set to the strains of Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens. Stradowski and Mardo play off each other well and feel like a natural pairing. A first kiss, casual yet intimate, set in a wheat field, is especially lovely.
Special note must be made of Ans, who is one of the most progressive, supporting grandmothers to grace the screen. When it’s clear to her that Yad, who cleans her home, is interested in Joris, and vice-versa, she launches into Matchmaker Extreme mode. It’s adorable and sweet and Arean’s scene-stealing portrayal is a constant and utter delight. She’s the cherry on a movie made of sweet whipped cream. —Randy Shulman
Friday, Nov. 2
In the battle between style and substance, filmmaker Ruth Caudeli’s Eva and Candela frequently falls prey to an overabundance of the former. And that’s unfortunate, because this Colombian film about two women whose relationship seems destined to implode has a number of strong points.
Chief among those are the performances of its two leads, Silvia Varón as Eva and Alejandra Lara as Candela. Eva and Candela meet during a casting call for a film Candela wrote and is set to direct a production she’s told will cement her status as a cinematic prodigy. Eva nails her audition, but not before both woman notice their chemistry and strike up a whirlwind romance. From there, Eva’s star quickly rises — she is the breakout of Candela’s film, which itself receives less than favorable reviews.
Eva and Candela thrives on examining the balance of power in a relationship. While Candela holds the professional power when they first meet, the film actually opens on Candela at home with the couple’s child. Lonely, stuck with the mundanities of homelife, and teaching film at a local university, things quickly become tense when Eva arrives home after two months on location for her most recent film. It’s a far cry from the couple’s inception, when Candela held all the cards and it was her star that was set to ascend. That imbalance, as Eva gains the jetset life Candela always craved, fuels the film’s various tensions and movements. Told out of sync, the main thread of the narrative is the reunion between Eva and Candela in their apartment after the two-month film shoot, but the timeline jumps around through the various highlights (and numerous lowlights) of their relationship leading up to it, including the frequent shifts and reversals in the couple’s power dynamic.
It’s here that director Caudeli’s excesses negatively impact the film. Caudeli provides no clear indication of when or where she’s jumping in the timeline, instead attempting to offer a visual clue in the color grading — the past is shown with a warm, orange hue, reflecting the better times in the relationship. Later scenes, and particularly the apartment reunion, are blue and cold. The problem is that Caudeli’s entire film is overwhelmingly shaded in hues of blue and orange, to an extreme that makes every scene look devoid of any other colors, and makes the distinctions between past and present harder to spot. With no clear division between jumps in the timeline, we’re left guessing which blue and orange moment came before the other, and it quickly gets tiresome.
All of this detracts from the amazing work by the film’s leads, particularly Varón. As Eva, she captures every nuance of the transition from young ingenue to leading lady, then to frustrated (and reluctant) homemaker as the mother of the couple’s child, to gradually building herself back up to noted star again. Lara is a step behind Varón, but she’s no slouch, conveying the complexities of Candela’s emotions — she adores, even craves Eva, but she’s watching every dream she ever had manifest itself in the person she (less and less frequently) shares her bed with, while her own life stutters and falters.
Where Caudeli’s confused timeline does work is in the later stages of the film, as she upends our assumptions about Eva and Candela. In one scene, Candela admonishes Eva for never being home, for not caring about her, for not being aware of the struggles of keeping a house and child. The timeline then winds back to Eva in the weeks after giving birth to their baby, her fame a seemingly distant memory, her partner staying out late at work and leaving her alone to figure out motherhood. It’s clever, even with the film’s stylistic flaws, and it all leads to a stunning third act crescendo that pits both women against one another in a torrid bout of emotions and frustrations.
It’s so powerful, so raw, and so beautifully performed, that it makes the stylistic and narrative flaws of Caudeli’s 90-minute film worth sitting through — much like its central couple, it’s far from perfect, but definitely worth the experience. —Rhuaridh Marr
Friday, Nov. 2
Oliver Aquino looks as lost as they come, wandering around Taipei alone and directionless, in the latest feature from noted Filipino filmmaker Joselito Altarejos. Although we don’t learn a lot about his character Alex until later in the film, it’s clear that this native of the Philippines is a fish out of water in the Taiwanese capital, where a long-lost cousin now lives and where his mother at least once did. “She’s probably dead,” comes Alex’s curt response after his cousin suggests he go out looking for her.
Instead, Alex goes out looking for anything else and seemingly nothing in particular. While on a smoke break, he happens upon a total stranger, a Taiwanese aborigine named Jerry (Soda Voyu). Moonlighting as a bartender while studying to become a doctor, Jerry eventually plans to move back to his nearby village — except that he’s not out to his tribal family, and he’s not sure he wants to give up the good life he leads with his boyfriend in the city, solely for the sake of tradition. Voyu spans a range of human emotions with his complex, carefully realized portrayal of Jerry.
The two characters strike up an unlikely friendship through broken English and a few words and phrases in Alex’s native Tagalog. Once the straight Alex, a mechanic by training, repairs Jerry’s car, the two set out on a road trip to Jerry’s picturesque rural hometown. At Alex’s encouragement, an impromptu overnight visit to Jerry’s kin sets in motion an experience that will change both men and make them value and appreciate anew their respective families.
Enriched by rich characters and sharp acting all around, Tale of the Lost Boys is a warm, endearing ode to the value of friendship and family, but especially to the value of human bonding and the willingness to trust a stranger as a friend. –Doug Rule
Saturday, Nov. 3
It’s a telling sign of how mercilessly and quickly our news cycle — and our national interest — moves that the plight of Syrian refugees, particularly LGBTQ refugees, has all but vanished from headlines.
That apathy is exactly what Mr. Gay Syria is trying to combat, albeit through the seemingly frothy subject of picking a contestant to represent Syria at the international Mr. Gay World competition. Ayse Toprak’s documentary, filmed in Turkey in 2015 and 2016, predominantly focuses on contestants Hussein and Omar, as well as contest organizer and journalist Mahmoud Hassino, who gained asylum in Germany in 2014.
All of the men shown in Mr. Gay Syria have their own heartbreaking story to tell — of fleeing the war, or their own homophobic family, or of seeing friends murdered, of being rejected for asylum, of being trapped in Turkey as homophobia continues to rise, and so on.
Hussein was forced to marry a woman and has a daughter he adores, but he lives and works an hour away from them in Istanbul, where he can at least feel more like a gay man. He was rejected for asylum, even after suffering a homophobic attack, and fears retribution from his family should they learn his sexuality. But, as he says, “Everything that happened to me is better than being jailed. Or imprisoning myself.”
Omar fled to Turkey and met his partner Nader in one of Istanbul’s gay bars. They fell in love, moved in together, and then Omar had to watch as Nader was granted political asylum and had to move to Norway, over 2,000 miles away. Gay couples aren’t recognized in the asylum process, so Omar couldn’t join him.
Toprak captures the plight of these men without any narration beyond simple titles for specific locations. The narrative is unguided, undated, but never difficult to follow. Instead, Toprak shows the men’s lives in a way that is intimate and immediate, whether at weekly “Tea and Talk” meetings to discuss LGBTQ issues, or having meals together, or sharing their fears and hopes with one another. Through an unfiltered lens, she showcases a group of people caught between a home that either doesn’t exist or will actively persecute them, and a future in a more tolerant country that seems ever further from grasp.
Toprak also doesn’t sugarcoat the facts, or pull the punches — and there are many. Malta refuses to grant visas to Syrians, so Mr. Gay Syria can’t compete in the final. Hussein’s family learns about his sexuality, and the film captures the fear in his eyes as he unironically says that his father might poison him — there’s even a tense scene as one of his friends listens through his phone as Hussein visits his family and faces their wrath. Even an attempt at a gay Pride parade in Istanbul descends into tear gas and pellets as armed police shut it down.
In 90 minutes, there is only one happy ending. For everyone else, the wait for a better future continues. Hussein in particular seems on the verge of abandoning hope by the film’s end. Toprak’s camera picks up the sadness in his eyes as he gently intones, “I wish tomorrow is better than yesterday.” It’s the only wish he has left. For those watching Mr. Gay Syria, it’s a sobering reminder that, even in our current dark times, things in America could be so much worse. And we should be doing so much more for those elsewhere. —Rhuaridh Marr
Saturday, Nov. 3
A shorts program dedicated to LGBTQ family issues is all but guaranteed to offer some interesting topics, and We Are Family jumps in at the deep end with Concern for Welfare ( ), about a closeted lesbian Muslim who lives at home with her mother and controlling brother. Nicole Chamoun stars as Ali, a probationary constable, who is brow beaten by brother Karim (Sam Alhaje) for not being married with children. She’s desperate to escape, until a “Concern for Welfare” call upends the trainee police officer’s entire perspective of her family. Fadia Abboud’s short is perhaps the most confidently directed in this program, and features strong performances from all five members of its cast, though it also offers a sobering message behind its family drama.
Judy Febles’ Happy Valentine’s Day ( ) is the perfect pick-me-up after the darker tones of Concern for Welfare. A mother tries to discover who her young daughter is writing a Valentine’s card for, only to learn something she didn’t expect. At a mere 90 seconds long, it offers more bang for its buck than films ten times its length — and that’s no mean feat.
The program stumbles somewhat with Heather Has Four Moms ( ), a comedy in which all the titular fourteen-year-old Heather wants is to lose her virginity. Standing in her way (other than the law) is her four moms — her biological mother, her non-biological mother, and both women’s new partners. Jeanette L. Buck’s comedy hits several strong notes, as all four women dance around confronting Heather about safe sex. Tanya Baskin and D.C. theater star Holly Twyford are the standouts here, as the new partners urging Heather’s moms to get serious about “the talk.” Unfortunately, as Heather, Kristen Popham’s narration falls flat, and at just fourteen minutes long, Buck doesn’t use her time as effectively as other shorts in this program, meandering towards an unsatisfying conclusion.
Religion rears its head again in Ablution ( ), Omar Al Dakheel’s powerful short about a gay Muslim man who lives with and cares for his disabled father. The writer-director also stars as Waleed, who takes care of his father (Jay Abdo) by day and by night ventures out into the gay nightlife of their city. Al Dakheel’s film is stylishly dark, confidently captured, and both men give strong performances as Waleed’s secret life becomes fully, uncomfortably known to his conservative elder.
Director Sylvain Coisne has a background in visual effects, and he uses those skills to intriguing and occasionally spectacular effect in the bleak Dylan Dylan ( ). After suddenly losing their adopted son, Dylan, couple Yanis and Hugo are struggling to cope — with each other’s grief, with the homophobic abuse they continue to endure, with news media eager for a story on the boy’s death. Coisne’s film doesn’t offer much, and leaves most explanation of Dylan’s life and death until the end, but Dylan Dylan offers some arresting scenes as Hugo (Vincent Marie) starts to hallucinate images that remind him of Dylan — particularly his favored toy plane. As a narrative, Dylan Dylan doesn’t have much to offer, but its moments of dark fantasy are beguiling. —Rhuaridh Marr
Saturday, Nov. 3
Simple yet effective, Rebecca Adler’s 2017 documentary feels perfectly timed for viewing at Reel Affirmations. As the Trump administration erodes transgender rights, Adler’s film follows seven trans young adults in Austin, Texas, documenting their transitions, their relationships, their education and employment prospects, and offering fascinating and heartfelt insight into their lives.
Take Ursula, the headstrong “It Girl” of Austin and leader of punk band Mom Jeans. By day, she’s pursuing a career in human resources while living out and proud, a far cry from the small town in Alabama where she grew up. By night, she’s surrounded by friends, a chosen family, and people she loves.
Or there’s Elliott, who details their struggle with coming out and accepting themselves. Elliott agreed to go to college as a buffer to figure out what to do, but has found themselves being dead-named and misgendered, which leads to one of the film’s longest and most poignant scenes, as Elliott comes out to their parents by phone — hands shaking, voice wavering, uncertain of the reaction on the other side. It’s brutal, powerful viewing.
Or there’s Forest and Faron, both transgender women of color, who exemplify the economic hardship that many transgender people — particularly trans women of color — face. Both women have submitted countless applications and resumes, but neither can find paying work. There’s even a semi-serious discussion about pursuing sex work, a fate too many transgender women are forced to consider, as a means to fix their monetary issues.
Adler’s documentary doesn’t offer additional narrative on the lives of its subjects, and she never steps out from behind the camera to ask a question or press a matter. Instead, tight editing and strong camerawork make its 83-minute runtime feel incredibly brief. These are snapshots of lives in progress, followed over a matter of months to provide updates — such as Winn’s first visit to the endocrinologist, or Peter’s top surgery.
But what Adler’s film lacks in length or depth it more than makes up for in impact. As a window into the trans youth experience, it offers insight into the everyday struggles — from being misgendered or dead-named, to relationship troubles and dealing with school — to long-term decisions, such as whether to pursue hormone therapy, or when to come out to parents, or where they’re going to live. There’s Seb, who is in a relationship with Winn until it falls apart prior to Winn graduating college, and is soured on the human experience after years of people breaking promises to her. Contrast that with Peter, who documented his transition publicly and gets married to his partner on camera.
Trans Youth isn’t the most innovative documentary, but it’s a necessary one. And its real impact comes when the credits roll, as you reflect on the varied, incredible lives of the film’s subjects, and remember that our president wants to invalidate their very existence. —Rhuaridh Marr
Saturday, Nov. 3
This year’s Girls Shorts are like a lucky dip — a veritable grab-bag of surprises, some to treasure, others not so much. So, crack your metaphorical knuckles, hope for the best, and dive in. First up is the absolute gem of this collection, Marguerite ( ), a quietly heartbreaking story told in the way of all great filmmaking — through the synergy of fine performance and a subtle, yet unwavering vision. In just a few scenes, lyrically conceived and executed, director Marianne Farley evokes a small, beautifully drawn world in which tenderness is the currency and then the ultimate gift. Beatrice Picard delivers the elderly and ailing Marguerite with mesmerizing nuance and depth, while Sandrine Bisson captures perfectly her nurse Rachel, an unassuming woman who finds herself a last, final bridge to lost dreams. Get out your hankies but take note: Farley’s is a name to watch.
Almost too small to get hold of is Ayaka Furukawa’s Freedom ( ), a mere snippet of an idea. Perhaps it suggests that family life can feel like a trap and teenage love (or sex) the key to freedom. Or maybe it’s the kernel of a full-length movie in which a rural white girl raised in a crazy-ass cult finds liberating and thoroughly-forbidden love with an understanding black girl — at least until the cult elders find out. Either way, if not quite riveting, this mini-moment begins to capture something of a hot Southern summer and the joy of escape.
Too featureless to get hold of and exuding the disposable feel of a network comedy is Lisa Donato’s mini-rom-com Foxy Trot ( ), in which a bickering couple tries a lesson in ballroom dancing and ends up treading on more than their own toes. If the premise has promise, the corporate feel here dulls the humor and the leads never find their comic flair. Matters aren’t helped by Donato’s choice to make everyone except the lesbian couple either caricatures or virtual zombies, slotted in to play throwaway foils. At least it’s short.
You’ll be forgiven for not knowing quite what to make of the next offering. Remember those films they used to show in high school health class? The kind that induced bored, shuffling feet, narcolepsy and desk graffiti, and begged for one of the usual suspects to make a well-timed utterly unacceptable and completely hilarious comment? Well, that about sums it up here. From the stilted dialogue to the final scene at the beach in which it looks like the two leads are about to turn to the camera and recap some common misconceptions about life as a disabled lesbian, Getting Started () is basically an immensely earnest public service message.
Last but not least, and just a few clicks away from being funny, is Jana Heaton’s Lesbehonest ( ). Billed as a “pilot” and looking like it wants to grow up one day to be a sitcom, this is all about the madcap romantic adventures of the irrepressibly irresponsible Blair and her roomie sidekick Michael, on call with a sympathetic ear and a fair dose of wit. Though Ivy Hong offers a magnetic Blair and Michael Ring gets high marks for his deadpan Michael, this never gets airborne. The comedy is too slack, the story too loose (even accepting the verité style) and the people too vacuous. The bottom line is that there is a fine line between a cute and funny airhead and the type who expects to stay adorable even when they never clean up after a party. —Kate Wingfield
Saturday, Nov, 3
Writer/director Yen Tan works in references to Madonna’s Virgin Tour and Back to the Future in a feature that puts those cultural touchstones from its namesake year in stark relief to the plight of its young gay protagonist. Rendered in stylized black and white, 1985 focuses on Adrian’s first trip back to his Texas hometown in three years. There’s far more to the story than what the New York City-based Adrian tells his conservative Christian family — but then his parents know or intuit more than they let on, too.
Tan’s evocative portrait shows just how hard and complicated coming out was, at least for many gay men, in the homophobic early years of the AIDS epidemic — a time when the present was bleak, and the future, uncertain at best. A Malaysian-born, Dallas-based filmmaker whose previous gay-themed works include Ciao and Pitstop, Tan weaves an astute, time-sensitive tale with 1985, which plays out in an intriguing style that leaves plenty left unsaid and even more uncertain and unresolved.
It’s the kind of simmering, quietly powerful story that can be a challenge for actors to bring to compelling, convincing life. Cory Michael Smith (Fox’s Gotham), for instance, portrays Adrian a little too coolly here and there for a character who otherwise seems to burn bright. Yet Smith does seem to grow into the role as 1985 rolls on.
The feature itself is likely to grow on you, especially by the time of its three climatic, one-on-one scenes — each more moving than the last — between Adrian and his homophobic father (Michael Chiklis), his childhood friend Carly (Jamie Chung), and his doting mother (Virginia Madsen).
The three characters, each in their own way, show love and empathy to Adrian. In the process, they give this tender, bittersweet story, set during a dark chapter in gay history, its own kind of happy ending. –Doug Rule
Saturday, Nov. 3
Several of the films in this relatively dull collection of shorts detailing hookups between men are about as explicit as you can get in a festival setting. In simpler terms: There’s a lot of penis on display.
The collection opens with First Time ( ), about a personality-free young man (Trentice Leonard) who embarks on his first Grindr hookup. Everything is a bit of a metaphorical jumble, as director Jared C. Collins thinks intercutting scenes of sex in a dimly lit, seedy room with shots of nature makes an original metaphorical point. (It doesn’t.) The movie has a dumb twist ending that is as potent as a shrug.
Silverlake Afternoon () tells the same story as First Time, but with even less imagination and no twist ending. It’s an ineptly made movie about nothing, ten minutes of a stiltedly-acted awkward encounter between a nerdy guy who’s arrived at a hyperactive stranger’s home for a sexual tryst. They smoke pot. They make out. They grope each other. Twice the nerd blurts out, “I should go,” and you wish he’d do just that.
Routine ( ) at least tries to make its idea of a first-time hookup interesting. A stand-up comic (Churaqui Mosley) recounts to an audience his first date with a random guy (Adam Razavi) he met on an app, and the movie intercuts between his jokes and the harsh emotional reality of the situation itself. In not much more than six minutes, filmmaker Wes Akwuobi packs in a surprising amount of nuance, substance, grit, and emotional punch. The performances aren’t great, but the filmmaking is.
Fish Tank ( ) is a cautionary tale about why you shouldn’t let your first-time hookup blindfold and bind you. Or give you water with mysterious sediment in it. Especially when you notice his furniture is covered in protective plastic. Director Neal Mulani captures a strong sense of paranoia, and if the story doesn’t pay off in a conclusive way, it at least leaves us with lingering unease.
The next two films in the program are both testaments to the fact that you can never have enough nudity, sex, and semi-erect penises in a 22-minute movie. In the Brazilian-produced The Daytime Doorman ( ), a resident lures his (initially reluctant) married doorman into a massively torrid affair. The film seems overlong by at least ten minutes, and features an interminable minute of the resident dancing in the kitchen in his underwear for no other reason than to dance in the kitchen in his underwear. This is followed by a three-minute montage of soft-core pornographic flip-fucking. Conflict ensues when the resident has a party and the doorman has to shut it down. Ooooh.
It’s followed by Just Past Noon on a Tuesday ( ), another Brazilian entry that devotes even more of its 22-minutes to sex. Let’s just say that the two actors, who meet up in the apartment of a mutual fuckbuddy who has OD’ed, truly commit to their craft, to the point where one wonders if the techniques of Method Acting extend to pressing one’s mouth into your scene partner’s naked crotch. The filmmaking is strong, in all fairness, and Travis Matthews captures a powerful erotic mood. The script even dispenses some wisdom between the moments of sex, including profundities like “Relationships are built on a mutual pretending that endings don’t exist.” It makes you wonder why all tricks can’t be better philosophers.
Finally, there’s the crudely animated throwaway Hairy Tales ( ), in which a werewolf has sex with a man on a street corner. The animation, which is surprisingly explicit, is occasionally amusing, and the dialogue appears to revel in its own stupidity. But the film leaves you wondering why time was expended making Hairy Tales in the first place. Maybe it was best left a notion in the director’s head. —Randy Shulman
Sunday, Nov. 4
It starts off as riotously and ribald as you’d hope from a comedy intended to satirize today’s “app-filled world where racism is just another preference.” First we meet Phil (Donovan Trott) in flagrante with a white trick slapping and calling him a variation of the N-word. Immediately after that we meet Dre (Ricky Mempin), fresh from seeing yet another production of Madama Butterfly with a white man who has a pronounced Asian fetish.
Yet No Chocolate, No Rice begins to lose steam, and then focus, as we meet Dre’s co-workers at the hottest gay dating app, Squirm — with the equally perfect parody of a tagline, “Bringing You Closer.”
The topic of racial bias and discrimination in the LGBTQ community and online is timely and important — and ripe for exploration via a full-length feature film. Unfortunately, this is not that film. Written by Trott and directed by Lee Michael Sheridan, No Chocolate, No Rice only scratches the surface of the issue before straying into the territory of farce by inadvertently shifting the focus to a different topic of concern: the meaning and value of friendship.
Dre and Phil certainly don’t know it. You can find frenemies who convey more mutual love and respect than these so-called best friends, who gleefully mock and belittle each other for sport. Naturally, the two eventually become competitors, battling for the affections of their new white neighbor. With best friends like these….
It doesn’t help matters that the actors sometimes seem out of their element, or unsure whether to play it up or play it (seemingly) straight. There are moments when even Trott seems to stumble in delivering lines of dialogue — lines that he, as the screenwriter, wrote. It’s enough to make you, well, squirm. –Doug Rule
Sunday, Nov. 4
“Black Pride came into existence because of AIDS, the need to raise money for AIDS, and not to have a party,” Michael VanZant, pastor of the Faith Temple Church, intones in the very first minutes of DC Black Pride: Answering the Call. “I don’t want us to forget that, because I do believe that if we forget the past, we’re doomed to repeat it.”
VanZant’s warning, especially to younger generations with no emotional or personal connection to the devastation that AIDS wreaked on the black LGBTQ community, is the crux of the nearly 50-minute film. A project of DCN TV by executive producer Angie M. Gates, Answering the Call serves as more of a historical record for future generations and reads more like a public access television special than a riveting drama.
The film follows host Marvin Bowser, brother of Mayor Muriel Bowser, as he interviews a number of influential figures, chronicling the evolution of DC Black Pride from a one-day festival at Ward 1’s Banneker Field in 1991 to a multi-day event attracting thousands of revelers from around the country each Memorial Day weekend.
Bowser’s interview subjects are a “Who’s Who” of the local black LGBTQ community, from co-fonder Ernest Hopkins to Charles “Chuck” Hicks, chair of the the D.C. Black History Celebration Committee, to Earl Fowlkes of the Center for Black Equity, which organizes the celebration. And the list goes on: Ron Simmons, the former head of Us Helping Us; Rayceen Pendarvis, host of the Ask Rayceen Show; June Crenshaw of the Wanda Alston Foundation; Imani Woody of Mary’s House for Older Adults; Earline Budd, of Empowering the Transgender Community; and Sheila Alexander-Reid, founder of Women in the Life Association, now heading up the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.
Bit by bit, the interviewees reveal the roots of one of the District’s most popular celebrations, and the extent to which it is inextricably tied to the fight against HIV. The epidemic, both past and present, is addressed throughout the film, which meanders down several related tangents such as LGBTQ youth homelessness, transgender rights, gay adoption and foster parenting, and ballroom culture, before circling back to HIV/AIDS and current-day DC Black Pride.
Bowser, who also serves as a co-producer along with writer Brenda Mallory, performs well as host, prompting his subjects to hit the film’s major talking points while providing an in-depth, well-rounded evaluation of the LGBTQ community’s historical victories and the challenges it still faces.
If Answering the Call sounds preachy at times, it doesn’t mean to be. There’s certainly merit in preserving the community’s oral history for posterity, and the film leaves it up to the viewer to contemplate whether DC Black Pride’s mission needs to be redefined, given the changing shape of the external threats to LGBTQ communities of color. In short, the film likely won’t earn rave reviews for technical mastery or subject matter, but don’t be shocked if, someday, the National Archives or the Smithsonian come calling. —John Riley
Sunday, Nov. 4
If any program of shorts is going to leave viewers feeling empowered, uplifted, and thoroughly entertained, it’s the genderqueer and gender non-conforming shorts. Whether comedy or drama, bubbly fun or deeply insightful, the four films on offer here are among the strongest in this year’s festival.
Things get off to a good start with Mrs McCutcheon ( ). Charming, quirky, and, on at least one occasion, laugh-out-loud funny, John Sheedy’s film is part childhood dreamscape, part social commentary. A ten-year-old who always felt they were born into the wrong body chooses the name Mrs McCutcheon and starts presenting as female at school, to the delight of some and horror of others. Get past the hokey script, occasionally stilted acting, and the ludicrous (albeit sweet) ending, and there’s a lot to like here.
“You’re too femme.” Three words that can carry so much weight, particularly depending on the person saying them, are the focus of Femme ( ), a wonderful comedy from writer Corey Camperchioli. New Yorker Carson (Camperchioli) examines his own masculinity after a Grindr hookup rejects him for not being masc enough, sending him on a journey of self-acceptance that involves an existential crisis and a drag queen fairy godmother (Drag Race‘s Aja). As much a rejection of the toxic assholes who put “no fats, no femmes, no Asians” on their profiles as it is an examination of our own perception of what defines masculinity, this funny, well-acted, confidently directed film is a glorious way to spend 17 minutes, even if it runs out of steam towards the end.
If you want something that keeps on truckin’ until the credits roll, try Mimicry ( ). Billed as a road movie without the cars, writer-director Jennifer von Schuckmann’s short examines the rarely covered world of “girlfags” — people assigned female at birth who identify with gay male culture and are attracted to gay, bisexual and transgender men. Freya Kreutzkam is captivating as Mimi, whose journey of self-discovery takes her from unfulfilling straight hookups to a no-holds barred, anything goes orgy, as she figures out who she is, what she likes, and where she can find fulfillment. Oozing with style, dripping in sexuality, and backed by a pulsating soundtrack, Mimicry is utterly engrossing.
The highlight of this strong package of films comes with closer Pre-Drink ( ). French writer-director Marc-Antoine Lemire’s film is simple in premise: friends for 17 years, Alexe (Pascale Drevillon), a trans woman, and Carl (Alex Trahan), a gay man, are pre-drinking before a night out when they decide to have sex for the first time. What makes this such compelling viewing is the chemistry between its leads — if Lemire said they’d truly known one another for almost two decades, we’d believe him. Their acting is natural, their dialogue fluid, and anytime they come close together, sparks fly. It helps that Lemire revels in the powerful eroticism of the moment when they finally have sex — every touch, every breath, every kiss is captured as the film slows to a crawl to allow viewers to drink in its pleasures. Whether one night of passion will forever alter the friendship is left unsaid, but everything else about this outstanding film demands your fullest attention. —Rhuaridh Marr
Sunday, Nov. 4
“Are you gay?” a young, as-yet-undiscovered Patti Smith asks of the lanky, as-yet-undiscovered Robert Mapplethorpe she has just randomly befriended on a park bench. “No,” he replies. “Why? Do I seem gay?”
Maybe not at the outset, but the starving artist’s budding work, and the proclivities and curiosity fueling those works, are pretty damn gay. That innate curiosity, at first childlike, and later more calculated and manipulative, is one of many aspects explored by Ondi Timoner in her brilliant, masterful biopic, Mapplethorpe.
An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Mapplethorpe is Timoner’s first narrative feature, and she brings a documentarian’s aesthetic to the work that serves it perfectly. While the film’s tropes may seem standard-issue, the mood and atmosphere is anything but. The story glides absorbingly between interpretative, critical moments of the great photographer’s life, punctuated by extra-fine grace notes of illumination and deep understanding.
The film stretches across two decades, from 1969 to 1989, the year of Mapplethorpe’s demise from AIDS. Watching the film, which frequently feels like a private showing of some of the artist’s most provocative, arresting works, you get a sense of the loss Mapplethorpe’s death was to the cultural community, LGBTQ and otherwise. Mapplethorpe didn’t just push the envelope, he was the envelope, and his works were sharp, stinging paper cuts. Like all visionaries, he found beauty in virtually every moment, but his legacy remains his alluring flowers, his glorious, kinked-up explorations of the ’70s leather community, and his unabashed celebration of men’s sexual organs. “You’ve gotta have a cock in the show,” he tells one curator late in his career. “People will be expecting a cock.”
Mapplethorpe wasn’t just creating art for shock effect, the movie puts forth, because he found art in all possible circumstance. “Put your dick in that champagne glass,” he tells one subject, instructing him to then pee. The ensuing photograph is art at its most raw, robust, and red hot.
Casting the role of such an outsized legend must have been an unforgiving task, but in Matt Smith (The Crown, Doctor Who), Timoner has found the quintessential vessel to embody Mapplethorpe’s charm, petulance, egomaniacal selfishness, magnetism, and stark, feral sexuality. It’s a brazen, finely detailed performance, unforgiving and unapologetic, and despite the fact that Mapplethorpe is not all that likable a guy, Smith manages to makes the portrayal deeply moving, sympathetic, and, at times, otherworldly. Not since Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat have we had a cinematic portrait of an artist that’s this revealing of what sparks creativity and, more to the point, how that creativity is fostered and achieved.
The supporting cast is superb, but standouts include Marianne Rendón’s Patti Smith, Brandon Sklenar’s Edward Mapplethorpe, who idolizes his older brother and eventually works as his assistant, and John Benjamin Hickey as Mapplethorpe’s patron and boyfriend, Sam Wagstaff. “You’re the Jekyll and Hyde of photography,” Sam says to Robert, after another gallery turns down the artist’s work. Sam then comes up with a solution that appeases Mapplethorpe’s need to show all his work or none of it.
The film feels like a time capsule, entering both the pre-AIDS and early-AIDS days with a headlong, eyes open wide documentary rush. But it remains very much rooted in dramatics and narrative flow, and it leaves you yearning to know even more about its subject and to revisit his work. Mostly, though, it leaves you with a sense of loss — loss of the photographs never made, the spark of creativity snuffed out by a man’s sexual desires that, at one point, make him out to be as cold as ice: before going out on a sexual encounter, his brother exclaims, “Don’t you care about spreading it?” to which Robert darkly replies, “That’s up to them, not me.” The honesty and lack of sugar-coating is unsettling.
One can only hope that Timoner finds more subjects to give this kind of respectful, brutally honest treatment to. Regardless, in Mapplethorpe, she has created a masterpiece of her very own. —Randy Shulman
Reel Affirmations 25 runs from Thursday, Nov. 1 to Sunday, Nov. 4, at the Gala Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Single show tickets are $12. Festival passes range from $35 for a three-film pass to $65 for a six-film pass to $150 for all films. Passes include priority and reserved seating. Additional options available that include entry to the filmmaker receptions. Visit thedccenter.org/reelaffirmations for more details or to purchase tickets or call 202-682-2245.