Metro Weekly

Reel Affirmations 30: All the Reviews!

Reviews of every single feature, documentary, and short in the 2023 Reel Affirmations LGBTQ film festival.

 

Follow The Protocol --Photo: Renato Galamba
Follow The Protocol –Photo: Renato Galamba

FOLLOW THE PROTOCOL

Friday, Oct. 20, 3 p.m.

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The days of masks, distancing, and endlessly googling symptoms may be long gone for many, but not in FΓ‘bio Leal’s Follow the Protocol, set during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Brazilian filmmaker, who writes, directs, and stars as protagonist Francisco, opens on a familiar pandemic scene: the mind-numbing nothingness of being stuck indoors. Francisco putters about his small apartment, watering plants and sorting his antidepressants, while muted environmental sounds filter in from outside. But Francisco isn’t just an idle isolator — instead, he’s also enforcing lockdown on others.

During a video call with distanced — and distant — lover Ronaldo (Marcus Curvelo), Francisco is branded the “Instagram inspector” for spending his days calling out friends for daring to break protocols and have sex — a hyperlocal Gays Over Covid, of sorts. Naturally, that much piety leads to hypocrisy; after Ronaldo admits to cheating and the pair become permanently socially distanced, Francisco has one thing on his mind: sex.

His paranoia about Covid-19 leads him to search for information on safer sex during the pandemic — something enough people were doing at the time that New York City put out official guidance, which Francisco eagerly follows. Reaching out to an old flame, he arranges a hookup in possibly the least sexiest way possible: “Would you like to fuck following ALL the protocols.”

In a scene lifted straight out of Dexter, Francisco seals off the apartment, erecting a giant plastic sheet between him and his suitor. Enter a bemused Raul (Paulo CΓ©sar Freire), who follows Francisco’s many protocols in anticipation of finally feeling some physical contact.

Both actors excel here, in what is arguably the film’s strongest moment. Francisco rattles off guidance on safer sex positions while reaching out to caress Raul’s chest, but once the two men touch through the sheet his voice falters, and from there it’s a slow, sensual, passionate breakdown of the literal barrier between them, until they’re naked save for N95 masks.

Leal’s film doesn’t shy from nudity or sex, nor does he shy from the desperation many felt to have physical touch at a time when such things were borderline criminal. But even in the heat of the moment, Francisco can’t shake that concern — a slipped mask leads to an abrupt halt. When Raul removes it entirely, he’s told to leave.

However, after this strong encounter, the film starts to meander, bouncing Francisco between Covid-obsessing and sexual desire. Leal’s narrative tone also vacillates between comedic and dramatic, as if uncertain of how to portray the subject matter. At one point, a hookup silences Francisco’s Covid-panicking by commanding, “Shut up and suck my dick.” Moments later, that same hookup is telling an emotional story about a hospitalized elderly couple.

Leal’s more avant-garde elements also clash with the quiet contemplation that exists elsewhere, and his use of digital media cheapens rather than enhances — that early video call is presented entirely one-sided, runs for too long, and the quality seems lifted straight from Zoom. While this may be deliberate, it looks amateur rather than auteur, and kills the film’s opening momentum.

Follow the Protocol could have been a funny, touching, and impactful short film, tightly edited to evoke the dilemma between personal desire and public responsibility that many felt during the pandemic. Indeed, Francisco and Raul’s encounter will hit hard for anyone who took that risk during the height of the pandemic. Instead, stretched out over 70 minutes, Leal’s film loses its impact. While undeniably sexy and evocative, much like the pandemic itself, it overstays its welcome. —Rhuaridh Marr

CRITIC’S PICK

NORWEGIAN DREAM

Friday, Oct. 20, 5 p.m.

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Young love is a well-trodden theme in LGBTQ cinema, but rarely is it depicted with such quiet assuredness as in this standout international feature. Norwegian Dream centers on 19-year-old Robert (a dazzling Hubert Milkowski), the latest Polish immigrant to land on the Norwegian island of Sotra and the newest worker at a fish factory already stuffed to the gills with Polish transplants. We’re offered little information as wide-eyed Robert is put into his uniform and assigned a mentor, Ivar (Karl Bekele Steinland), who gets him up to speed with the cutting and gutting.

The film’s trajectory becomes clear when Robert’s Polish comrades, led by roommate Marek (Jakub Seirenberg), tease and make racist jokes about Ivar as he dances in the factory car park during a break. Robert hangs back, studying Ivar with barely concealed intrigue, a trend that continues into the group’s raucous night out after a long shift. Robert drinks and watches Ivar — a gaze that is returned when the alcohol takes over and Robert breaks out of his shell just enough to let loose on the dancefloor.

You can probably guess where this is going, but don’t let the familiar “young love in a tough place” narrative fool you. Yes, Robert is struggling with the homophobia of his home country, and the potential threat that any one of his Polish roommates could display similar traits. And when Ivar turns out to be the factory-owner’s adopted son, it’s clear there’s a class divide at play as well.

However, rather than give into schmaltz, writers Justyna Bilik, Gjermund Gisvold, and Radoslaw Paczocha have instead crafted a substantive, multi-threaded narrative that quickly fleshes out Robert’s troubled backstory. There’s the potential budding love story with Ivar at the film’s center, of course, but the film gradually introduces an impending strike by the factory’s mistreated migrant workers, alongside the imminent arrival of Robert’s mother, similarly seeking to escape Poland and only adding to his woes.

Throughout all of this, Milkowski delivers a powerful performance, carrying the film on a wave of carefully restrained emotion. The actor’s expressive eyes wordlessly convey the anguish churning within the young man as he negotiates multiple warring issues at once, carefully choosing when to be himself and when to retreat to his internal safe space.

A standout moment comes when Ivar convinces Robert to be his DJ for what transpires to be a drag show, with Ivar as the star. Milkowski convinces thoroughly as a young man tentatively stepping into new — and potentially safe — territory, as brooding gives way to joy, and then develops into palpable longing as Robert finds himself close to Ivar, helping zip him into his outfit.

Steinland more than holds his own as the bold, emotive Ivar, delivering his share of a palpable chemistry when the pair finally allow sparks to fly. The supporting cast around them are similarly strong, particularly Edyta Torhan as Robert’s mother, Maria, who quickly blows his budding new life apart.

Throughout, director Leiv Igor Devold keeps both his actors and the stunning, chilly Norwegian landscapes around them under tight control. Devold and cinematographer Patryk Kin blend the raw beauty of a Scandi noir with the intimate, small-scale intensity of God’s Own Country — a film with which Norwegian Dream shares more than a passing resemblance.

The end result is a film that feels very familiar, but also wonderfully fresh at the same time. There are few surprises in how Norwegian Dream ends, or how it gets there, but the journey is delightful all the same. Far from a derivative nightmare, Norwegian Dream more than lives up to its name. —Rhuaridh Marr

CRITIC’S PICK

KENYATTA: DO NOT WAIT YOUR TURN

Friday, Oct. 20, 7 p.m.

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It’s easy to fall in love with Pennsylvania State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, the star of Timothy Harris’s Kenyatta: Do Not Wait Your Turn, a behind-the-scenes documentary chronicling some of the key moments from the Philadelphia Democrat’s 2022 U.S. Senate campaign. Harris’s storytelling, and the way in which he introduces his protagonist in the film’s first few minutes — juxtaposing Kenyatta’s pitch to Democratic State Committee members with those of his chief primary opponents — is so compelling that viewers are likely to find themselves drawn to, and perhaps even silently cheering for, Kenyatta.

In the film, Kenyatta occupies the role of undisputed underdog in the Senate race. His two foes for his party’s nomination — now-U.S. Sen. John Fetterman and U.S. Congressman Conor Lamb — have the money, the name recognition, the carefully-cultivated political profiles, the arguments about what makes them “electable” in a swing state, the backing of state party officials, and a class of fawning pundits ready to spin the facts in their favor.

By contrast, Kenyatta is a gay Black man, representing a district marred by gun violence, where the average income is a meager $9,000 a year — the third poorest in the entire state. He does not have a class of donors on which he can rely to fund his campaign. His name recognition, especially to casual voters, is nonexistent. He’s significantly to the left of both the populist Fetterman and the telegenic, corporate-style Democrat Lamb. But what sets him apart are his fervent progressive beliefs, and a speaking-style that is both engaging and uplifting.

After being treated to a short primer on the politics of Pennsylvania, director Harris outlines the stakes for the upcoming federal election, casting the seat as the one on which control of the U.S. Senate hinges. National and local Democrats, from the party elites to rank-and-file voters, are almost rabid in their desire to win the seat at all costs. But first they must answer the question: Which candidate has the surest chance of winning the general election?

Embracing a cinΓ©ma vΓ©ritΓ© style of filmmaking, Harris examines a multitude of issues influencing political campaigns, gently, yet constantly, nudging and prodding viewers to examine, or re-examine, the very concept of “electability.” He casts the traditional political wisdom of who is viewed as “electable” as deeply flawed, and heavily influenced by latent racial and class biases.

Throughout, Kenyatta serves as the “everyman,” a stand-in for Americans without proximity to wealth or power. It’s through Kenyatta’s eyes that we are treated to the absurdities of our political system, especially how the media cover elections. We’re treated to a barrage of news clips focusing on what Kenyatta dubs “non-serious” issues, as reporters praise Fetterman’s casual style of dress — he wears hoodies! — his blunt style of speaking, his larger-than-life stature and personality, and — in one particular cringey moment — MSNBC anchor Kasie Hunt (now with CNN) asking Fetterman why he prefers Sheetz over Wawa as his favorite convenience store.

Harris, to his credit, keeps the film moving despite touching on myriad issues affecting a political campaign, from the quality and dearth of coverage to fundraising difficulties to the question of whether candidates must compromise their values in order to win elections. The brief treatment that those issues receive raise so many other questions, and the film is so engaging, that it feels like Harris could have released a multi-hour alternative “political junkies cut” of the film exploring them in depth without any fear of losing viewers’ interest.

But Do Not Wait Your Turn is as much about Kenyatta the man as it is about Kenyatta the candidate. In the moments off the campaign trail, out of the spotlight, and off-camera, we see a more vulnerable Kenyatta. We see his relationship with his fiancΓ©, Dr. Matt Miller, flourish despite the myriad pressures of a political campaign. We see Miller’s touching “counter-proposal,” their wedding ceremony, their small, post-wedding reception in a gay bar, and Miller providing emotional stability for Kenyatta in the most trying of times.

As the days count down to the Democratic primary, viewers are shown statistics tracking Kenyatta’s relatively stagnant performance in polls and his miniscule growth in fundraising. Even as it dawns on viewers that this uphill climb is likely to be fruitless, Kenyatta is such a likable protagonist that one can’t help but to will him forward, hoping, perhaps in vain, for some change in fortune. –John Riley

Birder
Birder

BIRDER

Friday, Oct. 20, 11 p.m.

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If you like your horror films with an abundance of nudity — much of it full-frontal and showing what appear to be authentic (or really well-faked) erections — and rough sex that isn’t quite pornographic but still leaves little to the imagination, Birder should fit the bill nicely. If, however, you like your horror films to contain a bit of suspense, terror, and — god forbid — logic, perhaps look elsewhere.

Birder, written without so much as an intelligent thought by Amnon Lourie and directed with insipidity and flatness by Nate Dushku, is the story of a very handsome, undeniably creepy psycho killer (Michael Emery, the best thing about the movie), who is presumably hiking the country, strangling tricks he meets in the woods. What fun!

He wanders into a New Hampshire gay, clothing-optional campground over a Labor Day weekend and starts picking off everyone he bangs — without anyone (not even the absurdly friendly, drug-dealing ranger) getting suspicious as to why people have gone missing. “Have you seen so and so?” “No, he’s probably just somewhere on a walk.” Convenient.

Birder comes custom-stocked with idiotic lines like “Tomorrow is not a sure thing,” and approaches its subject matter with such a dull, serious tone that you ache for a just a little bit of camp.

Horror filmmaking should at least attempt to create an atmosphere of fear, terror, or dread — at best a combination of all three. Birder fails the test — it’s an interesting idea that absolutely nothing is done with, save showing people naked and dead. And while it’s gorgeously photographed, shots of the woods, lake, and loons only go so far.

To add insult to everything, Birder features a final, rushed ten minutes — and a profoundly stupid kicker ending — that drives home what a waste of 90 minutes it is. You want nudity, erections, and sex? Watch Pornhub. —Randy Shulman

OUT OF UGANDA

Saturday, Oct. 21, 1 p.m.

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The horrific oppression faced by Uganda’s LGBTQ community is not a new documentary-film topic. The 2010 episode of Vanguard, “Missionaries of Hate,” comes to mind. Or 2013’s God Loves Uganda. Nor is Uganda alone in its horrific oppression of the Queer community, though it’s probably easier for documentary film crews to operate in Uganda than in, say, Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Still, there are a variety of ways to come at this heartbreaking subject, and Out of Uganda has its own particular view.

“This film project arose from curiosity about African refugees seeking support from ‘Queeramnesty’ in Zurich,” read the production notes provided by French Outplay Films, as translated by ChatGPT.

Accordingly, the film bounces between Uganda and Switzerland. In Switzerland, we meet three Ugandan asylum seekers, Hussein, Philip, and Lynn, respectively identifying as bisexual, gay, and lesbian. In Uganda, we meet Shammy, a transgender woman, exiled from her home village. There’s also the Swiss bureaucrat offering insight on the asylum process, and a few unfortunate Ugandans affirming their belief that LGBTQ people need to be oppressed if not simply executed.

In Uganda, we also see a bit of Dr. Frank Mugisha, who holds one of the planet’s most perilous jobs as head of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). There’s also Justine Baraya, the hero who runs the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum legal-aid clinic “for LGBT people, sex workers and people who use drugs.” And family members of those featured LGBTQ Ugandans in the film.

Scenes move to and fro, perhaps speaking with Philip’s sister, sharing how his identity and exile have left the family shunned in their home village; then onto a street preacher offering his interpretation of Leviticus; then Lynn walking by a snowy Swiss lake.

In all, the stories are presented in a sort of loose postmodern narrative. Where are we going, exactly? What is this person’s connection to that person? A name may be revealed at some point, even if not till the credits. Which village is this? We may never know. This is not a news documentary. The evocative cinematography of a sheer curtain lazily billowing near a vase of flowers or of light streaming through a window onto a spare table sets the mood. Then again, that mood can change, as now we’re frolicking through Zurich Pride. Are we meant to resent these merrymakers, seemingly carefree in one the world’s richest countries?

As the filmmakers offer in their notes, “We don’t have the answers. We only ask the questions.”

Indeed. The point of Out of Uganda is seemingly not to serve as any kind of call to action. It’s not a promotion for any particular organization. The roots of Ugandan bigotry are not examined with a sociologist’s scrutiny. Rather, it’s an intimate peek into the lives of several people trying to keep their heads above water as the hate pours down, or to reclaim a sense of home as they tread water endlessly in an asylum-seeking sea.

It may well leave you feeling helpless and heartbroken, but Out of Uganda also shares the lives of people many of us will likely find simultaneously alien yet absolutely relatable. It’s a world you may not want to enter, but the filmmakers have taken great effort to make you welcome in it. –Will O’Bryan

CRITIC’S PICK

LUISE

Saturday, Oct. 21, 3 p.m.

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A quiet, magnificent storm from director Matthias Luthardt, Luise seems to mourn itself before it even begins. Set in rural Alsace during the waning weeks of the First World War, we observe the solitary Luise, a young woman barely beyond girlhood, left to carry on her family’s smallholding after the recent death of her mother.

Played with an extraordinary sensibility by Luise Aschenbrenner, Luise may exude the capability of a life of physical labor, but her dark, vacant gaze is that of someone left suddenly, completely alone in the world. As it does throughout this beautifully shot film, the nature surrounding Luise is given in unhurried, mesmerizing detail. It is captivating, but also quietly suggestive of the struggle between those who will survive and those who won’t.

As night falls, first one and then another visitor arrives from the woods. The first is Elsa, who has fled after being attacked by a soldier, the second is the injured soldier Hermann, who witnessed the attack. As Luise manages her unexpected visitors and their separate perils, a superbly-paced emotional triangle begins to emerge.

With exquisite subtlety, Luise — caught between grief, fear and a yearning to engage with the mysteries of adulthood — awakens. Thus begins a love story cradled in the trauma of war’s moral injuries and what it does to the soul.

As Elsa, Christa Theret’s performance is a study in understatement as she gently, confidently courts Luise, while Leonard Kunz delivers his man with a pitch-perfect blend of awkward need that morphs into something wholly else. Director Luthardt is beyond deft in what he brings from this phenomenal trio, while the photography of Lotta Kilian indulges in light — be it the dark of a wood, the pale brightness of a field or the glow of candles. Faces are framed like beautiful old paintings that leave you wondering, “What could they have been thinking at this moment?” Because this is — like all great filmmaking — one that shows rather than tells, and the effect comes like the rumbling of distant thunder.

When the storm finally arrives, rife with human failings and all the crushing cruelties made in the name of religion and its attendant, repressive mores, it feels inevitable. —Kate Wingfield

Aikane -- Image: The Kumu Hina Project
Aikane — Image: The Kumu Hina Project

BEST OF SHORTS

Saturday, Oct. 21, 5 p.m.

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This collection of shorts largely lives up to its billing, with some wonderful, emotional, and beautiful moments over its two-hour runtime.

Kicking things off is A History of Sitting in Waiting Rooms (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†), a McDonald’s-funded short film that offers similarly empty calories. Writer and director Lorena Russi stars as a woman navigating her burgeoning butch identity with the help of Civil War ghost Boo (Adam Jepsen). It’s an amusing eight-minute romp, but there’s barely time to get invested before the whole thing wraps.

With its heady mix of vintage filmmaking, beautiful scenery, and good old-fashioned cruising, A King, Gazing at the Sea (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…) is more substantial fare. Ousmane (Loic Djani) visits Greece, only to find himself entranced by a handsome local (Lefteris Polychronis) clad in red swim briefs. Djani simmers with intensity throughout, as Ousmane contemplates and cruises his mysterious Greek god while exploring gorgeous, history-speckled landscapes and sun-splashed coastlines.

Writer-director Jean-SΓ©bastien Chauvin’s script contains spare narration and a few verbal exchanges, but Djani speaks volumes with longing eyes that steal long glances, and his chemistry with Polychronis sizzles — especially when those glances are returned. Chauvin has crafted a beautiful homage to classic filmmaking, with a style that evokes ’70s cinema, vintage erotica, and a dash of Call Me By Your Name. A trip to Greece, anyone?

Blending multiple cultures and histories, AIKΔ€NE (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…) — which means intimate friend of the same sex in Hawaiian — is the gorgeously animated tale of a wounded warrior rescued from the ocean by a giant octopus. When the octopus transforms into a handsome young man, the warrior is torn between burgeoning love and his island duty. AIKΔ€NE is rich, beautiful, and leagues better than the usual animated fare.

“I want to be a girl,” declares eight-year-old Simon in Fabien Ara’s French-language short Fairyocious (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†). The adults in Simon’s life, including his mother and her neighbors, have no clue how to process this declaration. What follows is an initially amusing discussion of stereotypes and bad takes, before the conversation gets darker and darker as more people become involved. An extremely relevant film, one brilliantly executed by its cast.

We stay in France for L’Apprenante (The Learner) (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†), a breezy short steeped in ’90s style. An American woman living in Paris recounts her weekend during French lessons, including a suitably French encounter with a woman at a party. Angelique Kalani Axelrode’s short is tightly made, with a wonderful aesthetic, although its brief runtime stops it from earning any extra credit.

Threatening to live up to its name, Nothing Special (β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†β˜†) follows two young men in England as they meet, flirt, and then head back to a hotel room to continue the night. Director Mikko Makela injects a twist at just the right moment, but that renewed momentum is quickly derailed by a spectacularly stilted performance from one of the leads. Sadly, Nothing Special was correct all along.

Unintentionally one of the most relevant films at this year’s festival, Soft Sign (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†) is set in Israel on the eve of the 1996 election that catapulted Benjamin Netanyahu to power. Natalie, a Russian immigrant, and Amir, a Palestinian director, are interviewing people about the election when they meet young Russians Olya and Alyosha. What follows is a blend of the political and the erotic, as the quartet explore occupation, Soviet homophobia, and one another. Strong acting and tangible chemistry elevates this short, while current affairs add an unfortunate extra edge.

Closing out the program, The Art of Making The Simple, Complicated (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†) thankfully keeps things very simple with its Spanish-language tale of 25-year-old Makos trying to come out to her Mexican mother. Maria Jose Noriega, who co-wrote and directed with Karla Enriqueta Noriega, lends whimsical energy to Makos’s struggle, as the “right time” never seems to come. Very relatable, and, thankfully, very watchable. —Rhuaridh Marr

THE ACCIDENT

Saturday, Oct. 21, 7 p.m.

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It’s not uncommon to bike in a major metropolis, but even for seasoned, experienced riders, it’s not always the safest choice of transportation. This is made especially riskier if you are an expectant mother like Joana, the protagonist at the center of Brazilian director Bruno Carboni’s The Accident.

Moments after the film opens in Porto Alegre, the capital city of Brazil’s Rio Grande, it is clear that an ominous event will unfold. Carboni’s muted colors, along with composer Maria Beraldo’s eerie clarinet-heavy score, assures us that this won’t be light fare. Elaine (Gabriela Greco), in a hurry to get home with her introverted and kind son Maicon (Luis Felipe Xavier), abruptly and intentionally cuts off Joana as she pedals along the rain drizzled highway. (Safety note: it’s an even less intelligent choice to bike in a congested area with headphones, Joana.)

With fierce defiance, Joana confronts an obviously unhinged Elaine at the next intersection to confront her aggressor. She stands directly in front of her vehicle, confident that Elaine won’t accelerate. Seconds later, Joana finds herself on the hood of Elaine’s car, holding on for dear life in a scenario that could have ended in tragedy. Meanwhile, Maicon has captured the entire event on his phone and will soon upload it online.

We’re never sure why Joana lies to her partner, CecΓ­lia (Carina Sehn) about the gender of the driver, but neither Cecilia nor the doctor think it wise for Joana to continue biking. Although most others would pursue legal action, Joana instead forges a connection with Elaine, who is currently going through a divorce with her husband ClΓ©ber (Marcello Crawshaw). Is it an act of compassion and understanding that Joana integrates herself into the broken family? It’s unclear.

None of the characters in Carboni’s film, which he co-wrote with Marcela Ilhar Bordin, seem happy. All of them carry world-weary discontent on their faces, including Maicon, whose mother suspects that he might be gay. The Accident is strictly character driven and the audience must work to determine and decipher everyone’s motivation. Still, the tale plays out like a noir film with mystery and quiet intensity. It further highlights how one incident befalling one individual can change the course of several lives. One simply wishes for a bit more clarity, explanation, and a slightly faster pace. —Ryan Leeds

OUR SON

Saturday, Oct. 21, 9 p.m.

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An attempt at a Kramer vs. Kramer-style custody battle through the lens of a gay marriage, Our Son offers an interesting premise and a semi-notable cast, but not much more. The biggest obstacle is a script that more often than not sounds like a 1980s soap opera. In what universe do lines like, “Sometimes I feel like you don’t appreciate my work” and “I’ve met somebody — somebody I have feelings for” pass for the way human beings talk?

What further irks is the improbable lack of emotional history between the couple. Nicky (Luke Evans) and Gabriel (Billy Porter) have supposedly been together for more than a decade and yet somehow they appear never to have discussed their parenting styles, let alone had it out after a sleepless night over piles of diapers and a fussing baby. Moving among their modern, clutter-less rooms, they seem like two actors who’ve just been handed an index card telling them who they are what they are supposed to represent mere moments before the camera rolls.

There are overlong pauses, awkward expository, bombshells left unanswered, and the patently wooden. After Nicky reveals to his parents that he’s about to embark on a potentially devastating custody battle with Gabriel, his mother winces for a nanosecond before moving on with, “There’s more cake inside if you want some.” If this was meant to convey a woman defaulting to the familiar in the face of emotional turmoil, it didn’t just miss the boat, it missed the turn off to the lake.

Frankly, watching Our Son is like dealing with a bouncer at the door. You can see there’s something important going on and you’d quite like to find out what it is, but you just can’t get past the awkward bulk in the way. What does emerge often feels out of context and proportion. When Nicky reconnects with his single life, for example, his hookup feels like an erotically-charged red herring that borders on the gratuitous.

There are tantalizing glimpses of what Our Son might have been. The custody meeting between Nicky and Gabriel and their lawyers comes to life with some genuine engagement. Likewise, though usually in a vacuum, the actors occasionally emote with an authenticity that would have moved the needle in a more fully conceived work. Bill Oliver’s movie remains a missed opportunity, leaving a host of complexities yet to be given their due. —Kate Wingfield

LE BEAU MEC

Saturday, Oct. 21, 11 p.m.

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Showing with…

CRITIC’S PICK

SAFE WORD

Saturday, Oct. 21, 11 p.m.

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If you’re in the mood for some retro raunch, Le Beau Mec — essentially The Handsome Dude — may well deliver. If you’d like your retro raunch to be fully close-up ejaculatory, unintentionally campy, and French, Le Beau Mec absolutely delivers. Much like The Pizza Boy, to offer an apropos porn pun.

This 4K digital restoration is still gritty. Much like the “plot,” it is often out of focus. Le Beau Mec is certainly more ambitious than a simple 8mm porn “loop” of yesteryear. There are sets. Somebody wrote what might be considered dialogue. There’s even a wee bit of cabaret choreography. (The aforementioned unintentional camp. And “choreography” is being very generous.)

As a plain ol’ movie, Le Beau Mec is pretty bad. You can’t help but expect the legendary and late Divine to pop into a scene, circa Female Trouble. After 45 minutes or so, you really wish she would. The dialogue is bizarre, framed as a voiceover interview with the title’s mec, Karl Forest. The subtitles do their best, but the dubbed English voiceover is wooden to the point of distraction. Perhaps that’s part of its charm?

As erotica, it’s decent. Forest is certainly hot. His scars — one on his lip, and the remnant of a serious gouge on a butt cheek — are endearing. One imagines he got them zipping about on a little motorcycle, as he’s filmed doing in an unfocused, nighttime bit of Parisian travelog. Around Place de la Concorde…. And around Place de la Concorde…. And around….

Regardless, Forest is attractive, as are others in the movie. Le Beau Mec can easily hold its ground against any number of same-era “Falcon Video Pacs,” though it’s not quite as engaging as the American gay-porn trilogy of the same era, Kansas City Trucking Co., El Paso Wrecking Corp., and L.A. Tool & Die.

As something unique, however, there is an argument for Le Beau Mec. Simply, it’s a creation all its own. If there is another film in existence featuring an enthusiastic client fellating a cigarette-smoking sex worker to the overzealous point of rubbing off his toupee on that hustler’s scrotum, well, blow me down.

A WW1-themed striptease featuring a German spiked helmet? A camera panning over various offerings in a 1970s Parisian sex shop? There is so much here you won’t find elsewhere. Le Beau Mec may not feature outstanding production values. Or writing, or sound, or acting…. But for some idea of what it may have been like to be a confident, blessedly sex-positive gay man at the dawn of gay liberation, prior to the AIDS pandemic, in late 1970s France, now’s your chance.

Le Beau Mec is preceded by the locally-made short, Safe Word, for which there are no end of adjectives. The short is immediately curious, then seductive. It is captivating, then gripping. And it’s so very pretty.

While a mere 15 minutes, the team behind Safe Word have delivered an abundance. The camera framing alone is obviously thoughtful. To that, add dialogue that evolves from sparse to intimately confessional. The original sore by Ryan Walsh provides perfect accompaniment to this intense tale, with light and hopeful notes, then powerful when appropriate.

While the few scenes all occur in a single attic loft, director Christopher Cunetto takes his audience on a journey. Is it self-discovery? A relationship moving in an unpredictable direction? A voyage of sexual exploration?

It is surprising to find yourself on the edge of your seat, so immediately drawn into the trappings of what seems on its surface to be a simple scenario. A safe word, a tangerine, and a rope. One man’s home, another man enters. Your imagination will immediately begin to autofill scenarios, but Safe Word will likely veer off course of whatever you’ve plotted. That’s not to say the twists are earth-shattering. This little film mostly savors nuance — until it doesn’t.

Special mention must be given to the film’s two actors: Jonathan Adriel as Bear and Mauricio Pita as Cesar. Each is individually mesmerizing. Together, their interplay is nearly breathtaking.

If a safe word is designed to stop the action, the irony of Safe Word is that its greatest attribute is that you very much want it to continue. –Will O’Bryan

Coming Around — Photo: Sandra Itäinen

COMING AROUND

Sunday, Oct. 22, 1 p.m.

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Sandra ItΓ€inen’s graceful, slice-of-life documentary follows Emna Abdelhedi, a young Muslim woman living in New York City, where she has found safe harbor with a group of like-minded queers. Emna is struggling with coming out to her mother, whom she visits frequently in Columbia, Missouri. Their encounters, often fraught with generational divide, particularly when it comes to the interpretation of devotion to Islam, are nevertheless loving, the bond between mother and daughter sturdy. Emna’s sister, with three rambunctious young children scurrying about, also comes into play, but it feels like a side note compared to the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Coming Around.

A fly on the wall, ItΓ€inen captures some remarkably intimate moments, but the film drags for the first 40 minutes as Emna struggles with her own identity as a queer woman to the point of tedium. Eventually, she begins dating a man, and her personal journey takes surprising turns. It’s unclear — to us and even to Emna — if she is trying to force herself into a mold expected of her or if she is truly bisexual, even to the point where she wonders if she’s beset by “imposter syndrome.” The movie inevitably frames a possible answer to this question in one of its most emotionally devastating moments.

Visually, the documentary is the equivalent of silk; it’s both tonally and texturally rich. Cinematographer Uwa Iduozee masterfully contrasts the grimy, neon vibrancy of New York with the muted, bland starkness of the midwest, the contrast serving to further the point of Eman’s two separate lives.

Coming Around is less a coming-out story than it is, as the title suggests, a paean to acceptance for both daughter and mother, and if it shortchanges us on one critical scene, it at least attempts to make up for it with a final encounter that is steeped in serenity, authenticity, and love. —Randy Shulman

All the Colors of the World Are Between Black and White
All the Colors of the World Are Between Black and White

ALL THE COLORS OF THE WORLD ARE BETWEEN BLACK AND WHITE

Sunday, Oct. 22, 3 p.m.

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All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White tells the love story of two men, Bambino (Tope Tedela) and Bawa (Riyo David), who meet in Lagos, where the film is set, during a photography competition. While exploring the city, the pair clash and coincide as they fall for each other in a land where LGBTQ relationships are essentially banned.

The Nigerian romantic drama, written and directed by Babatunde Apalowo in his directorial debut, also features Martha Ehinome Orhiere as Ifeyinwa, Bambino’s would-be love interest. All three actors, while they could be better developed, deliver artful and beautiful performances. It is worth noting that All the Colours of the World was in part inspired by Apalowo witnessing, as a university student, the lynching of a bunkmate on the basis of his sexual orientation. It is also worth noting that Apalowo struggled during the film’s production to find the right cast because many actors worried about adverse effects on their careers due to the precarious situation of LGBTQ people in Nigeria.

For the most part, All the Colours of the World excels in depicting forbidden love without being melodramatic. Cinematographer David Wyte’s camerawork makes the men’s intimacy palpable, comparing and contrasting it with the energy and vibrancy of Lagos. However, the film depends too much on the idea that the city itself is a character. For instance, characters in the background are sometimes forced to do the work of moving the plot forward through their own ostensibly unrelated conversations. The leads are often too quiet, robbing the viewer of key opportunities to come to understand their interiority and internal conflict. The existing dialogue is, at the same time, sometimes a little on the nose.

That said, All the Colours of the World‘s leads will captivate and compel you, and leave you dreaming of a more just world. —Rudy Malcom

Before I Change My Mind -- Photo: Sarah Campbell
Before I Change My Mind — Photo: Sarah Campbell

CRITIC’S PICK

BEFORE I CHANGE MY MIND

Sunday, Oct. 22, 5 p.m.

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Set in 1987 Alberta, Canada, Before I Change My Mind opens with Robin (Vaughan Murrae) walking into gym class, wearing a colorful sweater. The boys sit on one side of the room, the girls on the other, as the gym teacher leads an unsuccessful banana-based condom demonstration.

“You’re Robin,” she says, reading at the attendance, “and you are… American!” In director Trevor Anderson’s hilarious feature debut, whether the nonbinary protagonist — who proceeds to sit a comfortable distance away from peers — hails from Mars or Venus is less important than their literal place of origin: the United States (more specifically Spokane, Washington). Robin’s peers soon stop asking whether they’re a boy or a girl and come to accept that they aren’t limited by the gender binary and that they’re, well, Robin.

Indeed, their musical teacher tells them, in one of many of the film’s laugh-out-loud moments, “You can be whatever you want to be in life. Here we only have saxophones.”

And Robin has their own drum, too. They navigate their new environment with poise and grace, masterfully befriending Carter (Dominic Lippa), the school bully, who seems to be going through more of an identity crisis than Robin, and enmeshing themself in the small town’s ecosystem, in and out of the classroom.

Robin is an anthropologist and artist coming of age who doesn’t need to come out of the closet, and who also doesn’t need a mother (aside from the occasional well-timed flashback). Nevertheless, Robin does get their hands dirty, sometimes playing the part of the bully not out of necessity, but because they knows from acute observations how to.

Robin even gets enthralled in an enthralling love triangle when they and Carter, in a highlight of the film, join the local community theater’s funky production of Mary Magdalene: Video Star (yes, that’s a spin on Jesus Christ Superstar) and meet the musical’s starlet Izzy (Lacey Oake).

When Izzy, being made by her friends to feel guilty about shoplifting, asks Robin, “Do you think it’s wrong to steal a $4 lipstick from a giant corporation that owns the whole world?”, Robin replies, “Is it a good color?”

Robin’s explorations of their identity and their place in the world (and Izzy’s too) are fascinating, and are just one reason Before I Change My Mind — a film that will make you laugh and cry in the same breath — is worth watching. —Rudy Malcom

CRITIC’S PICK

QUEENDOM

Sunday, Oct. 22, 7 p.m.

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Angii Galdanova manages to pull off several remarkable feats with Queendom. For starters, the film introduces the world to a drag queen from the farthest reaches of Russia — specifically, the industrial town of Magadan in northeastern Siberia, a frigid outpost of the Soviet gulag. Gena, as the queen is known, is well worth getting to know, and she’s well-served by Galdanova’s documentary, which portrays her in such a compelling and sensitive light as to render any viewer an immediate fan.

More than that, though, Queendom provides a rare, candid glimpse into the tremendous plight and serious peril of Russians who identify as LGBTQ. And things have only gotten worse since filming wrapped, with the passage late last year of an official ban on all LGBTQ “propaganda,” effectively making it a crime to be openly queer or to show queer-identified people in anything but a negative light — punishable by hefty fines and the very real threat of imprisonment. Fortunately, that fate won’t befall Queendom, which was funded by French and American producers, including the Sundance Institute, or its Russian makers, now living as refugees elsewhere.

Fundamentally, Queendom wisely keeps the focus on providing a slice-of-life portrait of Gena, all drawn from footage spanning several years. Shortly after it starts, we travel with Gena for a 22nd birthday celebration with the grandparents who raised her as an only child. The loving but provincial grandparents struggle to understand Gena’s nonbinary and queer identity, and even more her chosen pursuit of a career as a provocative makeup artist and drag performer with minimal and inconsistent compensation. Understandably, their complicated relationship becomes a key recurring theme in the film.

Queendom is interspersed throughout with captivating, wildly expressive, and physically rigorous performances by Gena, metaphorically evoking the pain and struggles she’s experienced or witnessed, and artfully staged for the camera at various dramatic locations in Russia.

Yet the most riveting scenes are those in which Galdanova merely follows Gena as she makes her way around, invariably turning heads by virtue of wearing the most exaggeratedly monstrous and eerily out-of-this world attire that all-but force even the most unobservant of passersby to notice.

The dramatic tension builds as Queendom progresses, with things coming to a head shortly after the start of war in Ukraine and a major antiwar protest that Gena, in full Russian flag-inspired tricolor regalia, participates in.

The film climaxes with a heated and emotional phone call between the grandparents and Gena, followed by a video performance of Gena struggling to free herself from the plastic that has been tightly wrapped around her body like a straightjacket — which serves as a metaphorical omen of her real-life circumstances. –Doug Rule

At the End of Evin -- Photo: Francesca Breccia
At the End of Evin — Photo: Francesca Breccia

AT THE END OF EVIN

Virtual Festival

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We often take advantage of our queer privilege in ways many spend their entire lives hoping for. In Iran, a place not known for its pro-LGBTQ attitudes, queerness is something you hide, and hope never comes out, but that doesn’t erase it. So then the question becomes, what would you do to achieve your queer dreams of being who you are in a place that would rather have you killed? At the End of Evin, written and directed by Mehdi and Mohammad Torab-Beigi, concedes that sometimes, even the worst deals might be worth it.

The film is told entirely from Amen’s (Mehri Kazemi) point-of-view, meaning we never genuinely see their face. We first encounter Amen on the road with Nilo (Shabnam Dadkhah) on the road to meet Naser (Mahdi Pakdel), a wealthy man willing to help pay for Amen’s transition surgery. However, as things progress, Amen begins to realize that Naser isn’t entirely being truthful about the deal, even as everyone around assures them they are safe, and that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Amen to get this life-affirming surgery. The harsh reality becomes choosing between this dream and potentially being imprisoned.

The film is seeped in shaky and tense scenes, all pointing toward a greater paranoia that something terrible will happen. Primarily told in one location, At the End of Evin perfectly captures Amen’s fear, even as we only hear their voice. While the prison aspect is saved for the latter half, it’s not hard to understand the overall menacing threat of being unable to exist as they want freely. The prison metaphor works on multiple levels, displaying Amen’s queerness as a prison of its own and the surgery being the price for that freedom. We only see Amen’s face through shattered mirrors, further emphasizing their broken self.

Amen’s lack of an image also extends to Islamic filmmaking and the queerness within it. The Islamic Prophet Mohammed is not supposed to be depicted in pictures or film, giving Amen’s presence an almost religious tenacity in the face of their fears and the journey they are getting into. The decision also forces us to live through them, with every stare from the other actors piercing deep into the camera until Amen replies.

Despite the tense and constant dread, the film suffers from drawn-out scenes that feel like filler. Conversations tend to drift into excess and highlight the pacing issues, which go against the film’s attempt to make things as tense as possible.

The story does its best when replicating the protagonist’s confusion and fear but doesn’t always nail the way it tries to show it. Nilo is the first character we genuinely get to know, even clearly hiding something. She feels genuine in her attempt to help everyone in her orbit, no matter the cost. Naser is serious and intense, with an almost Hannibal Lecter-like lack of emotion. When he makes rigid demands of Amen, his urgent and severe words feel directly aimed at you and make your heart race.

No matter how imperfectly, At the End of Evin accomplishes what it sets out to do, leaving you with a world of questions. It’s a tense and quietly moving thriller that asks what price a person will pay for freedom. —Mark Young

Finlandia
Finlandia

FINLANDIA

Virtual Festival

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Three generations of gender-variant people known as muxes take pride of place in Horacio AlcalΓ‘’s multifaceted narrative feature Finlandia, primarily set in a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico. In Zapotec culture, muxes are a tight-knit group, most of them assigned male at birth and raised as boys, although starting around the age of puberty they often begin to dress and act in more feminine ways.

Finlandia stars NoΓ© HernΓ‘ndez as the elder muxe Delirio in this village, and she’s happy to shed light and impart wisdom about her culture and experiences, something we see her do chiefly through interactions with the near-puberty Mariano (Γ‰rick Israel Consuelo) and also with Marta (Andrea Guasch), a young fashion designer from Spain.

We first meet Marta at her workplace in her native Madrid. Her boss (Raquel Menor Rodriguez) sends her to Mexico to learn about Oaxacan design so she can then turn around and create designs that copy the styles, only make them “more European.” Shortly after she arrives in town, Marta meets Amaranta (Cuauhtli JimΓ©nez), a muxe who takes a shine to the woman he calls “Blondie.” Soon enough the two become inseparable, to the surprise of many, especially the men for whom Amaranta is often the other woman, as it were. From what we see on film, Marta and Amaranta’s is a tender and sensual kind of love, and their chemistry is sweet and sisterly — extra special.

Because of the fashion tie-in, the camera regularly lingers over and zooms in close on the rich fabrics, exquisite patterns, and vibrant colors of the clothes that the muxes design and wear for themselves. All in all, Finlandia is a sumptuous visual feast, enhanced by AlcalΓ‘’s background working for Cirque du Soleil. It weaves together its multiple strands of plot as it goes along, while leaving some loose narrative ends in a way that makes it feel a bit unfinished.

For example, a major earthquake rocks the town, the aftermath of which we see at the outset, before we even meet the muxes. That natural disaster is used to frame the drama, which ends by offering a bit more insight into who and what is lost in the rubble, and who is given a second chance at life. Otherwise, though, the earthquake seems disconnected to the overall story, as if added on at the last minute to add dramatic tension, but too late to contextualize it further.

Even more problematic is the connection, or lack thereof, to the country that gives the drama its title. As far as we know, not a single person in Finlandia has ever been to that far-away Nordic country, and the only direct connection to it is the mysterious letters that Delirio receives in the mail allegedly written by an old flame who lives there.

But no old flame can hold a candle to all the exotic intrigue and mystery that seems to abound in Oaxaca. You just can’t beat this heat. –Doug Rule

Girls Don't Cry
Girls Don’t Cry

GIRLS DON’T CRY

Virtual Festival

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A nicely produced effort, Girls Don’t Cry is a gentle, somewhat predictable road trip/coming-of-age-and-out story which is more cute than memorable. Riffing on a familiar theme when it comes to teenagers in need of a drama, Ele finds life at home with her mother and her new boyfriend intolerable. When her mother decides to sell the family camper van — a source of iconic family holidays before the death of Ele’s father, Ele decides it’s time for a rebellious, but also nostalgic, road trip. Tagging along is the somewhat mysterious Romanian Mia, a school cleaner with a complicated life. Needless to say, the road trip brings adventures and some catharsis to both.

Although the backstories of each woman — delivered in flashbacks — raises their personal stakes during the road trip, front and center is their evolving relationship, and director Andrea Zuliani does a good job of pacing the past and present. That said, although some may find the nascent romance cute, it does feel more pretty than real. For example, Ele is hardly a wallflower: surely she would have had something to say the morning after?

Of the two leads, Emma Benini’s Ele is certainly mesmerizing and does much with the challenges of delivering a not overly mature 19-year-old. But, despite a troubling past, her character is more descriptive than developed.

The real star turn here is Anastasia Doaga as Mia, embodying a survivor whose heart has been broken almost — but not quite — too many times. Doaga’s woman is exceedingly well-crafted: suggesting a natural self-possession that finally unravels with an utterly convincing despair. If the film feels, in some ways, like it started with the idea of a lesbian romance and the plot came later, Doaga’s performance is so good, it makes it easy to forgive the thinnish narrative. Indeed, when paired with Yuri Casagrande Conti — playing her boyfriend Radu with scene-stealing charism and dimension — one can’t help but hope they will go on to the kind of fully developed drama deserving of their talents.

Ultimately, though attractively and skillfully shot, Girls Don’t Cry is more of a starting point for director Zuliani than a fully formed project. —Kate Wingfield

HOW TO TELL A SECRET

Virtual Festival

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Co-directed by Anna Rodgers and Shaun Dunne and based on Dunne’s 2017 play Rapids, How To Tell A Secret takes on the subject of navigating the social expectations around HIV in Ireland, particularly the subject of disclosure — who do you tell, and when, and most importantly, how do you do it on your terms?

For the film’s subjects, their participation in Dunne’s project is their answer to the question posed by its title. The idea behind the project is that actors deliver the coming-out stories of people living with HIV, putting a human face on the stories while allowing the owners of the stories to maintain their privacy for reasons that are sadly predictable even in a modern, progressive society where HIV is highly treatable but still carries social stigma.

When discussing their need for discretion, they bring up their need to feel safe in their communities, to maintain reputations and relationships with their parents or children, or the simple need not to feel exposed before they are ready.

How To Tell A Secret does follow directly from the play it is based on by showcasing monologues about HIV disclosure, but it also examines the creative process and afterlife of the play, and pans out to examine where exactly modern Irish society is on the subject of HIV.

Dunne and Rodgers play a bit with the documentary format, and the film ends up being as much a documentary about its own making. With such a wide mandate, it comes dangerously close at points to broadening its focus too much, but it remains tight and clips along at a good pace.

Characters and stories emerge readily from the film’s narrative. Dunne himself features prominently, as does a man going by an assumed name whose story we return to throughout. Two Irish activists, Robbie Lawlor and Enda McGrattan (a sometime drag queen who performs under the name Veda) are particularly charismatic and, between the two of them, contribute some of the film’s most entertaining and touching moments.

To the extent that How To Tell A Secret suffers at all, it is in the way it splits focus and occasionally navel-gazes, losing itself in the process of its own creation. To Dunne and Rodger’s credit, the film keeps its focus specifically on the subject of HIV disclosure rather than HIV in general, and assumes a certain base level of familiarity and understanding about the nature of the virus and its social context from its audience.

Many of the conversations will be familiar to people with a familiarity with HIV, either because they have it or know people who do — one participant casually delivers a memorable anecdote about a doctor who said, “I’d rather tell you you were HIV-positive than diabetic because it’s much easier to treat,” a point which the film strongly (and probably correctly) hints that more people need to hear. —Sean Maunier

LEON

Virtual Festival

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Thierry Mugler’s name is synonymous with haute couture. Before his unexpected death in January 2022, Mugler dominated the fashion world, creating looks for Michael Jackson, Grace Jones, Madonna, George Michael and other celebrity icons from the seventies to present day. He also created fragrances that continually rank among the top-selling scents for all sexes.

Unless both individuals are celebrities, it’s common place for the spouse/partner of a well-known personality to be less known-and in some cases, mostly invisible. Such is the case with Krzysztof Leon Dziemaszklewicz, long-time partner to Manfred Thierry Mugler and the subject of director Wojciech Gostomczyk’s documentary Leon.

It’s impossible not to be jolted into a state of awareness within seconds of watching Leon. If you think you’ve seen it all, question whether you’ve ever noticed a full framed, bald, older gentleman painted head to toe in aquamarine body paint with silver lipstick and eye liner, self-adhesive gem stickers, and an elaborate white neck piece made of plastic sewing needles strutting on a beach while he coos and caws like a pigeon.

Performance art is the modus operandi for this Polish artist, whose boyfriend was the late designer. Although the two had what appears to have been a healthy, caring, and loving relationship, there was obviously a sense that Leon would not melt into the background. Instead, he would create his own outlandish looks, many of which involved body paint, honey, soil, and various other elements. The results are quite shocking.

Gostomczyk captures the essence of companionship and intimacy, but he never explains who most of the people are in Leon and Thierry’s orbit. An overly long scene involves their female friend who sings karaoke, but we’re never told who she is or what role she plays for them. The remaining characters are quickly glossed over and we don’t really know why Gostomczyk focuses the camera on them. Nor do we understand why so little time is devoted to Thierry’s death and Leon’s mourning.

Leon is the type of film that will appeal exclusively to fashionistas and/or performance artists. Although it does delve into universal issues that concern the insecurities of aging, depression and substance abuse, and the loss of a partner, it ultimately comes off as too disjointed, bizarre, and avant-garde for a wider audience. —Ryan Leeds

CRITIC’S PICK

QUEER EXILE BERLIN

Virtual Festival Only

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Queer documentaries have been a vital piece of the LGBTQ culture going back decades before Paris is Burning, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Directed by Jochen Hick, Queer Exile Berlin is the final film in a trilogy of documentaries looking at queerness in Berlin throughout its history. Focusing primarily on Berlin immigrants, the film looks at the current and recent struggles of queer people to find their happiness in a new home.

We start with Eunice, a trans woman from Portugal who must travel outside of Germany to get trans-affirming surgery. The young girl’s journey into discovering herself quickly illustrates that this documentary gets into all the hard aspects of queer life that feel similar to life in America.

We also follow Haidar, a Syrian refugee trying to survive as a genderqueer artist; Jean-Ulrick, a Haitian artist that moved to Berlin seeking liberty; Monika, a Polish activist; and Mischa, an Armenian performance artist from Russia. The only non-immigrant is Gloria Viagara, the self-proclaimed “oldest drag queen in Berlin,” who has been protesting since before the AIDS epidemic. The documentary ping pongs back and forth between everyone’s stories, never mixing them but doing its best to give everyone their moment.

With the large number of participants to focus on, keeping track of everything becomes a little confusing, but the film keeps its narrative focused on the journeys it showcases. There is some lack of focus in its overall goal, at points feeling aimless or unsure of what it is presenting, but it understands to grab the good parts and run with them. Some of the stories, like Jean-Ulrick’s, don’t entirely feel like they serve the film as effectively as they could, but nothing becomes too frivolous or unnecessary if a little underutilized. The film has a quiet underlying narrative surrounding the queer Berliners who were alive during the HIV/AIDS epidemic but is only lightly touched upon.

The standout theme of the documentary is the universality of queerness and our neverending goal of equal rights. It’s clear that some places are way luckier than others, but the resilience amongst all of them is everpresent and indefatigable. Haidar’s story about leaving Syria is one of the film’s most resonant, while Monika’s fight for queer equality in Poland is so nervewrackingly courageous that it will make American activists look like daycare workers and could easily hold the entire documentary about herself and her work.

Despite the German setting, the queer struggle in Queer Exile Berlin goes to show how LGBTQ people will always transcend hate. It is an optimistic film that isn’t afraid to show the harsh realities of queer life to thrilling effect. —Mark Young

THE SHARPNESS OF THE SCISSORS

Virtual Festival

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Argentinian director David Marcial Valverdi’s The Sharpness of the Scissors resists easy categorization. It is partly a documentary chronicle of the declining years of the throuple he was part of for seven years and partly personal history of the dating and cruising scene before and after, all interwoven with stories of his own family and personal life. The relaxing of Argentine attitudes towards sexuality are hinted at, but more as an afterthought lingering in the background. Both as a filmmaker and the subject, Valverdi displays a consistent lack of interest in the opinions of strangers.

To go into the film expecting narrative coherence might be missing the point. If Valverdi’s thematic choices seem scattered and somewhat random, he is not only aware, he actively leans into it. His ethos is echoed in the collage-like visuals interspersed throughout the film, with papery animations frequently emerging from grainy home video footage and fly-on-the-wall camera work. Eventually stories do emerge — his sexual awakening via the early dating websites that predated the apps, his supportive grandmother’s declining health, and the tension of a throuple that we know from early on is heading towards its eventual end but that we can’t look away from.

It is no accident, then, that the film reads visually as a sort of moving collage, its pages flipping to return to a dream of a circlejerk in a local park here, home video footage of a haircut there, and drawn-out scenes from the simmering personal drama of a doomed polyamorous relationship throughout. His skill as a director is apparent as he manages to ensure these different threads all gel into something visually and artistically coherent.

The Sharpness of the Scissors stubbornly insists that it be taken on its own terms. It is too complex and too outside convention to pass for an easy watch. At the same time, although it demands a certain amount of attention, it unfolds quickly and unexpectedly enough that it resists intellectualization at the same time. All that’s left to do is experience his intimate portrait of his own life and react at the pace it sets out. —Sean Maunier

Cock N' Bull 3: Rhodes Adloff, Nathan Adloff
Cock N’ Bull 3: Rhodes Adloff, Nathan Adloff

CRITIC’S PICK

FUNNY STUFF (SHORTS)

Virtual Festival Only

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This assortment of comedic shorts is one of the best collections to play in 30 years of Reel Affirmations. Every single film in this curation is like winning a jackpot, over and over and over again.

Things kicks off with Cock N’ Bull 3 (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…), part of a series of zany shorts made by Nathan Adloff and Danny Rhodes, who also star as a pair of “mean gay” flight attendants on an ill-fated flight from L.A. to New York. We know it’s ill-fated, because, in a splendid nod to the TV series Lost, the film opens at a fiery plane crash site, and then backpedals to reveal how things got here. There’s no real structure to the narrative, the movie just bounds along from one insanely funny joke to the next, and it’s stockpiled with familiar faces including Drew Droege, Jim O’Heir (of Parks & Recreation), Kevin Chamberlin, Missi Pyle, and Shawn Ryan, a creepy blast as a homicidal flight attendant.

Cousins (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†) is less an all-out comedy than a sweet, gentle encounter between Omar (Zayn Alexandre) and Layla (Karina Dandashi), two cousins who reunite, each harboring a secret. Layla’s is a bit bigger and gets complicated when an ex-girlfriend shows up at the diner where she and Omar are eating. The movie, written and directed with clarity, efficiency, and heart by Dandashi, follows an expected narrative path, but the performances and the elegant writing give it flight. A sweet, affirming film.

The radiant Israeli blossom Happy Birthgay (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…) is a funny, surprisingly potent film about an overbearing Jewish mother attempting to accept her son’s homosexuality by throwing him a one-year coming out party, complete with a plethora of rainbows and miniature plastic penises.

At first, Niv Manzur’s film struggles to find narrative footing, but then a character enters who changes the dynamics and the film’s point pulls sharply into focus. It knocks the wind out of you, as do the performances by Noam Karmeli, Gilad Merhavi, and, especially, Dorit Lev Ari as a mother who wears her acceptance of her son as a coat of armor that, by the film’s end, falls away, replaced by sheer joy.

What Nyala Moon has created in Dilating for Maximum Effect (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…) is nothing short of an exercise in how to make a jaw-dropping short that not only brings the funny but the smarts. The film’s tone is bright, sunny, and whimsical, and it’s played to the hilt by Moon and a supporting cast whose standout is the masterful Shiya Trotoman, who is never seen but oh-so-very heard.

Moon plays Drea, who has had gender confirmation surgery but is fearful of having physical sex with a man. “I haven’t dilated in 4 years,” she tells her sister, who replies with abundant sass, “Every hole is a go!” The resulting attempt at dilation is comedy at its very best — almost Keaton-esque in its execution — and the film’s conclusion is as satisfying as it is beautiful. A diamond among diamonds.

Mikey’s Army (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†), directed by New York stage star Andrew Keenan-Bolger, and written by Eric Ulloa, is an adorable, brisk coming-out story that exudes sweetness and style. A teen (Mark Aguirre) finds strength in his obsessions — a pop musician (Krystina Alabado), a drag queen (Jesus Martinez), and a hunky movie star (Claybourne Elder, playing dim-witted for all its worth) — all of whom come to “life” in his bedroom to give him tangible advice and fire up his courage to come out to his mother. It’s a frisky, fun take on an oft-told tale, and features an ending that is determined to leave you with the broadest smile possible.

The less said about Troy (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…), the better, because the surprising twists and turns in this clever 16-minute work of genius are better experienced than revealed. Mike Donahue has created one of the most original shorts I’ve ever seen, with an extraordinary narrative flow (again, remarkable for 16 minutes), an achingly funny premise that gives way to genuine poignancy, and two core performances, by Adina Verson and Michael Braun, that carry every moment triumphantly over the finish line. Also, Dana Delaney and Dylan Baker show up in amusing cameos. You really couldn’t ask for a better way to close out this dazzling collection of affirmation by means of amusement. —Randy Shulman

PARENTHOOD (SHORTS)

Virtual Festival Only

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Expecting (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†), by French filmmaker Alice Douard, opens with expectant mother Jeanne (Laetitia Dosch) doing birth exercises as her partner and future co-parent CΓ©line (Clotilde Hesme) watches in amusement. Soon, the two will enter new territory of raising a child. With it, comes all of the uncertainty, confusion, and excitement of giving birth: What will they name the child? Will the birth be done naturally or with an epidural? Will the two make a good parenting team?

The film juxtaposes a lesbian couple against a heterosexual couple, who are also expecting and it makes a subtle statement about gay parenting. Yann (Julien Gaspar-Oliveri) the straight father, asks Celine in the hospital waiting room if everything is alright with her sister. She gently corrects him. Even in our present day, it’s a challenge for many to wrap their heads around same-sex parenting. Yet the nervous anticipation remains the same for any would-be parent regardless of sexual orientation.

Douard captures all of the mixed emotions that such a life changing event can bring in this well-crafted film that affirms the beauty and miracle of childbirth.

Only two actors star in PΓ©riphΓ©rie (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†), a French short from writer/director Thibault Bru. A pregnant Eva (AndrΓ©a Bescond) is three days past her due date. Her doctor suggests that she induce and to wait longer would put her and the baby at risk. In haste, Eva and her girlfriend rush to the hospital. On the drive there, they experience waves of emotions from fear, anxiety, desire for companisonsip, and at one point, hilarity.

Bru’s brief tale paints a brief but realistic portrait of a committed couple that has deep flaws and differences, but anchors their relationship in honesty and love.

A whirlwind of social, cultural, and gender, issues are packed into Lambing (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…), a short film set in rural Ireland that explores what happens when childbirth is met with an unexpected outcome. “You’re going to be a great dad, you know that?” Caoimhe (Johanna O’Brien) tells her husband, David (Fiach Kunz).

But David doesn’t quite know how to handle the newborn once it is diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder. Nor can he escape the demons of his past of his macho father, who pushed him to be more masculine as a young boy. Eventually, the father and son reconcile in a touching scene, but Lambing is a profoundly thought-provoking and excellent movie that raises awareness, bringing compassion to a too-often marginalized group. —Ryan Leeds

QUEER MIRROR (SHORTS)

Virtual Festival Only

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The five short films screening in this program play with concepts of how we view ourselves and the world around us, and in ways that distort, or disturb, more often than they reflect reality. If it’s a mirror we’re looking through, the best we can hope for is that we’re doing so at a funhouse.

Talk about a warped view of things: The French-language Belgian film Duo en sous-sol (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†) could be translated into English as “Underground Duo.” Vinciane Le Men’s stylized and well-acted film focuses, improbably enough, on the duo of a psychoanalyst, called in as a suspect in a homicide of one of her patients, and the manipulative detective leading her tough, unrelenting interrogation, ostensibly down at a police station. Yet all is not what it seems or is said to be in this distorting tΓͺte-Γ -tΓͺte featuring the impossibly seductive pairing of actors Claire Beugnies and Bach Lan LΓͺ Ba Thi. Let’s just say the two are playing a twisted game of their own devising.

The view is similarly disorienting in Ricardo Branco’s Under The Influence (β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†β˜†), this time the result of the drug-induced hijinks that three friends in Portugal get into while staying at a luxurious but isolated villa in the woods. It’s all fun and games until one of them has a hallucinogenic vision of a mythical-like creature immediately outside the open door to her room, which continues to haunt her the rest of the weekend.

Next up, we meet a duo on a leisurely stroll down a deserted beach in Aron Kantor’s Interdimensional Pizza Portal (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†). The mood changes quickly after one friend gloats over his sorcery of conjuring up a delicious slice of pie. His friend gloms onto one minor detail — the fact that the pizza appeared with a bite already taken out of it — to let her geeky imagination run wild. What if, she responds a bit too fervently, that just so happened to be the last slice of pizza left in another, post-apocalyptic dimension of reality? Might the alternate version of the sorcerer seek revenge for the disturbance? It’s as warped as it sounds.

We’re then brought back to two kinds of reality that reflect the lived experiences of many, if not most, festivalgoers with the program’s last two shorts, each of which qualifies as a standout. In Ryan Spahn’s cinematically adventurous The Other John (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†), the screen is broken into quadrants, partially obstructing our view and forcing us to focus more intently on what we can see. The framing device serves as an effective metaphor for the action, all shot at the small apartment where two men arrive to consummate a first date. The two have more in common than simply the fact that both are named John, but only one of them knows that until the very end. The intriguing film has a satisfying kicker that leaves everyone with questions to ponder.

In Safe Word (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…), Christopher Cunetto plays with the common understanding of just what a safe word is. Mauricio Pita plays Cesar, a single gay man who regularly hires Bear, a dom played by Jonathan Adriel, for verbally degrading role play sessions. But when Bear decides to switch things up, Cesar is forced to confront the reality that he’s playing a game in which his safe word is really about keeping him from intimacy — and doing real harm. A fully made in D.C. short, Safe Word is an intellectually and visually stunning work that has us eager for more to come from the production company Tepui Media, a recently established local company founded by Pita. –Doug Rule

Greetings from Washington DC -- Photo: Wildlight Productions
Greetings from Washington DC — Photo: Wildlight Productions

CRITIC’S PICK

RADICALS (SHORTS)

Virtual Festival Only

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The program kicks off with Greetings from Washington, D.C. (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†), featuring a diverse range of interviews with attendees of the first National March on Washington for Lesbian Gay Rights in 1979. Captured by Rob Epstein, Frances Reid, Greta Schiller, and Lucy Winer, the documentary spotlights activists from all walks of life — among them a lesbian clown named Prosciutto — who helped catalyze LGBTQ rights. Above all, the participants of the historic event capture a tangible — and radical — sense of joy, optimism, and self-acceptance. With LGBTQ rights currently under attack in schools and legislatures nationwide, and with today’s protests often seeming reactive, Greetings from Washington, D.C. — and its humorous lines like “You don’t like my preferences? More power to you, you don’t pay my bills” — could not come at a better moment.

The most radical thing about the next film in the cluster, The Proof is in the Pudding (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†), is that it showcases lesbian sex, though this, of course, should not be radical in 2023. Written and directed by SuΓ§on,the film stars Milly (Faye Darling) and Lise (Mia Nitrile), former classmates who — double entendre incoming — bake a cake after being invited to a birthday party, where the only “products of animal origin” they’re allowed to bring are themselves and “the bacteria that colonize” their bodies. Picturesque and powerful, The Proof is in the Pudding shows the duality of woman as animal and goddess, but ultimately tries too hard to eat its gΓ’teau and have it too. That is to say, it does not clearly establish its belonging with the rest of the films.

Sobre Elas (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†), too, highlights the multitudinousness of women, narrating the stories of three women who are disrupting barriers: a trans skater, a disabled surfer, and a professional wrestler who had been abused by her partner.

The mini-documentary, directed by Bruna Arcangelo, manages to accomplish a lot in a baker’s dozen of minutes, offering rich and memorable insights into its characters’ identities. At the same time, Arcangelo makes sure that her starring women are not defined by their defiance; toward the end of the short, one character delivers the iconic line, “Gender is falling apart, but there’s still much to talk about it before it disappears.” Watch Sobre Elas for a slice of that conversation.

The next and last film in the package, Surviving Voices: AIDS Memorial Quilt Panel Makers (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…), masterfully tells the story of the stories behind the stories of more than 100,000 lives lost to AIDS. In other words, director JΓΆrg Fockele recounts how parents, partners, and more channeled their grief into collaboratively weaving together a manifestation of the toll of the AIDS pandemic.

Through moving interviews, the documentary chronicles the project’s growth from an idea born in 1987 at an annual tribute to San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk to 48,000 panels evoking love, courage, and hope. Surviving Voices affirms that the personal is the political, as well as reminds us that the AIDS pandemic is both a fabric of the American story and very much alive today. —Rudy Malcom

CRITIC’S PICK

TRANSITIONS (SHORTS)

Virtual Festival Only

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This year’s “Transitions” program kicks off with a sweet, honest portrayal of young love in Daisy Friedman’s As You Are (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†). Millie and Piper, an interabled lesbian couple played by Bri Scalesse and EstefanΓ­a Giraldo, navigate their expectations around spending the night together for the first time and must reckon with their own sexuality and vulnerability as so many couples do. Although the two have an early moment of tension around Millie’s use of a wheelchair, that tension reveals itself to be about a deeper insecurity on Piper’s part. In this way, Friedman takes a refreshing approach to depicting disability on film, making sure it is present and acknowledged, but taking care to tell a three-dimensional love story around it too.

Honey & Milk (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†) drops us into the end of a mature relationship, following the story of a couple who has decided to end their partnership and must dismantle their lives. We are dropped into the final weekend of the relationship between Grayson, who has begun to transition, and Alice, who loves and supports her partner but struggles to grieve the impending loss. While there is little in the way of narrative payoff and the short seems uncertain of exactly what it wants to build towards, the chemistry between the two is believable, it nevertheless stands as a beautifully shot portrait of a love that outlasts a relationship that must end so one half can be free to thrive.

The program takes a heartrending turn with Our Males & Females (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†), a brief, deeply affecting short from Jordan. Taking its name from a prayer for the dead, it follows two parents who must arrange the funeral rites for their deceased trans daughter, particularly the Islamic tradition of bathing and shrouding the dead. Her parents’ pain over losing their daughter and the guilt and shame they face from within and without are incredibly convincing, and the film owes much to incredible performances by Kamel El Basha Shafiqa Al Taler, although its haunting score and atmospheric shots do plenty of heavy lifting as well.

Taiwanese director Pin Ru Chen’s Swimming in the Dark (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†) is a visually captivating highlight of the shorts program. Through memorable, lingering close-ups and artful shots of the two leads swimming, she tells a familiar story of young love struggling to blossom in tender, shared moments. The unspoken yet tense attraction between the two girls who meet up at the swimming pool as they train for an upcoming competition is quickly apparent, and they reveal their feelings and resistance through spare, deliberate dialogue all coming to a head in a quietly heartbreaking final moment of reflection. The story is a familiar and perhaps predictable one, but told so beautifully and with such a light and masterfully subtle touch that it manages to feel almost dream-like.

Documentary short Their Voice (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†) chronicles a particular and rarely-discussed transition experience. Their Voice introduces us to professional singer Kristyn Michele, who recounts their transition from mezzo-soprano to tenor. Narrated by Michele and interspersed with documentary footage, the short begins with them recounting their musical career beginning with their background singing in their family’s Mormon congregation, through their journey through gender nonconformity, eventually beginning HRT and retraining themself to sing with their changing voice. Michele reflects on what it means to them to perform in the first off-Broadway musical performed by an entirely trans and nonbinary cast, which incidentally provides a tidy narrative cap for the film. Without ever trying to be more than it is, Their Voice is an affecting portrait of Michele and their artistic journey.

The lasting power of a moment of genuine connection is the central theme of the program’s next narrative short, Murry Peeters’ Woman Meets Girl (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜†β˜†). We are dropped into an intimate evening between the awkward Annabelle and Tessie, a young sex worker who seems to enjoy the reactions she provokes in her client. As they both fail to initiate physical intimacy, they instead find unexpected connection in shared experiences. The vulnerability they share is convincing, and the strong performances by Enuka Okuma and Chelsea Russell and the undeniable chemistry between the two of them renders moments of occasionally clunky on-the-nose dialogue easily forgivable.

The package wraps up with a full-throated celebration of love with Youssou & Malek (β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…β˜…), a short from France that takes place in a sunny, idyllic setting where two boys find their blossoming summer romance threatened by an impending university admission. The film is unabashedly theatrical, with dialogue that frequently veers into poetic meter, with the titular lovers’ friends filling the role of a Greek chorus catching us up on Malek’s aspirations to study abroad and what that will mean for their relationship. Youssou & Malek is that rare kind of short film that is at once artful, whimsical and touching, and as a result it is an immensely enjoyable watch. —Sean Maunier

Live screenings of Reel Affirmations films are Oct. 20 to 22 at the Eaton Hotel, 1201 K St. NW, in Washington, D.C.

Reel Affirmations 2023 includes the Virtual Film Festival providing online access to 43 films for those film lovers who cannot attend the festival in person, with a viewing window from Oct. 23 to 29. Of the 43 films, 26 are available only online.

For a full schedule of films, including retrospective showings, all pricing and pass options, and party information, visit www.thedccenter.org/reelaffirmations.

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