Culture  Queers of all kinds

Dan Walber dives into the image + nation film festival

LGBT film is nothing if not eclectic. Ironically, there is a measure of freedom that results from being largely excluded from the mainstream that allows for both exciting and experimental art house filmmaking, as well as uniquely entertaining and creative genre movies. In any one film festival there’s the possibility to include romantic comedies, thought-provoking documentaries, dazzling foreign imports, witty (or gritty) dramas, and even some tongue-in-cheek gay horror.

The image + nation festival has all of these in spades, and plenty more. The oldest LGBT film festival in Canada, image + nation has actually been downsizing in recent years, to create what Director of Programming Katharine Setzer calls a “boutique” assortment of films. Nineteen years ago, when the festival made its first appearance, it was an accomplishment to even put together enough material for an extended event. Since then, LGBT cinema has grown quite a bit, and image + nation has learned to filter. While the number of movies presented is still impressive, there is now more of a focus on showing not simply a lot of films, but the best films available.

Just mouth-watering
And what are these films? To begin with, the festival’s closing night programming is worth a look. Drool, the first film showing on closing night, is a whimsical family dramedy imported from the U.S. that unexpectedly delivers on the festival web site’s promise of “the trailer park love child of Thelma and Louise and The Opposite of Sex.” It follows a dysfunctional Southern family through racism, domestic violence, murder, and quite a bit of sexual frustration. Mom and her two kids, Tabby and Little Pete, are helped along the way by their cosmetics saleswoman neighbour (a radiant Jill Marie Jones). To say that hilarity ensues would be an understatement for this entertaining and emotional Southern gothic romp.

Festival features

Drool, in addition to closing the festival, is the last film in this year’s tribute to the horror film. Homohorreur, timed of course around Halloween, features not only five full-length movies but also an exciting assortment of short films. One can find just about everything, from scary shorts about vampires, sea cucumbers, and steam rooms, to Pornography: A Thriller and Zombies of Mass Destruction.

In addition to Homo-horreur, the festival’s other special focus is Generation Q, which puts a spotlight on young queer filmmakers. Made up of eight full-length films and 11 shorts, the series offers a wide variety of new and exciting voices on the cinema scene, and features directors from seven different countries. One film in particular, the “post-cool operetta” Fruit Fly, begs to be seen. Centred around an American-Filipina performance artist trying to make it in San Francisco, it certainly lives up to Generation Q’s goal of showing “what it means to be young and queer in the 21st century.”

International images
It would be misguided to discuss this festival without at least momentarily delving into the great collection of international cinema presented by image + nation. The Portuguese film To Die Like a Man follows the aging drag star Tonia as she struggles toward the end of her life. Well-received at Cannes this year, it’s certainly worth a look, as is as another fascinating piece of Iberian cinema, Ander.

Produced by the Basque regional government as part of its program to support and promote LGBT culture, Ander is an astute pastoral look at a lonely farmer and his family. The visuals are striking and rugged, though the film is occasionally slow. However, the pace of the film recovers around the halfway mark and leads to a conclusion that, if perhaps a bit melodramatic and unrealistic, is an interesting meditation on sexuality in the Basque countryside. At the very least, it is a refreshing piece of artistic cinema, with a unique perspective and not too much cliché.

North of the border.

image + nation draws from a large international pool, but the strong presence of American films is hard to miss. The U.S. could seem to dominate the festival, the source of not only Drool but also the opening film Hollywood, je t’aime, and upwards of 20 features and quite a few shorts. However, instead of falling prey to this seemingly inevitable influx of LGBT film from the States, image + nation has done a good job not only of bringing in a great variety of international cinema, but also encouraging LGBT cinema here in Canada. There is a masterclass on young Quebecois voices emerging onto the scene, featuring five filmmakers represented at the festival, and the program contains quite a bit of exciting Canadian film.

One of these Canadian movies worth noting is the intriguing demi-documentary Fig Trees. Almost impossible to describe effectively, this piece by the award-winning filmmaker John Greyson uses documentary interviews with AIDS activists Zackie Achmat and Tim McCaskell as the focal point of an atonal operatic meditation on Gertrude Stein, Bono’s Red campaign, and sainthood. Stein collaborated with composer Virgil Thompson in the 1930s to create the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which serves as the skeleton onto which Greyson adds the two activists, St. Martin of Tours (portrayed by an albino squirrel), St. Teresa of Avila, Bono, and a countdown of the Top 100 AIDS Songs.

The problem with Fig Trees is that throughout this experience, the audience doesn’t necessarily know where they are, intellectually. It is clear how Greyson feels, but it is not necessarily clear why he feels the need to be so terribly confusing. There are moments in the film in which so many different variables – visual, textual and auditory – are superimposed onto each other that the audience is left feeling both terribly overwhelmed and oddly barren at exactly the same moment. Fig Trees is a film that is not for the faint of mind, and it renders the viewer almost impartial to the entire cast of operatic characters, from the reconstituted Gertrude Stein with her four different hairstyles to the beatified albino rodent. The only truly redeeming parts of the piece are McCaskell and Achmat’s moving and important testimonies; the activists manage to cut through the noise and say something of value to the audience. Watch videos of the two activists speaking on YouTube, and skip the film.

LGBT cinema is in an exciting place. That a festival with such diversity, youth, and creativity could find a place in the world of cinema and thrive is something to celebrate, especially given how unlikely this may have seemed as recently as two decades ago. So grab some tickets, head down to the beautiful Imperial Theatre, and try something new. There’s more than enough to choose from.