Category Archives: Boston LGBT Film Festival

“THE GENIUS AND THE OPERA SINGER”— Mother and Daughter

“The Genius and the Opera Singer”

Mother and Daughter

Amos Lassen

“The Genius and the Opera Singer” is a documentary that is set in a claustrophobic penthouse apartment in New York’s West Village. Ruth and her daughter Jessica have shared this apartment for more than fifty years and we see the emotional territory of a parental relationship stuck somewhere between the past and the present. Once an aspiring opera singer, Ruth is now 92-years-old and housebound. She relies on her 55-year-old daughter, Jessica and her sometimes live-in partner, Robert. Jessica is intelligent, high-strung, and confrontational and she feels that her life has perhaps not unfolded quite as she’d planned. This is because her mother spent her formative years neglecting her in favor of pursing glamour. Ruth has been found to be officially ‘incompetent’ by the city of New York and therefore not allowed to live independently.

Vanessa Stockley’s film depicts one of the most uncomfortable, grueling, and revealing mother-daughter relationships ever seen on film. In the very first scene, we see Jessica bringing her dog, Miss Angelina Jolie, into a branch of the New York Police Department to yell at an officer and reignite a grudge match that has been going since the pooch pooped on the station floor. We immediately see that Jessica has an addiction for confrontation. After this, we go into the rent-controlled apartment where we see Jessica’s temperamental social skills in full force. Jessica scored a legal victory by getting Ruth freed from her care facility where she had been sent by the city. Jessica explains how authorities had declared Ruth “incompetent” and forced her into a nursing home—a decision of which neither mother nor daughter approved. Ruth is a former opera singer of modest success (or no success, in Jessica’s mind), and she hangs unto the memories and beauty of her youth. Jessica is bitter that she, a genius and child prodigy (or underachiever, in Ruth’s estimation), never had the opportunity to fulfill her potential because of her mother being totally into herself.

We watch as over the course of a few days, mother and daughter provoke one another to assign blame for their dissatisfied lives. They bring out the worst in each other and they both know the right buttons to push to get the other going. Jessica who fought to preserve her mother’s sanity; now seems intent to destroy it now that they’re back under the same roof.

This is not an enjoyable movie to watch but we are amazed at the amount of courage director Stockley has to even have attempted to make this film. As I watched with a sense of disgust, I was also stunned by what I saw. The arguing goes on and on and it is mean-spirited. However, the footage is powerful and not all of the things that mother and do together and terrible. We see the devotion that connects the subjects as Jessica tends to her mother because she acknowledges her responsibility to the woman who raised her. There is obvious manipulation in Jessica’s nursing, but there is also care and family ties that keep them together.

“A BAG OF MARBLES”— Two Young Brothers

 

“A Bag of Marbles” (“Un Sac de Billes”)

Two Young Brothers

Amos Lassen

Christian Duguay’s “A Bag of Marbles” looks at a difficult period in modern French history. Two young brothers are forced to fend for themselves when the German occupation of France and subsequent persecution of Jews puts their lives in danger.   Maurice (Batyste Fleurial) and Joseph (Dorian Le Clech) leave their parents Roman (Patrick Bruel) and Anna ( Elza Zylberstein) behind in Vichy France and travel to Nice in the free-zone to join their older siblings Henri (César Domboy) and Albert (Ilian Bergala).  The family is soon reunited, but once again the German occupation separates Maurice and Joseph from their parents and brothers.  The two face possible capture and deportation before the family can come back together.

 

Director Christian Duguay emphasizes the sense of loss on both sides as the children flee the Nazi occupation. The film is a remake of the same title and it is a beautiful film that is based on a true story.

Maurice and Joseph are devoted to themselves and show an incredible amount of malice, courage and ingenuity to escape the enemy invasion and try to get reunited their families again. The two brothers  who are now in their 80’s are still Paris with their families.

One of the most important messages comes early on when a Jewish barber, the father of the family, stands up to a German soldier and speaks out while he is still able to do so. Jo is the youngest son of that barber. Over the last years of the war, Jo’s family (including his three older brothers) are repeatedly separated and reunited as they try to evade Nazi capture. With his smarts, his sometimes heartbreaking emotional bravery and a bit of plain luck, Jo survives under numerous assumed identities across the south of France, sometimes with his family and sometimes on his own. It’s a coming of age amidst the most harrowing crucible imaginable.

Even though we know Germany will be defeated and France regains her freedom, we are as overcome with joy as the characters are when it finally happens. Duguay uses his most disturbing footage to depict how the French treated collaborators after the war ended.

A Jew in hiding during World War II is someone who has to spend years without the simple privilege of being able to say who he is. As Duguay shows us, Jo never let himself forget.

“BYE BYE GERMANY”— Coming to America

“Bye Bye Germany” (“Es war einmal in Deutschland”)

Coming to America

Amos Lassen

The characters in Sam Garbarski’s “Bye Bye Germany”, live in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt in 1946. David (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a Jewish peddler who was a successful wheeler and dealer before and during his time at a concentration camp. While he’s grateful for his liberty, he would enjoy it more with a lot of cash, and so he begins a scheme where he and his friends sell linens to local Germans at an outrageous markup. It’s a simple scam without guilt, since these very people were the same ones who favored David and his friends’ journey to the gas chamber, or at least pretended to be about what was really going on in their own country.

Over the course of the film, the characters have to examine their own pasts, what has happened to them and to their country, and wonder whether Germany is even their country anymore.

David recruits the other characters to join him in his scheme. The idea, of course, is to make enough money to leave Germany and head for America. And so this likeable group, filled with energy and audacity starts churning out curtains that are “made in Paris” and selling them to their German customers using a series of cynically comical methods, and rather visionary ones too in terms of marketing. 

Alongside these comical incidents, there is another plotline that is more solemn. Over the course of a series of interrogations, a young German Jew who emigrated to the United States shortly after 1933 (Antje Traue), who has come back to Germany to join the post-war effort, tries to establish, on the orders of the allied forces, whether or not David collaborated or not from his concentration camp, to survive there. Each plotline leads to a big twist of fate, which could be seen as positive or tragic, before David concludes by sparing a thought for the Jews who, like him, made the inexplicable choice to stay behind.

“HOUSE OF Z”— Zac Posen’s House of Style

 

“House of Z”

Zac Posen’s House of Style

Amos Lassen

Zac Posen, was barely a teenager when he started making dresses for friends and then drafted his entire family to help him launch a haute-couture business, the a House of Z. Immediate success caused growing demand and the stress plus Posen’s “enfant-terrible” persona was the cause of serious tension within the Posen household which led to a very public breakup.

Film director Sandy Chronopoulos had access to every member of the Posen family to and their video records from which she has constructed a compelling film that takes around the Posen’s Fall 2015 collection. This collection was considered to be Posen’s “make-it-or-break-it moment”. We also see the fascinating back story to Posen’s career. Posen is a gay, dyslexic outsider with a talent for fashion. His family supported his dream of becoming a designer and he launched in their Soho loft. His friendships with famous women, including Claire Danes and Natalie Portman, helped catapult him to fame. At just 21 years of age, his work was being talked about and The “New York Times” announced that he was a new star that must be watched. It did not take long before Posen’s dresses were being worn on red carpets everywhere. Hip-hop mogul Sean Combs joined his team and provided music for Posen’s fashion shows. As his fame and ego grew, so did the distance between him and his family. This affected his artistry and he was soon known as “the former boy wonder.” When Posen’s meteoric rise ended, he struggled with depression yet plotted a comeback and his friends were on his side. Posen is an exquisite craftsman and showman and filmgoers will love this look at him and this story of familial love, determination and redemption.

Posen documents himself throughout his young fashion career and we quickly understand that his rise in the New York fashion world was aided by privilege and connections. Posen first made waves in fashion during his time at the Brooklyn arts high school Saint Ann’s School, where he met New York fashion insiders like Paz de la Huerta and Claire Danes, and it was then that he began his entry into the competitive fashion world. Posen shares what it was like to grow up in a family that is wealthy and supportive of his talent. (He is the son of artist Stephen Posen based in an artistic Lower Manhattan neighborhood). Posen also enjoyed the early support from Vogue editor, Anna Wintour.

Posen’s talent for design and self-promotion were apparent even from an early age. After photographing his designs on friends like de la Huerta and Danes, he went to London to attend the prestigious Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. Even in these early stages of his career, it’s clear that Posen loves the spotlight, and we see how his brash personality and photogenic presence came together at the right time and greatly helped his meteoric rise in the fashion industry. After his first runway show in 2001 at the age of 21, we see Posen having already conquered the fashion world.

From there, the film follows a conventional rise-fall-redemption documentary structure, with Posen at a crossroads as the world deals with the fallout of the 2008 U.S. recession.. Posen is open about the creative, business, and personal mistakes he made during this stage of his life, and is compelling as always as an interview subject. But the missteps that he made during these collections are expected for anyone who find success at an early age and he did not suffer a profound existential crisis as some thought. We see that he refined his taste in tailoring and he put emphasis on the value of his hand-crafted approach to fashion in an industrialized climate. Through these sequences Posen shares the details and process behind every stitch of his work. The film is at its best when Posen speaks through his work. From what we see in this film, it is very clear that Posen knows exactly how to work an audience.

“IN BETWEEN”— Balancing Tradition and Modern Culture

“In Between” (“Bar Bahr”)

Balancing Tradition and Modern Culture

Amos Lassen

Arab-Israeli writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud’s feature debut “In Between” is the story of three Palestinian-Israeli women who live split lives. These strong, modern, sexually active women, live independently in the center of Tel Aviv, away from their families and the weight of tradition; they struggle to be true to themselves when confronting the expectations of others.

They women are fluent in Arabic and Hebrew and they dress in a way that makes them completely indistinguishable from their Israeli/Jewish contemporaries ultra-chic lawyer Layla (Mouna Hawa) is a very stylish and seductive lawyer and her flat-mate, Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is a lesbian disc-jockey, and part of a Palestinian cultural underground scene. They party until the wee hours at clubs, drink and do drugs with a set of bohemian friends. Salma adopts a more submissive persona when dutifully visiting her conservative Christian family, who believe that she is a music teacher and continue to invite potential suitors over for dinner. Layla, however, refuses to compromise her lifestyle and remains separate from her family. She ignores the romantic attentions of a Jewish attorney by telling him to “keep our flirtation fun.”

When Muslim graduate student, Nour (Shaden Kanboura) who wears a hijab comes to occupy the third bedroom in Layla and Salma’s apartment, the stage seems to be set for confrontation, but Hamoud instead shows the developing sisterhood between all the roommates. Not only do they share the uneasy status of being Arab-Israelis (and thus “other”) in a predominantly Jewish society, but they also share the problem of finding the right, supportive, understanding romantic partner.

Nour’s hypocritical fiancé, Wissam (Henry Andrawes), doesn’t understand why she wants to continue her studies and go on to work. He believes that eventually she will stay home, run their household, and mother their children. Nour’s perspectives on the world broaden due to her exposure to Layla, Salma, and their friends while Wissam’s continue to narrow. He accuses Nour of being a whore like her roommates, and treats her like one. While working as a bartender, Salma meets an attractive young doctor named Dunya (Ahlam Canaan) and they embark on an affair. Salma loves playing with fire and brings her new girlfriend to her parents’ place when she is supposed to meet yet another potential husband. Layla meets handsome filmmaker Ziad (Mahmoud Shalaby) and sparks fly but Ziad, despite having lived abroad and having a penchant for drink and drugs, can’t completely escape his conservative roots. He’s embarrassed to introduce Layla to his sister who still lives in a village and he criticizes her nonstop cigarette smoking.

Hamoud’s screenplay is a critique of traditional, patriarchal Palestinian society, threatened by modernity, feminine power, and the court of public opinion. We also see the racism of Israeli-Jewish society toward Arabs, from the people on the street who avoid a woman in a headscarf to the snarky manager at the restaurant where Salma works who yells at the kitchen staff for speaking to each other in Arabic.

The chemistry among the three women is excellent and they show the sense of living “in between” and the toll that it takes on their lives as “others”. Cinematographer Itay Gross shows the freedom and vibrancy of the women’s Tel Aviv life in contrast to the dull colors and claustrophobic spaces of village life. The viewers certainly get an update on their ideas about the lifestyle of Palestinian women in Israel. “In Between” focuses on daily life and is a portrait of social change. We see that alongside the traditional male-dominated Arab family structure that there exist independent females who are incredibly cool and part of an uninhibited underground scene. This is a light-hearted dramedy of girl power.

Certainly the women’s freedom comes at a price, but despite some dark and dramatic moments, none of the three young women looks likely to go back to a traditional life however uncomfortable it can be to live “in between” tradition and modernity. The opening disco sequence is a challenge to straight society.

Salma and Layla have minds of their own don’t bat an eye over the arrival of a fully covered Islamic Nour who has come to live with them. Despite the prejudice she might initially incite, she’s a woman in transition, just on the brink of liberating herself. In one of the film’s most shocking moments, her arrogant fiancé just can’t understand why she wants to study and work instead of keeping house for him and their future children and makes an intense gesture of disrespect that sets off a compassionate display of solidarity.

Hamoud tackles almost all the taboos of Arab Israeli society: drugs, alcohol, and homosexuality. Salma is rejected by her Christian family for being a lesbian, while Leila leaves her boyfriend when she discovers he is more conservative than he claims. Nour ultimately rebels against her family and traditions by leaving her religious fiancé Wissam after he rapes her. The municipality of the Muslim village Umm am-Fahm has issued a statement condemning the film as being “without the slightest element of truth” and barring it from being screened there and Hamoud as well as her actresses have received death threats.

“Bar Bahar” literally meaning “land and sea” in Arabic and translates as “neither here, nor there” in Hebrew. I understand that Hamoud chose to set the film in Tel Aviv that is regarded the most tolerant and liberal city in Israel to make a point that even there racism against Arabs is prevalent.

“APRICOT GROVES”— What Lies Ahead

“Apricot Groves”

What Lies Ahead

Amos Lassen

Aram is an the Iranian Armenian youth who has immigrated to the US in childhood but now returns to Armenia for the first time to propose to an Armenian girlfriend that he met and lived with in the US. He sees many cultural, religious, and national differences on the one-day trip, but little does he know that harder obstacles are ahead.

This is Iranian/Armenian writer/director Pouria Heidary Oureh’s first feature film and it is set in his two home countries of Armenia and Iran and this is rare for any LGBTQ movie.  The story is filled with beauty and it is rendered with compassion and understanding. When the main idea of the story is revealed, we are deeply moved by the journey that Aram’s (Narbe Vartan) journey.

Aram has flown from L.A. where he has been living since his father died,  and is met at Zvarnots Airport  by his older brother Arman (Hovhannes Azoyan) who has never left Armenia.  Aram is going to be staying for just one day. The reason for his trip is to formally propose to an Armenian female that he met while she was visiting America. The local custom is that the prospective groom must be accompanied by his own family members with gifts when he goes to his potential father-in-law to ask for her hand. Aram acts accordingly.

Preparing for the visit takes up the morning with the tailor, picking up gifts and flowers, cognac and cookies. When Aram finally arrives, the father of the perspective bride comes across as cold but he warms up and grants permission for the marriage.

 

The second part of the day includes a long drive to the Iranian border for a hinted-at reason but which I cannot share because it would ruin the viewing experience. This is a film that demands its audience to be patient. Oureh cleverly lets the story unfold and the surprise that comes is just that, a surprise. However, there is a sad aspect to the film in that because of the American government’s ban on Muslims coming into the country, we will not be able to meet Oureh at any of the screenings as it plays on the festival circuit.

“TAMARA”— From Teo to Tamara

“Tamara”

From Teo to Tamara

Amos Lassen

“Tamara” is the story of Teo Almanza who, upon hearing about the death of his brother, returns to his hometown in Venezuela. What was originally planned to be a short visit becomes a long trip to gender reassignment. It explores Teo’s desire to become a woman and shares his search for his true self, his struggle with societal taboos as well as his inner conflicts about who he wants to become as contrasted with what society wants him to be. Venezuela is a federal republic that is predominantly Catholic and we become aware of the hardships especially transgender men and women face on a daily basis regarding Catholicism. The film avoids the violence perpetually inflicted on the transgender community and instead focuses on the complexity of identity.

 

As a lawyer, spouse and father, Teo fits those patriarchal roles quite seamlessly, however he felt in a body that he denies as his own and this continually caused him emotional distress. Throughout the film, we are very aware of what he has to contend with as it affects the definition of who he is. This is clearly seen in therapy sessions that are juxtaposed with flashbacks and voice-over narration.

We soon find ourselves in his mind thus allowing us to be better able to relate to his circumstances. Tamara also heightens this quest for the self by displacing the protagonist from his point of origin, i.e. his comfort zone. He had found this in Paris and its bohemian lifestyle where he studied law. This displacement provides a socio-political context and therefore is a modern, transgressive and twisted look at transsexuality in Venezuela, a particular location that is heavily influenced by tradition.

We are with Teo as he is on his journey of becoming who he has always wanted to be, regardless of the natural fear of finding himself utterly alone or being made fun of for the rest of his life. We see that the assertion of self-realization can occur at any age, and that it is possible to be reborn and this is a philosophical approach that contrasts heavily with Catholicism.

In many other films about transgender characters, the feeling of empathy comes out of pity, while in “Tamara”, we tend to morally support the main character all the way through his transformation because we really admire his ability to thrive even with societal constraints and animosity regarding change. Luis Fernandez as Teo delivers a wonderful performance of the nature of Teo’s ethos. “Tamara” successfully blurs the borders between male and female.

Directed by Elia K. Schneider, the film is a reaction to the norms and the codes of conduct prescribed by a society that refuses any change attributed to the human condition. It provokes the mind and the slow pace often serves as a breather that allows viewers to both pause and reflect while with Teo.

“THIRSTY”— Finding Self-Acceptance

“Thirsty”

Finding Self-Acceptance

Amos Lassen

Scott Townsend was bullied in his younger days but soon became a very special and revered drag queen by the name of Thirsty Burlington who despite fighting obstacles throughout his life discovered that what he really wanted was self acceptance. only to discover what he really wants is self-acceptance.

Scott Townsend went into the world of drag as a safe respite from his being bullied when he was growing up in the projects in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He became Thirsty Burlington, Provincetown’s Cher impersonator. In the film we see the significant events in Scott/Thirsty’s life (1970s to the present) and the dangers and the joys of living life in gender fluidity.

Director Margo Pelletier, who also co-wrote the script with Laura Kelber, uses the sort of set-ups that are familiar from musicals to show episodes from the real life of Scott Townsend (who stars as himself) and his rise to fame. The narrative includes fantasy sequences, including Scott’s Powerpuff Girl-style alter ego, who pops up from time to time in blazing pink. We meet him as a youngster (Cole Canazo), living with his mum Doris (Deirdre Lovejoy), sisters and, briefly, he’s dad in the Cambridge projects in Massachusetts. From the beginning, gender has been a slippery issue for him from the start, with the local bully branding him a “girly-boy” and people mistaking him for a girl. Scott’s love of music is encouraged by his uncle Gene (Michael Gioia). Although episodic, the film is linear to begin with, tracking Scott up through high school before mapping his start and later rise as a drag queen.

The film explores gender fluidity and the importance of being at ease with yourself. Scott’s boyfriend Christopher (Natti Vogel) has a hang up about men who don’t look like men, prompting fights about Scott’s job. The idea of flowing between identities is shown as the drag acts get ready for their performance. The film questions our perception as to whether it matters what clothes someone wears and if this affects what is under that clothing. When he is dressed as a man some people find his gender definition complicated but when he is impersonating Cher it is in some ways simpler because everyone is well aware its a guy in drag.

Scott and his impersonation of Cher shows his great talent. As an actor he also shows an ability to step back in time and shows his first walk in heels and we see him as a person who has the talent to charm his audience.

The film uses a variety of storytelling techniques, devices and it is a lot of fun, Actually each thread of the story could well stand on its own and the themes of gender identity resonate.We see the bullying that Townsend faced as a child and the bigotry he dealt with as an adult. We also see a suicide attempt, alcoholic parents, his own drinking, and poverty. “Thirsty” is really about loving oneself and how this allows others to do the same.

“Before Homosexuals”— “Same-Sex Desire from Ancient Times to Victorian Crimes”

“Before Homosexuals”
“Same-Sex Desire from Ancient Times to Victorian Crimes”
Amos Lassen

The world premier of John Scagiotti’s new documentary will take place at the Museum of Fat Arts in Boston as part of the Wicked Queer Film Festival on April 8, 2017 and judging from the filmmaker’s previous work, this promises to be a very important film.


We are taken on a tour of “same-sex desire from ancient times to Victorian crimes”. The idea for the film was inspired by gay liberation and here historians and artists join Emmy Award-winner Scagliotti on recent erotic discoveries. This continues Scagliotti produced many now-classic documentaries including “Before Stonewall” and “After Stonewall” and created the first LGBT radio show (“The Lavender Hour”) and the television series “In the Life” which ran from 1991 until 2012 on PBS.



The film explores how the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the growth of LGBT political power in the 1990s opened We learn of lesbian love spells from ancient Rome, censored chapters of the Kamasutra, Native American two-spirit rituals and more. The unearths the garden of human sexual delights and the endurance and creativity of “an army of lovers”.
 The film begins on the Greek island of Astypalaia where we see same-sex graffiti from 2,500 years ago and learn of the naturalness of homosexuality among the ancient Greeks. I really cannot think of a better way to spend a couple of hours than being entertained and educated.

“CHERRY POP”— One Crazy Night

“Cherry Pop”

One Crazy Night

Amos Lassen

One crazy night in the life of a small local bar’s drag show is what “Cherry Pop” is all about. We meet a newcomer who struggles with being the outcast on his first night, a legend coming to terms with life after her last night in drag and about a bunch of back-stabbing queens with their own problems who just plain can’t stand each other.

We also see stories of some of the people who come into the bar. Chaos reigns here. There is another little twist here— a love story about a boy who falls in love with a girl, who accepts the boy for who he is even if he has a deep secret desire to dress like a woman and perform.

Assad Yacoub directed this film that centers on drag queens. Not only is the plot unconventional but it also has a revolutionary view point to bring to audiences. The film stars such drag queens as Detox, Latrice Royale, Bob the Drag Queen, Misty Violet, Mayhem Miller and Lars Berge as The Cherry.

We see claws come out and feathers are sequins fly as we watch a challenge to traditional gender roles and societal constructs of sexuality (in a non-threatening and comical way). There is lots of humor and lots of wigs as we understand the message of loving who are.