Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“TOSCA’S KISS”— Aging and the Power of Music

“Tosca’s Kiss” (“Il Baco de Tosca”)

Aging and the Power of Music

Amos Lassen

Director Daniel Schmid introduces us to the residents of the “Casa di Riposa” in Milan, the world s first nursing home for retired opera singers, founded by composer Giuseppe Verdi in 1896. This documentary has developed an underground cult following over the years and is a favorite among opera and music lovers worldwide. Schmid has captured a world in which these wonderful singers (many of whom had significant careers on the opera stage) re-live and re-enact their triumphant roles of the glorious past. This is a touching and often very funny film on the subject of aging and the power and timeless capacity of music to inspire. We see a microcosm of the universal problems of aging. While those who made the film showed total compassion for those who appear here, the camera was as unrelenting following “cast” from the public rooms to their own small bed/sitting rooms.

I found myself sympathizing with the plight of people who have only their memories yet their resilience is inspiring. The film hit close to home for me as I am now dealing with the memories of my lifetime. I have also lived in a place similar to this and the stereotypes we see here exist everywhere— ladies wearing once-lovely furs and fighting old age.

The retirement home lived of the rights of Verdi’s compositions, but Verdi is in the public domain now and the house survives on charity. It is moving to see these very old people, some of them hardly walking, sing and discuss singers and show the costumes of their time of glory. They still have a voice. They still vibrate from that unique love of music. It is a unique world that is extraordinarily human.

It is a special treat to watch these who were the toast of the world of opera. We see that just because someone is elderly doesn’t mean he/she has nothing to offer anymore.

The premise if the Verdi home is certainly unique– a retirement home for opera stars. They may not be on stage but they are still performing. It’s inspiring to see that, no matter what, these people are still vital and enthusiastic and entertained by the music they worked with all their lives.

This documentary nicely and poignantly captures the feel of this rest home for needy singers/musicians. The house was built by the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, who referred to it as his greatest work.

“MAN MADE”— Four Men

“Man Made”

Four Men

Amos Lassen

T Cooper, an author and filmmaker, has a new documentary that follows four men as they prepare to compete in Trans Fit Con, the only bodybuilding competition in the US  specifically for the trans community.  The contest rules simply state that everyone must identify as trans and as such they allow contestants to enter regardless at what point they are in their physical transition.

 

Mason is the most serious of the four and he has a strict diet regime. He is married but has still never been naked in front of his wife.

Rese was homeless when filming started. His mother who is raising his five-year-old son kicked him out. During the filming,  he met and married a new partner, who is also trans, and they have moved to Baltimore together.  

Dominic is a rapper from St Paul,  has a fiancé Thea, and at the start of filming and with her support, he was about to undergo a double mastectomy.  He is also on a journey to identify to find his biological mother who had given him up for adoption and who can reveal his true ethnicity at last.  Dominic is the one who is most relaxed with his a real body-builder physique and pokes fun at the stomach he cannot quite get rid of.

Kennie is just about to start his transitioning journey.  His lesbian girlfriend, DJ, is fully supportive of his choices but feels that this will probably signal the end of their relationship  As the testosterone shots begin taking effect, Kennie’s sex drive increases. As his body changes, DJ becomes less attractive to him.

Cooper also gives brief bios of the other men who are taking part in the competition in Atlanta. or so men taking part and discusses issues they all face like the decision to wear a packer (a fake penis) to pad the front of their speedos.

The men proudly express that their bodies are at last matching their true gender but the fact that they are going one step further to be ultra-masculine as bodybuilders is not just for their own satisfaction, but so that society can really see them as who they really are.

The film is really more about how transitioning can affect the man’s personal relationships and if they can adjust sufficiently to meet their needs.

 “Man Made”  destroys stereotypes about body builders as it challenges the ideals of “traditional masculinity” inherent in the sport, showing how  for four transgender men, bodybuilding is about presenting one’s true identity to the world rather than a drug-enhanced self-improvement model. The social complexities of the issues raised by each man are narrowed in order to focus purely on the human effect – the reaction of each individual and their wider families. The film is at its best when it sidesteps the entire bodybuilding premise altogether, and focuses on the personal stories that have led each subject to this moment.

Director T Cooper has managed to find the inherent humanity in the bodybuilding sub-culture through a diverse mix of men who destroy stereotypes.

“BELIEVER”— Mormonism and Homophobia

“Believer”

Mormonism and Homophobia

Amos Lassen

The worldwide popularity of the band Imagine Dragons means that millions of people will soon become very aware of the homophobia that is part of the Mormon church and the high suicide rate of LGBTQ youth who practice Mormonism. thanks to this documentary shining a light on it. Homophobia in certain religions has been overlooked, and in news reports, is frequently concentrated squarely on Christianity and Islam without speaking about homophobia in other religions.

This documentary follows Dan Reynolds, the Imagine Dragons vocalist, who has come to a crossroads in regards to his Mormonism, and the religion’s treatment of LGBTQ individuals. With high suicide rates in Utah among young people likely attributed to this stance, Reynolds (along with openly gay singer Tyler Glenn, a former member of the church) creates the LoveLoud festival, in order to raise awareness of the issue, and hopefully “change hearts and minds in the process.”

We see the emotional torment placed upon those who have had to reconcile their sexuality with their religious beliefs, as well as those who have been excommunicated for simply expressing that being gay is not a sinful crime. But these moments make awkward bedfellows with a documentary that is predominantly aimed at Imagine Dragons fans. The message about sexuality is secondary to celebrations of the band’s success.

The band’s popularity is helping awareness on the issue (and is fundamental in getting this documentary made), but it too frequently becomes the focus, obscuring the emotionally hard-hitting interviews that should be consistently front and centre.

Although Reynolds is central to the documentary due to his star power, it’s hard not to wish that the documentary primarily focused on the festival’s co-founder Tyler Glenn. The former singer of Neon Trees, Glenn was excommunicated from the church following coming out as gay, and still struggles to grapple with his religious beliefs and sexuality and has even recorded an album about it, “Excommunicate” and it upset many in the Mormon community. He’s the emotional centre of the film, and the audience surrogate for LGBTQ viewers. The best moments are the ones where Tyler tearfully confesses about his inner conflicts.

“Believer” is a necessary and important documentary and we can hope that it continues to raise awareness of the cause, and all subsequent LoveLoud festivals will further combat prejudice and change minds in the Mormon community.

“LIGHT IN THE WATER”— Documentary About a Gay Swim Team

“Light in the Water”

Documentary About a Gay Swim Team

Amos Lassen

Now premiering on Logo TV is Lis Bartlett’s “Light in the Water”, a documentary about a gay swim team. In 1982, soon after the first Gay Games, ‘West Hollywood Swim Club,’ as it was then known registered as the first openly gay masters swim and water polo club. The documentary film their battle for acceptance: from their small beginnings, to how these men and women have become a renowned force fighting injustice in the world of competitive sports.

The film reveals the untold story of a group of gay men and women who found one another through their love of competitive swimming and who ultimately became a family and a force for the LGBTQ sports movement. 

The West Hollywood Aquatics Team – who also go by “WH2O” are pioneers in gay sports. With a current roster of more than 180 individuals, the organization initially grew out of a group of athletes training for the first Gay Games in 1982. This was during a time when being gay and being an athlete was considered an oxymoron and the AIDS crisis only increased homophobia across the United States. WH2O prioritized inclusion and dignity and combated stigma.

One of the original members states, “if you could swim, you could live…or at least you were alive for that moment.” Another member adds “swimming was about celebrating and rising above all the darkness that was around us…and striving to show the word that we are not being wiped out by an illness.”

“LOVE, CECIL”— A Colorful and Controversial Man

 

“LOVE, CECIL”

A Colorful and Controversial Man

Amos Lassen

Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s “Love Cecil” gives us a wonderful profile of English photographer and designer Cecil Beaton.  Beaton won 3 Academy Awards and 4 Tony Awards and was knighted by the Queen after having been the Royal Family’s photographer for years. However, only the older movie going public know who he is and the gorgeous costumes he created for the Ascot scene in the movie version of ”My Fair Lady” are a tribute to him. Unfortunately he has been mostly forgotten by the general public. Perhaps seeing this film will make people want to know more about the man who did so much for film, stage, photography and fashion which  hopefully will be corrected now by this new documentary.

Beaton was born in 1904 in London into a wealthy middle-class family. He styled his two younger sisters and mother and made them pose for him for pictures he took with a Brownie camera he borrowed from his nanny.  He would send the photographs to the society page editors of newspapers and magazines often under a pseudonym.  Back then it was possible to buy a place at University, so Beaton went to Cambridge and brags he didn’t attend a single lecture. He also devoted himself to amateur dramatics where he could dress up in drag and indulge in his own outrageous highly stylized fashion sense. At Cambridge he had the first of a string of male lovers and ultimately left without a degree.

He was a gifted writer he wrote many diaries throughout his life that were published (in this film they are read by Rupert Everett).  He managed a photography job at Vogue where he really started to make a name for himself. He had quite a unique perspective on fashion. However, while working for Vogue in New York as one of their top photographers, his career came to a rapid halt when some anti-Semitic graffiti was included in one of his pieces and the entire edition had of the magazine had to be recalled and shredded,  and Beaton fired from his job had to return to London under a cloud.

His earlier work photographing London society got him a summons from Buckingham Palace to photograph the king’s wife who later became the Queen Mother).  She loved the results and Beaton became the photographer that the Royal Family called on for all their major occasions for the next few decades.  He also photographed the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who were persona non grata by the Queen and her family, but this it didn’t effect Beaton’s position at the Palace.

Beaton was a restless and frustrated person because he says that he was not able to do all that he wanted to. Vreeland was lucky enough to be able to include l archival footage of Beaton himself from several points throughout his life and we see this in the footage, which confirmed the great man’s restless and frustration with not being to do everything he wanted too.  He possessed wonderful wit that we see through the examples of his even though he has doubts about himself.

His choice of lovers all left him in the end quite unfulfilled romantically.  Beaton emphatically states he never ever wanted to be just an ordinary, anonymous person, and looking at his life, no one could ever accuse him of being anything like that.  He was outrageous and the quintessential English snob that was always the center of attention wherever he went. He will always be linked to Hollywood musicals “Gigi” and “My Fair Lady” for which he designed magnificent costumes. His was a life well lived and this film shows us the full range of Beaton’s talents as” author, designer, dandy, painter and photographer.”

Vreeland digs deep into Beaton’s diaries that are supported by many interviews from later in life. Most younger audience members probably won’t have any idea who Cecil Beaton is and that is their loss.  

“Love Cecil” opens at the Nuart in Los Angeles on July 20, 2018.

“HOT TO TROT”— Inside the World of Same-Sex Ballroom Dance

“HOT TO TROT”

Inside the World of Same-Sex Ballroom Dance

Amos Lassen

“Hot to Trot” is a new documentary directed by Gail Freedman that is an immersive character study  and an idiosyncratic attack on bigotry.  We are taken behind the scenes to discover the captivating but little known world of same-sex competitive ballroom dance. This a world where expressions of personal passion become a political statement, and where one false step can destroy hopes and aspirations.

The characters’ back stories frame their struggles and conflicts in life. The film follows charismatic Ernesto Palma who is a former meth addict from Costa Rica and who strives for success and love. Ernesto is now a Manhattan resident and completely obsessed with dancing with the same veracity that once was when he was  addicted to crystal meth.  After just a few months training, his new partner Robbie suddenly got seriously ill and immediately went back to his native Hungary for treatment.  It then took Ernesto some considerable time to persuade Nikolai, a very successful, Russian ballroom dancer to become his new partner as he had only danced with women to date.  

There is gritty and determined Emily Coles, a diabetic who wears an insulin pump 24/7 even while performing. We meet handsome Nikolai Shpakov, a dazzling dance champion, who came out only a few years ago and still yearns for his family back in Moscow to accept him. Finally is introspective Kieren Jameson, whose came out of the strict, conservative environment of a New Zealand military household. “Hot to Trot” follows the dancers over a four-year period and we not only see them dance but we also see their relationships with family, dance partners, life partners  and with themselves.

For these four, dance is a form of personal power and political engagement that shapes their identities while at the same time helps them overcome uniquely personal challenges. They are emblems of LGBTQ politics and being such is who they are.   This is an entertaining film to watch because of the spectacle and grace of competition and it is also an inspiring character study of these competitors, and how they gracefully maneuver through both worlds.

Gail Freedman, the director and producer of “Hot To Trot” gives us an enchanting look at the world of competitive same-sex ballroom dancing.  The four individuals she picked to focus on are not just champions when dancing, they are charming individuals. Emily’s successful dancing partnership with Kieren had resulted in many trophies and awards, but there are problems too. Emily has type I diabetes and has to wear an insulin pump 24/7, and her vital blood sugar levels are all over the place the day of any dance competition.  New Zealand born Kieran was focusing on building her own career which meant that half way through the documentary, she decides to cut back on her dancing, leaving Emily’s rather conservative Russian girlfriend Katerina to step in.

Today there are many same-sex ballroom dancing events held all over the world, but America’s most elite is April Follies held in Oakland, California every spring for the past 16 years.  Over a few very packed days the competition is tough and the atmosphere between all the dancers is very warm and welcoming and filled with genuine friendship and respect. Then there is the competition at the International Gay Games that are held every four years and are the Holy Grail for LGBT dancers (and athletes too).   Freedman’s camera follows her four dancers as they train every minute of the night and day right up to their appearance at the Games.   Ernesto and Nikolai who have such very different backgrounds and temperaments have settled into a comfortable working relationship almost like newly-weds trying to impose their own will on their new partners. They make a very cute couple but never on a romantic level.

The dancing is electrifying and stunning. As LGBT people we are watching something that we can really relate too.

“WHEN THE BEAT DROPS”— Bucking

“When The Beat Drops”

Bucking

Amos Lassen

When choreographer Jamal Sims learned of the underground dance movement known as ‘bucking’, he decided that it would be the subject of his first documentary as a director. That film is about a group of dancers,  and one special dancer, Big Anthony. Sims learned and explains to us that ‘bucking’ came out of female cheerleading troupes in the South and was taken over by groups of black gay men, who created this dance.  Big Anthony not only spearheaded the movement in the 1990’s in Atlanta, but he was also responsible for creating a network of competitions where the dancers could demonstrate what they do.

‘Bucking’ is flamboyant, outrageous and very showy much the way that vogueing was when it first overtook the black queer crowd in Harlem.  This kind of dancing stayed mainly underground because of the social stigma in the South of men wanting to dance like this.

Big Anthony’s own story is fascinating and touching. He suffered a setback after having been mugged in a grocery store parking lot.  Another dancer is a schoolteacher who lives in fear of being exposed as a bucking dancer and fired from his job.  Flash, another dancer, speaks openly about his struggles with his mother and her crack addition that has caused her to be incarcerated several times. We see the real and painful reality of the dancers once they leave the dance floor. It reminds us of the tough reality of all their lives away from the dance floor.

Sims takes us to the first Big Buck competition.   The standards are very high. Openly gay Sims shares his own passion for dance throughout the whole film and makes this an intriguing and important aspect of contemporary LGBT culture. The documentary uncovers an underground dance movement, bucking, which is predominant in the LGBTQ community, and which centers on a group of dancers in Atlanta, Ga., and one of the pioneers of bucking, identified as Big Anthony. “Just as vogueing was pioneered by members of the ballroom scene, bucking is thriving among displaced troupes of black gay men across the South.” Sims finds a story in the characters of his documentary, which makes this more a narrative feature than a than documentary. What we see is reality.

But this is real life, kids; not fiction. There are other edge of seat moments like when you’re placed in the midst of the first Big Buck competition, where Phi Phi battles it out with a crew from Detroit. Guess who you are rooting for until the very end.

“Beat” also turns into a historical look of the roots of bucking, even though this hyper active film never slows down to the tell the story. Bucking is a style that is fluid, sensual, and thought of as female dance. It was adopted by young, black, gay men in the South and the documentary shows the stigma that the men have internalized for wanting to perform the dance, and because of the social stereotype of the men who participate.

“LIFE IN THE DOGHOUSE”— Two Men and Seventy-one  Dogs

“Life In The Doghouse”

Two Men and Seventy-one  Dogs

Amos Lassen

Ron Danta and Danny Robert Shaw are in their 60’s and live on a horse farm in North Carolina where they show horses.  However, most of their time is occupied by the menagerie of rescue dogs that would have had to face extermination.

Today they have an assortment of some 71 dogs that are organized in such a way that everything is peaceful. This began as a spontaneous reaction to the immediate after-effects of Hurricane Katrina, after the two of them had donated much-needed supplies to people who were staying in a nearby Sports Stadium. They then turned their attention to all the pets that had been abandoned in the floods. They drove their horse trucks down to the devastated area and picked up as many of the poor frightened dogs they could and brought them home and then to get another load.

This quickly developed into a full-scale dog rescue service that the two men (with the help of a small team) have run since then.  Theirs is a well-oiled operation that runs on some ideas and basic tenets that Ron and Danny insist on sticking too.  They go out of their way to save the lives of the dogs whose days are numbered and may have health issues or behavioral problems, or simply are the type that rarely gets adopted. I cant help but commend them fully as Sophie, my Jack Russell terrier that I had for 13 years was an evacuee of Katrina. I am lost without her now.

The guys’ website for the Non-Profit is Danny & Ron’s Rescue and features the dogs that they consider are adoptable, but most of their success in finding new homes for the dogs is on the Horse Jumping Circuit where they have established a remarkable following and reputation.

We learn from the documentary that they have successfully had 10,000 dogs adopted by families and new owners. Ron hopes that they can make an even bigger inroad into the 4 million pets that end up getting euthanized each year.

Both men are passionate about their work with the dogs and seem happy enough that the only place in the house that is still theirs (but not quite alone) is the king-size bed and that that is shared with a handful of dogs. The men used their pension funds in the operation and now depend on donations to survive. Their finances are constantly on Ron’s mind.  Another issue that Ron cares about greatly are what he calls ‘puppy mills’ where dogs are badly housed in small cages and expected to constantly breed to make as much money as possible.  To save money they are often inbred and the result are puppies that cannot find homes or be sold. We live in a society where not all animals are neutered or spayed, there are many unwanted litters and then the Shelters that have to deal with this.

Director Ron Davis gives us a lovely look at these two men and the film affects your emotions. Here is a documentary that touches even the coldest of souls.  It’s a love story between two exceptional gay men and their ever-growing four-legged family.

“SAN DIEGO GAY BAR HISTORY”— Looking Back

“San Diego Gay Bar History”

A Look Back

Amos Lassen

.Filmmaker Paul Detwiler looks at the history of the San Diego gay bars in his new documentary. It is a story that seems to be the same in other urban areas in the US in the recent past.

The film begins after World War II when San Diego was a major naval and military base, and even though heterosexual serviceman couldn’t wait to rush back home to their families, gay men and women were enjoying the freedom they had begun to experience away from traditional family lives and they did not want to leave the area. 

Homosexuality was illegal then and being ‘found out’ could literally ruin your lives, but between 1950’s and the 1960’s there were 25 gay bars in the City. Detwiler mixes archival footage with interviews of bar patrons and owners from that time who shared that everyone used a fake ‘bar’ name so they were not exposed, they all had a great deal of fun despite the legal restrictions.  For many people, the gay bars then were an entrance into the hidden LGBT community.

In the 1970’s gay bars were everywhere in the city but none of them were owned by gay men or women because  they were unable to obtain liquor licenses having thought of as degenerates.

In the 80s the LGBT community was devastated by the AIDS pandemic and gay bars were the only places where it was possible to raise funds for the victims and their treatments.  This is a very emotional part of the documentary in which  several AIDS survivors talk about the loss of life deeply affected the bar community and beyond.

The importance and role of the bars was evolving and part of LGBT liberation was the arrival of the internet that would affect the community. Now it sad to see the scene of the closing night of Numbers one of the City’s gay clubs being packed and mourned by the same people who did not support it until the end. After a 20-year run, it was over. The bars are part of LGBT history that might be forgotten all too soon.

“50 YEARS LEGAL”— Personal Stories

 

“50 Years Legal”

Personal Stories

Amos Lassen

“Though only an hour and a half long, the film [“50 Years Legal] is extraordinarily comprehensive, exploring its subject decade by decade and contextualizing each major development with personal stories about the changes that resulted from it.”

On the 27th of July 1967, the Houses of Parliament at Westminster passed the Sexual Offences Act 1967, that decriminalized discreet sexual relations between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales. It was still a long way from creating equality and such relations remained illegal in Scotland until 1981 and the age of consent was not equalized until 2003 – but it was pivotal and very important in that it constituted the first formal acceptance by the state that gay people might be deserving of some sympathy. Over the years since then, a lot more progress has been made, both legally and culturally. Simon Napier-Bell’s documentary looks at and celebrates this process, using interviews with key players from different generations whose own attitudes show the shift in social perspectives.

We hear of the strategies used to win public support and overcome political resistance will prove particularly useful for today’s human rights campaigners, and “it is given added context by its release in the middle of a moral panic over transgender rights, with clear parallels between the types of language and scaremongering used by opponents in each case.”

Although the nature of the 1967 legislation and the persecution that preceded it means this is primarily a film about gay and bisexual men but at that time the distinction between sexual orientation and gender had not yet been clarified and many trans women were living as gay men (including interviewee Quentin Crisp, whose acknowledgement that life as a woman would have made more sense) but that was later. Many gay men used stereotypical feminine accoutrements and mannerisms as a means of identifying themselves to others. Lesbians are somewhat sidelined and bisexual women barely even mentioned. Tensions within the LGBT community are still visible, with hints of biphobia in places and a tendency by some older gay male contributors to assume that everything is alright now and the battle has been won. A focus on transphobia towards the end of the film shows that this is not the case, and provides balance without the need for contradiction.

The contributors from different generations hints at the psychological impact of prejudice, with older contributors finding more joy in early improvements but also talking about the need to laugh at oneself. Younger contributors are focused on a different set of struggles and have the energy that’s easier to find in the younger people yet we are very aware that the confidence they have about the future comes from what had been done in the past and they acknowledge that. Peter Tatchell has something to say about each stage of the struggle. Marc Almond, shares a very personal perspective that shows the way that social change could drive personal change but sometimes at a pace that is a bit too intense for individuals. We see that the euphoria that came with liberation did not universally make coming out less frightening.

Music is celebrated here from Marc Almond to Dusty Springfield, David Bowie and Tom Robinson, whose anthem “Glad To Be Gay” is the backbone of the film. Napier-Bell situates the film in the context of wider social change and he deals with the impact of the AIDS crisis and with Margaret Thatcher’s exploitation of homophobia and the introduction of Clause 28that reminds us that progress never comes with guarantees and hostile measures can be introduced where there were none before. This is a very through documentary that is a valuable contribution to LGBT history.