Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE”— A Misunderstood and Likeable Guy

“OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE”

A Misunderstood and Likeable Guy

Amos Lassen

Ric Burns’ documentary “Oliver Sachs: His Own Life” is filled with interesting bits and pieces many of which could easily provide enough material for a film in their own right. It is a treasure. Sacks understood, perhaps better than most, how little things can make a person happy. Filmed in the period leading up to his death, this documentary reflects on his work as a doctor and a writer  and on a life that was often lonely, one that he survived partly through his ability to find joy in unexpected places.

Director Burns brings us the story of a boy born into a respectable home, both his parents were doctors, who had the opportunity to match his intelligence, yet nevertheless found himself an outsider and who championed the cause of outsiders throughout his life. Sacks was misunderstood and sidelined for a long time by the medical establishment but he managed to achieve widespread public acclaim. Perhaps this came out of his, his willingness to make the field of neurology accessible and his assertion that what a doctor needs most is empathy.

 

Sacks was empathetic and was likeable, something he did not use for many years because he was shy yet once he mastered it, it was an integral part of who he was. Burns does not ignore the criticism Sacks faced, especially the claims that he put personal glory ahead of ethics and that he exploited his patients. However, it is hard to think ill of a man who seems so open, warm and engaging. Sacks was a man who was shaped by the times through which he lived, the treatment of his schizophrenic brother Michael convinced him that there had to be a kinder way to deal with mentally ill people. His experience of being gay in a profoundly homophobic society led him to take refuge first in bodybuilding and later in recreational drugs, pushing his body and mind to the edge again and again. When he eventually realized he had to get help, he started psychoanalysis and became fascinated by the brain and began to exert his own influence on the world. Up to this point in the film, all was seen through  still photographs. Now we move on to Sacks’ life on film and we see his  famous awakenings that would later be dramatized in a film with Robin Williams, whom we see briefly talking with Sacks in another piece of archive footage.

Sacks’ most passionate contention was that helping people had to begin with trying to understand the whole of who they were, not just what was different about them. He had been forewarned of his death from malignant melanoma but he still worked hard to sum up his own life in words during his final few months. We meet some of the people who knew Sacks, and from those who drew inspiration from his work; but it’s Sacks himself, reflecting on an injured leg, apologizing for his “multisyllabic swearing” or, in his seventies, falling in love for the first time, who is what shines in this lovely film.

“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” closely follows the autobiography that Sacks published shortly before his death in 2015. Burns conducted several interviews with Sacks in the months before his death, and he also included interviews with celebrated writers, physicians, friends and family members.

Sacks is probably known to most audiences from the movie Awakenings, a best picture Oscar nominee from 1990 that starred Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. It pic was based on Sacks’ book about his work with comatose patients back in 1969, when an experimental drug treatment led to these patients coming back to life after years or even decades asleep. Williams in effect played Sacks in the film and there are scenes in the documentary showing Sacks on the set with Williams. But of course there was much more to Sacks than that movie.

He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in England. Both of his parents were physicians, but one of his brothers was schizophrenic. Some  of the people that we hear from speculate that this family experience might have created Oliver’s interest in understanding emotionally troubled people.

His family life was painful in other ways as well. When he told his mother that he was gay, she replied, “You are an abomination.” Sacks ran from England for America and rebelled as a motorcycle rider and a bodybuilder. Eventually he moved to New York to focus on his medical career, and although his work with psychotic patients was initially controversial, he was eventually admired by his peers.

Many prominent people pay tribute to Sacks in the film, including a number of fellow writers like Jonathan Miller (his classmate at Oxford) and Paul Theroux, “New York Review of Books” editor Robert Silvers, members of the medical establishment and Temple Grandin, who was part of a study on autism that radically changed popular understanding of this condition.

Sacks’ personal life was as interesting as his professional achievements, perhaps partly because of his mother’s disapproval. In his autobiography and here in this film, Sacks says that he was celibate for 35 years. He was in his 70s when he established a loving relationship with photographer Billy Hayes, another person that we hear from in this documentary.

The real heart of the film are the interviews that Burns conducted with Sacks himself, some in private and some with his friends and colleagues in attendance. When Sacks realizes his death is imminent and says his goodbyes to these long-term associates, the scenes are emotionally moving. The film is a tribute to Burns’ discretion as well as his filmmaking skill. He earned the trust not just of Sacks but of so many others who played an important role in his life. 

One of the surprising and moving lessons of the documentary is how often the most gifted people are unappreciated. Late in life, Sacks earned many honorary degrees and awards from the medical establishment, but he spent a far longer period of his life as an outsider and often miserably unhappy, even suicidal man. It could be that his own torments helped to create the sympathy for society’s outsiders that led to his amazing discoveries. This is the most provocative insight in the film.

Sacks wrote about people in extreme states — of sensory and neurological damage, of awareness and sheer being. “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” is a tender and thrilling portrait of a man who led an eccentrically defiant, at times reckless existence that was the furthest thing from being planned. He was a wanderer and  a scientific navigator of the soul.

“THE CAPOTE TAPES”— Remembering Capote

“THE CAPOTE TAPES”

Remembering Capote

Amos Lassen

Here is Truman Capote in all of his disingenuous glory. “The Capote Tapes” is part character assassination, part hidden/lost manuscript mystery, controversial and very entertaining. We just do not know whether or not to believe it.  Capote was a hard-drinker, a pill-popper and a “disco-dancing pitiable diva” who  took no prisoners. He was regarded as a figure of/for fun, had and lost many a noteworthy friend all in the name of the literature that made and [eventually] killed him. “The Capote Tapes” is a documentary film that is pieced together from recently found audio tapes with archival footage with ‘fresh’ voices and opinions. It is not the definitive portrait…and, definitely not a tabloid kiss-and-tell.  Director Ebs Burnough  balances the good and bad and the affection that he has for Capote is what makes this film play so well.

Newly discovered interviews with friends of Truman Capote made by Paris Review co-founder George Plimpton are the basis for this documentary about Capote, the author and socialite. Truman Capote was a singular figure in the 20th century. With no apologies, he appeared on television at a time when most gay men tried to avoid publicity. “His high-pitched voice imparted wit and indiscretion. His fiction was both popular and critically revered; then he reinvented nonfiction and crime writing with ‘In Cold Blood’. His work has a deep cinematic legacy from the sanitized adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in Capote.”

“The Capote Tapes” gives us a fresh portrait of the man and it reinvigorates our understanding of Truman Capote. Among the film’s revelations are newly discovered tapes of interviews that The Paris Review co-founder George Plimpton conducted with Capote’s friends for a never-completed biography.


The film spends time on Capote’s final uncompleted novel “Answered Prayers” which was to expose Manhattan’s social aristocracy after he became friendly with some of the A-listers. Capote published three excerpts as magazine pieces that caused high scandals and recriminations, but no further manuscript was ever found. Plimpton’s tapes give new thoughts  on what happened. The tapes are interwoven with Capote’s notorious television appearances and insightful interviews with personalities Dick Cavett and Jay McInerney. One unexpected interview is with Capote’s assistant Kate Harrington whose father was his lover.

Filmmaker Ebs Burnough brings an understanding of elite cultural circles and adroitly navigates the complexities of Capote’s life. The film includes Capote’s darker side, but it really celebrates his achievements. This is a “peek behind the curtain into the life of the great writer, his troubled mind, and the book(s) that killed him.” 

Director Burnough has quite an extensive resume  that includes working as the social secretary and brand strategist for Michelle Obama and whose personal life is cited in society page reports about the kind of soirées that Truman Capote himself might have attended during his life. The doc is a revealing study of society life from someone who has been among the inner workings of the world from its upper echelon. Burnough’s access to archival materials is quite amazing. 

The film is, in effect, a time capsule of high society glamour in the 1950s and ‘60s as Capote thrives in the nightlife. There are images of his famed Black and White Ball and “opulent illustrations of Capote’s loneliness.” Burnough finds sadness in Capote’s desire to be loved, throwing parties to elevate himself in a world to which he was an outsider. We also see his cruelty in using these friendships to propel his work.

The recently-discovered audio interviews conducted by George Plimpton of “The Paris Review”, haunt the film with value judgements and razor-sharp one-liners. The elite members of New York’s social circle tell great tales but they speak plainly. Plimpton taped interviews with Capote’s “friends” as he was preparing to write  a biography that, like Capote’s final novel, was never finished.

That incomplete Capote book, “Answered Prayers” becomes mythic proportions in the new interviews conducted for this film, alongside the Capote tapes and the archival interviews with the author. Some people say that Capote finished it and assume the manuscript lost, while others doubt he ever actually wrote it aside from the few excerpts that were published in magazines. It is a literary little black book that allegedly dishes dirty secrets that Capote gathered while mixing with Manhattan’s socialites and observing their behavior.  Burnough’s film builds to the unfinished chapter of Capote’s life, but to understand why Capote never completed it (or never published if he did), we must one must learn why the book was such a betrayal for Capote’s friends.

The film builds Capote’s biography into his literary oeuvre, “treating books as the adverbs to the verbs of his life”. From his early years growing up on Park Avenue with his mother and her second husband, the film sees Capote as a master social climber and navigator. He learns the ins and outs of the social circles and becomes a confidante and companion to many of his mother’s friends after she committed suicide. He endears himself to his circle of women that he lovingly/sarcastically calls “swans,” and they receive some of the most brutal blows in the parts of Answered Prayers that were published.

The film looks at Capote’s unlikely celebrity during the years of his success. Burnough shows how Capote always made an impression, whether through his interviews or his piercing stare. In his breakthrough novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms”, Capote “ openly and unabashedly chronicled the desires of gay men.” 

The interviews show how Capote modeled Holly Golightly upon his mother (a somewhat controversial choice given that Holly is a small town girl working as an escort of the wealthy men of Manhattan). The sequence on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” shows  Capote’s process that led to “Answered Prayers” and we know that it’s common for authors to draw from life, but Capote’s biographical influences are too obvious for comfort.

 Capote’s manipulation of his personal relationships is most evident in “In Cold Blood”. The film intricately builds Capote’s panache for being the life of the party with his sense of entitlement over the lives of those he invited to the table, while his abuse of relationships compounded the alcoholism he used to numb the pain. There is some wild footage of Capote in his later years as he appears on talk shows either drunk or drugged and aged beyond his years because excess pleasures.

The talking heads and interviewees suggest that regardless of the completion of “Answered Prayers”, Capote was breaking ground again as he did with “In Cold Blood”. Excerpts of “Answered Prayers” are filled with  gossip  and the interviews argue that Capote anticipated the mania of reality television and, social media selfie culture. Everyone wants to be adored, loved, and famous in the worlds of Truman Capotes, but this come with a price, as the film poignantly shows.

No character created by Capote on the page ever gave off quite the magnetic damaged resonance of his own. Capote died in 1984, at 59, having spent the last 18 years of his life living off of his tremendous celebrity. Capote would have done well to place himself at the center of his fiction but he left himself out (he remained the silvery observer, the ghost voyeur),  and then he burned himself out. He was “consumed by a toxic cocktail of gossip, alcohol, and prescription drugs, he lived the high life but trashed his promise.” In doing so, he remained a character par excellence.

There’s great footage of Capote wandering the back roads of Kansas during the years he was there reporting “In Cold Blood.” However, the essence of “The Capote Tapes” is a kind of immersion into the man and   who he was and the worlds he moved within.“The Capote Tapes” captures the Truman Capote who wormed himself into the world of the wealthy, the elite, and aristocratic women who became his reason to exist. His fall actually began before it became visible, with the suicide of his alcoholic social-climbing mother. He never recovered from the lack of acceptance she had shown him.

A friend says that Capote swore by the motto, “Don’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Capote never believed anyone loved him but it was almost as if he’d designed it that way: he knew that people were reacting to a performance. The Truman they might have loved was kept hidden away.

“The Capote Tapes” leaves us with a “Truman Capote who became the most famous writer of his time yet was too broken to answer his own prayers.”

“HANDS UNTIED: LOOKING FOR GAY ISRAELI CINEMA”— Israel’s Surprise

“HANDS UNTIED: LOOKING FOR GAY ISRAELI CINEMA” (“LES MAINS DÉLIÉES: À LA RECHERCHE DU CINÉMA GAY ISRAÉLIEN”)

Israel’s Surprise

Amos Lassen

With its abundance of film directors and cinematographers, it was not anticipated that one day Israel could become an incredible land of creation for LGBT cinema. Neither was it considered that TeL Aviv would become a haven for LGBT people and that the Pride festival there would become a “go to” destination.

Director Yannick Delhaye reminds us of the paradox that is Israel— opposing war and peace with a great welcoming and open culture as well as traditions that could sometimes be heavy and difficult to accept for a booming and modern population.

The last decades have seen a generation of auteurs such as Amos Guttman, Eytan Fox, Dan Wolman, Tomer Heymann who have been real pioneers trying to change mentalities and religious conservatism. This « new » cinema provokes, questions, revives and surely participate in the true opening of the country. This documentary offers an excellent panorama of this very interesting topic with many interviews of famous directors and excerpts of films archives.  The following participate in the film:

Avital Barak
Yannick Delhaye
Eytan Fox
Dana Goldberg
Tomer Heymann
Yair Hochner
Eran Koblik Kedar
Ayelet Menahemi
Yariv Mozer
Nir Ne’eman
Ricardo Rojstaczer
Ariel Schweitzer
Aya Shwed
Yaelle Shwed
Thomas Sotinel

“IT IS NOT THE HOMOSEXUAL WHO IS PERVERSE, BUT THE SOCIETY IN WHICH HE LIVES”— Looking Back to 1971

“IT IS NOT THE HOMOSEXUAL WHO IS PERVERSE, BUT THE SOCIETY IN WHICH HE LIVES”

Looking Back to 1971

Amos Lassen

In 1071 German director Rosa von Praunheim released “It’s Not the Homosexual…”, a film with an audacious title that was a thought-provoking takedown of conservative principles and bland conformity. This German documentary scathingly criticizes gay men who want heteronormative social constructs  and on one of its many provocative voiceover statements, von Praunheim compares the honesty of the “flamboyant faggot” with the phoniness of the bourgeois gay man.

The film appeared at the height of Gay Lib, and von Praunheim’s unapologetic disdain upset many gay viewers, but its starkness is refreshing and the subject matter is still highly relevant today. (Von Praunheim continues to make both fiction and documentary movies. His films about the gay community’s reaction to AIDS, made in the 1980s and early 90s, are often brilliant).

Watching this today, we see what was once radical filmmaking and we are reminded of how we once dressed and cut our hair. Such is history. I have heard the film called a Brechtian soap opera and the narration is filled with endlessly quotable lines. It savages gay-male self-destruction and the pathological need to fit into bourgeois culture: “Faggots don’t want to be faggots. They don’t want to be different. They live in a dream world of glossy magazines and Hollywood movies,” we hear from the first of several increasingly hysterical, thickly Teutonic voices, before this utopian call-to-arms is sounded: “Let’s work together with the blacks and women’s liberation. Get involved politically. Being gay is not a career.”

Director Rosa von Praunheim is a self-confessed homosexual, is one of the most important representatives of New German Cinema alongside directors like Rainer Maria Fassbinder. He often uses teasing themes that he picked up in his feature films and documentaries and became a pioneer of filmic postmodernity. Praunheim finds meaning in the search for self, identity crises, sex and sin as well as same-sex love. He has never hesitated to provoke sheer provocation and express unpleasant and hurtful truths. With Rosa von Praunheim nothing happens by chance, but with a certain calculation. Von Praunheim established itself as the enfant terrible of German film in 1971 with this film that was made in 1969 in collaboration with the sexologist Martin Dannecker, immediately after “unnatural fornication” was deleted from the German Criminal Code and homosexuals would no longer be considered criminals before the law.

In this mixture of feature film and documentary, Landei Daniel (Bernd Feuerhelm) meets Clemens (Berryt Bohlen) shortly after arriving in Berlin. They fall in love with each other, move in together and live in a marriage-like community. But only four months later, the relationship breaks up when the initially shy Daniel meets an older, wealthy patron. When the old “lust pig” cheats on Daniel, his ideal world breaks down and he realizes that he has become a toy, an object for pleasure. He tries his luck in the shady gay scene of Berlin— the Lido, boutiques, gay cafes and bars, nightclubs, men’s toilets and parks, which are visited at night by “leather types” who are looking for anonymous S&M sex . Fortunately, he is “saved” towards the end by enlightened and confident homosexuals.

It becomes clear to him that homosexuals do not need fancy clothes or their own usual establishments to live out their sexuality and certainly do not need the constant changing of sexual partners. They do not need artificial marriage-like kitsch to be happy. Everything comes under the motto, “Get out of the toilets, into the streets”: a take on the motto of the American gay movement “Out of the closet and into the streets” the closets/hiding, into the streets “) incorrectly translated.

The narrative voice of the film is  sometimes amusing and sometimes disturbing but it is important to remember that the film questions the norms of society and shows what it means to be gay.

But most of what Praunheim has made here is almost borderline, such as “almost all gays are narcissistic, unable to love, promiscuous, infantile and permanently horny, superficial and vain, eaten up by complexes and self-loathing, consumer-hungry. They were afraid to get their fingers dirty and therefore refused to work hard, they would only see themselves as competitors and under each other”.

“YOU DON’T NOMI”— Deconstructing “Showgirls”

“YOU DON’T NOMI”

 Deconstructing “Showgirls”

Amos Lassen

“You Don’t Nomi” is a documentary that looks at the movie “Showgirls” one of the most critically lampooned films of all time.

Released in 1995 with the intention of being an NC-17 box office smash, “Showgirls”  starred Elizabeth Berkley, Kyle McLachlan, and Gina Gershon. It was intended as a sharp satire, but  became the butt of jokes for years to come. Director Jeffrey McHale’s documentary looks at what is now considered a cult classic. 

McHale spends a bit of time establishing “Showgirls” as part of a spectrum. He compares it to the rest of Verhoeven’s output and we see that Verhoeven’s satirical eye is accepted more widely if violence is the medium of discourse, but that his sexually explicit material is written off as trash.

The best and  most fun parts of the documentary are the more bizarre elements of the film and also makes a “compelling argument that chips and nails are the defining totems of Eszterhas’ writing.” 

Showgirls has had strange journey. It has been released as a  collector’s DVD box set (complete with stick-on pasties) and as a musical parody. McHale’s film is for those who love the film and he sees “Showgirls” as a dream.

This is a thoughtful deconstruction of a flop that the critics hated. The documentary uses many clips from the film as well as others from Verhoeven’s filmography. Except for in the archival footage, there are no talking heads.

None of the film historians and critics set out to convert audiences to the pleasures of the film. They instead point out its merits. The cinematography by Jost Vacano, in all its neon-lit luridness. is masterful. The movie is filled with contradictions yet still has appreciable qualities. This is not a behind-the-scenes look at how a 40-million dollar flop hurt the careers of screenwriter Eszterhas and star Elizabeth Berkley (who played Nomi Malone, the newbie to Vegas who hopes to become a stripping star). No one from the film is interviewed for McHale’s camera, and for those interested in Eszterhas’s point of view of how the film came about and came apart, he offers his frank observations in the Hollywood Reporter‘s podcast, “It Happened in Hollywood” where he says how Berkley won the lead role.

Interviewees agree that it was comedic but not on purpose, despite what Verhoeven has said about his intentions over the years. Verhoeven comes across as having always been a provocateur.

The dissection of “Showgirls” looks at its banal dialogue; problematic racial depictions (black characters worship a blond goddess); its portrayal of women; and the queer connection. For all of the nudity and bumping and grinding,  it is “the least sexy movie ever made.”.

It was roughly 10 years after its theatrical release when audiences at midnight screenings began to take “Showgirls” more seriously while still laughing at it.

The movie’s advocates make a convincing case that a film could be both good and bad, which shouldn’t be a revelation. They make convincing points.

“You Don’t Nomi” movies at a quick pace but the real plus is in the flair of the director.  He gives us fascinating insight into what makes a phenomenon, a cult failure and then a subsequent rise.

“PRIDE & PROTEST”— Black/Asian and Gay in the UK


“PRIDE & PROTEST”

Black/Asian and Gay in the UK

Amos Lassen

Of late, there has been a good deal of media about the Birmingham, England anti-LGBTQ+ protests against relationships education in primary schools. A group of Muslim community members and a team of queer community reporters from various ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds in West London met to challenge the persecution, intolerance and discrimination by using their own life journeys in a documentary film. Rainbow Films, a volunteer-led collective came into being. This film, “Pride and Protest”, is the result of many conversations shared by the Rainbow Films team on important but often ignored issues about racism within the larger LGBTQ community, as well as issues around intersectionality and visible diversity in the more mainstream and White heteronormative society in which they live.

When Blaise Singh was compelled to give up his job as an Elementary School Teacher, we gained a new talented filmmaker who is ready to deal with those who are Asian/Black and gay in the United Kingdom today. We immediately sense his passion and commitment  to LGBTQ/human rights. He wrote/directed/produced Pride and Protest”, a very important documentary film.

Birmingham is a city in the Midlands, with a large immigrant population and a lot second and third generation  Muslims.  Schools there became the focus  of a long campaign to halt LGBT equality messages in the classroom. Protests became so heated that the local government council banned them. It is important to know that there is a Hate Speech law in the United Kingdom.

The film begins on the protest line where mainly families who are originally from Pakistan are extreme in their opposition,  but claim that they are not homophobic, feeling that this empowers them to then use hate against the LGBTQ community.   Director Singh uses his film of London’s Gay Pride March, Black Gay Pride and Hungama, a queer Bollywood club in East London. We see how his community has dealt with the homophobia in the ‘white’ LGBTQ.

The interviews are mainly with young people who identify as being somewhere on the queer spectrum and want to relate how their own coming out are different from those of white members of the LGBTQ community. We hear from activists including Lady Phyll, the co-founder of Black Pride, Aaron Carty from “Beyonce Experience”, Josh Rivers, the fired editor of “Gay Times” who sent out homophobic, antisemitic, racist, transphobic, and body-shaming tweets.

This is the modern face of protest that challenges us to re-think some of own attitudes while we look for new leaders.   This is a hard hitting film that must be seen.

“JACK & YAYA”— A Remarkable Friendship

“JACK & YAYA”

A Remarkable Friendship

Amos Lassen

Jack and Yaya  first met when they were three and two through their shared backyard fence. They played and grew up together in their small hometown in South Jersey. From a young age, they saw each other as they truly were, a girl and a boy, even though the rest of the world didn’t see them that way. As they grew older, they supported each other as they both came out as transgender. Now decades later, Jack and Yaya remain best friends. Today Jack lives in Boston with his pup, Plinko, and works as a kindergarten teacher and Yaya lives in her childhood home, waits tables and tries to make ends. She is alone now that her mother has died. During summer vacation, Jack goes back to his childhood home to spend time with Yaya and his extended family. “Jack and Yaya” follows the two of them for a year, exploring their relationship, uses home videos and has conversations with their friends and family.

They both have had  interesting families but it was that they could see other as they really are that created the bond between them.  Jack was christened Jacqueline and Yaya was christened Christopher. They both knew then that they would both eventually transition, yet no one in the rest of the world knew how they felt.

They are now both in different stages of their transitioning Jack is about to have a hysterectomy and Yaya is trying to get her new name legally registered.  Both of them are very supportive of each other. Their extended families were slow to accept them in the beginning but now they are all fine with the two of them now.

Directors Jen Bagley and Mary Hewey give us a gift of love with this film. Jack and Yaya read each other’s minds and their friendship is beautiful. The support they give each other for their transitioning pure love.  .

Yaya is open about being unable to afford all her drugs. Her waitress pay has to help take care of her grandmother since her mother died.  The friendship between the two continues to grow.  We need more films like this in order to continue the conversation about the transgender community. 

“DISCLOSURE”— Trans Representation Onscreen

“DISCLOSURE”

Trans Representation Onscreen

Amos Lassen

What do the films “Psycho”, “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Dressed to Kill” have in common? Each features a transgender or gender variant person as a psychotic, deranged, murderous villain. This began with “Psycho” and was evident throughout some of the most iconic thrillers of the last fifty years. We also have had the “trans deception” narrative, which began with dramas like “The Crying Game” and “M. Butterfly” and soon became a mainstay in film comedies such as “Tootsie,” “Bosom Buddies,” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

We have seen troubling examples of trans characters being portrayed as evil and duplicitous or sad and pathetic. Most of the time, trans characters die before the end of a movie or TV episode. This is all discussed in “Disclosure: Trans Lives Onscreen,” a new documentary from executive producer Laverne Cox that looks at the history of trans representation onscreen. In it we get an accessible, moving, and in-depth account of trans representation in media.

 In the film we see interviews with screen luminaries — all trans who share valuable information with personal reflections.  In it we see that trans and cinema have grown up and come of age together.

The film situates each example that we see here in a wider context, and reminding viewers why depictions in media matter especially since about 80 percent of Americans do not personally know a trans person so for many people media is their only experience.

Most of the trans men interviewed here see “Boys Don’t Cry” as a watershed moment, the film’s tragic ending was highly traumatic. On hospital shows and procedural dramas, trans women either end up dead, raped, and even sometimes get cancer from their hormone treatments.

There have also been positive portrayals such as “Yentl”, “Victor/Victoria,” “Hairspray,” and “Ma Vie en Rose” with fully realized trans characters.

Director Sam Feder brings personal reflections from the subjects into the film. We see personal anecdotes as crucial, especially since anyone with more than a passing knowledge of film or trans issues will not find new information on offer. More critical analysis would have helped the film since the audience for this film seems to be those who need a little help to accept themselves.

The film covers a lot of ground over the course of its runtime, from the silent era to this modern streaming age. Older films that focused on cross-dressing as a source of comedy sent the message that gender variance was used for a source of humor. Others show trans women as psychotic murders, driven to madness by their feelings of dysphoria.

Feder and Cox rewrite the history they set out to tell by making this film a  positive representation list. The film remind us of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

“MUCHO MUCHO AMOR”— Puerto Rican Astrologer Walter Mercado

“MUCHO MUCHO AMOR”

Puerto Rican Astrologer Walter Mercado

Amos Lassen

“Mucho Mucho Amor” is a documentary that follows the life of the iconic Puerto Rican astrologer, Walter Mercado. When Mercado was on television, everybody at the house had to be quiet and pay close attention to see what horoscope would say. Mercado represented hope and was a ray of light that many Latino families needed. Of course, his light wouldn’t be nearly as effective without his glamorous, extravagant capes…and the overall image he created.

This documentary is told through his family, his close friend, some famous admirers (Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eugenio Derbez), journalists, and Mercado himself.  “In a world where homophobia is prevalent, he decided to make and break the mold. He wasn’t ordinary, and he wore it as a badge.” His controversial decision to take the good aspects of every dominant religion and incorporate them into one was fascinating.

Mercado was an international one-of-a-kind phenomenon. To many Latino families, he was the symbolism of hope. He is a man who decided how he’ll live his life and decided to take the “I don’t care” attitude. His success and colorful appearance has been the target of jokes and unwelcome imitation. He died a few months after this documentary was done, and the filmmakers believe that Walter knew about his upcoming death, and that’s why he decided to make this film. Mercado’s message was to live life to the fullest, and the ultimate purpose of life is love.

Directed by Cristina Constantini and Kareem Tabsch, the film follows the life of the flamboyant wanderer of life, astrology and luck, who appeared on the televisions of millions of Latin households for many decades. His sign off, “pero sobre todo, con mucho, mucho amor,” is the lasting impression of the film itself—enchanting, doting, and as simply wonderful as Walter himself. He was a trailblazer within the Latin and LGBTQ community and left a legacy for himself, as thoughtfully seen here.

Mercado grew up in a farm town. From a young age, his experience in healing a bird made him a popular deity of sorts among neighbors. He grew to make it big in the business, going from what was thought to be a whim appearance on-air to getting big network deals for his own shows and branding. His background was in theatre and soaps and he eventually he came to extravagant, colorful capes and gowns, like a Latin wizard of good karma. This image with all of its beads, blowouts and jewel galore, became a staple in Latin culture.

Constantini and Tabsch recognize the impactful and trailblazing icon that Mercado was in. He was never explicit with his asexuality, but is on record saying that he is attracted to life itself. For so much of Mercado’s life, his willingness to love has long been part of his character as a selfless, warm soul with no adherence to customary stock. The film also depicts the hardships and legal battles that he had to deal with. His former manager, Bill Bakula, is interviewed in the film, reminiscing how he came to discover Mercado and worked with him over the years. The longtime relationship came to a halt when a legal battle ensued, with Bakula getting Mercado to sign off ownership of his name and entire brand, unbeknownst to Mercado. This played a factor in his sudden disappearance from on-air work in 2006.

For so long, the Latin community as a whole was hesitant about homosexuality, largely influenced by the culture’s dominating machismo. Mercado’s work was largely accepted, nonetheless, but was sometimes met with comedic bashing in the entertainment world. Whether lovingly or childishly, Mercado’s flashy and theatrical image was poked at in comedy shows, interviews and in general.

“Mucho Mucho Amor” is a celebration of a life that touched so many Latin homes. We sense “the beating energy of Mercado’s legacy as someone who just wanted to disperse magic and healing hope to his audience.”

”WELCOME TO CHECHNYA”— Unimaginable Peril

”WELCOME TO CHECHNYA”

Unimaginable Peril

Amos Lassen

“Welcome to Chechnya” follows a group of activists who risk unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom in the repressive and closed Russian republic of Chechnya.

Since 2017, Chechnya’s tyrannical leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has brought about a depraved operation to “cleanse the blood” of LGBTQ Chechens He oversees a government-directed campaign to detain, torture and execute them. Activists take matters into their own hands. In his new documentary, David France uses a remarkable approach to anonymity to expose this and to tell the story of an extraordinary group of people who confront evil every day of their lives.

We see a small group of activists working to remove LGBTQ citizens out of Russia through a series of safe houses, government partnerships around the world, and lots of risky travel plans. Each of these escapees’ faces has been CGI-modified to look different and that shows how scary and intense this cleansing is for Chechens. We follow a few of these citizens as they are forced to stay inside, keep low profiles, and move quickly when told that the time has come. The documentary never calms down and we, in the audience, are not allowed to relax.

Everyone in the film shows courage and asks us to do the same. We see the imprisonment of mostly young LGBTQ citizens, and the film is horrific and almost unwatchable at times. There are clips of unnecessary violence towards these random citizens throughout the film, and even if we close our eyes, we still hear the brutality.

In some places, the world continues to be awful for those that are different and this documentary make us feel frustrated for not knowing about these stories earlier. At the same time, the film is a call-to-action to listen to others, to be informed, and to contribute to causes that matter. This is a difficult film to watch but its message of intolerance and bravery is so very important.

Director France aligns himself with the men and women trying to free the people who now fear for their lives and asks the truly terrifying question of if we don’t stop it there, how far can this kind of behavior spread? 

We are taken into the safe houses with the young men and women trying to travel the “Rainbow Railroad” to Canada. We see the detailed process that it takes to rescue these young men and women, whose identities are protected by a new technology that basically gives them a face and voice on film that’s not their own. The film is intercut with horrifying footage of hate crimes against gay people in the region that are impossible to forget— this is a matter of life and death.

When terrorism was growing from Chechnya in the early 2000s, Putin responded by installing a pro-Russia  regime, with Kadyrov  at its head. In return for his loyalty, Putin gave him free rein to run his country how he wanted  and thus began a growing cult of personality. This lack of accountability has allowed and even helped “a brutal anti-gay purge of enforced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings in the corrupt, ultra-conservative, and predominantly Muslim republic.”

Details of the purge, have leaked out even with the regime’s effective silencing methods. France now brings them to wider attention in his film that is filled with suspense, as we are taken into the perilous escape route out of Chechnya \and into hiding with some who flee. We get a taste of the fear that a regime known for carrying out hits far beyond its own borders can engender. The documentary stuns us with what Putin and his “pals” cannot seem to see: that it is people, and their undeserved suffering, have precisely everything to do with these inhuman policies.

We see that David Isteev and Olga Baranova, activists of the Russian LGBT Network, a non-governmental rights organization, help those at risk in their attempts to  escape. They have no prior experience in how to hide people in danger, or how to obtain the necessary paperwork for them, they work to meet such urgent need, taking in around 25 people per month to their secret shelter in Moscow, a city that, despite its own poor human rights record, is safe in comparison to Grozny.  They risk their own lives on missions, and fighting to keep stress at bay. Their work makes them targets of death threats.

Getting to a safe house outside Chechnya is no way the end of their ordeal. By leaving, they arrive at zero, with little chance to speak their own language, resume their professions, or talk to relatives. Their ties to all they have known are severed. They carry the stigma of “a shame so strong it has to be washed away by blood” stays with them through  a lifetime of socialization and violent reinforcement. The trauma of what they go through never leaves them. The dislocation and claustrophobia can be too much to bear. Canada has taken in 44 of the 151 survivors that the Russian LGBT Network has helped out of Chechnya, Trump’s administration has not agreed to take in even one.

“The repression within Chechnya is so brutal, and the hand of Kadyrov’s henchmen so global in its reach, that scarcely any of those persecuted are willing to go public about their experiences in the purge, which it is suspected has even claimed a prominent pop star who disappeared in Grozny in 2017 while on a brief visit from Moscow.

We see grainy mobile footage of homophobic attacks with eyewitness evidence of a fraction of atrocities in a nation that, its leader declares, has no gay people — and insists that if it did, their families would kill them before any state intervention. 

Isteev and Olga Baranova have sacrificied everything they have to save LGBT youths in Chechnya and they are truly inspiring. Their work in this documentary is a wake-up call for the world to do much more.

Welcome To Chechnya starts with Isteev on the phone. He is the crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network. He always seems to be on the phone. Anya, a lesbian girl in Chechnya, is calling. Her uncle knows that she’s gay and is blackmailing her to have sex with him or he will tell her dad. Knowing that an almost certain death awaits her either way, Anya’s only hope lies with Isteev to get her out of the country.

Isteev’s job is to help bring gays and lesbians facing persecution to safety. He is aided by Baranova, the founding director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, who has set up a safe house in Moscow for these youths to stay before they are taken out of Russia. Through fly-on-the-wall-footage of these tense breakouts as well as face-to-face interviews with Isteev and Baranova, the film informs and inspires..

Grisha (not his real name) is an ethnic Russian who was detained while working in Chechnya. He was deeply surprised by the way he was treated, considering the previous friendliness of the locals towards him. He was allowed out of the region by the authorities because he was not Chechen but he fears for his life, as well as the lives of his family and boyfriend.

France has done an amazing job of laying out the context of the gay purge before we go with him on a journey that involves border crossings, emotional reunions and incredible resilience in the face of evil. All of this takes place against a backdrop of institutional failure that comes from the autonomous region and goes right up to the head of state himself.

In 2017 during a drug raid in Chechnya, authorities found explicitly gay photographs and texts on a man’s phone. This was the beginning. They tortured him until he gave up his friends and this began a purge that has caused hundreds of men and women to be detained, tortured, and given back to their families to die.

Vladimir Putin is not directly responsible for what is happening in Chechnya but the Kremlin’s lack of condemnation, coupled with refusing to open an official investigation, gives Kadyrov the freedom to continue his campaign of terror. Kadyrov is a useful pawn in Chechnya, maintaining stability in a region that has gone to war with Russia twice in the past thirty years. Now with reports of institutionally-sanctioned homophobic violence spreading throughout the Russian south, there is a great fear that it could pop up in other regions of Russia, with the Kremlin doing nothing to help.

David France sees the issue as a global one. As refugees wait for visas, they bounce off the walls. In one particularly distressing scene, one slits his wrists out of frustration. While LGBT organizations worldwide are ready to help work on this issue together, it requires government intervention through international condemnation, funding and humanitarian visa allocation.

Welcome to Chechnya is grim, especially footage intercepted by activists showing brutal beatdowns and rapes. Nonetheless, even with the difficulties these people face, France captures the intimacy and beauty of gay love by showing Grisha and his boyfriend, Bogdan playing by the beach and caressing each other in the bath. It’s a beautiful, loving and tender reminder of the fight is all about.

France’s film has is “a true masterwork of LGBT empathy, working both as a devastating portrait of hate as well as a rallying call to arms” and one of the best and most important documentaries of the year.