Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“CONFESSIONS OF A GAY POET”— Meet Wade Radford

“Confessions of a Gay Poet”

Meet Wade Radford

Amos Lassen

Several years ago I met Wade Radford on line and learned that he was a young actor and poet. I reviewed some of his work and was impressed but then he disappeared. His reemergence came with this film, “Confessions of a Gay Poet”, a documentary about his life and work as a poet, underground filmmaker and actor. Radford became known for his controversial role in “Twink” as well as other film gay film credits like “Sex Lies and Depravity”, “1 Last Chance at Paradise” and the “Boys Behind Bars” series. He is never afraid to push the envelope just a little more than others. We go behind the scenes with Wade and learn that he has been releasing poetry anthologies and spoken word recordings for the last eight years. This film explores the themes of Wade’s work and introduces the audience to this complex and candid individual. Up until now Radford has hidden behind the mask of his work; but those days are over and he is now out to the world. He is now preparing for his latest anthology release “Disequilibrium” and will be hitting the open road in the hope that he can finally close some of the chapters of love, heartbreak and disillusions that have haunted his most recent works.

His film is an exploration of his life’s journey of love and loss, triumph and tragedy and it is very personal, inspiring and moving. This is a candid, poetic exposé into a complex soul who is an “LGBT Voice, Loud, Proud and Uncensored.”

Those who know Wade Radford known him for his controversial roles in his films. I personally find him delightful and a breath of fresh air.

“DUDE FOR A DAY”— A Workshop

“DUDE FOR A DAY”

A Workshop

Amos Lassen

We are all aware of the attention on gender identity these days. It seems more people are now focusing inwards and looking at themselves on a scale and in a manner that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.  One of the options of doing this are workshops like the one we see here and that is  run by Tracey Erin Smith, the director of Soulo Theater in Toronto.  Smith explains that her one day course “Dude For A Day” is not about transitioning but for the women participating to find an energy that may have been latent and dormant and allowing it to come out and make a fuller person.

It is a full day of immersive experiences and in the film we see the diverse group of women start by sharing their personal stories and some of their hopes and dreams  and as the day unfolds Smith has them dressing and acting in drag to bring out their inner ‘man’ so they can for once experience a masculine stance on life.

This is both intriguing and enlightening and although this may not be the way for everyone questioning gender, it certainly seems to suit this particular group that we see here.

“BIGGER LIKE ME: THE EXTENDED DIRECTOR’S CUT”— Is Bigger Better?

“Bigger Like Me: The Extended Director’s Cut”
Is Bigger Better?
Amos Lassen

“Bigger Like Me: The Extended Director’s Cut” with emphasis on “extended” is a look at the age old topic of penis size. Greg Bergman is a straight comedian who is obsessed with the small size of his penis and is determined to enlarge it. (That’s it, that’s the movie). Bergman has had several failed experiment— using pills, pumps and other so-called methods, so he decides. to travel to a surgeon in Tijuana, Mexico, where he risks everything (his marriage included) to do what he feels he must and to fulfil what he sees as his destiny. There is no plot per se but what there is plenty of humor. The film has been described as a “straight dude’s dark descent into phallocentric delirium.” It is often dark but, all in all. It is fun. I wish I had more to say about it other then sit back and enjoy the face that not just gay men are size queens.

“FELIX AUSTRIA”— The Journey of a Lifetime

“Felix Austria!”

The Journey of a Lifetime

Amos Lassen

American aesthete Felix Pfeifle received an inheritance of a mysterious box of letters and  begins a journey of a lifetime. He wants to find the source of the correspondence who is the last heir of the Holy Roman Emperors, aging Archduke Otto von Habsburg. However,  time is of the essence since Felix’s father is dying of Huntington’s Disease, an incurable genetic disease that Felix has a fifty percent chance of developing. Quite basically this is a universal story about a person’s passions, fears, and triumphs when one dares to dream and how he is defined by them.

Brian Scott Pfeifle is a gay man from Modesto, California who has to deal with an incurable genetic disease. He changes his name to Felix Etienne-Edouard, enters psychoanalysis to interpret his crazy dreams and sets out to befriend the would-be ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Otto von Habsburg. His quest takes him all the way to Vienna as he works through personal identity, escapism, class distinctions and fantasy in this candid adventure of self-discovery.

We go on a whirlwind treasure hunt as one academic tries to piece together a peculiar mystery between an ordinary American and the last descendant of the Holy Roman Empire. Christine Beebe directed this  colorful and eccentric character study that is filled with heart.

Felix is an entertaining film subject. Like the best university professors, Felix loves to share his knowledge with his pupils and he displays his passion and his breadth of information with each address to the camera. The film lets Felix explain his intense fascination with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was piqued by the surprise inheritance of correspondence between Herbert Hinkel, an ordinary American, and Otto von Hapsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary. The invaluable archive that Felix receives from Hinkel is a history buff’s goldmine. The letters—approximately sixty years of correspondence between the two men—offer an extremely rare glimpse into the character, personality, and humanity of a monarch.

Curiosity transforms Felix’s enthusiasm into an adventure as he sets forth to learn more about Hinkel and discover the relationship between Hinkel and Hapsburg that he reads in the letters. He eventually packs a case of colorful suits, ties, and ascots as he flies to Europe for a one-on-one with Otto von Hapsburg himself. The encounter with Hapsburg is especially important for Felix since his interest in Austro-Hungarian Empire has morphed into a kind of mania that is in his subconscious and manifests itself as all sorts of actions. We see his dreams as very funny animated interludes.

The dream sequences also tie together the various threads of Felix’s life. The plot outlines Felix’s connection to his father, who is dying of Huntington’s brain disease that  carries a genetic probability of fifty percent, so Felix knows that  he will probably see the same fate as his father. Felix is reluctant to discuss the looming fear of Huntington’s directly, but the dream sequences show unspoken fears and conflicts of identity. The quest to uncover the mystery of the pen pal relationship between Hinkel and Hapsburg, implicitly reveals something about Felix himself, therefore has a limited timeframe. If Felix’s mind deteriorates at the rate of Huntington’s power, then the significance of his archive of correspondence could be lost forever.

The film is a collage of biography and fantasy, history and art; an adventure of escapism and self-discovery.

“GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH”— On Tour

“GAY CHORUS DEEP SOUTH”

On Tour

Amos Lassen

In response to a wave of discriminatory anti-LGBTQ laws and the divisive 2016 election, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus under the leadership of Dr. Timothy Seelig, Artistic Director and Christopher Verdugo, Executive Director embarks on a tour of the American Deep South.  “Gay Chorus Deep South” is a documentary film that chronicles SFGMC’s life-changing Lavender Pen Tour, as it came to be known, through five southern states in the fall of 2017. Director and writer David Charles Rodrigues, writer Jeff Gilbert, producers Bud Johnston and Jesse Moss, and director of photography Adam Hobbs followed the 300 members of the chorus along with special guests from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir as they traveled on an unprecedented bus tour through the Deep South, celebrating music, challenging intolerance, and confronting their own dark coming out stories as they faced a resurgence of anti-LGBTQ laws.

The group made 23 appearances across Mississippi (Hattiesburg and Jackson), Alabama (Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham), Tennessee (Knoxville), South Carolina (Greenville) and North Carolina (Greensboro and Charlotte) from October 7–14, 2017. The tour helped to share SFGMC’s mission of community, activism and compassion throughout the South, supporting its LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters and promoting acceptance and love through music. SFGMC also joined with local non-profits and LGBTQ+ groups to help raise much-needed funds in support of their vital work to take down biased and discriminatory laws.

Christopher Verdugo, SFGMC Executive Director states,  “The Lavender Pen Tour allowed us to use our collective powerful, positive voices to empower LGBTQ+ residents in areas where they are not always able to be heard. The heart of the tour, showcased beautifully in the documentary, are the bridges that were built, the stereotypes that were crushed and the love that was shared amongst all people.  It’s wonderful for SFGMC to be able to further spread that message of positivity and inclusivity by showcasing “Gay Chorus Deep South” at such a prestigious film festival. We look forward to sharing it across the nation at other upcoming festivals.”

The tour took its name from the actions of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay candidate elected to major office in the U.S., who has often been referred to as the patron saint of SFGMC. In 1977, a year before his death, Harvey sponsored a landmark gay civil rights bill. Mayor George Moscone signed that bill into law with a lavender pen given to him by Harvey. The Lavender Pen remains a symbol of the fight for equality for all and the reason for the tour’s name.

The tour brought a message of music, love and acceptance to communities and individuals confronting intolerance. Over 300 singers travelled from Mississippi to Tennessee through the Carolinas and over the bridge in Selma. They performed in churches, community centers and concert halls in hopes of uniting us in a time of difference. The journey also challenged chorus members who fled the South to confront their own fears, pain and prejudices on a journey towards reconciliation. The conversations and connections that emerge offer a glimpse of a less divided America, where the things that divide us-faith, politics, sexual identity-are set aside by the soaring power of music, humanity and a little drag.

The chorus pinpointed two U.S. states that, in their opinion, had the most egregious homophobic and transphobic laws on the books: North Carolina and Mississippi. These would be essential pit stops. The neighboring states of Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee would round out the seven-day trip. Through its concerts and a number of community events, the SFGMC set out to open minds, change hearts, and be a beacon of hope to LGBTQ youth in some of the most socially conservative states in the country. 

The group received requests that specifically asked it not to bring its gay agenda to their hometowns. “We [were] like, ‘OK, then we’re sure going to come there.'”  It was a delicate balance though, Seelig says; the group didn’t want to barge into town preaching to their Bible Belt hosts. But it did want to be the spark of social change  inspiring hope, starting tough conversations, showing local queer youth that it truly does get better. Often, their performances act as the conduit for that process. “We want to use our music to be that battering ram or that soft blanket,” Seelig says. “Somewhere in between or both all at once.” 

The songs end up making a difference, regardless of what corner of the country they’re performed in. The morning the SFGMC marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the second day of the weeklong tour, yet the group had already experienced a number of eye-opening moments illustrating exactly why the tour mattered.

At their concert Sunday night, Verdugo overheard a young man and his mom chatting during intermission. “‘Could you imagine if something like this would have existed when you were 16 and how you wouldn’t have felt so alone?'” he heard the mom asking her son. That goal in particular — helping LGBTQ youth see a brighter future for themselves — was especially palpable. Patty Rudolph, a local straight ally and member of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, came out to see the group perform in Birmingham. A mom to a gay son, Rudolph says it’s crucial for LGBTQ kids in the South to understand there’s a place for them there. “We live in the Bible Belt; the [LGBTQ] youth here in Alabama really do struggle with issues of substance abuse and homelessness and depression and suicide,” she explains. “To see positive role models — people that are living happy lives, productive lives — it’s empowering to the youth.”

Seeing that glimmer of hope is important in the most politically conservative region of America. These states have few (if any) policies to protect LGBTQ people and their rights. Homophobia and transphobia — at times promoted directly from the pulpit are everywhere, forcing LGBTQ people to keep their identity in the dark. 

The chorus netted more than $100,000 for local LGBTQ nonprofits through ticket sales and audience donations on the trip. The funds benefited 21 groups that will continue to spread hope where it’s needed long after the Lavender Pen Tour passed through town. 

“CIRCUS OF BOOKS”— A Gay Porn Shop in History

“CIRCUS OF BOOKS”

A Gay Porn Shop in History

Amos Lassen

In 1976, Karen and Barry Mason were looking for a way to support their young family when they answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times and learned that Larry Flynt was seeking distributors for Hustler Magazine. What was expected to be a brief stay led to their becoming fully immersed in the LGBT community as they took over a local store, Circus of Books. Ten years later, they had become the biggest distributors of gay porn in this country. This documentary focuses on the double life they led as they tried to maintain the balance of being parents at a time when LGBT culture was not yet accepted. There were many challenges included facing jail time for a federal obscenity prosecution and enabling their store to be a place of refuge at the height of the AIDS crisis. This is quite a look at an untold chapter of queer history, and it is told by Rachel Mason, an artist, filmmaker and musician. She also happens to the owner’s daughter.

Karen and Benny Mason had a medical device company that went under and they needed to find work. What they found were temporary jobs distributing explicit magazines for publisher Larry Flynt. This eventually grew into a mini adult empire, including a retail shop on West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard for decades—and later, a hardcore film production company. Director Rachel Mason turns her camera on her family as she and the film explore the contradictions of growing up in an unconventional household where her mom could be found volunteering at her synagogue or re-stocking issues of “Hand Job Magazine:. Sex was never discussed at home, but it was films such as “A Rim with a View” and “Shaving Ryan’s Privates” that helped put the Mason’s kids through college. “Circus Of Books” chronicles the Masons and their uncommon journey which included obscenity charges during the Reagan era, bearing witness to the AIDS epidemic, and facing financial struggles given their aging customer base.

Circus of Books was part of West Hollywood’s gay cruising mecca before the internet and it is the story of the adult bookstore on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Jolla. Karen and Barry Mason, its owners for more than 30 years, announced that they would be closing it soon.

The store is in the heart of what was once West Hollywood’s “Vaseline Alley,” a parking lot and alley where gay men cruised for sex. People would meet each other there and  when Circus of Books opened, it was a special place for people who were gay and were trying to come out or feel comfortable.

Over the years, the store has been patronized by famous folks like Elton John, Drew Carey and David Hockney as well as by countless gay men  who saw the shop as a meeting place and an important piece of the fabric of life in West Hollywood, L.A.’s foremost LGBT district.” says a promotion of the campaign. But as we all know too well, bookstores and DVD rental shops have long been slowly fading. Now that the majority of porn is available on the Internet for free, the Masons’ business has taken a severe hit.

The store’s best years are well behind them. The film includes interviews with many of the Masons’ employees and colleagues in the porn industry as well as their closest friends and family members.

The Masons closed their Silver Lake Circus of Books store in August of last year. The West Hollywood location of closed on February 9, 2019. The film is a tribute “to the already-very-missed bookstore”.

“XY CHELSEA”— A Documentary

“XY CHELSEA”

A Documentary

Amos Lassen

 “XY Chelsea” is a documentary on whistle-blower Chelsea Manning  whose struggle with gender dysphoria coincided with a 35-year prison sentence for revealing state secrets. It was shot over two years by filmmaker Tim Travers Hawkins and features interviews and behind-the-scenes verite’ with Manning.  The documentary begins on the day she leaves prison thanks to a sentence commutation from President Obama. The documentary then follows her on a journey of discovery, while also examining her place in the conversation on national security and in the fight of the transgender community for rights and visibility.

Chelsea has been a soldier, a trans woman and a prisoner who has launched an appeal against the US Military, challenging a 35 year sentence given after she leaked almost 700,000 US military and diplomatic documents. She is also undergoing Hormone Replacement Therapy, transitioning to the female gender she has identified with all her life.

We see Chelsea’s fight for her identity: her character, her integrity, and her psychology. What we see is told from Chelsea’s perspective and  provides a unique view of one of the most important stories of the 21st century and an ongoing trial that has implications for us all.

“CASSANDRO, THE EXOTICO”— Behind the Mask

“Cassandro, the Exotico!”

Behind the Mask

Amos Lassen

We get an intimate glance behind the wrestler’s mask in the documentary, “Cassandro, the Exotico!” a 73-minute film that follows the flamboyant and talented professional wrestler, Cassandro (birth name Saul Armendariz). Cassandro is American-born to Mexican immigrants and grew up between El Paso, Texas and his family’s homeland near Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. He knew that he was gay at an early age and gravitated toward the flash and the glam surrounding professional wrestling  in particularly the muscular men with larger than life personalities and who wore brightly colored spandex.

Now after 27 years on the professional and independent circuits, Cassandro takes the filmmakers on a journey through his bumpy career, one with both physical and mental scars alike. Beginning his career as a villain, Cassandro has reinvented his ring character a handful of times, as is common in Lucha Libre (professional wrestling). He was inspired to take on the role of an exotico by the famous luchador, Baby Sharon.

Traditionally, exoticos were known as cross-dressing gay caricatures played by straight men. Cassandro and Baby Sharon, however, are noted for being the first gay men to play gay characters in Lucha Libre. This was a rather controversial path to take in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, but one that paid off greatly in affording Cassandro not only a career, but an opportunity to put himself in his work.

The film is made up of archive footage that gives a lot  of dream-like nostalgia as Cassandro takes out his opponents one-by-one. Complete with lavish dress and feathered hair, Cassandro is recognized as the “Liberace of Lucha Libre” and has quickly climbed the ranks of popularity in the sport. We get an unfiltered behind the scenes look at the life of the man behind Cassandro. We see his modest home full of memorabilia of the glory days, family photos that show us that the family was in the church pew on Sunday mornings and ringside Sunday nights.

We see the often deflating, two-sided life of professional wrestling. On one side is the luchador persona, wagering his hair in countless matches and taking home a championship belt – a moment that inspired many gay wrestlers who followed in his footsteps. Yet, on the other side is the life of Saul Armendariz, nursing a headache and counting the scars of his numerous ACL tears, rotator cuff surgeries, cuts, and bite wounds, while taking in a game of football in his bath robe. Filmmaker Marie Losier is careful to provide a balanced view, and still manages to let a flash of Cassandro shine through in Saul, even right up to the moment when the 40-something champion decides it may perhaps be time to finally say goodbye to the sport that he loves.

“THE MOST DANGEROUS YEAR”— Families Fighting Legislation

“The Most Dangerous Year”

Families Fighting Legislation

Amos Lassen

With anti-transgender bathroom bills sweeping across the nation, The Human Rights Campaign called 2016 the most  in 2016. It became quite a dangerous year for transgender Americans. Filmmaker Vlada Knowlton captured the ensuing civil rights battle from the perspective of a group of embattled parents – including herself and her husband who are parents of a young trans girl and are fighting to protect their children from discriminatory laws in their home state. While Knowlton passionately follows the story of anti-transgender legislation, the real heart of the film is in the stories of the families who accept and support their kids for who they are. This is a very important documentary with a focus on families fighting against anti-transgender rights legislation.

Director Knowlton’s  youngest daughter was five years old upon coming out but started showing signs of being transgender two years earlier.  The director states in the film that “it was a terrifying time for us.”  It was quite a struggle to accept the child’s gender identity and the next year proved to be even worse.

In addition to their daughter, the film follows four other families— the Trainer, Mitchell, Kelly, and Blakefield families.  All of them have a transgender son or daughter.  By focusing on the children, Knowlton is able to show how vulnerable LGBTQ youth can be.

Washington was one of many states dealing with bathroom bills or ballot initiatives in state legislatures.  They had a total of six bills filed but only SB 7443 stood the best chance of reaching the floor for a vote.  Because Washington is an initiative state so the government requires 300,000 signatures before an initiative can land on the ballot.  Just Want Privacy, an, anti-transgender organization worked to prevent transgender people, especially students, from using the bathroom aligning with their gender identity.  The town hall events got ugly with the amount of protesters espousing their viewpoints.

The discussion of transgender people and how we’re perceived must include the medical community.  We hear from Drs. Kevin Hatfield and Johanna Olsen-Kennedy who push that being trans is not a mental illness and one’s gender identity is in the brain. 

Knowlton’s film comes from a place of great personal vulnerability, truth, and conviction. In 2015, she and her husband were coming to terms with their 5-year-old child’s transgender identity. Only a handful of months later, in 2016, a number of initiatives and political power plays would result in a push to rescind transgender rights laws and policies that the State of Washington had put in place in 2006.

Over the course of 90-plus minutes, Knowlton somehow finds a way to share her story, step back from the personal connection to the film she’s making, and present an engaging, factual, and galvanizing look at the myths, dangerous lies and misrepresentations that have bolstered a bustling and increasingly troublesome anti-trans movement since progress had been made towards equality for transgender individuals.

At the heart of the film is Aidan Key, the founder of Gender Diversity, a Seattle-based advocacy and support group for transgender individuals, with an emphasis on transgender youth. Key spends significant time working with public school districts, helping break down the misconceptions around understanding transgender identity and assisting with tools that steer districts toward integration and acceptance. The Knowltons got to know Key in 2015, when they went to Gender Diversity to find resources for their daughter Annabelle. Upon learning of Knowlton’s status as a documentarian, he sought her help in what he knew was emerging on the horizon in 2016.

A number of families share their stories and Knowlton weaves them into the tapestry of a narrative that simply asks for calm and level-headedness from its viewers. In what is supposedly one of the most liberal states in the union, Washington state, anti-trans legislation in the form of State Senate Bill 6443, and two subsequent ballot initiatives, gained traction. Chief among the supporters of these anti-trans drives, Joseph Backholm, founder of something called the Family Policy Institute of Washington.

Though Knowlton could treat Backholm with disdain and mockery, she doesn’t and her message is firm, her focus sharp and she keeps her points succinct and on point. Systematically, she demystifies debunks the always shocking arguments that transgender individuals are simply pretending, or that they have mental illness, are simply making a choice, or somehow have malicious or abhorrent intentions in presenting the way they do. She shows the always significant distinction that sexual preference and gender identity are two completely separate things that have nothing to do with one another. Knowlton has little choice but to use the science to silence a dangerous rhetoric that can seemingly emerge at any moment.

“BETWEEN THE SHADES”— Labels

“BETWEEN THE SHADES”

Labels

Amos Lassen

We are all aware that sexuality and gender can be fluid and that we tend to label everyone and everything. However,  in a world obsessed with labels how do we identify? ”Between the Shades” director, Jill Salvino explores the complexities of labeling sexuality. We look at  power labels and our perceptions of each other and ourselves. Do they box us in or do they provide us with freedom?

Using a diverse cast of everyday people to express the importance of understanding preferences, we explore whether labels are liberating or damaging since we know that we are to accept each other for who we are, not what we are.

This is a very important film especially for anyone wanting to learn more about LGBTQIA, or simply trying to identify. These honest and heartfelt stories are sensitive and touching and betters our understanding of the struggles that many undergo. It forces us to question how we perceive ourselves and those around us. As with any other community there are many generalizations made about the LGBTQI community – and not just from the outside. And then there are the clichés and stereotypes that seem to go along with characterizations. Many of us have said these, too  and if we have not said them, we at least know them.

It’s something that seems to come from a human need to categorize things, to organize the world into recognizable patterns.  We have a tendency to assign labels to each other (and to ourselves) that superficially define who we are and make it easy to separate ourselves from those who wear a different label than our own.

Salvino undertakes an examination of the effect of labels – both negative and positive – and the way that they intersect among LGBTQI people. They strip away preconceived ideas about labels and the people behind them and we see the ways that labels can be as empowering as they are divisive.  This discussion serves as a way to get to a detailed portrait of the community itself and an exploration of the things that make the individuals within it who they are.

The film explores the various degrees of ‘gay‘ that exist in our society and brings up a conversation about the spectrum of LGBTQI and the strands of acceptance that characterize us all.  We see the faces and voices of a widely diverse cross-section of the community with participation of  young and old, male and female, white and people of color.  They are gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender (MTF and FTM), intersex, gender fluid, gender queer, and yes, even straight allies.  Some are coupled, some are searching for love and some are very proud singles.  Throughout the film and via a loose but logical progression of themes, they discuss a variety of topics such as how they identify, growing up and coming out, family, relationships, love.  What emerges eventually is a monologue that, in expressing the vast differences in experience between each of the speakers, tells a universal story of the things that make them the same.

The speakers are engaged, passionate, proud of who they are and the journeys they have made.  It is the honesty of their truth-telling and the director’s shaping of their narrative, that makes this such an interesting film.