Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“CHAVELA”— No Ordinary Anything

“Chavela”

No Ordinary Anything

Amos Lassen

Chavela Vargas was no ordinary singer, no ordinary woman and no ordinary human being. She was a “llorona” (Spanish for someone who cries a lot) and her voice was neither clear nor sweet— it was harsh and filled with lament and she was able to shatter hearts and make listeners cry. “Chavela”, the documentary, explores her life from her birth in Costa Rica to her rise in her chosen homeland Mexico and much beloved Spain. It is a totally moving experience. Chavela’s music was deeply rooted in her assertive temperament and desire to live. She loved women as intensively as she could, and she was entirely unapologetic of her homosexuality. Her relations were profound and yet dysfunctional (she could become violent), and she counted Frida Kahlo and the wives of many important politicians amongst those whom she loved.

Chavela’s e approach to sexuality made she her an icon and inspiration to lesbians in Mexico and elsewhere. She insisted on wearing masculine clothes and behaving manly at a time when homosexuality was frowned upon. She was often described as a “macha”, the “feminine” of macho. She joked that she looked like a transvestite when she was dressed up in female attire. At old age she spoke frankly about her sexual experiences and how she had to avoid using the word lesbian at young age.

To tell Chavela’s story, the film blends historical footage, numerous interviews with Chavela herself and statements by her surviving lovers and close friends the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and the singer Miguel Bosé. We learn that the most difficult moments of her life came when she struggled with alcoholism and refrained from singing for 12 years. She gave up alcohol and resumed singing at old age, performing extensively in Spain and finally at the Bellas Arts Theatre in Mexico City. Her dream was to die on stage while singing but that did not happen; she died peacefully in 2012 at the age of 93 in Mexico after having lived life to the fullest, without regrets.

 Chavela introduced the world to soulful Mexican ranchero music, the likes of which had never been heard before. She would strip all the happiness out of these songs and make it the music of the wounded soul that represented the tragic end of love. However as famous as she was for her music, what really makes her story so compelling was the fact she was just as famous for her appetite for beautiful women and tequila, both of which she consumed in large quantities.

She shocked and outraged the public by insisting on dressing like a man and this was one of the reasons that her early career was restricted to singing in small cabarets.  The fact that she drank so heavily made her unreliable but to her loyal band of fans in society’s underground, Chavela was a real star. Her obsession was to party so hard with the male musicians who traveled with her; she wanted to prove she could not only drink more than them and because she was stronger and even more macho than them led to her downfall. For a period of fifteen years, she lived in poverty because she could not get gigs and she used whatever money she had to buy alcohol. It was then that she met her long time lover, Alicia Elena Pérez, who takes a lot of the credit for finally getting to stop drinking, but it is the filmmaker Pedro Almodovar  who is responsible for rescuing Chavela’s career and launching her in big venues like the Olympia in Paris. Almodovar tells how once he discovered Chavela and invited her to Spain to perform. He loved her performances that he incorporated her music in to his movies and became her personal champion.

Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi capture Chavela’s spirit through of clips of her performing through various parts of her life and career and these show the true essence of why she was so loved.  

“THE FABULOUS ALLAN CARR”— Who?

“THE FABULOUS ALLAN CARR”

Who?

Amos Lassen

I must admit that before hearing about this new documentary, I knew nothing about Allan Carr. However, because I have enjoyed all of filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentaries, I was sure to enjoy this one as I had his others. Allan Carr was a theater producer, manager, Public Relations genius, party giver extraordinaire, film producer, and the person responsible for the mess at the 61st Annual Academy Awards. He was a bizarre character even for Hollywood. He was a large man who wore kimonos and caftans, and even in Hollywood he looks as if he just wandered off the set of a Federico Fellini film: an elephantine man of 42, who conceals his bulk in gaudy caftans and kimonos and who had his hair styled in tight ringlets. He could have the bitchiest conversation in the world while loving the person who received the nasty remarks. He was also a loyal and generous person who believed that the job of entertainment was to provide happiness. He was the producer of the film version of “Grease” and produced the musical based on the French gay film “La Cage aux Folles” to America and he left behind quite a legacy when he died in 1999 at the age of 62.

Watching this film, we see that Carr was a complicated person. He was “fabulous” at the time when being public about one’s sexuality was considered a taboo. He was always himself wherever he was and did not care about how the public saw him.

Carr was born Allan Solomon in 1937 and was the only son of a wealthy Jewish family in Chicago. He was spoiled by his parents and his parents and already from an early age he was fascinated with everything to do with show business and the stars. In 1966, he moved to Los Angeles, changed his name and opened up his own talent agency where he demonstrated that he was not just a first-class salesman, but that he had a lot of nerve. It did not take long before he was the manager of such stars as Tony Curtis, Peter Sellers, Rosalind Russell, Dyan Cannon, Melina Mercouri and Marlo Thomas.

Steve Rubell lose patience escorting Olivia Newton-John and Producer Alan Carr into the’Grease’ Party at Studio 54.
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Above all, Carr was a showman and he had a reputation for hosting promotional parties. It was his parties that brought him to produce the film, “Grease” which remains at the apex of his career. He took credit for everything and when one of his projects failed, he took it personally.

We learn that Carr has personal demons that haunted him and he became extremely heavy. Even though he surrounded himself with young handsome boys who wore next to nothing, Carr did not have his first sexual experience until he was thirty-years-old. It seems that he enjoyed watching more than participating. He was known to populate his pool parties at his home with who’s who in Hollywood along with gay guys who would participate in orgies after the guests left.

He was professionally respectable and accepted by all. His Broadway success with the hit “La Cage aux Folle” earned him a best musical Tony Award and the show ran for five years. In 1989 Carr produced the Academy Awards and got the job because he promised to create a show that he would turn the Oscars around from the dry show it had been in previous years, but he was panned by both the critics and the members of the Academy who publicly denounced Carr. This was the end of his career. He had been censored by the powers of Hollywood elite who he had considered his peers and friends.

Even though Carr knew that he was working out of his own area, her never let that stop him until the end. While he is still a mystery to many, Jeffrey Schwarz introduces him to us in a film that is just as fabulous as its subject.

 

 

“Film Hawk”— The Life of Bob Hawk

“Film Hawk”

The Life of Bob Hawk

Amos Lassen

“Film Hawk” is based on the life of Bob Hawk who for more than 40 years has championed emerging filmmakers. His triumphs include Kevin Smith (CLERKS) and Ed Burns (THE BROTHERS MCMULLEN) as well as such Queer Cinema icons as Rob Epstein (THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK), Barbara Hammer (NITRATE KISSES), and Kimberly Reed (PRODIGAL SONS). This documentary traces Hawk’s early years as a young gay child of a Methodist minister to his current career as a consultant on some of the most influential independent films of our time. Even though Hawk has produced many films and has of late directed a short film, he is best known as a film consultant. Kevin Smith’s heartfelt reminiscences give us the emotional backbone of the doc. Their relationship is very special, but plenty of other filmmakers also attest to Hawk, the man.

JJ Garvine and Tai Parquet directed this documentary but Hawk set up the boundaries as to where they could go. Hawk is also unusually candid discussing his past struggles with suicidal depression. He remains an elusive figure who is not drawn into the spotlight.

The film opens with an affecting scene of Kevin Smith recalling Hawk’s crucial role in the biggest make-or-break moment in his career. Smith remembers the disappointment of bringing “Clerks” to the Independent Feature Film Market where it played to 12 people, one of whom was Hawk, who considered it as the “undiscovered gem of the marketplace,” and brought it to the attention of influential tastemakers like Village Voice critic Amy Taubin and others. Here is where the film’s history began.

When Hawk was still living in San Francisco in the ’70s,he saw a five-hour cut of Epstein’s “Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives” and offered pages of handwritten notes that helped whittle the landmark film down to a little over two hours. When Epstein made “The Times of Harvey Milk” in 1984, Hawk correctly predicted that it would win the Oscar for best documentary feature. Hawk would later move closer his East Coast home and continue to consult with unproven filmmakers. However, I was disappointed that the film never gets close enough to Hawk.

Hawk at 80 years old has been a consultant Bob Hawk has been a fixture the Sundance Film Festival, and the indie community, for decades. He is as always an enthusiastic figure and a champion and mentor to many. This documentary is bit rough-around-the-edges portrait of an instrumental figure who still struggles to make ends meet as he devotes time and expertise to nurture creativity among those he cares about. We see his early influences on queer cinema before hitting the depths of depression and nearly taking his own life in the Nineties. Since then, Hawk has given up on fame and fortune in order to pursue projects that matter to him and his efforts have paid off big time for many of his friends and clients.

One thing that is very evident as you watch this documentary is how emotional people get when they speak about Bob. The overall narrative arc throughout this movie is that Robert Hawk gives a voice to those that haven’t had the opportunity, funds, or presence in the mainstream world.

“UNCHECHEN”— The Terrifying Situation in Chechnya

“Unchechen”

The Terrifying Situation in Chechnya

Amos Lassen

We have been hearing horrifying reports about what is going on in Chechnya where gay men are undergoing a purge and being forced into the first concentration camps in Europe since the Second World War. When gay men are imprisoned and tortured, they are forced apparently to name other gay people. Most recently it has been claimed that at least 30 people have been killed, either by the authorities or by being outed to their families with the police suggesting the family take care of it. We have heard that a teenage boy was thrown from a ninth floor balcony by his uncle (who was following the wishes of other family members) after being outed to them by the authorities.

The Chechnyan government has insisted nothing has happened and there can’t be a purge as gay people don’t exist in Chechnya. Vladimir Putin was had intense international pressure put upon him to investigate do so but there’s l little evidence that he’ll do anything.

Take Back, a theatre collective led by Julie Hesmondhalgh, commissioned a stage version of Unchechen which was performed at Contact, Manchester in May 2017. The response to the piece was so strong that it created a momentum to film the piece, in order for it to reach a much wider audience. Stephen M Hornby, the original writer, adapted it for screen. Dean Gregory and Martin Green play the lead roles.

The men fleeing from what is happening in Chechnya are too terrified to go on camera and this film is really all that we have to fill the silence with something that attempts to make this crisis real and human.

“BECOMING MORE VISIBLE”— Varied Lives/Varied People

“BECOMING MORE VISIBLE”

Varied Lives/Varied People

Amos Lassen

One of the documentaries that you will be hearing a lot about is “Becoming More Visible”. It gives us an insightful look at the varied lives and challenges of four fearless young adults. We meet “Sean, a transgender male comedian from a small affluent town in upstate NY; Katherine, a Bangladeshi transgender girl from a close-knit Muslim family; Olivia, who leaves everything behind entering the shelter system in order to be the woman she knows she is; and the unforgettable Morgin, a fully transitioned woman pursuing her musical ambitions”. The stories of the four come together in remarkable ways and this is a groundbreaking look at the transgender community. The stories are

“intercut with experts working in the transgender space: doctors, psychologists, social workers, activists, and writers like Andrew Solomon, whose book ‘Far From the Tree’ tells the stories of parents who “not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so.” 

“MY WONDERFUL WEST BERLIN”— The Queer Safe Haven of West Berlin

“My Wonderful West Berlin” (“Mein wunderbares West-Berlin”)

The Queer Safe Haven of West Berlin

Amos Lassen

Berlin seems to always have had vibrant and subversive subcultures and we see here that the queer scene played a major role in creating that subculture. Yet gays in West Berlin suffered greatly under the infamous “Paragraph 175” that made homosexual acts between men a crime up until its reform in 1969. Raids and arrests in bars were common, but was unable to challenge gay life and the city turned into a gay capital. The late seventies brought great sexual and political freedoms to Berlin thus allowing for an intense social intermingling between the gay-, hetero-, and transsexual …

In West Berlin in the 1960s it was possible to find bars where men could be left to themselves and this made Berlin a magnet for young gay men. We meets some of them in this documentary and see that they are still active members of the community today,. They share those early years in the city with us. Their memories are of a community that fought steadily for its existence. They had to deal with considerable social repression in the 1970s and a collective gay identity began to emerge that was known as the “West Berlin homosexual campaign”. They fought for the abolition of paragraph 175 and the overthrow of patriarchy. Ruined buildings become the venues for new ways of living together such as all-male communes or the ‘queer house’. A decade later, AIDS hit Berlin. Director Jochen Hick explores queer lifestyles in the West of the city and the roots of a fascination that the metropolis still holds as a refuge.

Today’s hip image of Berlin is based on the city’s vibrant and subversive subcultures, which originally emerged within the grey walls surrounding West Berlin. The queer scene played a major role in creating that subculture, with its sexual diversity and its wild and unconstrained party culture, ranging from notorious clubs to CSD. Many of the scene’s actors, such as the Gay Museum, the Teddy Award, AIDS help organizations, and the queer magazine Siegessäule originated before 1989.

Yet gays in West Berlin suffered greatly under an incongruous provision in German law – the infamous “Paragraph 175” – that made homosexual acts between men a crime up until its reform in 1969. Raids and arrests in bars were common, yet ultimately failed in suppressing gay life in West Berlin. Instead, the city turned into a gay capital. The late seventies in particular were a period of great sexual and political freedoms and more intense social intermingling between the gay-, hetero-, and transsexual worlds. Then AIDS struck, wrecking greater havoc in Berlin than in any other German city.

The film covers the period from the end of WWII to the fall of the Berlin Wall. We get a picture of the gay scene from political activists, partygoers, hedonists, club owners, musicians, fashion designers, a DJ, and a make-up artist. Never before seen archival film footage completes the picture by allowing viewers to travel through time to a hitherto unknown West Berlin.

Homophobia was an integral part of the West German constitution. Even with the Article 175 criminalization of gay sex in the West Germany, the activists paved the way for gay liberation. Through the use of talking heads and archival footage we learn a great deal here. Many icons of German gay life appear here including publisher Egmont Fassbinder, Salome the artist and filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim among others. We see these icons both in historical footage and in the present day and this gives a remarkable depth of perspective.

The film celebrates drag clubs, cruising spots, pick-up bars, radical bookshops and infamous nightclubs (with darkrooms) and we see the role that these played in laying the groundwork not only for Berlin’s radical left-wing spirit but also musical genres such as techno, disco and even punk rock. We also see the hardcore elements.

We see the sadder aspects of Berlin’s gay life as well especially the anti- AIDS movement and learn that government and the church simply didn’t do enough to help those who were dying in the tens of thousands. The freedoms of today were built on the backbone of struggles made by many who either died of AIDS or were simply murdered for who they were. 140,000 men who were wrongfully arrested haven’t been pardoned, and Germany still hasn’t allowed gay marriage.

There were disagreements as well, such as whether capitalism was better for gays than socialism, or if the city has lost its charm because of gentrification.

“JAMES BEARD: AMERICA’S FIRST FOODIE”— “The Dean of American Cookery”

“James Beard: America’s First Foodie”

“The Dean of American Cookery”

Amos Lassen

James Beard is a cookbook author, journalist, television celebrity and teacher James Beard who changed the way we think about food. Here we visit food through Beard’s eyes and learn of his life via interviews, archival footage and animation.

Beard was a Portland native who loved and regaled the Pacific Northwest. At a time of “all things French,” Beard appreciated what America had to bring to the table and it was James Beard who introduced Julia Child to New York thus helping her gain her place as a culinary grande dame. It was James Beard who helped to pioneer and expand the food media industry into the billion-dollar business it is today.

Since Beard’s death in 1985, the Beard Foundation and House have continued his mission. The foundation is at the center of America’s culinary community and is dedicated to exploring the way food enriches our lives. It helps aspiring culinary students realize their dreams by supporting them on a path to success and the Beard name has become synonymous with culinary excellence and each year thousands gather in New York City for the James Beard Foundation Awards. However, while the name is well recognized, the details of Beard’s life have often been unknown.

Through interviews, memories of Beard are shared, as is his influence on the modern culinary scene. The film looks at the big themes of Beard’s life as well as the food. We learn of his relationship with his mother, his love of the market, his brave choice to be openly gay at a time when it was dangerous to do so and his devotion to flavor and friends. We also learn how the food world has evolved since his death. The film takes us to the places he loved including his childhood home of Portland, the restaurants of San Francisco that he frequented with his mother, great public markets like Pike Place Market in Seattle and of course his adopted final home, New York City. By bringing current footage together with archival footage, interviews and animations, the documentary captures the color, spirit and genius of James Beard.

Among those appearing in the film are James Beard Award Foundation President Susan Ungaro and Executive Vice President Mitchell Davis, James Beard Award winners, and noted chefs including Pepin, Waters and Daniel Boulud.

Beard was forced to keep his homosexuality a secret publicly although he was out to his close friends. He was able to come out publicly before his death in 1985. In his memoir, he wrote: “By the time I was seven, I knew that I was gay. I think it’s time to talk about that now.”

 

“VARICHINA”— The True Story of a Fake Life

“Varichina”

The True Story of a Fake Life

Amos Lassen

Lorenzo de Santis was from the village of Bari, Italy. Bari is in southern Italy as is economically depressed. Back in the 1970s, Lorenzo was the only known gay there. It could just be that Lorenzo was so flamboyant that other gay men stayed in the closet. Mariangela Barbanete and Antonio Palumbo decided that he was a worthy study for a documentary and they reconstruct with actors and interviews with people who knew him and/or lived in Bari when he was there.

Lorenzo was an outrageously flamboyant dresser and as he walked down the street in feminine attire, he would defiantly answer those who yelled at him with colorful and often obscene language. He was known for flirting with the men there and telling them that once they run of our women, they would come to him. There are hints that there were those who did come for him secretly.

Lorenzo was much more comfortable being with the women and remembering that the 70s were not the most accepting decade in LGBT history, it was also a safe place for him to be. We do not learn much more than his being an out gay man so I am not sure that there was enough thought about making this film. Lorenzo was a curiosity but there is not much more to say about him.

“THE VOICELESS” Male Rape Victims

“THE VOICELESS”

Male Rape Victims

Amos Lassen

According to the 2014 National Crime Victimization Survey, 38% of rape victims are male and one in six males is sexually assaulted before the age of 18. We see that sexual violence does not discriminate against men.” Vanessa McNeal’s “The Voiceless” examines the stigma associated with male rape. We meet five men share who their accounts of being sexually assaulted and how they coped with a situation that is still considered by many to be taboo.

Some of the men kept this to themselves for years, some ran away from home and some turned to violence and joined gangs. Despite their different backgrounds and strategies for coping, all five have one thing in common and that is that none of them received justice for what was done to them. McNeal says that our society maintains that sexual violence can’t and won’t happen to men.

We see that sexual violence doesn’t discriminate gender wise and it does not care about gender and/or race. The five men we meet come from completely different walks of life. McNeal looks at the taboos and stereotypes that haunt male survivors, as well as issues that masculinity and that keeps men from coming forward. McNeal noted some similarities between male and female survivors. For both groups, the guilt and shame that follows sexual assault, as well as the traumatic experiences that victims go through and we see that men are often neglected in this conversation. 

“One of those survivors, Ivan, is a former Iowa State track athlete and Iowa State graduate. During his youth in Africa, he was molested multiple times by a babysitter at a young age. His experience with sexual assault didn’t end when he moved to the United States. Here, he was sexually assaulted again by a young girl who lived in his neighborhood. In the film, Ivan discusses how sexual assault affected the way he viewed masculinity, women and relationships, and about the importance of telling someone. 

Caleb, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, told about being sexually assaulted by a co-worker later in his life. He viewed his assailant as a father figure who used their relationship and alcohol to take advantage of him. Caleb’s experience led him to self-harm until police intervention made him seek help. However, legal barriers and victim blaming caused the case against his perpetrator to be dismissed.  He was bitter and angry but has chosen to tell his story to help to show the truth about the myths and stereotypes that surround male sexual assault.

Jassim who grew up in Saudi Arabia, where of homophobia and silence makes sexual assault unlike any country in the world. Since the time he was a child, Jassim was molested countless times. He’s been the victim of more than one kidnapping where he was assaulted, often by multiple men, all of which went unreported. Had this happened here it would have been seen as a small incident here in the United States, to his community, it was nothing more than a small incident. In most of Saudi Arabian culture, there is easier access for men to violate men than to violate women. For Jassim, being a part of this film could put his life in danger if he goes back to his home country, as any homosexual acts, consensual or not, can result in a death sentence. Nonetheless, Jassim believes that almost everyone in his home country has experienced sexual violence.

Dakota is a graduate student at the University of Northern Iowa and he shares his experiencing sexual violence as a gay man. During the first semester of college, Dakota began a relationship with another student. At the time, Dakota was still questioning his sexuality, so he kept the relationship quiet. After a few months, a Valentine’s Day date ended back at the man’s apartment, where they decided to have sex. Dakota, however, became uncomfortable and, after his pleas to stop went ignored, what was to have been consensual sex became rape.  

Finally, Will, an activist from Des Monies who works with police and youth shares that he was molested by his stepfather when he was young. He discusses how his experiences made him feel angry, afraid and unsafe in his home. Will turned to gang life and lived off the streets as a young adult, until his friend was shot during a gang fight. That same experience saw Will on the wrong side of a gun as well, only to be saved when the gun jammed. What we hear time and again is “I just wanted to run away and get away from everything. There just did not seem to be anywhere to go”.

“REBELS ON POINTE”— Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

“REBELS ON POINTE”

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Amos Lassen

Documentary Filmmaker Bobbie Jo Hart brings us an affectionate profile by Canadian award-winning documentarian Bobbi Jo Hart  of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo,  an American all-male proudly gay Ballet Company corps that presents parodies of romantic and classical ballet. This is a cinema vérité approach that not only takes us behind the scenes but also on the road as they go on their world tour.

We begin with their history of 43 years from the time the company gave late night cabaret performances in a loft in the meatpacking district of Manhattan.  It’s current Artistic Director Tony Dobrin  began as a dancer in 1980 with Company and is now regarded as a father by the very international group of young performers. Dobrin explains how the Trocks, as they are fondly referred too, strive to provide the diversity that has always been missing from traditional ballet companies.  

When the company began they were shunned by all the grant-giving foundations and because of that they have had to do whatever they could to survive. When the AIDS pandemic hit New York very hard, it was terrible for the company and Dobrin’s own partner was one of the people they lost. There is a lot of talent in the group talent and we see that when they pirouette around the stage on pointe with the same elegance as any prima ballerina.  Playing all the roles in each ballet makes it a little tough on the dancer playing the male role and having to lift a heavier than normal ballerina. Whilst all are capable of performing ballets with such grace and precision, it is the humor and parody that they add that brings them audiences.

The dancers themselves are quite a group of men of different shapes and sizes and ages too, and like any collective of gay men that are literally together for so much of their day, they have bonded like a real family.  By the time The Trocks celebrated their 40th Anniversary it had three married gay couples in its company.  

There is one standout oddity of the movie; an overly earnest Scottish Dance Critic and what she has to say about the Trocks and the state of ballet in general. This is atypical from the type of commentator who pompously and rather patronizingly tries so to intellectualize art, and unintentionally, it becomes very funny. The Trocks are regarded as one of the founding institutions in LGBT history, and we see that the reason they are highly regarded is because of passion for dance and life in general both on and off-stage. .