Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“POLITICAL ANIMALS”— Four Women

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“POLITICAL ANIMALS”

Four Women

Amos Lassen

The 1994 election made California history. The first openly gay person, Sheila Kuehl, was elected to the California legislature who is now LA County Supervisor for the Third District which stretches from the ocean cities of Malibu, Santa Monica and Venice east to Los Feliz and through the whole San Fernando Valley to Pacoima and San Fernando.

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Jonah Markowitz’ and Tracy Wares’ new documentary tells the story of the first four openly gay Sacramento legislators, beginning with Sheila Kuehl and then Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe. These women are determined, focused and passionate lesbians who took the very personal cause of equal rights for the LGBTQ community into government.

.Each of the four has proven to be a shrewd political operator as they introduced bills piecemeal in order to stop discrimination a little at a time. The opposition was tough but they persisted and here we actually see the hostility mainly from the extreme right faction of the of the male dominated Republican Party. There same people would enter the Chamber holding their bibles.

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For those of us who are LGBT it is hard to understand why elected officials opposed bills that were aimed at making schools safer for LGBT children, or making it illegal for people to be fired for being gay.  We must remember that this was true just some fifteen years ago. It is even harder to understand that in such an enlightened and forward moving state like California that homosexuality was still be compared to necrophilia, pedophilia and even to bestiality. These people were quick to talk about something that most of them knew nothing about.

The four women profiled here had the courage of their convictions to be openly gay politicians at a time when this wasn’t done.  They had to become more than mere spokesmen for our community and often had to act as ambassadors from the LGBT community.

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Together Sheila Kuehl Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg, and Christine Kehoe took the LGBT civil rights struggle from the streets to the state capitol. The film uses present day interviews with a wealth of news clips, photographs, and archival footage to tell us about these four pioneering women. Short bios of each politician reveal backgrounds that include lesbian separatism, Berkeley’s free speech movement, and even a role on the 1960s television show “Dobie Gillis”.

The film traces the passage of domestic partnership legislation and how it paved the way for marriage equality, but the real story is the way these out and proud politicians banded together and slowly transformed the state assembly itself. Initially they had to deal with fear, indifference, and unbelievable homophobia but they gradually won acceptance and support from an expanding group of straight allies. This is a film you do not want to miss.

“WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED”— Orry-Kelly Costume Designer

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“Women He’s Undressed”

Orry-Kelly, Costume Designer

Amos Lassen

“Women He’s Undressed” is Gillian Armstrong’s documentary about three-time Academy Award Winning Costume Designer, Australian born Orry-Kelly. A very young Orry George Kelly left Australia for the US in the 1920’s to find fame and fortune on Broadway. His career as a chorus boy did not last and after having dropped too many female dancers on stage, he decided it was time to retire. He got a job painting murals in a nightclub and this led to him designing costumes on Broadway. His boyfriend, Archie Leech wasn’t having much luck as an actor and was trying to get cast based upon his good looks.

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 In the 30s, Kelly moved to Hollywood and eventually became the head costume designer at Warner Studios where he stayed until 1944 having been expected to work on as many as 50 movies each year. The stars loved and he gathered raves in his work from the actresses he created costumes for.

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At about the same time, his boyfriend also found some success now as Hollywood took to his handsome good looks and he changed his name to Cary Grant, but the two men soon split and went their separate ways.  Orry-Kelly added the hyphen to his name to make himself sounded more glamorous and grand and he was very open about his sexuality and was in fact quite brazen about it, whereas Grant lived ‘sort of’ in the closet.  He lived with actor Randolph Scott for a decade and even when the studios made Grant marry (for the first of three times) he simply moved his bride into the house he shared with Scott.

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What makes this documentary unique is that it is as much about the man as it is about his career. We see Orry-Kelly as a man with a zest for life. After leaving Warner, he did some of his best work as he worked at Universal, RKO, 20th Century Fox, and MGM studios. He won three Academy Awards for Best Costume Design—“An American in Paris:, “Les Girls” and “Some Like It Hot” and was nominated for a fourth for “Gypsy”. Many of the movies (285 of them) of which 54 that he designed for went on to become classics of American cinema.

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He designed for all the great actresses of the day, including Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn, Dolores del Río, Ava Gardner, Ann Sheridan, Barbara Stanwyck, and Merle Oberon and he created the clothing for two actors, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis for their cross-dressing scenes. While he loved excess in his personal life, his costumes were filled with color but he did not use ruffles or frills. For him, less was more.

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The film has interviews with fashion icons Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, June Dally-Watkins , costume designers Catherine Martin, Ann Roth, Kym Barrett, Michael Wilkinson, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Hollywood identities and historians including director/producer Eric Sherman, Hollywood fixer Scotty Bowers, Leonard Maltin, David Chierichetti, Marc Eliot, William J Mann, Jean Mathison, Larry McQueen and Barbara Warner Howard (daughter of Ann & Jack Warner).

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In “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944) Orrie-Kelly worked with Cary Grant for the first time. The two men had shared an intimate relationship some years earlier lasting 9 years. The details of this relationship forms a large part of the narrative. We get a keen sense of the history of the times and the Studio’s objectives to create the beautiful American Dream but that dream clearly did not include homosexuality.

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We see a bit about his relationships with Jack and Ann Warner, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and hear from a huge range of talents including June Dally-Watkins, Ann Roth, director Eric Sherman and others. The film is filled with energy, passion and a keen sense of this non-conformist rebel and artist, who lived his life according to his own code of integrity.

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Director Armstrong takes the concept of Kelly’s identity a step further by having part of the documentary made up of actors playing Kelly, his family and famous Hollywood friends, reading notes and book excerpts throughout.

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Darren Gilshenan plays Kelly who’s presented as putting on a one-man show of sorts, rowing a rowboat in the afterlife. Since Kelly isn’t actually seen in photos or footage until the final reels, Gilshenan becomes synonymous with the role, making Kelly his own.

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Several famous cases of openly gay actors are mentioned, particularly silent star William Haines who, when talkies took over, was forced out of Hollywood for refusing to date women. Other costume designers, like the famous Adrian, married women and lived false lives of domesticity. Kelly refused to date, and because he was so beloved the studios allowed him to be who he was, so long as he didn’t flaunt it. With Kelly’s personal life the film gets particularly interesting.

“HOLY HELL”— Life with a Gay Messiah

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“Holy Hell”

Life With a Gay Messiah

Amos Lassen

“Holy Hell”, the documentary, was just screened at the Sundance Film Festival and received great reviews. It is about what happened to those who followed Michel, who founded Los Angeles-based spiritual community known as The Buddha Field.

Michel was gay, although sex was forbidden among the members of the community. Will Allen joined Buddhafield as their videographer, and as Michel’s personal masseuse. It did not take long before the relationship between master and pupil became sexual, and even then the life of peace and harmony they were all promised held everything together.

As so often seems to happen with cults though, the members began to see things about Michel they didn’t like— his paranoia, his need for control, his secrecy and his demanding nature, as well as revelations about his past and what he had been forcing members of the community to do. Things began to collapse and Will escaped, taking much of the footage he shot with him, which has become the basis for the film “Holy Hell”.

“TREASURE: FROM TRAGEDY TO TRANS JUSTICE, MAPPING A DETROIT STORY”— Remembering Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard

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“TREASURE: FROM TRAGEDY TO TRANS JUSTICE, MAPPING A DETROIT STORY”

Remembering Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard

Amos Lassen

Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard, a young African American transwoman who died violently in 2011 after Detroit police threatened, coerced, and eventually exposed her as an informant against her drug dealers. In dream hampton’s new documentary, the emphasis is not on Treasure’s death but on Treasure as a member of the trans community and as a daughter and sister in a loving family that totally supported her being who she felt she really was.

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We learn the details that led up to her death and we also learn abut the safe places in Detroit where trans justice advocates and outreach workers teach classes and are there and help each other come to terms with her death and its aftermath. Treasure’s murder was indeed a hate crime but it was also a look at the failure of society in terms of racism, transphobia, the exploitation of sex workers, classism, systematic oppression, government indifference, and the continued criminalization of black bodies.

We first meet Treasure via webcam—she made this video for use on a dating site and of course had no idea that is was going to be the way to introduce a film that has become her memorial. We next go to an empty lot in Detroit and then on to meet Lyniece Nelson, Shelley’s mother, who tries to tell is the details of recovering her daughter’s dismembered body but she is soon overcome with emotion.

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Treasure’s story brings together two issues that are going to haunt us throughout the new century— the fluidity of identity and the many ways citizens can become the prey of their own government. Detroit has come to stand in for the failure of the American city and is a character in this film, but it is not the antagonist. As hampton tells us who Shelley was, she gives us a look at Detroit’s transgender community. However, we really only hear from her once— instead she lets the members of the community, like Emani Love, speak for themselves and shows us that cis-gendered people do care about those who are trans.

We see Treasure’s family as complex human beings that defy the stereotyping fiction that we so often get of African-Americans. Defying the typical story, Shelley/Treasure had love and support from her mother and sisters after coming out as transgender and because they so loved her makes this even more difficult to watch.

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Treasure’s horrific death is as much on the hands of the criminal justice system as it is on the men who butchered her. There are no easy answers as to why it happened to Shelley Hilliard— there is no monstrous individual at work here even if the events are themselves monstrous.

hampton chooses not to end with an image of Hilliard, but of one of her sisters, haunted by the loss, but moving forward in her life. Brandie Brown describes seeing her sibling, Shelly, as a transgender woman. “She had a little black short hairstyle. She was dressed all in black. Nails long. She was looking good,” says Brown, smiling at the memory.

The film is a look at what happened to Hilliard and the overwhelming pain it caused her mother and sisters and it also focuses on the efforts under way locally to help young people like her, who often face prejudice from the outside world, rejection at home and poverty that drives them to prostitution.

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There are interviews with other transgender women, who open up about their lives and share examples of the harassment they endure. And there is footage of the haven of Highland Park’s Ruth Ellis Center, which provides safety and support for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay and transgender youth.

For hampton, the movie is a chance to tell Hilliard’s story and explore its broader issues, including the relationship between police and people of color, drug laws that have a Jim Crow-like impact and the criminalization of sex work.

“IRRAWADDY MON AMOUR” Love Does Not Wait

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“IRRAWADDY MON AMOUR”

Love Does Not Wait

Amos Lassen

Directors Nicola Grignani, Valeria Testagrossa and  Andrea Zambelli bring us a beautiful documentary about love, beauty and defiance in Myanmar on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar/Burma. Kyauk Myaung is a unique gay-friendly village, where trans activist and shaman Myo Nyunt protects “the Third Sex” in an alliance with the local Buddhist monastery. Watermelon vendor Soe Ko and construction worker Saing Ko want to be married. While the family opposition is one hurdle, the real problem is the country’s military junta Under its rule, a person can be sentenced to a minimum of ten years in prison for engaging in consensual gay sex, and of course same-sex marriage is illegal. However, things are changing in Myanmar, with longtime human rights activist and stateswoman Aung San Suu Kyi who is at the threshold of a new regime. Myo Nyunt helps organize a pioneering gay meeting and a radiant wedding ceremony complete with the blessings of three monks, colorful dance performances, and the beautiful ritual of floating candles. Trans patriarch and teacher Thet Htar Phyu says, “Tell them that our love flows over men like the Irrawaddy River—it never stops flowing.”

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It is easy for us who live and love where there have been tremendous advances regarding sexual orientation equality to forget that in most of the rest of the world homosexuals are less than accepted in their respective societies. LGBT people in such places face discrimination, social exile and physical beatings as punishment for their existence, and as such have largely been forced to stay closeted.  Love is one of those things that is very hard to keep hidden and it often “finds a way”. For some gay men in Myanmar, a country redefining itself in the wake of a brutal totalitarian regime, that way is Myo Nyunt, who is the focus of this film.

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Nyunt leads a group of homosexuals based along the Irrawaddy river in central Myanmar who have been shunned from their homes and communities and this group acts as a makeshift family for gay men with no where else to turn. However, its main role is even more subversive than that: in a nation where gay sex is still forbidden by law, Nyunt covertly organizes gay marriages, presided over by Buddhist monks in alliance with his cause.

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In the film we concentrate on one specific couple. The film is shot in what is known as direct cinema in which we see all the players as they are, without any commentary and very little artifice. The film opens with a powerful shot of Nyunt riding in a boat down the Irrawaddy. He appears both strong, confident, but also feminine— he wears a shining earring. Myanmar is a young nation with a female founder so femininity is by-and-large accepted. Nyunt is referred to as “mother” because he takes care of his boys as a mother would, sheltering them from harm and guiding them through life as gay men in Myanmar.

We see that the subjects of the film are simultaneously othered and assimilated by watching their daily activities and rituals that are outside the norm of Myanmar’s society, as they likely would be for men in our own, acts such as dressing in drag, doing women’s dances and working in hair and make-up. In the context of the film, and by extension the context of the Irrawaddy homosexual community, they are completely commonplace and accepted, showing how inclusion is entirely subjective and tied to particular situations.  It is frustrating that for all the globalization and modern imperialism that has become the universal norm that only the most benign cultural aspects of the West are assimilated by developing nations. Few of the progressive political ideas about sexuality and gender seems to have permeated Myanmar’s culture, at least outside of those directly affected..

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 “Irrawaddy Mon Amour” is beautifully photographed and paced, taking the time to be meditative when it’s over, we want to see more. Nyunt exclaims that the love of the men to be married “flows like the Irrawaddy river”: you have to enjoy it while it’s there, because soon it will have moved on.

“CONVERSATIONS WITH GAY ELDERS: AN INTERGENERATIONAL FILM PROJECT”— A Work in Progress

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“CONVERSATIONS WITH GAY ELDERS: AN INTERGENERATIONAL FILM PROJECT”

A Work in Progress

Amos Lassen

This will not be so much a review but rather some news about a film in progress that is so very important to our community. Director David Weissman is currently working on a film that

brings us inside both the stories and the unusual process that comprise his ongoing mission to capture the experiences of gay men of the pre-Stonewall generation. Weissman who now lives in Portland, Oregon is dedicated to listening to and hearing the voices and stories of a generation of gay men that is quickly passing. But in this project, after conducting his on-camera conversations with “gay elders,” “Weissman turns the filmmaking itself into an intergenerational collaboration by pairing each elder’s footage with an editor from a much younger generation. The resulting filmed dialogues become an informal history as listened to and, in a sense, interpreted by a new generation of gay men”.

I have noticed myself in my work in the LGBT community both here in Boston and before that in Little Rock, Arkansas that the young do not always want to hear what we, the elders, have to say and they often forget, just as we did, that they will one day be where we are.

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I understand that Weissman’s focus is to create multiple in-depth individual character studies rather than a single feature film, and in that way to amass a rich repository of these histories for future generations who won’t have direct access to the men who lived them. In the film that will be shown at this year’s (2016) Frameline Film Festival, will feature excerpts from four of the conversations shot thus far, selected by the young editors themselves. These excerpts include San Franciscans Robert Dockendorff (76) and Jack Lasner (87) as well as New Yorkers Gene Fedorko (72) and Daniel Maloney (77).

“Conversations With Gay Elders” will be a series of single-character video documentaries of varying length, focused on older gay men. In addition to creating a repository of passing history, it will also function as a vehicle for facilitating intergenerational dialogue and understanding.

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Weissman says what I have often felt—those of us who lived through the AIDS epidemic became premature elders in our communities. This is directly related to the deaths of so many men, many of whom would have been our mentors, and whose memory we wanted to preserve. Like Weissman, the Holocaust plays a part in my life today having had family members who survived it just as the gay men who survived the AIDS Holocaust. In us this creates a sense of awareness and the ability to hear and share very painful stories that sometimes inspire and depress but that bring generations together. “Conversations With Gay Elders” is a documentary storytelling project that focuses on older gay men—initially those currently in their 70s and older. Their stories are emotionally reflective and historically informative interviews that are the histories of men whose gay preceded Stonewall, and also those of the Gay Liberation generation. These men are also survivors of the AIDS era. The focus here is on gay men exclusively so now the door is open for someone else to tackle, the lesbian, bi and trans communities of the same period.

For whatever reasons, communication between generations of gay men is often difficult; and combined with all the losses from AIDS in the 1980s, we find ourselves living in very different times with different social and political climates. It is sad to think that both existing and future generations of gay men will have little direct access to the stories and wisdom of the elders who were responsible for the gay world as it is today, the world that today’s youth sometimes takes for granted. created the world gay youth may take for granted.

“THE JONESES”— A Family

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“THE JONESES”

A Family

Amos Lassen

“The Joneses” is a portrait of Jheri, a 74-year-old transgender trailer park matriarch, who lives in Bible Belt Mississippi. She is now reconciled with her family after years of estrangement, and she now lives with two of her sons as she sets out on a new path to reveal her true self to her grandchildren.

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In the opening of Moby Longinotto’s “The Joneses”, Jheri Jones is wearing a flashy, one-piece rainbow swimsuit and exhibits quite a bit of attitude on a worn sofa in her trailer in Mississippi. Not only does she looks great and she knows it. Jheri says with her standard Southern frankness that she does not want to go “out” looking like a “hag.” Jheri’s journey to find her true, confident self has not been so easy.

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Through looking at family pictures, everyday interactions and interviews, we get a portrait emerges of a transgender mom who has triumphed over adversity and transphobia and in the process, she has also become the glue in the trailer park home where two of her sons live. The documentary “is an intimate, multi-generational look at the unforgettable Joneses as they come together to deal with unresolved issues, shattered dreams, seething resentments and redefined realities”. Overseeing all of this is the tumult is Jheri, a matriarch who has a steely resolve and independent spirit.

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The Joneses are a working-class family born and bred in the Mississippi Bible Belt. The family has a unique set of challenges but what keeps them going and allows them to deal with such challenges is the philosophy that “family is everything.” Jheri is the heart of the family and the story we see. She is a Southern matriarch and a trim, platinum blonde transgender woman who is as brassy as she is refined. After marrying and raising four sons, she divorced and became her authentic self, Jheri, in her 30s and eventually saved enough money to complete her gender confirmation surgery in her 60s. Now 74, she lives in her tidy trailer park home with two of her grown sons and this is after years of estrangement encouraged by her embittered and religious ex-wife.

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Brad, the eldest, suffered brain damage at childbirth and, while functional, he has significant cognitive disabilities. Trevor struggles to find his place and purpose in life but has severe anger issues that reveal a deeply held secret. Trevor’s twin brother Trent, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and autism, lives in a homecare facility nearby, while Wade is happily married with two teenage kids who have yet to learn their grandmother’s story. The Joneses are a family of outsiders who, despite all their struggles, always trust that “if there is enough love, you can overcome.”

“CONFESSIONS”— The Sexy Truth About Gay Men

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“Confessions”

The Sexy Truth about Gay Men

Amos Lassen

Mark Bessenger who gave us “The Last Straight Man” has a new film coming out and it sounds delicious. Here is what I have read about it:

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“Take a peak under the surface of any gay man, and who knows what you’ll find? “CONFESSIONS”, an anthology of disclosures from the recesses of the gay male psyche, goes some way to answer that very question.

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Spanning themes that are dark, sexy, intense, funny, romantic and shocking, CONFESSIONS turns a spotlight on characters you don’t often get to see- but will not want to turn away from.”

“LAST MAN STANDING”–The Forgotten Survivors of The AIDS Epidemic-

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“Last Men Standing”

The Forgotten Survivors of The AIDS Epidemic

Amos Lassen

More than half of those living with HIV or AIDS in San Francisco are 50 years or older. Many never expected to live and they have watched helplessly as the friends and community they loved disappeared. Peter Greene, who recently died after living with AIDS for more than thirty years, once said, “I’m the luckiest unlucky person in the world. No one wants to be the last man standing.”

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We meet eight gay men search for meaning in a life they never expected to have. All of us are surrounded by the ghosts of a generation lost to the AIDS epidemic. They were supposed to die thirty years ago but they are still here.

These men were diagnosed with HIV in the early days of the epidemic, but who have miraculously lived to tell their tales of survival—and loss. For many, time stopped when they were diagnosed. They let go of futures they had no reason to believe would ever arrive. They have no savings, no retirement money, and no strategy for continuing to live in a city that’s increasingly unaffordable. Over the next decade or so, many will need financial aid when private disability benefits run out.

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Then there are also that they suffer from debilitating health problems, chronic illnesses brought on by a lifetime of living with AIDS and the toxic effects of its treatment. Many live in stark isolation, feeling abandoned and forgotten, even by the gay community they helped build here.

San Francisco acted quickly to battle AIDS as the epidemic took hold but today the city is ill prepared to care for the disease’s long-term survivors. The city’s health and social services infrastructure never anticipated their needs, never made a plan to care for them. While doctors and public health officials focus on eradicating HIV/AIDS once and for all, precious few resources are aimed at helping those still standing.

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“Last Man Standing” is documentary made by “The San Francisco Chronicle” that is one of the few newspapers to write, direct and produce a feature-length documentary. The film is directed and produced by San Francisco Chronicle filmmakers Erin Brethauer and Tim Hussin.

“TICKLED”— A New and Somewhat Shocking Documentary

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“Tickled”

A New and Somewhat Shocking Documentary

Amos Lassen

When journalist David Farrier stumbles upon a mysterious tickling competition online and begins to learn about it, he comes up against. fierce resistance, but that doesn’t stop him getting to the bottom of a story. “Tickled” is so bizarre that when watching the trailer, you might start wonder if it is just made up but you learn that it is for real. It’s a truly unexpected tale which started when New Zealand journalist David Farrier, who was known for his light-hearted reports about unusual subjects, stumbled across a company that released tickling videos on the internet and held well-paid “competitive endurance tickling” contests.

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He thought he’d reach out to request an interview but was shocked that the responses became homophobic and personal against the gay Farrier and this was strange for a company where the videos are undeniably homoerotic and show groups of young men tickling one another. That was followed by threats of legal action and letters from lawyers.

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Undeterred, Farrier teamed up with filmmaker Dylan Reeve, suspecting there was a bigger story here and they uncovered a huge empire that was known for harassing and harming the lives of those who protest their involvement in these films. The more they investigate, the stranger it gets, discovering secret identities and criminal activity.

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What started as an attempt to look at something peculiar becomes a story of extreme cyberbullying and exploitation, and a company that seems to think they should be free to do absolutely anything they want with impunity. Indeed, they haven’t stopped, as the filmmakers were slapped with a major lawsuits in March, with those involved in the tickling empire still hoping they can get their way.

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Farrier is an Auckland-based TV and radio reporter/personality who’s “made a career looking at the weird and bizarre side of life.” He assumed he’d found just more amusingly offbeat information when he stumbled upon an online video offering substantial cash and all-expenses trips to Los Angeles for young athletes willing to participate on camera in the “sport” of “Competitive Endurance The two men came to the U.S. where they discovered only one among a hundred or more former tickling-video participants was willing to talk to them. Others (many underage) were too afraid of reprisals.

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Eventually they got to a single, shadowy apparent perpetrator with the inherited wealth to sustain this fetish habit on an international scale and the maliciousness to deploy blackmail, false identities and more in protecting it. “Tickled” becomes a frightening illustration of how one bully with deep pockets and a mean streak can largely evade punishment, even detection, while wreaking havoc with far-less-privileged others.

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Farrier and Reeve traveled across America tracking down young men who have been paid to participate in tickling ‘competitions’ (and fallen victim to online character assassination when they tried to go against the organizers). They interviewed journalists who have tussled with the story in the past, and met with an upfront, self-confessed tickling fetishist and website entrepreneur who confirms that tickling is indeed a gay male ‘thing’ in some quarters. Here “you have to see it to believe it” holds true.