THE BEST LGBT MOVIES OF 2020—- A PERSONAL LIST BY AMOS LASSEN

THE BEST LGBT MOVIES OF 2020—- A PERSONAL LIST

AMOS LASSEN

Reviews by Amos Lassen

“THE FAMILY TREE”

Life, Family and Friends

Amos Lassen

I have been a huge fan of Panamanian director Jorge Ameer since I first began reviewing and, in fact, one of his films was one of the first I ever reviewed. I am lucky that Ameer gives me an early shot at his films just as he has done with his newest film “The Family Tree”. I have watched Ameer and his films mature, I never know what to expect with an Ameer film—- his range is so wide and diverse. I was truly in the mood for a sensitive film and that is what “The Family Tree” is. It is also the best film he has made as yet. The plot is amazing, the cinematography is lush, the music is sublimely divine and the production as a whole is stunning. However, because of the nature of the plot, I can’t say too much without giving something away and I want everyone to have the same beautiful experience I had watching it.

Roy (Michael Joseph Nelson) is married to Alina (Anais Lucia) in this Christmas story.  They are eager to bring a child into the world but, it is just not happening for them. Victor (Keith Roenke), comes into their lives and changes everything.

The three main characters’ lives become intertwined through a series of events that are unsuspected and strongly brings them together and perhaps bring happiness to Roy and Alina. I could not help being drawn into the emotions of what I was watching.

As the story moves forward, it touches the viewer evoking  emotions especially when we meet Victor, a young workaholic animal rescuer for a local shelter. He is lonely and also an immigrant and he loves the Christmas holidays. When he was a child, Victor made dolls for the holidays, a Panamanian tradition. This year will be really special for him—- he will find love, friendship and especially family.

That Christmas something otherworldly enters the world as part of an old Panamanian tradition and through that Victor learns a great deal as does the audience. I love the inclusion of an old Panamanian tradition that is still practiced today.

Watching what happens on screen reminds us that we cannot let ourselves forget our good memories and how important it is to be with those who we love.

The performances are unforgettable all around. In no way did I expect the sensations that the film delivered and it is with tears of sensitivity in my eyes that I am writing this review. Seeing the beauty of the film reinforces that there is never enough beauty in our lives.

“RIALTO”

Finding Comfort

Amos Lassen

Colm (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a dock worker, is in his mid-forties, married, with two teenage children. He is still grieving the death of his father, he struggles with his relationship to his own son, whilst at work a recent takeover threatens his job. Unable to share his vulnerability with his wife (Monica Dolan), Colm’s world is falling apart around him. In the midst of this, Colm solicits sex from a young man called Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney). His growing infatuation with Jay has a deep effect on Colm because he finds in Jay what no one else can provide.

Monica is worried because her hubby is going through a rough patch. His domineering father has recently died and, at work, a merger with a Dutch shipping firm looks likely to threaten the job he’s had since leaving school. Colm climbs to the top of the dock’s highest crane to scream his frustrations and is self-medicating with cheap Polish lager. During all of this, Colm decides to begin experimenting with his sexuality for the first time. He picks picking up a 19-year-old hustler, Jay. Their first encounter in a shopping mall men’s room doesn’t go well. Colm’s wallet is missing and this means that Jay knows both his address and place of work and that he can use these for his financial advantage.

What is not clear is whether either man would identify as gay. Both are in loving, if strained, relationships with women, with whom they have children – Colm has two teens roughly Jay’s age, and Jay has a newborn.

Director Peter Mackie Burns gives us a movie about a life in free-fall. The mood is blunt and very realistic, with scenes playing out in half-conversations. At work and home, Colm struggles to connect with the people around him as his lies about the young man who’s been seen visiting his work pile up. With Jay, though, he’s carved a safe space. “There’s no lies between us,” Colm suggests during one of their clandestine hookups.

The camera often hangs back and frames Colm’s unease as he paces his suburban garden or observes the character at distance as he runs between shipping containers from far-off countries that he has  never thought about visiting. The film is most alive during Colm’s nighttime wanderings. At one point, he staggers along the docklands, walking drunkenly into the sea at low-tide, sinking to his knees, totally devastated that the water is too shallow to drown in.

Confrontations that might have generated high drama in other films are either subverted or consigned to off-screen. This is a film that is too quiet and contained to accommodate destabilizing melodramatic moments. “Rialto” is a nuanced journey into emotional containment, belonging and identity. It creates an unlikely safe space in the relationship between a teenage sex worker and a father whose life in spiraling out of control.  Colm’s very existence is of  the fabric of the containers he cares for. The containers are themselves symbolic of a life lived while trapped in emotional seclusion. 

Following the death of his controlling father; a man he could never please. Colm’s life begins to change. His strained family relationships are dealt with while drinking. Meanwhile, the potential risk of becoming controlling like his father was increases his sense of social detachment and crisis. 

Seeking a moment of risk and expression, he arranges a secret rendezvous with a hustler. His intention was to finally allow himself to experience pleasure and purpose. However, the meeting was filled with fear and apprehension and was lost among  apologies and regret. With the young hustler in possession of the wallet. Jay has the opportunity to scam Colm for money, sensing Colm’s secrets. Nonetheless, the relationship between Colm and Jay who he pays for emotional honesty and tentative desire grows. Jay ultimately becomes an unwitting therapist as Colm speaks about his past and present. The secrecy of their encounters that allowed honesty becomes a great risk.

“Rialto” is an intimate character study of a man on the verge of emotional and social collapse. His family and work life collide with the suppressed needs of a life lived in the shadow of others. His need for escape and emotional connection finally finds a voice with a teenage hustler.

Both men’s sexuality is less important than the need for male belonging and attention. Both Colm and Jay’s home lives are equally dysfunctional due to lies and emotional suppression. Colm is internally screaming for escape (despite a loving wife) and Jay wants to be allowed in to the life of his girlfriend and new born daughter. 

The result for both men is a confused relationship of mutual support at a price. The relationship between the two men avoids the need for sexual release against the greater need for unconditional male companionship and love. 

Burns gives us a look at the veneer of a man’s life peeling away from the inner emotional reality. The film’s final scenes never try to conclude the journey started, as secrets are aired between Colm and his own son. Their father/son relationship changed forever with anger. The financial reality of Colm’s relationship with Jay leads both men to separate from their therapeutic relationship of confusion. 

“Rialto” leaves its audience hoping that Colm will find the inner peace that he needs to rebuild his life. However, the reality is that the turmoil of the events proceeding the final scenes have only just begun to play out in Colm’s future.

The film is raw but it never gets too gritty. It just approaches the mark but doesn’t pass it and there are no frills. It ends abruptly and would have been very satisfying to see what would have happened just after the film’s final scenes. However, we understand why it ends as it does. Here is a mid-life crisis brought on by the death of a parent, repressed sexuality and a touch of alcoholism that is beautiful handled and a film achievement.

“SUPERNOVA”

A Film to Anticipate

Amos Lassen

Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) have been together for 20 years and are on vacation travelling across England in a camper van.  Tusker was  diagnosed with young-onset dementia two years ago  and since then their lives have had to change. The time that they have together is now the most important thing for them. However, as the trip progresses, their individual ideas for their future begin to collide, and their plans and aspirations begin to come apart. 

Dementia brings with it unique grief: it blurs conceptions of life and death, self and other. British writer/director  Harry Macqueen introduces us to a couple that is dealing with it in “Supernova”. The film is something of a two-man chamber piece British road movie.

Sixty-something partners Sam and Tusker travel in a cluttered camper van through the north of England, on what is probably their last vacation before Tusker’s health deteriorates, Macqueen’s talky original screenplay promises no surprises and we know that there is only one way this journey can go.

Tusker deliberately left the medication that’s at least supposed to stall his mental decline behind but he had already decided that it really did nothing for his decline. He was once a celebrated novelist who is now struggling to write. He has made peace with his fate and is independently tying up the loose ends of his life during the uncertain amount of time he has left. Sam, a classical pianist has recently put his career aside to care for Tusker, but is unable to approach things quite so pragmatically and holds onto fast-fading delusions that their companionship will see them through the worst. Whether he’s unable to accept the reality more out of defiant love for his life partner of several decades, or his own tremendous fear of being left alone, is the question that “Supernova” explores and it does so with frankness, even when the characters speak around the issue.

Not much happens in “Supernova”. Sam and Tusker chat, cuddle, argue, say a few goodbyes and take in the Lake District scenery.  The drama  comes as the two must gradually drop their defenses of denial and delay, and speak openly and bluntly about what’s best for them individually. They have different answers along the way. There can be no compromise.

Firth and Tucci are brilliant and they complement and reflect each other’s shortness, evasiveness and tenderness in the way that long-term couples do. Old jokes and teases are lovingly brought up between them with loving half-heartedness.

Firth’s Sam is the heart of the film, and beautifully so. His fear, anger and insecurity emerge the more he tries to remain undemonstrative. This could well be his greatest performance.

“DRY WIND”

Desire

Amos Lassen

Desire is the basic theme of  “Dry Wind” (“Vento Seco”) In a  rural mid-western Brazil setting Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo) follows his monotonous daily routine. Working at a big fertilizer company nearby, his expeditions to the local supermarket, and dips in the pool give us looks at a life with little variety. Only desire seems to make Sandro’s existence bearable. 

Director Daniel Nolasco and his cinematographer Larry Machado let the camera become an observer as it reflects the protagonist’s gaze when not following closely behind The camera lingers on men’s bodies and their crotches, both covered and not. The queer male gaze, as demonstrated here, is a startling and fascinating, but Sandro’s desire is shown in great, elaborate detail that document his sexual encounters both real and imagined with pornographic explicitness.

Nolsaco’s artistic intention is always clear: erotic scenes are juxtaposed with sweeping landscape shots as well as the monotony of work among mountains of dusty grain. Nolasco uses bold colors and neon lights and a memorable soundtrack establish a direct line to giallo films but the narrative tension which runs through the Italian crime thriller genre is missing here. This is a powerful and unabashed representation of homosexuality seen against the backdrop of Brazil’s current political climate. While this film certainly won’t be to everyone’s liking, it has great power.

Between work, swimming and anonymous sex, Sandro lives a rather monotonous life. When Maicon (Rafael Theophilo) emerges from the small town, his life takes a turn.

While the protagonist Sandro s swimming, we see a close-up of the crotch area of ​​the male pool visitors. This is a subtle depiction of sexuality in the film, which otherwise shows sex in a highly explicit form. This scene anticipates one of the most important aspects in Sandro’s self-perception— that desire seems to be everywhere in and with him. He is constantly attracted to male bodies and gets lost in fetish fantasies, although he actually meets with his colleague Ricardo (Allan Jancito Santana) relative to sex in the forest. Nolasco succeeds in a character study in hot Brazil that is full of eroticism.

The numerous sex scenes are relentless and shown with uncompromising closeness and not leaving out any explication. But, these scenes are never an end in themselves; they fit very well into Sandro’s character. Something is always in the air and this becomes clear in pornographic, surreal dream sequences. Since Nolasco shows sexuality with the highest form of intensity and in some cases almost pornography, Sandros’ tension becomes believable. He knows only  tenderness through sex.

There is a tender moment when Maicon sits next to him on a roller coaster ride and holds his hand. The relationship with the mysterious Maicon is an important aspect of the film. Not only does his desire culminate in him, but also the perception of his own masculinity.

“Dry Wind” takes getting used to as it explores desire and identity. The gap, between everyday reality and fantasy certainly tortures Sandro. He is a middle-aged factory safety officer who life seems to be going nowhere. Maicon is a gay beefcake fantasy made flesh, and Sandro is instantly obsessed. So much so that he pursues his unhealthy fixation on the newcomer.

“Dry Wind” contains the single most explicit act of unsimulated fellatio (to “completion”)  and it  is interpreted with a strange gentleness. It makes the sex almost sweet, and rather hot, instead of gratuitous.

“SUBLET”

Re-finding love

Amos Lassen

Eytan Fox, the wonderkid of Israeli LGBTQ cinema brings us his first English language film, “Sublet”. Fifty-something Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) comes to Tel Aviv for a 5-day assignment for the New York Times. Michael is a writer for the paper and is preparing an article about the “real” Tel Aviv behind the touristy hot spots. He sublets an apartment of a young filmmaker, Tomer (Niv Nissim), who makes frequent trips back after Michael moves in.

On one of those visits, Michael learns that Tomer doesn’t have a place to stay that evening and offers him a spot on the couch in exchange for a few guided tours around Tel Aviv. Tomer accepts, and shows Michael the modern world of Israeli LGBTQ culture. Both men are gay, yet at different points in their lives. Michael is in a long-term relationship with a partner back in New York while Tomer eschews the idea of faithful exclusivity. The two men take turns learning from each other— Tomer gains a touch of maturity and perspective and Michael rediscovers a touch of his youthful daring and impulsivity.

Fox wrote and directed the picture. Having lived in Tel Aviv for many years (before the blossoming of gay culture there), I was glad that Fox give his film a distinct sense of place when it is not shot in Tomer’s apartment. When we are not inside, we see beaches, clubs, and streets that give Tel Aviv its nature. Tomer does not have much of a personality aside from as a “trick” who is filled with angst, and Michael comes across as past-his-prime non-adventurer. What these two opposites share has all been done before and while there is conflict, it is just not new. But Michael does have a bit of trauma that he manages to overcome because of Tomer’s prodding and there are surprises.

Michael is nudged back to life by Tomer.  He finds Tel Aviv to be “full of contradictions, chaotic and intense, but at the same time completely laid-back.” With this, he also describes Tomer with whom he has formed a surprising bond. We might have thought we were going to see a May-December affair but Fox and co-writer Itay Segal have something quieter in mind and they successfully balance underlying melancholy with a light mood and this is what makes the film so good. I am aware that until now I have been a bit hard in writing about the film but it does not only save itself, it becomes quite enjoyable. This is also a love letter to Tel Aviv and its street life. Older gay men will enjoy the film’s treatment of acquired wisdom and the introspection of aging

In the opening scenes Michael is established  as a slightly uptight, pensive man, with a bit of gray at the temples yet still handsome. We sense sadness which he later shares with us. Tomer is spontaneous as opposed to Michael being uptight and organized.

The film comes to us in five chapters representing five days and they follow the connection between the two men who move from being strangers. Through Skype calls with his husband David (Peter Spears) in New York, we learn that Michael is hesitant to continue with their plan to become parents and is irritated when he finds out David has begun plans for surrogacy without consulting him. Tomer admits that he Googled Michael and asks about his well-reviewed first publication, a chronicle of New York City in the AIDS years of the late ’80s and early ’90s when Michael lost his first boyfriend to the disease.

While at the beach, Michael admits that sex has become infrequent in his marriage, while sexual Tomer laughs at the idea of monogamous commitment. His free-spirit side comes into play on the third day after they attend an experimental dance recital and he’s high. He finds a hot local guy (Tamir Ginsburg) on a hookup app and the conflicting signals of curiosity, arousal, reserve and despondency come to the fore when Michael considers the invitation to participate play.  He feels awkward the next morning and tries to leave early, but Tomer stops him by insisting he comes to dinner with his mother Malka (Miki Kam) on the kibbutz where she raised him. That entire fourth day sequence has some of the film’s most affecting scenes (the quiet train ride the two men share, a dinner during which Malka draws Michael out on why he is sad.

Hickey gives a beautiful performance, showing suppressed feelings while also relaying the embarrassment of a man who is not used to talking about himself. Tomer begins to see him differently.

The sexual tension is understated through most of the film so that the drama is more about the effect on both men of their encounter that frees up what was in denial or held back by fear. The screenplay incorporates background about the Israeli-Palestinian divide through Tomer’s dancer friend Daria (Lihi Kornowski) and her relationship with her Arab boyfriend; Michael’s ambivalence toward his Jewishness; the challenges of being an alternative artist in Israel; and the temptation of a more liberal, cosmopolitan life outside of Israel.

“Sublet” is thoughtful queer melodrama that is satisfying, with the way it looks at the mutually beneficial intersection of two radically different lives. The interplay between the two leads is excellent and captures many moments of relaxed intimacy. Fox once again gives us an insider’s view of being gay in Israel  and shows how welcoming Tel Aviv is.

“Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves” (“Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar”)

In Sweden

Amos Lassen

While there’s a tendency in English-speaking countries to only ever consider how certain events affected us, of course they often affect other places too. That’s very true of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In terms of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, we rarely hear about countries aside from the United States. Most documentaries and films tend to concentrate on what happened in this country. The three-part mini-series Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves” takes us to Stockholm, Sweden in the early 80

Rasmus (Adam Palsson) is a young man comes to Stockholm to check out the bright lights. Staying with his aunt he soon immerses himself in the gay world, meeting other people and having fun. He meets Benjamin (Adam Lundgren), who comes from a very strict family of Jehovah’s Witnesses when he knocks on the door of one of Rasmus’ gay friends, hoping to spread the word of his religion. Rasmus immediately sees that Ben is gay, something the young man thought nobody could see. Ben slowly begins to open up and eventually starts a relationship with Rasmus.

Things are not perfect though. Benjamin just wants a simple monogamous relationship and has no intention of coming out to his parents while Rasmus feels people should be out and proud, and he also wants to have sex with other people too. Then they hear about a “gay plague” and people around them start getting sick. From the very beginning we sense that this is not an easy film and the title comes from a line of dialogue in the first few minutes where a nurse is informed not to touch AIDS patients without full-on safety gear. Throughout the film,  we move between the young men figuring out their lives amid the promise of early 80s Stockholm gay scene and Rasmus lying in a hospital bed suffering the effects of AIDS.

The film uses quite an effective structure, contrasting the hope and possibility of gay people in a society that’s slowly becoming more accepting of different sexualities, with the devastating impact the AIDS virus has. The three hour-long episodes are helped enormously by some great performances. Adam Palsson is excellent as the brash Rasmus but this is Adam Lundgren’s movie— he is the heart of it all. The supporting cast is excellent as is the recreation of 1980’s life. There is a nice specificity both in its visual style and how it shows an intimate knowledge of the areas of Stockholm that were popular with gay people in the early 80s, including the place where the bars were to where people went cruising.

It’s not always an easy watch since the film doesn’t shy away from the horrible reality of the end stages of AIDS. However that’s as it should be. For those who weren’t around at the time, it’s easy to think the AIDS crisis was a bad thing without realizing what it was actually like for those living through it. As we see here, these were people still somewhat dislocated from society and often estranged from their own biological families. They had built their identity and new families amongst one another and then had to watch those closest to them dying ugly, agonizing deaths and often wondering if/when the same would happen to them. They also knew that if it had primarily been happening to straight people, the reaction would have been a full scale emergency rather than it becoming a political football and ignored by many.

 

“Don’t Ever Wipe Tears” was a bit of a sensation when it first aired in Sweden in 2012, and there was even talk of it being recut into a film for distribution in other countries which is finally happening.

 

“AND THEN WE DANCED” 

Furtive Feelings

Amos Lassen

Levan Akin’s film, “And Then We Danced” looks at gay desire in a Georgian dance ensemble. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) has been training Georgian dance together with his girlfriend (Ana Javakishvili) for years. When a new dancer, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) ,comes to train, things begin to change Merab realizes that he’s falling in love with the newcomer thus opening a new world of passion, confusion and danger for him. This is not a new story but the setting is fresh. Akin director explores his family’s Georgian roots and delivers a touching romance  and a sincere, compelling and damning portrait of Georgia’s attitudes toward machismo. We see that it is up to the individual to survive.

The boys of the National Georgian Ensemble are taught that softness is a dangerous affliction— to have soft limbs is to be weak and to lose muscular strength is to fail. This is rooted in military moves and Middle Age holiday celebrations and it fills the mind and body of Merab, a sensitive and headstrong student at the academy. He’s talented but somewhat frustrated by the cultural structures inhibiting his livelihood. He is still mostly in control of his ambition until a rival dancer joins the academy and brings a technical and sensual threat.

Irakli’s arrival upends Merab’s pretensions of hardened performance almost instantly. It’s no mystery where this sensuous coming-of-ager will lead for these young men. They are two people who are simultaneously repressed and inspired by the muscles of their bodies in movement as they for new bends as they perfect their craft.

Dance sets the stage for a story of growing desire and it is framed by the danger of a conservative culture that still reminds its people that marriage is between a man and a woman, as it has been since Adam and Eve.

Akin has filmed his dancers in golden light and this gives elegance to these periods of clumsy yearning. The precise steps of Georgian dance lend discipline to lustful impulses, and introduce a new barrier to get around. Self-destruction is certainly within reach for these guys and their restless hearts. As they train,  the softness of a first romance is quite strong.

This is a story about sexual expression, financial struggles, familial and what happens when everything becomes too stressful for the young men who are looked disdainfully by those who fear their sexual orientation. While dramatically slow, the film seems always ready “to burst with raw, emotionally gripping nuance about homophobia coupled with extrinsic issues” but it never does.

The acting is uniformly excellent with a truly gorgeous performance by Gelbakhiani as Merab. He delivers his lines with age-appropriate realism, elegance and is a complete charm to watch. Iraki (Valishvili), his competitor and lover wonderfully deals with the pressure exerted on him by the dance academy. Coach Aliko tells them that Georgian dance is supposed to represent masculinity as we come to understand, and we wait to see how the fantastically directed sequences of duets would come to correlate with Merab’s sexual freedom. However, the film splits the focus into his tough relationship with brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli).

We see and hear a one-o- one conversation between the two that is heartfelt and a deconstruction of toxic masculinity through the guise of sibling spats. The relationship between Merab and Irakli is so painfully rushed that we don’t get the time to appreciate how the struggle of being a queer adolescent in the marginalized climate is very dangerous.  In “And Then We Danced”, Swedish-Georgian filmmaker Levan Akin calls upon language for a story specific to a culture and a world he loves, but universal in its impact.

Merab’s world his thrown into chaos as Irakli goes from being his greatest rival to the object of his heart’s desire. The unexpected and unique joy of ‘And Then We Danced’ is not what it is telling, but how it is being told. When placed within the context of Georgian tradition and national identity (neither of which support homosexuality), this familiar setup comes to life with relevance and a new texture. We, the viewers, become as wrapped up in a journey of discovery as Merab. We immerse ourselves in Georgian culture, and we are with him in every step that he takes to find his way in this world he loves but cannot accommodate him. The very familiar story of a young gay man finding himself becomes new and celebratory again. We enjoy seeing his naked male form reaching for what he longs for, the painful confusion of reading any possible signs, the physical agony he endures and the emotional torment and the joy he feels when “skin touches skin and lip touches lip.”

The film moves past its familiar narrative from a potential love story to a statement on the importance, of self-expression. We see Merab’s self-discipline start to loosen as he discovers the fears and desires he never knew he had. He feels his confusion and longing and pain and desire and steps outside of himself to discover who he really is— a brother, a lover, an artist and as a man. His relationship with Irakli brings forth Merab’s deeper understanding of his art and his relationship with it where traditional boundaries do not. Director Levan uses the affair with Irakli as a catalyst for Merab’s personal and artistic awakening, and in this, he offers something refreshing and deeply powerful to LBGTQ  film: a statement on the need to know one’s self and to be allowed to be whatever is found. The pain of Merab’s journey along with his with quiet moments of sorrow and loss that, because of his awareness of his own body, manifest physically in his entire body. His pain makes his victories all the greater and his art more necessary. Defiance here is  a demand to be seen and be heard, and this is part of Merab.

”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.

“UNCLE FRANK”

Coming Out in the Deep South

Amos Lassen

“Uncle Frank” takes us on a heartbreaking journey full of ups and downs. It is a coming-of-age story that shows that even the people who we adore aren’t infallible and cannot run away from our past.

Uncle Frank’s (Paul Bettany) story is told from the perspective of his niece,Beth (Sophia Lillis). Both Paul and Frank are the outliers of their Southern family with Beth having aspirations beyond her family and her hometown while Frank already having moved on years before and became a college professor in New York City. This is what brought uncle and niece together. brought them together. Beth worshipped Frank, but there is more going on below the surface. Frank couldn’t run away from his past forever as we see when tragedy forced him to finally face it.

Bettany gives a brilliant performance as Frank. He is charming and also vulnerable. We feel the pain and then the sense of relief when it was lifted from his shoulders. Director Alan Ball’s film is the story ofa gay man struggling to come out to his family also feels and even though it is dated, it is still quite a film.

Set in the Deep South in 1969, Betsy Bledsoe lives a largely sheltered existence in Creekville. Her thoughtful Uncle Frank has moved to New York and he advises her  to love her own desires. Frank doesn’t go home much because  his family is God-fearing, do what your father says type and ruled over by the homophobic Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) and Frank is gay.

By 1973, Betsy who is now known as Beth goes to New York where she quickly learns that Uncle Frank has been less than honest about his domestic arrangements with her mother and father (Judy Greer and Steve Zahn) and is living with his long-term Saudi Arabian boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi). When there’s a death in the family, a road trip back home is imminent. Frank, is not happy about returning, especially when Wally decides to come along. Then Frank begins being be haunted by flashbacks to his childhood that are driving him to drink.

This is a period piece that exploits both closeted sexuality and alcoholism. “Uncle Frank,” unfortunately is filled with so many clichés that anything that is genuine is smothered. While the film is deeply frustrating, the cast makes it a fascinating watch.

 

 

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