Gay in the Heartland
One of the perks in reviewing is having the opportunity to read books and see movies before others do. I also get the chance to meet new talent and get an idea in which direction the LGBT community is going. It is not often that we get to see films about gays in the heartland and it just so happens that “Flyover County” is going to set a new standard for others making films about gay life away from the metropolitan areas where most films are set. As I watched this film I was reminded of the seven years I lived in Arkansas as an out gay male and the atmosphere that prevails in such a place. Director Jim Fields has made a film that looks at love, acceptance and friendship in Omaha, Nebraska which is certainly not a gay mecca.
Todd (Myles Rothery) and Russ (Mike Mecek), college students meet in a literature class and become best friends. Todd is gay and Russ tells us (and himelf) several times that he is straight (although the audience and Todd have their suspicions). When Russ realizes that Todd is gay and that he is labeled as gay, the friendship suffers. When we first meet Russ we see him as a young man who has no use for gay men in his life. To me, it seems that he protests too much about the way people see him and I had the feeling that he is hiding something. When he sees that his own family sees him as gay, he leaves the friendship and I wonder if that he is trying to convince himself that he has no interest in men.
Todd, who never hides his sexuality, also has problems to deal with. Both of his parents are dead and he only has a sister who is a religious conservative. She forbids Todd to come to the house and is backed by her husband who reinforces the way she feels.
Todd and Russ are trying to find their places in the world. Todd is out and aside from acceptance from his family, he gets along fine. Russ on the other hand is forced to deal with what others think about him and it seems that those thoughts are the result of his friendship with Todd.
The title “Flyover Country” refers to those places that people rarely go and are seen from the air as they fly over. As I said earlier, we do not have gay films about Nebraska and therefore how people act there is foreign to us. Religious fundamentalism dictates how some people feel and we are certainly made aware of that by Todd’s sister who happened to see him at a demonstration outside of a church, the very same church that Russ goes to with his grandfather.
Fields who makes sure that we see this film as a contemporary piece with references to gay marriage being legal in Iowa—a place that is close enough to Omaha and Russ’s aunt, in an attempt to show her liberalism, suggests to Russ that he and Todd get married there. This happens when Todd is in another room with Russ’s uncle who is sharing his scrapbook on President Ronald Reagan with him.
One interesting aspect of the film is the way Todd and Russ are treated by their families. Straight Russ is accepted as gay by his aunt while gay Todd loses his family for the very same reason. The film very nicely deals with the issues of religion and gay marriage and acceptance. There is a violently homophobic scene that had me cringing as I watched but that is because it is so real. The film has a bittersweet ending but I am not about to share what that is.
I do not know anything about the cast members but I imagine that this is a first film for many. They are fine even when their actions are predictable. Omaha looks gorgeous (I saw a blu ray copy of the film). What we really see is that gay life in the heartland has the same issues to deal with that we have in larger cities. We can assume then that issues are basically the same but at different degrees.
Even when Russ and Todd are not together, their paths cross and Todd is a wonderful look at a guy who falls in love with a straight man but cannot act on it. When he tries to do so one time, he suffers the loss of his best friend. Both Todd and Russ are looking for something and they both face social struggles. I must also mention the soundtrack which is filled with both songs and background music and that works perfectly with the action on the screen.
“The Last of the Unjust” (“Le dernier des injustes”)
Theresienstadt, “the Model Ghetto”
Theresienstadt was a place where propaganda flourished. Adolf Eichmann called it the “model ghetto”. It was designed to mislead the world and the Jews of Europe because it really was the last stop before the ovens of the concentration camps. Benjamin Murmelstein was the last president of the Thereseinstadt Jewish Council and was forced to negotiate with the Nazis from 1938 until the war ended. He negotiated with Adolf Eichmann. When Eichmann was captured and put on trial in Jerusalem, Murmelstein was not called upon to testify even though there is no doubt that he knew Eichmann best. Claude Lanzmann who brought us “Shoah” looks at this aspect of the Holocaust that is unknown to many and we see something about the Final Solution and how it began. Lanzmann built this film from outtakes of “Shoah”. The film is primarily based on the interviews with Murmelstein who is the last and only surviving president of the Jewish Council at Thereseinstadt. The two men have dense, probing conversations and we get an investigation that is quit deep and should be seen by all.
Murmelstein describes Eichmann as a larger than life monster. Murmelstein had been a rabbi in Austria and during the Holocaust worked and fought with Nazi lieutenant Eichmann. While we have had many films dealing with the nature of Nazi evil, this film goes in a different direction and deals with the limited choices that Europe Jews had to deal with. Murmelstein’s own choices, we learn that he was accused of being a Nazi collaborator and was tried on that charge in what was once Czechoslovakia and he was acquitted by the court but not by the Jewish community and he had to live with that until his death in 1989 and that are still some who continue to believe he was guilty.
Murmelstein calls himself a “calculating realist”; he was able to prevent the liquidation of Thereseinstadt and he helped more than 120,000 Jews to leave the country. There are several times during the film that Lanzmann accuses Murmelstein of sidetracking and Murmelstein answers him that what he says is necessary to understand the entire situation.
The interviews were filmed in 1975 in Rome and we do not get to them for about 20 minutes after the film began. First we see “a long explanatory scroll and present-day footage of Lanzmann surveying the train station in Theresienstadt. Throughout the nearly four-hour documentary, the filmmaker uses contemporary images to suggest various European sites as “living” witnesses to the horrors that Murmelstein describes in voiceover. The viewer is thereby asked to imagine the worst, which feels at least as devastating as the result of anything that a narrative filmmaker might depict”. We also see images of a cantor singing his first prayer of Yom Kippur; there are shots of sketches from eyewitnesses who had buried their artwork underground, Lanzmann also shows clips of Nazi propaganda which include children eating bread with butter, women reading and knitting and men playing chest and we hear the voiceover saying that the use of free time is left to the individual.
The film begins with Lanzmann speaking the camera from the train platform of Bohusovice, a station through which, starting in 1941, transports of Jewish deportees disembarked for the camp-ghetto of Theresienstadt. Between 1941 and 1945, no fewer than 140,000 Jews took this route to the camp that Nazi propaganda depicted as a “spa,” “Hitler’s gift,” and “an autonomous zone.” That the Jewish population had been lured there by the Nazis’ deception, effectively volunteering up for deportation after disposing of their property and savings, is one of the most tragic points of the film. Some of this was shot in 2013 at historical sites and religious places in Prague and Vienna.
The film looks at the Elders, those men who represented the Jewish community and were the administrators of the ghettos and of the camps. Of the elders, Murmelstein was the only Jew to take direct orders from the man who orchestrated the final solution, Adolf Eichmann who took over Thereseinstadt. We learn why Murmelstein was not included in the nine hour “Shoah”. It is because even today he is still considered to be too controversial. Murmelstein sees himself as a puppet master and as a calculating and ruthless pragmatist. He admits that he enjoyed the power he had been given but he also states that his power had limits. He worked 70 hour weeks so that he could give Jews a sense of purpose and this is the reason why he was so hated.
In the Therseinstadt of today (now known as Terezin) there is placidity and children play in the streets and in front of a plaque that honors the Jews deported from there. In Prague, we hear children’s voices outside of a site for Jewish prayer. At another deportation sites, we see blue skies and a nightclub. It is painful to see that these sites lasted through the war and are still operative today.
Murmelstein recasts the Eichmann trial and Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil as a distortion. He sees Eichmann as a swindler to defraud the Jews of Vienna and as banal but rather as perverse. Murmelstein confirms the claims of the Nazis that Thereseinstadt was the model ghetto and shows how lies and truth, reality and fabrication intermingled there. He relates how improvements were made before a visit from the Red Cross. He says that Theresienstadt needed to be seen if the Nazis were to continue even if everything was based on lies.
At the end of the film, Lanzmann and Murmelstein walk together to the Roman Forum and he Lanzmann asks him if he knows that Gershom Scholem, the German-born Israeli philosopher and historian, wants him hanged. Murmelstein replies: “Listen – today, a member of the Jewish Council is like a dinosaur on a motorway. What do you do with them? People are right to condemn me but are not competent to judge me. As for Scholem, he is a great scholar but he’s a bit capricious when it comes to hanging. Didn’t he oppose Eichmann’s own hanging?”
“The Battle of AmfAR”
A Scientist and a Movie Star
Two powerful women from two different ways of life, one we all know and one many of us are aware for the work she has done in AIDS research. Elizabeth Taylor and Dr. Mathilde Krim came together by joining forces to create AmfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the fight against AIDS changed forever. Taylor had celebrity status as well as passion and quick wit. She began a campaign against government indifference to AIDS. Krim, a scientist who is committed to her work was able to gain support from areas of research.
Rob Epstein and partner Jeffrey Friedman have directed a documentary short film which looks at the most influential and relevant AIDS organization which shows us the personal history of amfAR. They bring together archival footage—Bryant Gumbel’s reporting on the “fatal disease spreading rapidly among homosexuals”), John Chancellor (a report on how AIDS, “that fatal disease spreading rapidly among homosexuals” was beginning to effect non-homosexuals), Tom Brokaw (doing a report about researchers trying to track down the virus) and others. What we get here is the personal and historical perspectives on the AIDS epidemic. The film clips from news shows remind us of the fear and panic during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. One doctor even went so far as to say, “No disease has ever been eliminated through treatment” and a cure (in the early days) “wasn’t even on the radar.”
When Dr. Krim came onto the scene, she assumed an important role in making sure that word about the epidemic got out and she told the world that everyone was in danger. When Krim was doing research in 1981, she was contacted by her friend Dr. Joseph Sonnabend who told her about gay patients in his practice who all had the same symptoms. It was then that she became an advocate and used her research and knowledge and was soon a major indispensible part of the battle against AIDS. But Krim did not work alone in her fight to bring awareness to the epidemic and her own war to replace facts with the truth and to ignore the stupidity that surrounded the disease. She became a partner to several people including Michael Callen, a gay singer and early advocate who we have since lost to AIDS and Richard Berkowitz who taught Krim a lot about the disease. She used her fame as a movie star to begin to movie society into a need for social change.
We all have heard about Taylor’s earthiness so it should come as no surprise when early in the epidemic she said in a speech at the National Press Club that she was “aware of the huge, loud silence regarding AIDS” and thought to herself, “bitch, do something yourself.” With Dr. Krim, she started amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research). The women fought and Taylor when testifying before the United States House of Representatives, she said that she would “not be silenced, will not be ignored.” And she wasn’t.
The film brings science and history together. It covers over 30 years, from the beginning in 1981 and we are given quite a historical perspective and we are reminded of President Ronald Reagan and his administration’s lack of caring and compassion, as well as the way communities organized to care for the sick and dying) and we also learn about the scientific aspects of the AIDS virus. Now that Taylor is gone, Krim and amfAR continue to look for a cure.
“Where I Am”
Returning to Sligo
In the documentary “Where I Am”, “Robert Drake, a gay American writer (“The Gay Canon”) returns to Sligo, Ireland from his home in Philadelphia. He is trying to take another look at the time that he spent in the country. Twelve years earlier, Drake was a victim of an attack by two locals there. He wants to see if it is possible to put the past behind him but there is also the possibility that the trip could make his memories of what happened even stronger.
The attack happened in 1999 and Drake was left for dead, He came out of it crippled and with no balance making it impossible to walk and confining him to a wheelchair. He also has difficulty speaking and his attention span is almost ruined. Yet he longs to return to Ireland—he wants to confront the two men who attack him as well as to visit the town that was once his home. Butch Cordora, Drake’s personal assistant goes with him. Both men know that are setting out on an emotional journey and that he will have to deal with the frustrations with the way life once was for him as compared to what it became.
After the attack when Drake was in the hospital and unable to speak, he was regarded as a sexual predator. He was not even able to get to court where his attackers were being tried for the crime. His attackers were eventually found guilty and received an eight year sentence. Drake returned to Philadelphia to begin recovery.
With his return to Ireland, cameras and director Pamela Drynan went with him to record the event. Drynan recorded the emotion of the visit and Drake retells what happened that night and he does so with style and elegance. He has accepted how he must live now and he actually forgives the men that attacked him and forced him to live his life in a wheelchair.
This is the story of struggle and triumph. This is a difficult film to watch because of the emotion and it is very hard to watch with dry eyes.
“PARADISE : HOPE” (“PARADIES HOFFNUNG”)
“Paradise: Hope” is the third film in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy and it is the story of Melanie (Melanie Lenz) at 13 years old and her first love. Melanie’s mother and aunt are in Kenya and Melanie is sent to a diet camp in Austria for teens with weight problems. Melanie falls in love with the camp director, a doctor who is 40 years older than she is. The film deals with the doctor dealing with his guilt feelings and Melanie’s imagination of what the affair should be.
The camp has very strict rules which instills in the campers feelings of rebellion but Melanie is more interested in losing her virginity than losing weight. Three women are at the center of the film—Melanie, her aunt Maria (Maria Hoffstatter) and Melanie’s mother Teresa. The camp is run by a gym coach, (Michael Thomas) and a nutritionist (Viviane Bartsch) and the doctor (Joseph Lorenz) who is the object of Melanie’s crush.
Melanie is none too pleased about having to go to fat camp but she makes friends quickly and tries to make the best of the situation. The campers spend their days gossiping, playing games and talking about boys. While it is not necessary to see the other two Paradie films to enjoy this, we immediately see that any preconceived notions about what the film is about should be tossed aside
What starts as an innocent school crush becomes so much more. We do not really see seual contact between the doctor and Melanie but we are certainly aware of the emotional relationship between the two. Lenz is brilliant as Melanie and we at time sympathize with her while at other times we are horrified about what could happen to both of them. When we see Melanie and the doctor together there is little dialogue. They communicate via actions and body language and it is impossible to ignore what is going on. Melanie seems to have a knack for getting into uncomfortable situations and what is most upsetting is to watch the corruption of youth by those who should know better. The film is full of dark humor but it is also non-judgmental in the way it sends a message about the effect of divorce on the young.
“Buying Sex” reviews the debate over reforms to Canadian prostitution laws which are facing challenges from both the anti and the pro-prostitution groups. There does not seem to be any agreement about what the future should bring. If prostitution is decriminalized, would women take more control over their activities and would brothels spring up? Would women then be in a position to manage their own procurement with no fear of penalty or would men be given more power to benefit and exploit the sale of sexual services?
Director Teresa MacInnes and Kent Nason directed this film that gives former prostitutes, policy makers, lawyers and male buyers a chance to say what they think. There is agreement on issues of safety but the way to achieve this is different from every group. Differences in ideology and opinion have caused a slowdown of any new laws. The sex buyers and the sex sellers have the most divergent opinions. I think the same might be said of those that see the film. But the film does one important thing that we usually do not get a chance and that is to allow the women to speak for themselves.
In 2010 when the Canadian Supreme Court struck down a series of laws surrounding prostitution after deeming them unconstitutional, reactions were mixed. It technically wasn’t and isn’t illegal to buy sex in Canada, but many laws surrounding the practice have criminalized it. To communicate for the reason of prostitution is illegal in Canada just as it was illegal to live off of prostitution or to run a house of prostitution. The last two were struck down by the courts because it was felt that they infringe upon Canadian citizens’ rights to privacy, and victimize sex workers by preventing them from taking safety measures such as hiring personal security or working indoors. This decision did not go over well with everyone, however. The Canadian Government appealed almost immediately (results will be announced in 2014), and opponents argue that decriminalizing prostitution condones a practice that many see as harmful to women and society.
We do not often see a subject that is so contentious and salacious get such a balanced and non-judgmental treatment as we see here. The documentary takes great pains to give as many facts and perspectives as possible so that discourse can be opened. The Landmark Canadian ruling regulating prostitution is framed by the narration of the film. Smug, high-profile Toronto lawyer, Alan Young, and happy, well-spoken former prostitute, Valerie Scott represent two of the loudest voices for the decriminalization of sex for cash, arguing that not every sex worker is a victim, save needing laws that support a safe work environment. We also hear from Trisha Baptie who is also a former prostitute, but one who feels that she was pushed into the trade by circumstance and a history of abuse. Now as a mother and community leader, she campaigns to abolish prostitution in all of its forms. Her argument is that just because certain aspects of society are omnipresent doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to change them.
Each side has supporters and detractors and the directors recoded their opinions as well. There are also interviews with present-day sex workers as well as from the men that frequent them. The faces are blurred and the voices are altered because of the stigma that purchasing sex carries. The reasons for buying sex vary—sexless marriages, with and without a consenting partner, is the reason most commonly mentioned among the customers interviewed, but there are a few proud users, including mentally and physically disabled men who feel that through a prostitute is the only, or at least most comfortable, way to experience physical intimacy in their lives.
Instead of just going back and forth about the speculative safety, power, control and morality of what a ruling either way would mean, MacInnes and Nason go to two countries where these opposing laws have been passed: New Zealand and Sweden. To see how regulation has changed the business, we hear from a female brothel owner and her girls. They all seem happy, healthy and intelligent. There are strict rules, including a no-drugs policy and a stringent screening process for clients to weed out any potentially violent weirdoes.
Several professors and police add their voices to the discussion. Marilyn Waring of the Auckland University of Technology astutely points out that the main reason young women turn to the sex trade is a lack of more viable economic options. Spending a summer or two on your back is the fastest way to pay off a student loan.
Canada’s top porn producers, a husband and wife partnership, have their say before the film revisits the legal proceedings in Toronto briefly then we are off to Sweden to see how zero tolerance is working out. In Sweden we hear from members of the police force trying to enforce the laws now that the industry has gone indoors and men simply travel farther to pay for sex. We meet a filmmaker concerned with emotional limitations of “manliness” and some academics who believe that doing away with the shame and stigma of sex work in order to foster honest conversation is more important than any temporary ruling that will surely continue to evolve as our society does. Then there are those who try to move the conversation to fit their agenda but the majority that we hear from are level headed and sincere in their feelings.
“SPEAK THE MUSIC: ROBERT MANN AND THE MYSTERIES OF CHAMBER MUSIC”
Meet the Mann
Robert Mann has influenced the music world for seventy years. He was a founder and first violin of the Julliard String Quartet. He has been a composer, a teacher, a soloist and a conductor and he has brought a new sense of adventure to chamber music and to musical performance, master classes and orchestras.
Now at 93 years old, Mann has a wonderful life to share with us and we hear stories of his youth and of his musical training. We are treated to archival footage of his performances as well as interviews and peeks at his private lessons with some who went on to become famous violinists. The qualities that we see in the man range from humor, anger, tact, persistence. He is a man who always strives to be better than he is and he always strives to find the humanity in the music. But all is not sunshine and he also shares information about differences with colleagues.
Mann has been with the Julliard String Quartet for 50 years and we see film of rehearsals as well as performances of the four musicians. Alan Miller directed the film that combines man and music, art and personality. Mann emerges as the legend that he is.
“Forward 13: Waking Up the American Dream
Many of us who are first generation Americans have heard the stories of our parents who came to the United States in the hopes of living the American dream.
This film follows the story of the protagonist/film maker on a cross-country journey in search of the truth regarding the nature of post-2008 America. Patrick Lovell tries to understand what has happened to the concept of the American dream now that the financial crisis has become part of our lives. To understand that, we must also understand that the economic crisis is only one part of what is going on in America today.
Through Lovell’s journey we come to understand that America is no longer a democracy, no longer functions through capitalism, and American mobility is in a strange place and the American Dream is dead. Lovell happens to have timed his journey just as the Occupy Wall Street movement erupts and suddenly discovers how America is not only at a crossroads, but on the verge of a great awakening.
“Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
A One Woman Show
Kristina Wong is a performance force. In her stand-up act she looks at important issues that Asian-American women have to deal with and she single-handedly tries to save those women. She is totally unsuccessful and it is her failures that are so funny. Director Michael Closson has captured her performance in this her first concert film. Wong uses her own life and experiences as she laughs at life. She uses an overhead projector that gives her routine a unique twist. The point of her show is to make public that there is a crisis among Asian-American women. She defines herself as a woman who “covers herself in animal parts/ excrement/ blood/ other fluid while talking about racism/ sexism/ sex/ something that should have been resolved already in childhood and gets grant money”.
Wong’s performances have strong messages that are mixed with comedy and the humor that she uses comes from her making fun of herself.
She’s got something to say, some issues to confront, questions to explore and some laughs to get. Wong does whatever she needs to do to get the laughs. Here ideas come from her going to college at Wellesley and she tells us:
“As I was walking around the campus lake with my student hosts, the conversation turned to the topic of suicide attempts at Wellesley and at other nearby colleges. And it struck me how impossible it felt that something so horrible could be happening in a place like that. I had remembered reading that Asian American women had some of the highest rates of depression and suicide and thought how just like Wellesley College, it felt so impossible that something so sick could be happening to women “so perfect.” Yet simultaneously, I think part of me instinctively understood why”. She wanted to do a show about a problem that no one wanted to talk about but even more important, she says,”I went into it with a total savior/martyr complex believing that I could save everyone’s life with a theater show. Easily, the worst attitude to enter a show with. And I ended up satirizing that savior persona in the show”. She agreed to have her show filmed so that everyone would have a change to see it.
There is a rhythm to the show which goes between comedy and poignancy and which Wong says is fictional and not her autobiography.