Full coverage of the Seattle Gay and Lesbian film festival can be found here.
Happy National Coming Out Day! Or, at least Saturday was. Outside of actually coming out, or sharing your stories about coming out, there is no better way to celebrate a personal and political celebration than by watching a slew of movies that celebrate the political and personal. Today featured a variety of documentaries, all of which used economic storytelling to weave mammoth tales in a brief amount of time.
My day started with a trip back through time about one of the first American same-sex marriages. Limited Partnership recounts the long and winding tale of Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan, a gay couple who met in 1971. Tony was on a traveler’s VISA from Australia when he fell in love with Richard after meeting in a bar called The Closet. They married in 1975, during a brief moment in the distant past when Colorado issued same-sex marriages. Richard and Anthony were using the legal marriage as a foundation for Anthony to gain American citizenship. Thus began the long and arduous road of 37 years of fighting for Anthony’s citizenship.
Condensing 37 years of legal maneuvering and fighting, both politically and publicly, for Richard’s citizenship was probably no easy task, yet director Thomas G Miller and his team of editors and graphics make the process look easy. Miller followed Tony and Richard for over a decade to interview and follow their hardships, while conducting research, and pulling up archival photos and videos. The final product is a smooth sail through the decades where fashions and old age are the largest signs of time passing. Limited Partnership is an easy-to-swallow summary of the gay rights fight from the time when the government could deny rights by using the word “faggots” through to the Supreme Court knocking down DOMA. It should serve as required viewing for a reminder that political fights are neither short nor easy and take endurance.
Similarly, Letter to Anita documents the life of a woman from when she came out in 1980 and lost custody rights of her two children to her fundamentalist husband. Ronni Sanlo, who started up the University of Michigan LGBT center in 1995, was recruited by UCLA to help their LGBT center, and inspired other universities to follow in her footsteps, had written a letter to Anita Bryant in her memoirs, inspiring Andrea Meyersen to create a mini-history of gay rights in Florida State as well as a life document for Dr. Sanlo.
Running only 55 minutes, Letter to Anita seems all too brief to truly focus on all the legal maneuvering that happened in Florida between the passing of the Bush-Trask law, and wherever Florida is today. The main concern is the life of Dr. Sanlo, a jovial presence, whose life is also run through all too briefly. The emotional resonance of Dr. Sanlo losing her children because of a law created in honor of Anita Bryant carries through to the end, but her life accomplishments are sped through, so you have very little time to realize all the small but amazing things she accomplished. And, the conclusion seemed extremely abrupt as well. It’s rare that you want to spend more time with a documentary, but Dr. Sanlo is such a force that Meyerson could have easily added another 30 minutes to fully flesh out her various subjects.
Letter to Anita was accompanied by an even shorter documentary, Living in the Overlap about a feisty lesbian couple, Lennie Gerber and Pearl Berlin, who have been fighting for marriage rights for 40 years. Like the lesbian parallel to Limited Partnership, Living in the Overlap recounts the story of these long-time activists, especially Lennie who got a law degree to fight for the rights of the queer community. Unfortunately, Mary Dalton practically skips right over the middle parts of Lennie and Pearl’s lives, letting us see their beginning and the present. These two characters, and they are characters, are amazingly fun to sit around and chat with, and Dalton would have been best to just let us sit back and listen. Dalton also does an unfortunate thing at the end, interjecting herself into the documentary to give a straight woman’s opinion voice over on the situation…as if she wasn’t already interjecting her voice simply by being the director and editor. Lennie and Pearl deserve better than that.
The highlight of the day, though, was Out in the Night, a documentary about the stabbing of a straight guy in 2006. Maybe you remember it? The media had drummed up the case as being a “gang of killer lesbians” and used words like “bloodthirsty” to describe them. The black straight guy, who was selling DVDs “of his movie” on the sidewalk in front of the IFC Film Center, claimed he said “hi” to the passing group of 7 black lesbians from Newark when they attacked him. They claimed that he was harassing and following them, saying he was going to “fuck them straight.” A fight broke out, dreads were ripped, and a penknife was pulled out and stabbed the guy, who was hospitalized for hernia surgery for five days. The four who didn’t take the plea deal – Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, Venice Brown and Terrain Dandridge – became known as the New Jersey 4, and were sentenced to 5-11 years (depending on the woman) on felony charges.
Director Blair Dorosh-Walther crafted Out in the Night in a manner that doesn’t just dissect the case, but dissects the circumstances and circus that surround it as well. She interrogates the sexism, homophobia, and racism in the media, the poverty and crime-stricken neighborhood these women came from, street harassment, the bias that the judge displayed against the women, and the aftermath these women faced. What could be a simple Dateline-style case history turns into a sociopolitical analysis of the issues facing Queer Women of Color. With the memory of Ferguson, and the NYPD choking, still fresh in everybody’s minds, Out in the Night becomes a crucial examination of circumstances that leads to people not being allowed to defend themselves.
Three Dollar Bill Cinema had the director and producer on a panel with two local community leaders to discuss the sociopolitical elements in the film, and how they relate to Seattle and the larger nation. This spread the focused documentary to an even larger focus, and brought everything home. If there was any documentary that required a post-film panel to help dissect the different elements, this was it.
On the non-doc side, both What it Was and Lyle were ambitious failures of sorts. What it Was resented a non-linear surreal dreamy hallucinatory catch-all of the life of a Latina film star who is coming to terms with her identity and reconciling it with her family and relationships. The over-abstraction of its beginning and ending, as well as my pet peeve of using a whispered voice over, distanced the audience too far to overcome. Lyle, a lesbian take on Rosemary’s Baby, was too short to craft the real tension it required. Though, the director could hardly be to blame as it was a $30k budget that had originally been destined as a web series, but became a horror movie that runs barely an hour. Concision is amiable in a documentary, but can be a film killer in horror. Still, it had promise and I look forward to see what Stewart Thorndike has next up her sleeve.
The Girls Shorts program was an amusing bag of mostly decent short films. As with most shorts programs, most of the shorts were funny, and the best were mostly the ones whose jokes landed. But, the most surprising one was First Clue, which collected a bunch of lesbian stories about when they first knew they were gay. It was a surprisingly touching and witty collection that sidelines the nature vs nurture debate with discoveries at rather young ages. Other highlights were the fashion-oriented short She Said, She Said and Secrets & Toys, which exploited the idea that you didn’t invent anything sexually new, at all.