Similarly, Jeanie Finlay’s Seahorse thrives on the intimacy it builds with Freddy, a transgender man who decides to use his still-working—despite popular myth—female reproductive organs to have his own baby via intrauterine insemination. Transcending any practical aims (dispelling misconceptions about transgender people and hormone therapy, amongst many), Finlay’s doc follows Freddy as he breaks up with his partner over the gravity of his decision, confronts people with his decision, endures countless discussions in which loved ones (mostly heterosexual white women) usurp the conversation to attempt to explain his decision to him and then—spoiler?—gives birth to a healthy baby boy. Finlay never once attempts to graft meaning onto the bare reality of what this all means for her subject.
Even though interstitial footage of seahorses adds a layer of artifice to an already obvious metaphor, the film never lapses into anything saccharine, seemingly always holding back to better capture the quotidian of Freddy’s fatherhood without steeping it in melodrama or, even better, the cynicism that comes with witnessing how hard Freddy must struggle just to do what he naturally has the right to do. Of course Freddy’s dad can’t quite accept his son’s choice; of course plenty of family members’ can’t quite wrap their heads around gender fluidity, or buy into a new family that isn’t built around gender norms. Maybe less expected is how unbelievably supportive Freddy’s mom is, or how accommodating Finlay’s film characterizes the British health care system, especially when providing such unique patient care. Regardless, theorizing and philosophizing falls away in the moment of birth, which Finlay films with unmitigated clarity. It’s heartrending in its fundamental humanity, and an unexpectedly buoyant story.
Perhaps more expectedly cynical is Terrence Crawford’s Crystal City, about the crystal meth epidemic currently tearing apart NYC’s gay communities. Drawing parallels—and historical paths—from the plague of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s to another iteration of the same kind of decimation, Fawcett admirably balances a variety of storylines in order to dig up the hope at the core of so many affected lives he profiles. Split into chapters that vaguely resemble the many stages of addiction—from that first hit to recovery and relapse—the effect is overwhelming, a chronicle of pain and loss, one evil replacing another until a whole population has been dehumanized. Though two men celebrate a year sober together, another man admits he’s contracted HIV though not long before he’d practically bragged that, despite his lifestyle, he’d surprisingly somehow avoided it. Another man, in his 40s, wonders aloud why he’s even alive. Another man clutches his small dog as he speaks of his partner, lost to AIDS, a partner with whom he once spent a lifetime getting high. As Crawford films the streets of New York, his portrait of urban queer life writhes between hope and regret, the two inextricable.
The same could be said of Amy Watson and Dennis Keighron-Foster’s Deep in Vogue, which had its U.S. premiere at QDoc. Scouring Manchester’s vogue scene in the months leading up to the ICON Vogue Ball, the film spends time with the houses hoping to outshine the competition, attempting to understand the personalities and ethos guiding each while letting them (especially the house mothers) explain the history of vogue, from the ’80s through now, from their own perspectives, understanding the art and form within a social and personal context rather than through a strictly academic lens. Amidst wonderfully expressionistic vignettes of dancers from many of the houses, shot like a perfume ad (in a good way), Watson and Keighron-Foster reveal ever-mutating boundaries of outsider-dom. Whether discussing the commercialization of vogue and drag or the contemporary loss of the impulses and social travesties that helped shape the form’s progenitors in the first place, the subjects of Deep in Vogue provide yet another vital portrait of how marginalized communities can create spaces for themselves when even their ostensible allies seem to have no room left for them.
One of the festival’s final, and perhaps most experimental, screenings, Cassandro, the Exotico! details five years in the life of Cassandro (Saúl Armendáriz), a revered luchador living on the U.S./Mexico border, coming to terms with the limits of his body and the beginning of his (long overdue) retirement. Shot in 16mm by Marie Losier, whose The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jay, a similar up-close-and-personal account of an artist in the twilight of their career—in that case Genesis P-Orridge, known mostly for fronting Throbbing Gristle—lacks the unbridled charisma of the indefatigable Cassandro, the documentary allows its subject to welcome Losier, and by extension us, into his home. Saúl is an Exotico, a wrestler whose flamboyant persona and garish accoutrements conflict excitingly with the accepted masculine narratives of any professional wrestling industry, and yet, when we become acquainted with the man, his struggle to be accepted seems to be long behind him, as has his issues with addiction and his once-difficult relationship with his father. We see Saúl with his family, and though he’s by far the best dressed, the most well-coiffed and concerned about the buoyancy of his hair, he does not appear to be forcing any aspect of himself. He is as himself as he can be—not that he’d be anything else.
Instead of focusing on his previous struggles, Losier wordlessly shows us why Saúl has been able to overcome practically impossible obstacles. In the ring, he’s a mighty force of grace, incomprehensibly nimble but intimidatingly violent, and in every glimpse we’re afforded of Cassandro wrestling speaks to a man of bottomless charm and insurmountable power. We get why his dad was able to get over his biases to be endlessly proud of his son; we get where Saúl found the impetus to get off drugs. Losier’s uninterested in following the same tragic character beats as so many similar bio docs. What she does seem to be interested in comes to light at the end of the film, in which the carefully curated world Cassandro’s built for himself—the space he’s been able to craft into one purely of his own, limned in elaborate clothes and idiosyncratic rituals—completely falls apart. Without exploiting Saúl’s pain, Losier wants to understand what happens to a man like Saúl, a queer man who’s lived so many lives worth of hardship just to be happy with himself, when even his safe space is taken from him. “I give up,” he whispers at his lowest point. We know he won’t, but we also can’t blame him: All any of us want, at the end of our worst days, is a space to call our own.
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.