Saving Space at QDoc 2019
Highlights from America's only film festival "devoted exclusively to LGBTQ documentaries."Movies Features QDoc Film Festival
Eighteen months or so ago, the Hollywood Theatre saved Movie Madness. Actually, we did—or so the tee-shirt I received donating to the endeavor’s Kickstarter ensures me. It felt like an important triumph: for arthouse cinema, for physical media, for the simple idea that there must always be a place in which people who love this kind of stuff can find movies that will never see a streaming service, or memorabilia that would otherwise be relegated to a studio storage locker, or staff opinions on which pieces of esoterica to imbibe next. Saving Movie Madness meant keeping that space safe from the capitalistic apocalypse of the looming monoculture.
It makes sense then that the QDoc Film Festival has, for the past couple years, called the Hollywood Theatre home. Since 2007, QDoc’s served as the only festival in the United States “devoted exclusively to LGBTQ documentaries,” founded by Russ Gage and David Weissman, today directed (and hosted) by Molly King and Deb Kemp, who took over in 2017. Small but essential, this year running from May 2nd through the 5th, the festival shies from defining what does or does not constitute a “queer” documentary—About a queer subject? Made by a queer filmmaker?—especially for (full disclosure) cisgender, heterosexual, white people like me, but that’s a pointedly non-queer observation to make, admittedly. Instead, QDoc creates a space where queer people can feel safe to tell, and explore, their own stories. In turn, so many of the films shown this year examine what that means, shining light into these spaces with empathy and understanding and humor.
Following the screening of her film The Fruit Machine, director Sarah Fodey got on stage to describe how she was able to convince the film’s many subjects to participate, to open up about their experiences during the Canadian military’s purge of homosexuals from its public service ranks following World War II. Fearing the spectre of Soviet infiltration, encouraged by the U.S.’s full-hearted plunge into McCarthyism, the Canadian government—with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as their muscle—began to systematically round up, interrogate and pretty much ruin the lives of homosexuals, concocting a Clockwork Orange-like apparatus and underlying methodology for scientifically determining if a person was gay. Fodey recalled how, upon beginning to reach out to her subjects, one asked two questions: Did Fodey speak French (because many subjects are Quebecois) and is she gay? She could only answer affirmatively to the latter. That was enough.
The Fruit Machine, then, is not a comprehensive documentary about the Canadian purge—for which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized in late 2017, an initiative pushed by one of the film’s subjects, Martine Roy—but an avenue for all of these silenced voices to finally purge themselves of this trauma. In that sense, Fodey for the most part lets her subjects talk unreservedly, allowing them time to break open, to cry, to even make jokes about the Fruit Machine’s quackery (apparently how one reacts to the potential for a car crash determines one’s sexuality), and it makes for a moving, if unrelenting, cinematic experience. Inevitably, these many men and women echo one another, saying essentially the same thing in the same way over and over, drawing out the film’s pace until it begins to sag (and a ridiculously on-the-nose—and probably expensive—use of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” doesn’t make a subtitled follow-up vignette any more trenchant), but one can’t fault Fodey for keeping it all in, or for using her platform and her film to give these people the ability to tell their truths the way that they need to, to whom they feel will listen, will give them the space they deserve.
Joining Fodey on stage was another of the film’s subjects, Michelle Douglas, Director of International Relations for the Canadian Department of Justice and Chair of the LGBT Purge Fund, an organization founded this year committed to “reconciliation and memorialization efforts.” Douglas, a former military officer whose 1992 case against the Department of National Defence finally brought the purge, policy-wise, to a definitive end, was asked by King and Kemp the same question Fodey posed to so many people in the film: If given the chance to serve in the Canadian military again, would she? Unlike so many in the film, she quickly responded that, no, she would not. She phrased it differently, alluding to her activist activities within the government, as a matter of serving one’s country. Just because she no longer wants to be a part of the military (Who can blame her?) does not mean she refuses to live her life attempting to protect the most vulnerable people of Canadian society.
Such a moral imperative pushes the protagonist of XY Chelsea, Tim Travers Hawkins’ documentary following Chelsea Manning from the moment she’s pardoned by Barack Obama to pretty much now, the film obviously added to in its final hours to encompass the transgender military ban and Manning’s imprisonment due to her refusal to testify to a grand jury. At times unbearably intimate—Hawkins’ camera inhabited fully by Manning’s face as she poses for photo shoots, or puts on makeup perhaps for the first time outside of prison walls while explaining how she trial-and-errored her way through learning how to do so in an environment without YouTube tutorials, or ponders the consequences of her decision to attend an alt-right rally in the midst of her grass roots Senate run—XY Chelsea catechizes this trans woman’s positivity and moral idealism against a society bent on destroying her and everything she believes.
Hawkins allows Manning as much historical context as she needs to foreground her own history, and yet, why she leaked so many documents to Wikileaks isn’t emphasized so much as how she did it, and how isn’t mused about so much as why, in the aftermath, in prison and undergoing persistent public scrutiny as a “traitor,” the threat of the death penalty a real possibility, she decided to come forward as transgender and then sue the government for her right to begin hormone treatment, subsidized under the same medical programs afforded any prisoner, while still under federal custody. Manning makes it clear early in the film: The only connection between her actions as a whistleblower and her journey as a transgender person is that they weren’t choices. This is her identity—to conflate the two is to tokenize the life behind such heroic actions.
In the QDoc Q&A following the film’s screening, King and Kemp welcomed ACLU Oregon Legal Director Mat dos Santos, OutServe-SLDN (an organization advocating and servicing LGBTQ vets) board member Nathaniel Boehme and trans advocate and ACLU volunteer Michalle Wright to the stage to provide a wider sense of what the film hyper-focuses within Manning’s ordeal. Wright, who spoke of her own experience working with dos Santos to sue the Oregon Department of Corrections to begin gender therapy while incarcerated, beamed with optimism and personal success, but the overall tone behind the legal discussions presented on stage painted an unsurprisingly dismal picture of the military industrial complex’s relationship with LGBTQ people. At the time, Manning was still behind bars (she’s free as of May 9th), and dos Santos seemed unsure if she’d ever be free, admitting that the system is fundamentally built to marginalize, oppress and ultimately forget about her. One wonders where Manning, and Wright for that matter, find any shred of optimism.
The film, while far from apolitical, breathes with judgment-free vérité. Hawkins simply seems to want to give Manning the chance to explore who she is outside of that which has gained her infamy, the space to define how her politics enrich her personality, and vice versa. To demand her to explain her idealism is beside the point. We watch her find her voice again through Twitter, talk to constituents about her political campaign, lose her shit on her campaign staff after the negative fallout of that alt-right rally. Perhaps most saliently, XY Chelsea is about being a queer person in a society still attempting to understand what that even means—about navigating the responsibilities of self against the tide of expectation that one represent all of queerdom. By necessity, the film must be strikingly personal.
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.