Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Documentaries are us


Five more picks from the 30th SFILGBT Film Festival

Gay Christian Bible campers in Camp Out. Photo: Frameline
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It's been a year of great docs at the Frameline festival. Here, for your consideration, are five more choices, screening through the last weekend of the fest.

Camp Out "I know so many gay Christians who have such a guilt in their hearts, because they honestly think that the Bible may be right. It could be right. What if we are wrong, and we are sinners, and we are all going to Hell."

Thomas is a charismatic gay Christian teenager who prays at least twice a day, and who worries a great deal more about the condition of his soul than most of us did at that age, or any age. Shedding childhood acne, and retaining a hidden passion for modern dance, Thomas plans to be a Lutheran minister — in a committed relationship with another man! Until very recently, a kid with such dreams would stand a better chance of walking on the moon, and tragically be more likely to wind up sleeping at a Polk Street youth hostel than attending the first gay Christian Bible camp.

In their emotionally intimate new film Camp Out, reality TV producers Kirk Marcolina and Larry Grimaldi explore the dreams of Thomas and nine other LGBT Midwestern kids, who in the summer of 2004 got to hang in a bucolic and absolutely gorgeous slice of rural Minnesota.

Christine had been home-schooled, developed odd obsessions (Elvis mania) and was used to wielding her faith as social shield; Jesse, despite Teen People looks and a super-supportive family, was still grappling with whether coming out as a gay Christian was merely a prelude to becoming collateral damage in the culture wars; and Tim, a terminally shy, poetry-writing teen in recovery, counted it a personal victory if he could eat with other people.

The filmmakers splice camp hijinx — Thomas withdraws from a game of "Truth or Dare," and later wonders if he's too much of a prude and should lighten up — with private video diaries where the kids spill their guts and, like Thomas, offer remarkably mature insights on being queer in Christian America. Viewing the film's a moving and possibly life-altering experience. The filmmakers will be present for Q&A. (Victoria, 6/24)

Reporter Zero How soon they forget. It seems just yesterday that Randy Shilts was signing my copy of The Mayor of Castro Street, his riveting, warts-and-all biography of Harvey Milk that has yet to become a major motion picture. Randy himself is the subject of a minor but thorough and, at times, moving portrait by filmmaker Carrie Lozano. In a brisk 25 minutes, the film recalls Shilts' pioneering AIDS coverage for the San Francisco Chronicle, and his book And the Band Played On.

One of Lozano's subjects recalls how Shilts' book documented the failure of every American institution designed to cope with a major public-health epidemic. Shilts, who appears in archival interviews, proudly pissed off many gay leaders in his crusade to close city bathhouses. One Chronicle colleague remembers sitting next to him on deadline at a major AIDS conference as hordes of spectators peered over his shoulder. "Randy, would you call off your fan club!"

Towards the end of the film, an emaciated Shilts, at 41 bearing the gaunt look of AIDS wasting syndrome, remarked on the cruel irony he was facing.

"It's very frustrating, because here I am at the pinnacle of my career — I could literally do anything I wanted to in the world of journalism — and you're left with the strange feeling that your life is somehow finished without being completed."

James Wentzy in Book of James. Photo: Frameline

Book of James James Wentzy was the kind of c

Randy Shilts' press pass, from Reporter Zero. Photo: Frameline
ommitted activist Shilts often fought with. But as lovingly documented in a unusual diary film compiled and directed by his friend Ho Tam, the James Wentzy who emerged as a video chronicler of major ACT-UP NYC demonstrations in the 1990s had been preceded by a shy, reclusive South Dakota farm-boy who took to writing intensely personal observations about his love life, personal karma and professional meanderings.

A typical early entry, illustrated by time-lapse photography of clouds over Lower Manhattan: "Spent the whole day sitting on the porch watching flying plastic bags in the air. I'm still amazed that I'm so easily amused by the city: so many people, so much energy. I remember the first time I visited the city. It was love at first sight." The phrase "Love Saves the Day" later appears as a personal banner, reflecting Wentzy's recollections of nights out, old boyfriends, and a whole disappeared way of life. (The above two films play the Roxie, 6/24.)

Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner An exhaustive, intensely personal and often very funny look inside the life of arguably America's most important queer writer. In the early 1990s, LGBT readers greeted the published edition of Angels in America as if it were the great American novel. Director Frieda Lee Mock admits that her coverage of Kushner amounted to a kind of filmic "stalking," but the effort pays dividends, especially when her cameras prowl through Kushner's water-enveloped Lake Charles, Louisiana hometown. Walking with his adult brother through the remains of his Jewish family's lumber business, the brothers point to the water lines that mark the physical evidence of the town's propensity to flood.

The film is especially strong on tracing the young Kushner's rocky road to coming out (his elderly father is eloquent in recalling his own mixed feelings about his pudgy obviously queer son) and his passionate professional relationships, especially with longtime friend and Angels in America director George C. Wolf. Highlights include electrifying performance excerpts by Marcia Gay Harden and Meryl Streep. (Castro, 6/23)

Laughing Matters - More! Andrea Meyerson has perfected an engaging method for introducing four talented lesbian standup comics to a wider audience without getting stuck in performance. Meyerson has San Francisco's Sabrina Matthews, Toronto native Elvira Kurt, African-American stand up artist Rene Hicks and native Texan Vickie Shaw mix and match personal anecdotes with some dead-on funny stagework.

Matthews, whose early career got a nice boost on the stage of San Francisco's Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint, recalls how ridiculously easy it was to come out to her mother on a phone call home from college. "Honey, we can talk about it if you like, but we'll still have time for a movie." Elvira Kurt has fun at the expense of her Harry Potter-like grown-up little boy stage image; Rene Hicks admits that the style, if not the content, of her own strongly politically-based humor probably derives from early exposure to her fundamentalist preacher father; and Hicks is hilarious recalling meeting her police officer girlfriend when "Officer Patch" pulled her over for speeding. "In Texas, a speed limit is really just a suggestion."

These women are especially strong on illustrating the directions a female standup comic can take her material when she's exhausted every possible variation on life before and after lesbian bed-death. (Castro, 6/24)

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