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

Documentaries in action


Country music star Chely Wright in Wish Me Away. (Photo: Courtesy Frameline)
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The 35th San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival's marathon of quality documentaries plays like our community's own live-action History Channel. Highlights from Frameline's first week:

Wish Me Away Like many queer folks, I've long nurtured a soft spot for country music divas like the legendary Patsy Cline or Tammy Wynette. I worked my through college as a weekend country-radio DJ; did I ever expect to see a major country star pop out of the closet? Hell, no! As depicted in Bobbie Birleffi & Beverly Kopf's heartfelt doc, the Kansas-born, Nashville-nurtured modern country star Chely Wright would seem to have every reason to stay in. Raised in a Christian home by a loving dad and a hard-ass mom, Wright spent two decades working her way up the country music charts: "Shut Up and Drive," "Single White Female." Most of us have never been closer to country's God-fearing citadel than in Robert Altman's Nashville. Wish Me Away affords a peek at what Wright might lose: a devoted fan base, and the pop-fantasy dream of having her name linked romantically with pale male vocalists like Brad Paisley. Wright's decision to break off with nice-guy Paisley provides one of many poignant interludes. Haunted by a close brush with suicide, Wright ultimately decides to remake her 20-year career by throwing herself a coming out party complete with book-tour stops at the Today show and Oprah. This emotional journey, with its focus on Wright's informal female and gay male support group, makes for an unforgettable Festival Centerpiece. (Castro, 6/22)

The Grove Director Andy Abrahams Wilson explores the eye of the storm of controversy that unexpectedly envelops a beloved if little-known Bay Area memorial. Originally created by a hardy band of volunteers as a serene way to remember friends and lovers lost to AIDS, the Grove had its profile significantly raised in 1996 when Rep. Nancy Pelosi obtained for it the status of a national memorial (one of 44). This perk became rather pesky when a band of AIDS activists raised questions as to why visitors to Golden Gate Park discover the leafy, sequestered memorial largely by accident. An internal battle to raise the profile of the Grove by erecting a Vietnam Veterans-style memorial there provoked a public squabble, with volunteers threatening to sit down in front of the bulldozers if necessary.

Golden Gate Park scene from The Grove. (Photo: Courtesy Frameline)

To his credit, Wilson gives both sides of the flap a fair hearing, while making it clear which side he favors. A crucial moment has backers of a design competition for a radical Grove attention-grabber parading their handiwork before Pelosi, who, as one participant notes, has a pained expressed on her face, as if she had just been stabbed in the neck. This is an awesome exploration of an overlooked local landmark. (Castro, 6/21)

Miwa: A Japanese Icon He's all of five-foot three, although a bit taller in heels, but even well into his 70s, Akihiro Maruyama (known to his legion of fans as Miwa) is a national treasure: Japan's David Bowie or Boy George, but even more rare, an openly queer activist/entertainer in a nation where the obstacles to LGBT freedom are more pervasive than in Bible Belt America. Pascal-Alex Vincent, writer/director of the delicious twin-boy road movie Give Me Your Hand, begins his story with Miwa's early success as an androgynous skinny-boy pop singer who, in the late 60s, suddenly turns into a cross-dressing seductress in the breakout pop movie Black Lizard.

With healthy slices of archival performance pieces to illuminate esoteric moments of Japanese theatre/pop/film, the now-elderly Miwa – dressed somewhat like an elderly geisha, a role he explicitly declines – tells his story in a frank, disarming style. Among other things, he has a wryly funny story about his first meeting with literary icon Yukio Mishima. They would eventually be friends and lovers, but not without a bit of resistance on Miwa's part. (Castro, 6/20)

This Is What Love in Action Looks Like Morgan Jon Fox provides an emotionally riveting account of how a small group of Southern teens banded together to rescue a friend from the clutches of a Christian "ex-gay" group dedicated to abducting and brainwashing vulnerable queer adolescents. Friends of Zach Stark learned from his blog that he had been involuntarily committed to a Love in Action (LIA) compound by his fundamentalist parents. The kids boldly decided to set up an information picket outside the LIA facility that quickly attracted the media spotlight. Laced with revealing insider stories from former LIA "inmates," the story takes an unexpected turn when the protests provoke an apparent change of heart from the LIA's ex-gay leader. An exhilarating illustration that it does indeed gets better and sometimes much more quickly than we expect, this doc provides an inspiring peek at a feisty new generation of young queer activists and their straight-kid allies. (Victoria, 6/18)

Tales of the Waria Kathy Huang's intimate doc explores a vibrant Muslim society's surprising tolerance for biological men who conduct their daily lives as women, including having de facto marriages with straight men, while expressing no desire to have surgery. Suharni, an HIV+ former sex worker, has a solid relationship, but feels a need to leave the nest to make extra cash in the tourist haunts of Bali. The aging Mami Ria gets a nip-and-tuck in a desperate attempt to hold onto her status as #2 wife of a cop. The youthful Agus, who abandoned cross-dressing for a traditional marriage, has lately felt more of a need to hang with his old waria friends. Beauty-pageant trainer Tiara considers her female ways to be part of God's plan. It's clear that while these "lady men" have avoided the perils of a queer identity in Muslim society, the aging process produces new challenges, for which there are few comfortable answers. (Roxie, 6/18)

Making the Boys During the festival the Roxie Theater offers this reprise from Frameline 2009. Crayton Robey assembles friends and foes of Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band, and spices up the catfight with vintage footage: playwright Edward Albee tartly recalls his misgivings with Crowley's script and his own refusal to invest in the original Off-Broadway production, while Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell praises Crowley's talent for capturing queer men's unique capacity for survival. Crowley, who has never had another comparable hit despite a prosperous run as chief writer for TV's Hart to Hart, candidly recalls the rollercoaster ride that climaxed in the play's five-year New York run and finally brought Boys to the screen with every member of its original cast. He also relates the AIDS-related fates of many in the ensemble. (Little Roxie, 6/17-23)

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