SF DocFest 23: Compton's, Texas drag, Oliveros, and gay Hungarians

  • Tuesday May 28, 2024
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'Queen vs. Texas,' 'The Pride of Texas' and 'Narrow Path to Happiness' at SF DocFest
'Queen vs. Texas,' 'The Pride of Texas' and 'Narrow Path to Happiness' at SF DocFest

Known for its eclectic selection of nonfiction features, the 23rd San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (SF DocFest) will be held May 30-June 9. They will screen 38 features and 53 shorts, with 30 films local to the Bay Area.

As they've been doing for the last few years, the festival presents both live presentations and virtual screenings. 53 films will screen at the Roxie Theater which will also include live Q&A sessions with filmmakers and subjects. All 91 films will be available virtually during the festival time itself through on-demand screenings and pre-recorded Q&As.

'Compton's 22'  

As usual, there are a handful of LGBTQ-related films. The first is a 17-minute short "Compton's 22," which uses the August 1966 Compton's Cafeteria riot in the Tenderloin as its inspiration. Occurring three years before Stonewall, the riot was the first collective militant queer resistance to police harassment in U.S. history. There was no media coverage of primarily trans and drag women rioting against police violence in its time nor have any arrest records survived.

However, in 2005, filmmakers Susan Stryker and Vincent Silverman researched the event and interviewed several survivors, not only about the riot but what it was like to live transgender in that era. They made the documentary "Screaming Queens" for PBS's KQED.

Trans director Drew de Pinto uses video clips from that documentary to create an intergenerational conversation between those trans ancestors and millennial trans and gender nonconforming artists today, especially using song and dance to illustrate what it's like to be trans now.

It's fine, but honestly, the Stryker clips are far more intriguing and we would rather listen to those brave trans women of the '60s than watch mediocre performance art. But this short will probably provide an opportunity for young queer people to learn about their history and draw strength from their trans elders confronting carceral and bigoted power. "Screaming Queens" can be screened free on YouTube.

'The Pride of Texas'  

Another short, "The Pride of Texas," concerns a gay rodeo that takes place in Denton, Texas. With all the bad news coming out of Texas, this brief seven-minute flick is a breath of fresh air. It begins with a voice narration, "gay or straight, we rope our steers the same way as anybody else." The film refutes the lies that there's no such thing as a gay cowboy or if there are, they are not real cowboys.

It wants to fight this stigma and celebrate who they are and their chosen families. Their rodeo gives the funds raised to charity and includes drag queens riding steers, with many wearing T-shirts with the logo "Pride Y'All." One doesn't have to be LGBTQ to participate in the rodeo (it's all-inclusive) and one doesn't have to be enamored of westerns, rodeos, or even Texans to fall in love with this charming flick.

'Queen vs. Texas'  

Focusing on overcoming the anti-queer fervor sweeping across the Texas plains, "Queen vs. Texas" is about a drag queen, her majesty, The Hung. The Vanguard is not just a drag show but a declaration and celebration of queer freedom, queer love, and queer existence. The Hung identifies as a Black post-binary, pansexual, polyamorous, pot-smoking parent, and professional drag queen.

There was a bill (among the 96 anti-LGBTQ ones introduced last year) in the Texas legislature that would define drag shows as sexually-oriented businesses that could be banned to protect children. The Hung is shown protesting in Austin, Texas's capitol, against the bill. The Hung defines drag "as whatever you want it to be, that's it's power. It defies everything you say you are. It's you as you want to be."

The bill did pass and was signed by Governor Abbot, but a federal judge declared it unconstitutional. Both the Hung and the film are inspirational by empowering community through the art of self-expression and the fight for social justice.

"Effy's Big Gay Brunch," is not going to appeal to all tastes. It's a snapshot of gay pro wrestlers who use the "ring as the canvas to paint their art." Effy's Big Gay Brunch is the actual name of these wrestling matches. Although some are in great shape (most are not) it is jarring to watch people literally beat each other up in this minimal dialogue six-minute short, but different strokes for different folks. One woman testifies that the encouragement she received from the crowds gave her the courage to transition. And there's definitely a homoerotic component if you can get past the violence.

The provocative feature film "Deep Listening: The Story of Pauline Oliveros" chronicles the life and career of Oliveros (1932-2016), the only female among the notable post-World War II American composers. She was a master of electronic music, developing with Don Buchia, the first modular synthesizer, but also expanded the horizons of the accordion.

Her atonal and experimental compositions laid the foundation for what we now called multimedia art. She also pioneered pure free improvisation, as well as being a technological innovator and teacher, serving as Distinguished Research Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Darius Milhaud Composer in Residence at Oakland's Mills College.

'Deep Listening: The Story of Pauline Oliveros'  

Director Daniel Weintraub had his work cut out for him since Oliveros died during the course of making his documentary. There are lots of conversations with Oliveros as well as video clips of many of her performances, plus 30 interviews with people who worked with her or knew her, including her creative partner and spouse, Ione. There are also contemporary musicians playing some of her older music.

Even if you don't like her music (and I don't), there is much to admire about Oliveros, an openly queer Latina (in the 1950s!). She pioneered tape-delay techniques and was one of the founders of the San Francisco (cassette) Tape Music Center in the 1960s, combining traditional classical scores (when she first started) with electronic elements.

She helped develop software that allows musicians to improvise on the internet with minimal latency and people with severe disability movement to perform beautiful music. Her final composition was designed for the hearing-impaired involving special instruments, a chorus without words, creating an entire language of syllables for the singers, and featured a conductor who is deaf.

Perhaps her greatest achievement was her concept of "Deep Listening," a kind of meditation where sounds of the external world are combined with the sounds of our innermost thoughts.

"Deep listening involves going below the surface of what is heard, expanding to the whole field of sound while finding focus," says Oliveros in the film.

At a time when one half of the country refuses to listen to the other half, learning how to listen couldn't be more timely. Ultimately the fascinating Oliveros was committed to the idea that artists have a responsibility to bring people together, believing listening goes hand in hand with understanding and expanding community.

Finally, perhaps the winningest film is the feature "Narrow Path to Happiness," by Hungarian director Kata Olah about an adorable Romani male couple, Gergo and Lenard, who despite prejudice from their own community, proudly fly the Gay flag in their small village. They decide to make a musical film about their big-hearted romance, so they pack up and against all odds move to Budapest, just as the Hungarian government is becoming increasingly hostile toward LGBTQ people.

'Narrow Path to Happiness' (photo: Makabor Studio)  

Same-sex marriage is forbidden and same-sex couples cannot adopt. The country is very traditional Roman Catholic. Gergo works construction to support the couple. They find a female writing collaborator with Gergo describing their project as "funky music, lots of dancing, with a pinch of racism."
The older Gergo has no support initially from his family since when he came out to them, saying, "I simply stopped existing for my parents." Lenard's mother, however, is reassuring.

Gergo's homophobic mother dies and they return trying to build a new relationship with his father and brothers, facing their difficult past, hoping to write a happy ending for their film. Gergo records his catchy pop tune, "Happiness," which will anchor the film.

One of the poignant scenes is Gergo meeting with a priest who tells him being Christian and gay are not mutually exclusive. The expression on Gergo's face alone is worth the price of admission. The film has a fly-on-the-wall, cinema verité ambiance to it, especially as they try to convince producers to finance their film.

The documentary can lag in stretches, but audiences will fall in love with the sweetly squabbling couple. There's joy in their belief in themselves and their desire to make their film, which is a genuine surprise that gives a window into a conservative culture we rarely see in movies.

SF DocFest, $17 and up. May 30-June 9 at the Roxie Theater, 3125 16th St.
www.sfindie.com www.roxie.com

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