SFFilm's queer picks: 67th annual film festival's diverse screenings

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday April 23, 2024
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Colman Domingo in 'Sing Sing'; 'Billy and Molly: An Otter Love Story'; 'Wakhri' (photos: SFFilm)
Colman Domingo in 'Sing Sing'; 'Billy and Molly: An Otter Love Story'; 'Wakhri' (photos: SFFilm)

"Film, always a reflection of and beacon for society, remains the gateway to a vibrant healthy future of our culture and city," is the inspirational credo of Anne Lai, Executive Director of SFFilm, as she introduced the 67th San Francisco International Film Festival, the longest running film festival in the Americas. The festival will run April 24-28.

Lai commented that the festival looks different this year and indeed it does. The festival suffered a blow in the closure of the Castro Theatre as it begins its renovations. Lai announced that the festival needed to find a new home, which has landed in the Marina and Presidio theaters, including the Premier Theater at One Letterman, the Marina Theater, Vogue Theater, Walt Disney Family Museum, as well as the Berkeley Art Museum's Pacific Film Archive. Lai remarked that a film festival is a cumulative experience, not just individual films but "the energy and confluence of those attending."

A second major change is the festival has been compressed into five days rather than the traditional 11 days. "It's an experiment, not forever," added Lai. "We want the emphasis to be on the festival feel and experience, with the hope, audiences and filmmakers will run into each other. "Because the theaters are close by, there will be lots of movie choices on a given day."

Thirdly, a selection of titles, curated from the full festival, including audience award winners, will be presented after the official SFFilm close, May 2-4 at the Roxie Theater.

SFFilm's Director of Programming, Jessie Fairbanks, writes, "The cornerstone of this year's program is the considered, international curation we are known for. We have put together a group of films that is global in scope, artistry, and impact."

Unfortunately, perhaps because the festival has been shortened, there are few queer films, with the LGBTQ aspect only an incidental part of each movie. We only hope that having moved to the predominantly straight Marina area, SFFilm will not cater to heterosexual interests alone. Still, there are three very good queer-related movies.

"Wakhri" is a Pakistani film inspired by the late social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch. Well-known Pakistani actress Faryal Mehmood stars as Noor Malik, a widowed dedicated school teacher with an 11-year-old son. Her late husband's Muslim family disapproves of her liberal views and seeks to gain custody of her son. Her school is closing and she wants to raise funds to open a school for girls.

a scene from 'Wakhri'  

Her best friend, gay Gucci (Gulshan Majeed) who dresses in drag, convinces her to perform at a nightclub. She adopts a disguise with a veil and purple wig, calling herself Wakhri. The sexy persona emboldens her and she starts expressing controversial opinions supporting women and opposing bigotry. She becomes a viral sensation and unlikely social influencer, developing her own voice, which engenders a violent backlash on social media. She's defiant and unafraid to break barriers or challenge stereotypes and social norms. She refuses to back down.

This is obviously an important film for Pakistan, where women are largely defined through their fathers, brothers, or husbands. A bit melodramatic and heavy-handed with its message, it's a powerful indictment of the double-edged sword of online fame, with trolls spouting shame and hate on the one hand, while admirers sing her praises. Excellent singing and dancing dulls the preachy undertone. Overall, it's well worth watching, though it's time to retire the gay best friend cliché.

"Luther: Never Too Much" is director Dawn Porter's ("John Lewis: Good Trouble") affectionate deep appreciation of singer Luther Vandross (1951-2005) and his music. Influenced by the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Dionne Warwick, he sung in the Listen My Brother Ensemble with his other Harlem childhood friends.

He composed jingles for commercials (i. e. Gino's Pizza). He was also a background singer on "Sesame Street" as well as for David Bowie (on the "Young Americans" album), Bette Midler, and Roberta Flack, with the latter "firing" him to prod him into pursuing a solo career, developing his Philly sound.

His first four albums went platinum, creating music ideal for sex (at least according to actor Jamie Foxx). He composed his own songs, was an arranger, producer, and even designed his own clothes. He was nominated for nine Grammys before he finally won one in 1991.

'Luther: Never Too Much'  

Pigeon-holed as an R & B singer, Vandross never hit number one on the pop Billboard charts because mainstream radio stations didn't play his music, as he was perceived has having no crossover appeal. They claimed he didn't match the romantic image portrayed in his songs.

This insult plus limited budgets, recording times, and promotion is rightly attributed to racism. He suffered from diabetes and weight problems ("I'm always thinking about food") constantly binging or going on extreme diets, losing so much weight rumors circulated he was dead or had AIDS, all of which affected him emotionally. He was ridiculed by comedian Eddie Murphy, among many others. In a 1986 Los Angeles car crash, he pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter when his best friend died.

Although probably gay (he wouldn't deny or confirm it, though his Liberace-lite wardrobe leaves little doubt), Vandross feared alienating his women fans and family, so he compartmentalized his public and personal selves. Porter and close friends want to honor his privacy, but it is probably likely that homophobia also prevented him from becoming the superstar his talent should have merited.

His final song, "Dance with My Father (his father died when he was eight), was his biggest hit and won a Grammy, but Luther couldn't enjoy the success because he suffered a major stroke that killed him at age 54. Constantly lonely, he never found the one person to love him, though it's possible his closetedness might have contributed to his isolation.

While this seductive and moving documentary retains a joyful spirit and all the people interviewed say he was a fabulous and kind human being, deeply missed, this is ultimately a sad story of an artist, a vocal virtuoso, who never quite earned the respect his music deserved.

"Seeking Mavis Beacon" is a provocative, investigative, experimental documentary on the bestselling educational software program, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, launched in 1987.

However, Mavis Beacon was an invented character. She never existed, used by the software company to make its product more accessible. She seemed so real on the computer screen. The woman on the software cover was Haitian-born Renee L'Esperance, discovered behind a Saks Fifth Avenue cosmetic counter, who had never modeled.

She was paid $500, and was the first Black women on the cover of a computer product ("the Aunt Jemima of technology"), becoming a household name and role model of excellence for Black children. The program sold six million copies in 11 years. L'Esperance disappeared in 1995 with later models replacing her.

The documentary follows two young Black women — Jazmin Jones, the director; and Olivia Ross, the investigator and associate director — as they engage in a wild goose chase to locate L'Esperance, even finding the original software developers. We learn she might not want to be (re)discovered, but the hunt exacts an emotional and physical toll on Jones, who might best be described as a lighthearted stalker.

Jones is queer; we don't find that out from the film but on its website. However, there is a clue because both women watch lesbian Cheryl Dunye's "The Watermelon Woman" — on the search for a forgotten queer black actress — many times, for inspiration.

'Seeking Mavis Beacon'  

This documentary is frustrating in that it uses fictional characters and staged scenes which don't enhance the film as well as hit-or-miss social media clips and memes to explain technological terms. The film succeeds when it keeps its focus on Mavis, but when side issues are introduced, such as Jones's disagreement with the landlord of the studio she works in, they seem superfluous and add to the slow pacing in parts of the movie.

There are some fascinating questions posed, such as; do we see our heroes as real people and do we have a right to be forgotten, as well as the dehumanization and exploitation of Black women. The two women are confident and care about each other, though we aren't told the nature of their relationship. This bold, engaging documentary can be self-indulgent and lacking in focus, but you do care whether the women find L'Esperance. Jones is clearly a talent to be reckoned with and we look forward to her follow-up work.

The best film I saw at the festival was not LGBTQ-related, but will win the hearts of all viewers regardless of race, gender, or sexuality, "Billy and Molly: An Otter Love Story." I remember as a wee child watching and loving the 1969 film "Ring of Bright Water," about a Londoner and his pet otter living on the coast of Scotland. "Billy and Molly" is the best otter film since "Ring."

Molly, apparently orphaned as a pup when her mother was hit by a car, washes up on Bill's jetty on a remote Shetland Island in Scotland, alone, starving, and injured. Molly is a river otter living in the sea since there's not enough food in the rivers to sustain them. Billy nurses "Molly" back to health, along with his wife Susan and devoted sheepdog Jade (ignored, begging for attention and playtime).

They become genuine friends. The ordinary becomes adventurous as Billy figures out how to feed Molly with shellfish and builds an otter house with WiFi, so Molly can sleep there, plus a tub with colored balls, in which Molly can bathe and wash with fresh water. We love watching Molly's adorable playful antics and admire her rich fur coat (which nearly drove the species to extinction last century). Billy and Molly each fill a void, nurturing the other.

Wife Susan begins to wonder if Billy might be interfering with Molly's ability to survive in the wild, as domestication by humans can be disastrous. "Molly was his whole life, he was only part of hers." At only 77 minutes, the film could have explored this issue more deeply, but this is a minor quibble.

Directed and shot by National Geographic photographer now-filmmaker Charlie Hamilton-Jones, the film's gorgeous nature cinematography on land and undersea entrances us all the way to the film's stunning and unexpected finale. The movie captures the beauty of love in all its forms. Animals can fill parts of our souls we never realized we needed. The film is heartwarming, buoyant, a total joy that will delight animal lovers everywhere. The film will screen later this year on Disney Plus.

Another well-reviewed animal documentary, "The Cats of Gokogu Shrine" was not available for review. It's the story of a large stray cat colony that inhabits a Shinto shrine in the seaside town of Ushimado in Japan. The mostly elderly residents care for them, while others are disturbed by the poop mess they make as well as concern about the wrong impression that people can abandon their cats there and they will be taken care of by the townsfolk. It sounds as if cat aficionados will be in heaven.

Still another film getting rave reviews but not available for review, is "Sing Sing," concerning Divine G (played by the gay Oscar-nominated actor, Colman Domingo, "Rustin") imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. He finds purpose by acting in a theatre group alongside other prisoners, as they stage an original comic production, "Breakin' The Mummy's Code."

The film is based on the real-life Rehabilitation Through the Arts program at New York's Sing-Sing maximum security prison. Reviews say it is a story of resilience, humanity, and the healing transformative power of art. Its theme is that no matter what you have done in the past or what terrible situation you find yourself, there are ways out and it's never too late to turn your life around should resonate with all viewers.

Finally, straight ally/gay icon Joan Chen, Chinese-American actor, screenwriter, producer, and director will be honored with a special screening of a rare 35mm print of her 1998 debut directorial feature, "Xiu Xii: The Sent Down Girl." Chen is fondly remembered as the unwed, pregnant mother of her lesbian surgeon daughter finding love with her dancer girlfriend in Alice Wu's landmark 2004 film, "Saving Face."


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