These summer films and books will inspire resistance

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday June 17, 2020
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A scene from "Welcome to Chechnya," a new documentary by David France. Photo: Isaac Davidson (CMPR)
A scene from "Welcome to Chechnya," a new documentary by David France. Photo: Isaac Davidson (CMPR)

Be prepared to be heartbroken and inspired this summer.

An astonishing collection of international documentaries, movies, and photobooks coming to screens and bookshelves will open your eyes to the brave queer world.

Some of this summer's hottest queer international documentaries are "Welcome to Chechnya," "Denise Ho — Becoming the Song," and "Taiwan Equals Love." Movie releases include "Lingua Franca," "The Half of It," and "Twilight's Kiss (Suk Suk)."

Images continue to have an impact in "This is How the Heart Beats: LGBTQ East Africa" and "Fatherland/Padre-Patria," photobooks that explore East Africa and Peru's LGBTQI communities, respectively.

Oscar-nominated American director David France leads the collection of films giving viewers a heart-racing experience as he followed Russian LGBT activists' work to save queer Chechens' lives in his newest documentary, "Welcome to Chechnya."

Filmgoers might have seen France's previous films "How to Survive a Plague" and "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson."

The new film follows Olga Baranova, founding director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBTI+ Initiatives, and David Isteev, crisis intervention coordinator of the Russian LGBT Network, as they learn how to create and fund a secret network to resettle LGBT Chechens to LGBT-friendly countries.

In 2017, Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta exposed Chechen authorities' detainment and torture of presumed gay and bisexual men. The newspaper reported about an estimated six secret prisons where suspected LGBT individuals and others have been detained and tortured.

"This is the first time since Hitler that such a campaign has been mounted," France, 61, who is producer, co-writer, and director of the documentary, told the Bay Area Reporter last week.

Preparing for the film, he expected to come face-to-face with the "kind of hatred that I never personally been witness," but he didn't anticipate finding the intense love that he discovered.

"I expected that this film would be about atrocity and what I found there was really a love story," said France, who traveled to Russia, Chechnya, and other countries multiple times over a period of 18 months. "The extent to which [these activists] are putting themselves on the line for strangers is an act of love like none that I've ever witnessed, and, of course, the love that is shown between the survivors of this awful crisis. All of this in the name of the right to love. I found that very remarkable, moving, inspiring, and surprising."

The 151 LGBT Chechens who were resettled in LGBT-friendly countries by the end of the documentary were a mere fraction of the roughly 40,000 others who need protection, according to the film's fact sheet.

"Welcome to Chechnya" premieres on HBO June 30, but San Francisco Bay Area audiences can catch it at home as part of this year's streaming Frameline LGBT film festival June 25-28.

To view the trailer or donate to help LGBT Russian activists' cause, visit

"Lingua Franca," and "Twilight's Kiss (Suk Suk)" are also a part of the festival's lineup.

Hong Kong Cantopop singer turned pro-democracy activist Denise Ho shows her love for Hong Kong in Sue Williams' documentary "Denise Ho — Becoming The Song," which is also part of the Frameline virtual festival.

The veteran 66-year-old writer, producer, and director followed Ho, a lesbian, around the world for about a year and a half as the celebrity rebuilt her career. China blackballed her for speaking out against the superpower clamping down on Hong Kong's freedoms.

Despite the cost of her activism to her personal and professional life, Ho hasn't backed down, noting in the film that her music always had a rebellious edge to it. Williams captures Ho's heartache and defiance in her nearly 90-minute documentary about the singer and activist.

"We need to see people of courage in the world," said Williams. "God, in every country at the moment we need to see people stand up for what's right to kind of remind us of our better selves."

"Denise Ho" will be released widely in North America by Kino Lorber July 1 to mark the anniversary of Britain's 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, according to the independent film distributor's May 22 news release.

The first anniversary of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, the first Asian country to do so, will be marked May 24 with the release of a documentary about the island's campaign for marriage equality.

"Taiwan Equals Love," directed by Yan Zhexuan celebrates the victory.

Taiwanese-based GagaOOLala, the country's queer streaming service, released the documentary.

Three years in the making, the documentary follows three couples — Jovi Wu and Mindy Chiu and their daughter, Miao-Miao; Tien-Ming Wang and Hsiang Ho; and A-Gu and Hsinchi —as they fight for marriage equality. They all want to be together and protect their families, whether it's for their child, their partner, or to be together in the same country.

Another movie set in Taiwan, "Twilight's Kiss (Suk Suk)" directed by Ray Yeung, is a poignant film that explores two older men's new relationship against the backdrop of their families and a push for gay senior housing.

Two different films set on the East and West coasts of the United States explore the immigrant experience.

"Lingua Franca,"a colloquialism meaning "common language," was created by award-winning transgender Filipina filmmaker Isabel Sandoval. Sandoval, 36, who wrote the screenplay, produced, and directed the film about Olivia, a transgender immigrant woman who tries to get her green card.

Olivia, also played by Sandoval, is a caretaker of a Russian-Jewish immigrant woman named Olga in Brooklyn. In the process, she gets entangled in an affair that exposes her vulnerability as an undocumented transgender immigrant woman and pushes her to decide between desperation or dignity.

Sandoval believes that being an openly transgender Filipina woman filmmaker and producing films that tell stories about the transgender experience is very important.

"The fact that I was able to make 'Lingua Franca' ... in this political climate is a political act in itself," Sandoval said, calling it a "very bold and vivid gesture of resistance and defiance of oppression" of "artistic voices of minority artists."

"The Half of It" takes place on the West Coast and is from Bay Area screenwriter and director Alice Wu. Situated in a small Washington town is Ellie Chu, a first generation Chinese American, who struggles with her existence in her all-white American community, budding sexuality, and future during her senior year of high school. The movie, now streaming on Netflix, is a fun take on Cyrano de Bergerac with a twist.

Literary images

Two different photobooks document the harshness and the heart of LGBT lives in Africa and South America.

"Fatherland/Padre-Patria," by gay collaborative artists Juan Jose Barbazo-Gubo and Andrew Mroczek, explores LGBT life in Peru. The images in the book memorialize the 30 sites where gay men and transgender women were brutally attacked, viciously murdered, or both. The perpetrators were militia, groups of men, police, and even family members.

One such incident was a shooting that happened at the Las Gardenias nightclub. The attackers — members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement — killed eight gay and transgender individuals in 1989.

Each incident was painstakingly researched and documented next to the photos in the book, which was released at the beginning of this year.

One of the chilling facts about "Fatherland," Mroczek said, is that the book could be replicated in any country.

"My hope is that not only American audiences, but audiences of any country, will look at this body of work and realize that gay and trans people are being murdered everywhere," he said.

While "Fatherland" memorializes sites of brutal attacks and murders of LGBT Peruvians, "This is How the Heart Beats: LGBTQ East Africa" celebrates the lives of LGBT East Africans even while living under harsh circumstances.

Photographer Jake Naughton teamed up with his college friend, journalist Jacob Kushner, to vividly bring East African's LGBTs to life through portraits and words.

Some of the most striking photos are those of transgender women. The women in the book haven't been able to access hormone therapy, yet they are proud transgender women. In the safety of her single room apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Divyna, a transgender woman, is photographed putting on her makeup.

"That was so important to her mental health," Naughton said, adding that many other transgender people told him the same thing. "That sense of selfhood was so affirmed by being able to do that within the safety of her own home."

What struck Naughton the most about photographing LGBT East Africans was "the unbelievable resilience, power, and vibrancy of all the people [Jacob and I met]," he said, calling it such an "incredible thing to witness" and "really humbling."

"It's incredible to think about some of these people that have had really terrible things happen, but are still just so proud and public telling the world this is who they are and they aren't going to change," he said.

"I hope what comes across is dignity, strength, and power," Naughton said, talking about what he wants his photos to project.

"A lot more people felt ... more held by their communities in a positive way, that people felt safe," Naughton said. "We were surprised [that people said] 'my family supports me, my community knows who I am. I'm not at risk here.'"

Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp: 415-517-7239, or Skype: heather.cassell, or [email protected]

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