Those two trends perhaps come together with this year's promising slate of films, which is highlighted by three titles that debuted at the venerable Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and should be of interest to a broader stratum of filmgoers than the core Outflix audience.
The most celebrated selection at this year's festival is probably Circumstance (Saturday, September 10th, 6:30 p.m.), a debut feature from Iranian filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz that won an audience award at Sundance this year and was the closing-night film at New York's subsequent New Directors/New Films festival.
Shot in Lebanon with a cast and crew of Iranian expatriates, the film depicts an affair between two teenage Iranian girls and also offers a glimpse into a hidden world of teenage Tehran, where headscarves give way to hip-hop clubs, designer clothes, and recreational drugs.
I haven't had an opportunity to screen Circumstance, but the early reviews have been outstanding, with some acknowledgement that the film may be at times heavy-handed and indulgent of its soapier tendencies. The New York Times calls it "a swirling and sensuous melodrama of forbidden love in modern Tehran" that "ripples with the indignant energy of youthful rebellion." Salon.com says it's an "atmospheric Orwellian fable about an intense security state where even the most intimate acts, from two girls alone in a bedroom to a group of friends watching a smuggled movie, are not truly private."
We Were Here (Sunday, September 11th, 1 p.m.) is an engrossing documentary about the AIDS crisis built on terribly moving first-person testimonials from gay men who were on the scene in San Francisco in the late '70s and '80s when the epidemic hit. Among these witnesses are a florist who made a habit of supplying funeral flowers for penny-pinched mourners, an HIV-positive artist who has lost two lovers to the disease, and a once-awkward Midwestern transplant ("I was terrible at anonymous sex") who became a hospital volunteer. These testimonials are mixed — in straightforward but purposeful and effective fashion — with still photos, archival footage, and newspaper clippings.
The film first sets the scene with a portrait of the freedom and community of the emerging Castro District and the spirit of political activism embodied by the soon-to-be-martyred Harvey Milk. But then signs of trouble emerge: One interview subject recounts going to the local Star Pharmacy and seeing Polaroids in the window a man had taken of himself, showing purple splotches on his body and with a handwritten note, "Watch out, guys. There's something out there." Subsequent newspaper reports warned of a "mysterious gay cancer." Soon, losses were coming in what one subject describes as "an avalanche." Late in the film, directors David Weissman and Bill Weber present pages from an issue of the Bay Area Reporter newspaper that ran photos of local AIDS victims from the previous year — page after page after page of yearbook-style headshots, a magnitude of localized loss akin to New York City post-9/11. This harrowing oral-history film pays witness.
Perhaps less realized overall than We Were Here or (apparently) Circumstance but still well worth seeing is Gun Hill Road (Thursday, September 15th, 8:30 p.m.), the feature debut of filmmaker Rashaad Ernesto Green. Gun Hill Road is an indie drama about a working-class Puerto Rican family in New York City.
Transsexual actress Harmony Santana plays Bronx youth Michael, a teen boy in transition when his incarcerated father Enrique ('80s staple Esai Morales) returns to the family home after serving time for street crimes. Michael shuns his father's offers of baseball games, instead making surreptitious visits to nightclubs where he tests out his nascent feminine identity.
This film hits some predictable beats especially in regard to its family showdowns, with Michael caught between his returning father's self-conscious, uncomprehending machismo and protectiveness of his warm, understanding mother (Judy Reyes).
But when it comes to the Michael character specifically, Gun Hill Road has special qualities. It offers a blunt but sensitive depiction of the mechanics of Michael's day-to-day negotiation of shifting gender identity — including a fraught first sexual relationship with a nominally heterosexual boy — and Santana's intense, open performance might be one of the most captivating things you'll see at the movies all year.
Other notable screenings include opening-night documentary Hollywood to Dollywood (Friday, September 9th, 7 p.m.), about a pair of twins making the titular road trip in hopes of hand-delivering a film script they've written to Dolly Parton. This film contains some scenes shot in Memphis, but more notable is a lengthy section shot in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that stands as the film's perhaps unintended peak. The fictional feature The Wise Kids (Sunday, September 11th, 7:30 p.m.), a coming-of-age story about three teens in a Baptist church community in Charleston, South Carolina, has won multiple awards at multiple high-profile gay/lesbian film festivals. And the documentary Wish Me Away (Monday, September 12th, 6:30 p.m.) is a strong portrait of the coming-out process country music star Chely Wright underwent.
For a full schedule and other information on the Outflix Film Festival, see outflixfestival.org.
Outflix Film Festival
Friday, September 9th-Thursday, September 15th
Tickets range from $9 (for individual screenings) to
$75 (full festival pass).