Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America

As part of LGBT history month, SQIFF are showing Unsettled, a documentary about queer asylum seekers in America as the Obama administration transitions to the Trump administration. A moving look at how slow, bureaucratic, poverty-stricken, invasive, and even traumatic the asylum process can be. However, the film is ultimately uplifting, as each person seeks to make a new and better life for themselves in a place where it is possible to be out. It also shows how many people from a diverse range of backgrounds are willing to help, in the name of solidarity and friendship.

If you like this…

Leitis In Waiting

So interesting.

Leitis in Waiting is a documentary about leitis, a gender minority in Tonga, and their changing status in Tongan society.

Tonga is one of the few Polynesian island nations that were able to successfully resist colonisation. They had an accord with Britain beginning at the start of the 20th century but always remained an independent country, and never faced the processes of deculturation that affected other countries in the colonial era. This preserved the place of leitis in Tongan society. But as American evangelical queerphobia is exported internationally, leitis face increasing levels of violence.

The other problematic element is leitis traditional place within Tongan society, which has been associated closely with domestic work, and hospitality work. This has been viewed positively by leitis, as it at least gives them a place in Tongan society, shelter from abuse and discrimination, and the work gives them a sense of self-respect. But it means that leitis are rarely in positions of power or decision-making roles. Another aspect of the export of American culture wars globally is that leitis are having to fight under the umbrella of LGBTQ, and although welcome as an ally, they don’t want to see their identity as Tongan leitis subsumed in this foreign concept.

Christianity arrived in Tonga in 1826 in the form of Catholicism. And of course, the attitude varies from church to church, but generally, there was no virulent anti-leiti movement. That might be partly because leitis did a lot of work for the church, organising and serving events, and facilitating churches as community hubs. There also was a general attitude in the church of tolerance, if not acceptance. “Crossdressing” may have been viewed as a sin, but we are all sinners, that’s what church is for. This attitude among the religious has changed in recent years, and queerphobic people in Tongan society have been financed and advanced wide-reaching platforms to espouse the American evangelical brand of Christianity, which is lobbying for the imprisonment of leitis, and even threatening violence against them.

Interestingly, leitis have chosen to handle this their own way, rather than model their approach on the combative fashion we see in Europe and America. They didn’t stand outside these evangelic churches with provocative or antagonist messages. They didn’t boycott businesses held by queerphobic owners. They instead invited the religious leaders to meetings, to speak their own truth and hear the leaders’ concerns. I think the character of island life lends itself well to reconciliation. These are their neighbours, and no matter how hurtful their actions, they are going to have to live with them. So there is more of an open-handed approach to finding a way to live peacefully, even if it is in disagreement.

Really interesting film.

If you like this …

Breaking Fast

Breaking Fast is about Mo, a gay Muslim doctor in West Hollywood as he has this sort of chaste romance with Kal, this white actor, across Ramadan.

Okay, so this is a mixed bag.

Points for positive representation of gay Muslims, when positive representation of Muslims at all is scarce in American media. And a lot of the acting is pretty good and the whole tone of the movie is sweet.

The dialogue is awful. Just a rolling stomach churn of cringe from one moment to the next. Like, haven’t you ever heard how people talk? A total show, don’t tell lesson unlearned. People are constantly saying “I’m kidding!” instead of looking like they’re kidding. To be fair, it was the writer/director’s first feature, so a lot of this can just be chalked up to it being his first go.

Also this one of those “problem” movies, where you can’t just be gay and Muslim, you have to explain being gay and Muslim. You can’t just introduce a gay Muslim character and then the story begins, it constantly comes up and needs to have discussion. Mo’s conversations with his white, non-Muslim love interest Kal feels like a proxy for the director’s conversation with the presumably white, non-Muslim audience. Which is not great. But you know, there are not exactly a plethora of movies about gay Muslim men, maybe the director felt his film needed to lay that groundwork for anything else to go after.

Kal, the love interest, is the cringiest white guy showing that he’s down. He tries to show he can cook Arab dishes better than Arab folk. He compares the prejudice against Muslims to his inability to be taken seriously while being a good-looking hunk. Ugh.

Special props go to Amin El Gamal, who manages to take the camp best friend stereotype and clunky dialogue, and really make it feel natural.

Queering The Script

So after watching Scream, Queen! about the really heartfelt queer fandom around the totally ridiculous Nightmare on Elm Street 2, I decided to watch another film showing as part of SQIFF, Queering The Script, all about queer fandom. This focuses on representation of gay and bisexual women and their relationships in tv.

For me, this is kinda a reminder, it really brought me back to what it was like to grow up in the 90s, knowing you were gay, and not knowing another out gay person, and not seeing yourself or any role models for future relationships anywhere. Back then, there was no internet, no social media. You couldn’t jump on the computer and see loads of women out there telling their story and living their truth. So if anyone showed up on tv that was even slightly gay, it was the only pinhole through which you could see yourself represented. I had kinda forgotten what that was like, because now I have queer friends, queer community, both online and offline. I’m also older and more settled in myself, so I don’t look for role models as much. Watching this really brought that back.

Love that a chunk of this is devoted to Xena: Warrior Princess because YES, and Willow gets a look-in on Buffy, but there were so many fandoms and shows I wasn’t aware of because I clearly stopped watching stuff around the time I went to uni, and was like, “I don’t have time for tv, I’m having a 4-year-long nervous breakdown!” I changed and drifted off into music, and comic books, and eventually films. But there were whole generations of queer women coming up who were looking to tv for those role models, and it was quite varied in terms of the quality of representation they got.

Kind of a central point of the documentary is the killing of Lexa in The 100, which sparked a massive fan-led backlash, which was not confined to The 100 but began a real movement to hold the industry as a whole to account for the way they represented queer women. The shocking statistic they quote is that between 2015 and 2017, queer women made up 2.5% of character on tv, but made up a third of character deaths. The ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope seemed to be a regressive echo of the Hays Code, where you could only represent queers if they were tragic or punished. Fans organised to see that this harmful message was not the standard going forward, and that shows respect queer stories and queer fans.

Today we see a push for more representation, but also diverse and responsible representation. Shows like Orange Is The New Black have a real range in body type, butchness, and race. A push for more representation can’t only be for thin, femme, white women.

Trans women get name checked in the last 5 minutes of the movie with Pose, but are largely absent from the story, as though there aren’t trans lesbians and bisexual women too? But to be fair to the documentary makers, there really hasn’t been almost any representation of gay and bisexual trans women on tv, so it’s hard to talk about something that isn’t there, except to say “Hey, Pose! Maybe this is the beginning of something, huh?”

All in all, a really interesting documentary. Shows how, no matter how silly your art may be to other people, to someone it might be a lifeline.

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street

So, after watching Nightmare on Elm Street 2 last night, I went rummaging around the internet with questions like, “How? . . . Why? . . .”

The answer is Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, Mark Patton’s account of what it was like to play Jesse, the sensitive male lead in the camp sequel full of barely concealed homoerotic subtext, at a time when he was young, new to Hollywood, and in the closet.

My worry with the film was, quite frankly, that it was gonna be a downer. Nightmare 2 effectively ended Mark’s career, because, despite being commercially successful, it was panned by critics and fans, and the queerness of the movie and Mark’s performance brought down the shutters on him in the homophobic Hollywood of 1985. I wanted to enjoy Nightmare 2, and enjoy laughing at it, and not have that compromised by finding out it ruined the lead actor’s life, or that its making had left life-long bitterness.

But it wasn’t anything like that. This is Mark’s story, and Mark’s story is one of the resilience of gay people and gay culture. Mark sees his life as being extremely lucky in an unfortunate time. He went to New York at 17 with $100 in his pocket and in 5 years was on stage with Cher. He met and fell in love with the handsome actor in the hit tv show Dallas, Tim Patrick Murphy, and moved into his home in the Hollywood hills right across from Madonna. While he was blossoming, so was gay culture, and it was slowly but surely making inroads into the mainstream, if only by nods and winks.

Then Rock Hudson died in October 1985, bringing the AIDS epidemic to national attention, and setting off a reversal of everything that had been won since Stonewall. And in November 1985, the camp sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street was released, with its queer subtext now being far too much in an increasingly homophobic climate. Mark’s agents struggled to find him work, with tv contracts now stipulating blood tests before they hired actors.

And as the career he made collapsed in around him, as the thriving community that had been his home and family became decimated, his lover Tim was dying of AIDS. Tim was publicly outed in the National Enquirer, they broke into his hospital room and took photos of him as he lay suffering on his deathbed, and splashed them across the front page of their magazines. And Mark was reconciling himself to the fact that he was HIV positive.

After Tim died, Mark fled Hollywood, and set up in a small town in Mexico, bascially looking for a quiet place to die. He got tuberculosis, cancer, and his HIV went into full blown AIDS.

All that would be enough to end anybody. But this is Mark’s story. And it’s one of resilience.

After the launch of an effective drug cocktail that halted the progression of AIDS, Mark was able to recover, and he rebuilt a quiet life, with a new partner, in a little shop in Mexico, selling knickknacks and kitsch. And there he blossomed again. Until one day, decades later, when his acting days were just a memory, he gets a phone call from a private detective, who’s been hired to find him for a documentary on the legacy of the Nightmare franchise.

And when he comes back for that, he realises there is this whole renewal of interest in this film, as the generation who watched this movie as kids are now coming out, and many of the fans are saying, “I would never have been allowed to watch a gay movie, but I was allowed to watch Nightmare on Elm Street, and you were the first gay character I ever saw”. Queer theory analysis of film is finding things to talk about in Nightmare 2, rather than just seeing it as a failed schlock sequel. And its cult following of queer fans are putting on their own showings. Mark can now embrace his past in Nightmare in a way that is far more meaningful to him, than if it had simply made it as a big, successful horror film.

Mark now tours and uses his cult celebrity to talk about bullying, and about homophobia, and about destroying stigma around HIV. He uses whatever platform he has for good. And it’s like he and the culture are rediscovering each other, and saying to each other, “So you survived?” and “Yeah, I thrived”.

For a documentary about an incredibly silly film, it is really rather touching. Where healing from insurmountable odds is not just a possibility, but a reality.

Pier Kids

Pier Kids is a documentary about the queer kids of colour whose only real home, place of safety, place of acceptance, is the Christopher Street Pier. Instantly that places it in the same lineage of films as Paris Is Burning and Kiki, which does 2 things: It shows up the progress with this film being stories about queer people of colour being made by queer people of colour, and it shows up how little progress is being made in the bread and butter experience of the lives of people facing multiple layers of oppression and hostility.

Pier Kids deliberately shies away from focusing on the pageantry and spectacle within black queer culture, not because it in any way denies the creativity and joy of the community, but because that is what everyone wants to stand and take a picture in front of. You will see white people down at the pier, marching on Pride day. You won’t see them there at 3am on a Tuesday night when all the homeless kids are trying to stay warm.

This film is less about that, and more about the day-to-day reality of what it’s like to be homeless as a teen, or what it’s like to engage in sex work in order to feed yourself. How do you spend your days, where do you go? Practicalities of how to steal food, and how to market yourself as a non-passing trans girl in different porn categories.

I feel that to some degree, there is an attempt in Pier Kids to defetishise queer culture, which seems to be so marketable, and humanise queer people, which seems to draw decidedly less attention and money. One guy wonders aloud whether or not he should try to get HIV, because there are programs to house HIV positive people, and it might help get him off the streets. As appalling as that is to hear, the film makes you understand how that is not a crazy idea, how the dangers of surviving on the streets mean that contracting a treatable, but still incredibly serious, condition might actually be the safer option. And these should not be your only options. Without ever having to state it explicitly, the entire film speaks as a plea that we value the lives of these young people, that we give them better options.

It is amazing that this film, while focusing on the hard realities people face, never feels grim. The situation these kids are in is not an invitation for pity and hand-wringing, but a stated fact of injustice, which the viewer is invited to confront. The young people themselves rise to their life’s challenges, the film highlighting their creativity and agency in developing strategies for survival. It shows the support, love and acceptance they show each other in a world where their existence is rejected.

To some extent, you can’t help coming away from this movie with anger, which is right. Watching cops hassle a woman out with her kid sleeping in a pram at night, because cops never bring solutions, only trouble, and they can’t conceive that a black woman out late at night with a kid might not be doing it because she’s just an inherently bad mother, but because she’s homeless and it might be safer for them to keep moving during the nighttime. Vans of dozens of white cops show up to arrest two teenage kids for play-fighting and rassling in the street. Congrats, criminal record for having a go at your pal. Cops hassling a deaf black guy during the Parade. It makes you wonder if anything has changed since Stonewall. This movie could be about Marsha and Sylvia hooking to keep a roof over their head half a century ago. Somehow queer people of colour kicked off a movement that seems to only have benefitted white cis folk. And when there’s a rainbow sticker slapped on everything, and queer culture can be marketed for prime time tv, trans and gay kids of colour will still be sleeping on the Christopher Street Pier, thinking of ways to survive their next 24 hours.