Transition Cinema: Outburst 2014 Review

Film Set - 'Love Is Strange'

The film programme of the 8th annual Outburst Queer Arts Festival, screened at Belfast’s QFT, offered a showcase of some of the most interesting additions to international queer cinema. A running theme in this year’s films is that of identities in transition. Characters move from female to male, naive to mature, adolescent to adult, loser to big-shot, in to out. Sometimes they escape their current identities through bravery and curiosity; other times they are forced to by events out of their control. New identities and arrangements promise liberation and novelty, but navigating the changes brings unseen problems. Sometimes they make it to the other side, but are denied the things they set out in search for. Festivals like this also offer opportunities to see film-makers in transition, stepping up material from shorts to features and telling bigger, richer stories.

Unfortunately your intrepid reporter missed In the Turn, a documentary about a transgender teen’s entry into the world of competitive roller derbies that’s been getting good word of mouth, but caught the other six films, a mix of documentary, drama and comedy featuring new and established talent.

Love is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)

The highest profile film in the programme, thanks to its recognisable lead actors, is Love is Strange, directed by Ira Sachs and co-written with Mauricio Zacharias. Like a lot of the films shown, it’s an unflashy and often quiet relationship drama which gets a lot out of ordinary but rich states of feeling. It’s romantic and, like the best romances, very sad as well. We open at the wedding of George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), above, getting hitched after almost four decades together. George loses his job as a Catholic school music teacher when word of their union reaches the local ecclesiastical authorities and, with only his private lessons and Ben’s pension to support them, they are forced to leave their gorgeous New York apartment. While they look for a new place to live, Ben moves in with his nephew’s family (Marisa Tomei plays the wife), taking one of their teenage son’s bunkbeds, and George crashes on the couch of their party-loving neighbours. Separated from each other, they quietly pine.

Ben and George have the intimate, unspoken interplay of partners who have shared domestic life almost all of their adult lives. In another kind of movie, one less confident in its performers, their time apart would be the catalyst for new emotional obstacles or urgent reassessments, but there are no cheap tricks here. Thrown out of his normal routines, Ben hovers in his nephew’s apartment, peppering his niece-in-law (Marissa Tomei) while she tries to get the day’s novel-writing work done. Lithgow is subtle and terrific with his earnest but slightly oblivious personality, while both actors suggest an earnest, good-humoured wisdom. There’s a scene where George barges in to Ben’s new abode uninvited, soaked from the rain, and pulls his love into his arms, sick with loneliness and disorientation: conventional on the surface but utterly moving.

Regarding Susan Sontag (dir. Nancy Kates)

It’s hard to go on Facebook and not think about Susan Sontag. Her 1973-77 series of essays ‘On Photography’ lay out with piercing insight the social condition of photographicness which the proliferation of camera technology was ushering in. In the era of smartphones and Instagram, her theory has become reality. Along with 1964’s ‘Notes on Camp’, the essays are some of the most widely read of the last half century, and were only parts of a remarkable body of work, spanning novels, criticism, plays and films. Sontag’s personal and professional life (or, given her attraction towards reinvention, lives) are the subject of Nancy Kates’ Regarding Susan Sontag, which charts the writer’s rise to ’70s intellectual icon and eventual Gremlins 2 punchline.

Sontag had a remarkable life, especially for a woman born in the 1930s. She taught philosophy, abandoned her husband and young son for a lesbian love affair in Paris, hung out with the beatniks, was photographed by Andy Warhol, went to Vietnam during the war, put on a Beckett production in Sarajevo and took on lovers of both sexes before her final romance with American photographer Annie Leibovitz. Most people would consider this a life lived fully, but Sontag remained restless and curious to the end, spiteful and terrified of death’s nullification. This is the definitive documentary for those interested in her life and work, but it’s also a little too straightforward for a subject interested in formal experimentation. A film-maker like Adam Curtis could’ve done something more intellectually energetic with the ideas in Sontag’s writing. Still, it’s a good tribute to the now-passé idea of the public intellectual which Sontag, with her own touch of photogenic camp, embodied.

The Way He Looks (dir. Daniel Ribeiro)

Expanded from his 2010 short I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone with the same crew of native Brazilian actors, Daniel Ribeiro’s coming-of-age drama The Way He Looks has already attracted critical acclaim. It won awards at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, and was selected as Brazil’s Foreign Feature entry for the next Oscars. It is, to be slightly unkind to it, the sort of film that judges and critics do tend to like: an unhurried story about a teenager who’s both bind and gay and falls in love with his newest friend (it also has an upbeat soundtrack with a fondness for Belle and Sebastian). Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) and Giovanni (a very good Tess Amorim) are high schoolers in Sao Paulo whose friendship is complicated and tested by the arrival of Daniel (Fabio Audi), whose curly locks and tight cheekbones stir up exciting and unnerving feelings in Leonardo, chasing after his first shave and his first kiss.

Fussed and fretted over by his parents, and assisted with everyday getting-around by the loyal Giovanni, Leonardo is desperate for the independence that adulthood promises. His blindness, though, is never milked by the film, which presents his frustrations as part of the teenage experience. Indeed, the film’s best quality is its presentation of adolescence’s loose haziness, and of how young people talk and relate to eachother inside and outside of the classroom. Though I couldn’t help but feel that the dialogue had a slightly touched-up tone to it, a well-intended but maybe overly-naive gloss that softened up some potential hard edges. Leonardo’s sexuality and disability matters, but it’s a universal story really, about the disruptions that puberty brings.

The Dog (dir. Francois Keraudren and Allison Berg)

“I robbed the bank, fuck Al Pacino!” The Dog is full of colourful lines, almost all of them delivered gleefully by its subject, a New York-Sicilian braggadocio who did something so mad they made an Al Pacino about it. Francois Keraudren and Allison Berg’s bizarre, thrilling documentary tells the real-life story of John Wojtowicz, whose attempted robbery and subsequent hostage negotiation at a Brooklyn bank inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. The film helped turn Wojtowicz into something of a national celebrity, a role he embraced with the desperate, reckless gusto that he applied to his other interests, most of which was the pursuit and enjoyment of sex.

Wojtowicz is a dream interviewee, with his fuck-you self-regard and wild, possibly bullshit, stories about his experiences in the Vietnam war, the New York Village’s gay liberation movement and eventually prison. The whole thing has a couldn’t-make-it strangeness, full of obsession and violence and desires gone haywire. ‘The dog’, as Wojtowicz came to call himself after the film’s success, robbed the bank in order to finance the sex reassignment surgery of one of his various lovers, in a hail Mary attempt to make him happy and stop his suicide attempts. The film rights got him the money in the end, but reality is complicated. ‘I beat the system – Ernie was happy!’ Wojtowicz brags to the camera, but TV footage from the time suggests dissatisfaction and regret. As the film goes on, the gulf opens up Hollywood fantasy and real life, with its decay and ambiguity and sickness (Wojtowicz died of cancer in 2006). Sad, blackly funny and unforgettable.

Appropriate Behaviour (dir. Desiree Akhavan)

Comparisons are reductive but also helpful. Appropriate Behaviour, the winning auteur comedy by director/writer/star Desiree Akhavan, has been described in the trade press as a Persian-lesbian version of Girls, which is fair enough, except second-gen immigrant and vaguely hip Brooklyn type Shirin is actually bisexual, and this is much, much funnier than the HBO show. Akhavan’s feature debut (she’s worked on lesbian-themed web series The Slope) was my favourite film of the festival, although that’s partly down to my own biases towards funny women and stories about New York twenty-somethings who just can’t get it together. Akhavan has mentioned Noah Baumbach as an influence, and Behaviour is like a less-tragic version of his modern classic Frances Ha.

Shirin (Akhavan) has just broken up with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), and is heartbroken and listless. While she finds new places to live and things to occupy her time, the film flashes back to their relationship, from its sweet beginnings to its awkward final stages. Her newly-single status and non-existent ‘career’ (she gets a job teaching film-making… to five year-olds) is bad enough, but she’s also in the closet to her Iranian parents and over-achieving brother, who think Maxine was just a friend and roommate. It’s a fairly cliched setup for sure, down to the funny best friend (Halley Feiffer) and her pothead boss (30 Rock’s Scott Adsit), but it’s also honest, sexy, kind-hearted and has at least one golden pratfall moment. Akhavan is a real talent.

52 Tuesdays (dir. Sophie Hyde)

52 Tuesdays was the most formally inventive film on show, playing with time and transition. Once a week, for six hours on a Tuesday, the teenage Billie meets with her mother who is going through a process of gender reassignment (the mother’s played by Del Herbert-Jane, originally a gender non-conforming advisor to the film). The film’s production mirrors the plot, with the mostly amateur crew of actors performing new scenes on the same day every week for a year. Sophie Hyde’s film has been getting great press in her native Australia (it’s set in an Adelaide suburb) and has won awards at festivals in Berlin and Sundance. Most of the attention, unsurprisingly, has been focused on its breakout star Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who gives a strong performance as Billie. She’s beautiful and believable and reminds me so much of a younger Carey Mulligan it was almost distracting.

Both mother and daughter spend the year dealing with change. While Jane/James struggles with hormone therapy and records her progress in the mirror, Billie meets up with schoolmates to feel out new areas of adult interest. Billie uses her camera (one of a number of framing devices, some work better than others) to document her secret meetings with Jasmine (Imogen Archer) and Josh (Sam Althuizen), where they explore their burgeoning interest in sex and carve out space away from the adults. There is a refreshing matter-of-factness to their scenes together, where sex is presented as neither sinful nor transgressive, just an area of experience to be figured out together. Feeling grown up, Billie adopts a pixie cut and spits smart-alecky comments at her parents and Uncle Harry (a fun Mario Späte), before being brought to heel with real lessons about what adulthood is. Very well done stuff, with a terrific lead.

Ourburst Queer Arts Festival is an annual celebration of queer art and entertainment which takes place in venues across Belfast.

Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.