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FESTIVAL REPORT: WICKED QUEER 2020



Wicked Queer Executive Director Introducing Opening Night
Photo courtesy Beyza Burcak.

Early into the pandemic, LGBTQ+ Twitter users joked about the inevitability of think pieces on “Queering the Quarantine” and the ways that social distancing would change the community’s sense of identity. Those were, in fact, published, and you’re more than welcome to go relitigate your queerness on your own time if you so choose. But so much of queer life is centered around breaking out of isolation—be it through nightclubs, book clubs, or film festivals (cinema clubs!): We’re a clubby bunch drawn to our shared experiences, so it came as welcome news that Wicked Queer would take place virtually for its 36th edition.


Looking at this year’s selection in the midst of all this, the very things that would normally put me off a lineup—more shorts programs than features, less big-name narrative releases, a heavy documentary load—now seem vital. And those among us who have accepted the Black (Trans) Lives Matter movement’s invitation to educate ourselves by diversifying the content we absorb will be sated by the fest’s globe-trotting stories, often told by members of the communities being depicted, heard speaking their own words.


Of course they’re not all winners. There’s the usual horny shlock, the self-serious bores, the basic-tired-romance-but-now-it’s-gay stories, and the pedestrian misfires you’ll find in every festival. But even in those films, there’s a heartening sense of honesty that’s been missing from a lot of queer cinema lately: Reckoning with a period that saw Moonlight (2016) win Best Picture and Love, Simon (2018) spawn a Disney-funded spinoff, queer(er) cinema continues to ease into the mainstream and leave its indieness behind—and successful or not, the voices featured in this year’s festival fill the eccentric, artsy, and as-yet-unknown gaps left in those multiplex sensations’ wake.


Trans and genderqueer stories are front and center, thank fucking God. Not that I’d turn down a good ole’ Handsome Cis Gay movie or anything—but they’ve had their moment. Let’s have more like Lingua Franca, more like Queen of Lapa, more like Pier Kids: The Life—which I believe to be not only a worthy successor to Paris Is Burning (1990) and companion to TV’s Pose (2018-), but a major work of its own for appreciating the spiritual descendents of our Stonewall heroes of color. There are trans stories of all lengths and sizes–perhaps easier to digest than the queer/race theory we should be reading, but equally intimate and impactful.

As much as I’ll miss setting up shop at my beloved Brattle for hours upon hours of LGBTQ+ cinema, I’m excited to consume queer art the way I grew up doing it: from my room, from my laptop, texting friends about it, searching for it on message boards, and hoping someone else saw what I did. At a time when major film studios have shown their true colors and abandoned audiences, Wicked Queer has given the community’s persistent rainbow a chance to keep shining. —Juan A. Ramirez


Ask Any Buddy Directed by Evan Purchell. US, 2020, 78 minutes. Streaming on Sunday, July 26, 7pm.

For years porn was the only way for queer people to see themselves on screen as they were, in their own terms. The act of securing financing, engaging a willing crew, and distributing gay pornography was not only dangerous and criminal, but heroic. Those obstacles were the gatekeeper trampled over by these invaluable works of film art, which so often displayed a care for cinematic form and lived-in detail that somehow matched the nuances of the queer realities and fantasies they represented.


Kaleidoscopic not only in structure but in its hypnotic style, Ask Any Buddy is far more than the mere best-of compilation it could’ve been. Historian Evan Purchell—whose exhaustive work cataloguing queer films I’ve followed for years—has assembled footage from over 100 films ranging 1968-1986 to ravishing effect. It’s not all blowjobs and poppers (though there is plenty of that), but also tender moments of clubbing and protesting, cruising and existing.

It comes as the final blow to porn’s intrinsic collapsing of reality and artifice: These two strangers did not meet organically at the Chelsea piers, but that is irrelevant to the final act—sex is set to film, and a Kleenex is thrown away some time after. Seeing the footage all these decades later, the Kleenex takes on a touching new dimension. [⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐] —JAR


Lingua Franca Written, produced, and directed by Isabel Sandoval. Philippines/US, 2020, 89 minutes. Streaming on Friday, July 24, 7pm.

Lingua Franca is visually restrained, even sparse, but all the empty space is filled by a creeping, overwhelming fog of anxiety and sweaty-palmed paranoia. And for good reason—Olivia, played with grace by writer/producer/director Isabel Sandoval, is an undocumented Filipina trans woman living an uneasy life in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She has a job as the caretaker to an elderly Russian baba, Olga, and a prospect that might help her get a green card, but it hardly matters. Long shots follow her everywhere she goes, like she’s being Rear Window-ed: The threat—of being discovered, of being deported, of being irreparably harmed—is all around.


Olivia suffers needlessly; forced to absorb both the constant, unthinking threats of an administration that wants her dead and gone and the casual cruelty of strangers passing through. But she’s no martyr. Rather, she continues to live her life, acting carefully and deliberately in her best interest while allowing herself to feel longing, joy, and desire—when she comes up against Olga’s charming deadbeat grandson Alex, her fear and desire mingle into something new, and delicate. Sandoval’s camera frames the intimacy of Olivia’s private triumphs with as much style and care as it does her alienation. Here, Lingua Franca blossoms into itself: A mesmerizing, often terrifying slice of social realism from a filmmaker in complete control of the world she’s depicting. [⭐⭐⭐⭐] —Cassidy Olsen


Dry Wind Directed by Daniel Nolasco. Brazil, 2020, 110 minutes. Streaming on Saturday, July 25, 7pm.

At long last, a film comes along that dares ask the question, “Are all Brazilian men gay?” The first half of Dry Wind—with its bulging muscles and muscly bulges—certainly asks, but suffocates itself with style before arriving at any answers. It’s mostly a standard “lone wolf ogles and lusts through hypersexualized environments” thriller, which it does very well. Cinematographer Larry Machado shoots Brazil’s arid Catalão region with a striking eroticism that zeroes in on the sweatier aspects of sun-beaten life, creating an everyone’s-gay fantasia prime for midnight viewing.


But let’s not beat around an untrimmed bush. The sex in this film—and this is a horny film—is some of the most jaw-dropping I’ve seen. The neon-lit club scene, a requisite for gay cinema, here features a fantasy of unbridled, unsimulated (!) oral sex that I will be hard-pressed to forget. It’s easy to wonder if it would be better off leaning into its art-porn tendencies rather than vague social commentary. Leandro Faria Lelo’s leading performance is almost too compelling for the material, and while an exploration of unrestrained sexuality in a gender-oppressive nation is indispensable, the result is more flaccid than a film this arousing should be. [⭐⭐⭐] —JAR


Death Drop Gorgeous Written and directed by Michael J. Ahearn, Christopher Dalpe, and Brandon Perras-Sanchez. US, 2020, 104 minutes. Streaming on Saturday, July 25, 9:30pm.

You may love the nightlife, but it doesn’t have to love you back. In Death Drop Gorgeous, a gay bar brings together community and tears it apart. While recently single bartender Dwayne (Wayne Gonsalves) and aging drag queen Gloria Hole (Michael McAdam/Payton St. James) claw their way through prejudices and bad work shifts to survive, a serial killer targets gay men through a popular dating app. “Why?” is anyone’s guess, but each victim—from one of the resident club junkies to a drag queen—meets a gruesome and somewhat campy death. This scrappy horror film offers thoughtful critique alongside its low budget gore, reflecting on the racism and ageism within the gay community. Hardly just moralizing, though, Death Drop Gorgeous has its cake and eats it too: The overacted dramatics, ghoulish kills and ridiculous plot twists are all in the spirit of fun, and celebrate the Providence gay scene through a funhouse horror lens. [⭐⭐⭐] —Monica Castillo


Fireflies Written, produced, and directed by Bani Khoshnoudi. DR/Greece/Mexico/US, 2018, 87 minutes. Streaming on Sunday, July 26, 7pm.

Fireflies is a ballad of lost souls stuck floating around Veracruz, Mexico. The historic port city, nestled in the base of the Gulf, provides Iranian-American filmmaker Bani Khoshnoudi with sweeping vistas of sunsets, container parks, and crumbling Spanish forts—they make her film into a visual paradise. Its inhabitants, however, all want out. Ramin (Arash Marandi) has landed there by mistake, fresh off the wrong boat from Tehran, and is desperate to leave for Greece, Turkey, anywhere he can actually speak the language (he has a boyfriend back home, a fact that is as much his reason to return as it was his reason for fleeing Iran).


Marandi does a lot of miming as Ramin, contorting his face in a desperate attempt to be understood. But the film is clearly expressive even when he’s all alone, drifting through the city, unable to do anything other than exist (in scenes reminiscent of Christian Petzold’s Transit, 2018, a more surrealist drama about a nationless man fleeing persecution while trapped in a port city). Ramin’s easily telegraphed relationship with Guillermo (Luis Alberti), a fellow worker hoping to cross the border into Texas on his way to Canada, is not as illuminating as his kinship with a local hotel owner, Leti (Edwarda Gurrola), distraught over her lack of romantic and financial prospects. Their solidarity, and the film’s refreshingly irregular structure, make Fireflies worth catching. [⭐⭐⭐1/2] —CO


I’m Gonna Make You Love Me Directed by Karen Bernstein. US, 2019, 82 minutes. Streaming on Monday, July 27, 7pm.

Detransitioning is a touchy subject, and such rare instances usually get weaponized by some of the most transphobic forces in this messed-up world to delegitimize the trans community. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me walks a tightrope in telling to story of Brian Belovitch, an awkward queer boy from a strict family who transitioned into a woman, married an American GI, lived as an Army wife in Germany, became a hit lounge musical act under the name Tish Gervais after the marriage fell apart, and then shockingly detransitioned (if some of this sounds like the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, know that Belovitch and media coverage independent of this documentary have also made similar connections).


The film underlines Belovitch’s story as a personal journey rather than something representative of other people’s experiences with transitioning or detransitioning, yielding mixed results as the film veers into too much near-sightedness—rarely fully contextualizing the trans experience, much less even mentioning other trans people in Belovitch’s time in New York City. The documentary entrusts Belovitch’s comfort and candidness to explain his unusual life trajectory. “Tish is really the part of me that wanted to survive, and I think that is where she lives,” he says, crucially noting that that part of his life is not a shameful past or something to be spoken about in the past tense but an active part of who he is today. While at times this rather rudimentary film leans on unnecessary footage from other media, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me comes most alive through archive footage of New York City in the 1980s featuring Belovitch on- and off-stage. [⭐⭐1/2] —Caden Mark Gardner


Queen of Lapa Directed by Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat. Brazil, 2019, 79 minutes. Streaming on Tuesday, July 28, 7pm.

Years ago Luana Muniz gained notoriety in her native Brazil as a trans woman who was not just open about her sex work, but also unafraid to fight back and confront the harassment, violence, and transmisogyny of her every day on the streets. Today she is a founder of Luana’s House, a refashioned hotel in the heart of the sex work district of Lapa within Rio de Janeiro. The House plays host to younger sex workers, and thus Queen of Lapa is a portrait of Muniz as a maternal figure—acting as both a wise trans elder with a font of experiences and a no-nonsense authority buffer. The younger sex workers share anecdotes of their dangerous, often degrading work of turning tricks in a matter-of-fact way that never feels exploitative or sensational. Collatos and Monnerat’s verite style forges a sobering but entrusting relationship between viewer and subject, presenting how the world’s oldest profession functions in our present sociopolitical moment. Contemporary trans visibility often gets whitewashed into trans respectability politics, ignoring the stories of trans women like Muniz and those in Luana’s House—making Queen of Lapa a necessary tonic on the intersection of trans bodies and sex work. [⭐⭐⭐⭐] —CMG


Emilia Written and directed by César Sodero. Argentina, 2020, 97 minutes. Streaming on Friday, July 31, 9pm.

Emilia rewards the patient viewer. It’s the story of a conflicted young woman, Emilia (Sofía Palomino), who returns to her hometown in Argentina under mysterious circumstances that even her mother doesn’t fully understand. She begins to reconnect with old friends, including an ex (Fernando Contigiani), and finds work as a teacher, but her sense of displacement remains. She’s home—but it no longer feels like a place where she belongs. Her relationship with her mother feels strained and tense, as if the two have become strangers forced to live together. Her ex is married—and even though she reengages their relationship, her attention is soon fixated on a female student instead, opening up a whole new set of potential problems. It’s the kind of story that reveals itself a little at a time, filling in the blanks for the viewer without giving all the details upfront. Some crucial narrative information never even fully materializes beyond knowing glances and passing references. Yet in this cagey and subtle approach, Emilia becomes an engrossing study of a woman at one of life’s crossroads, unsure how to avoid disaster in her next step. [⭐⭐⭐⭐] —MC


Pier Kids: The Life Directed by Elegance Bratton. US, 2019, 85 minutes. Streaming on Sunday, August 2, at 1pm.

LGBTQ activism and liberation is forever synonymous with New York City and the Stonewall Inn. A major landmark of that LGBTQ history is also the Christopher Street pier, once a common place for sex work and cruising but now an acceptable place for high schoolers to take their prom photos. As mainstream society has picked and chosen the acceptable images of queer life, many other images of queerness—particularly those featuring people of color—get left behind and ignored. Elegance Bratton’s documentary of contemporary gentrified Manhattan shows the cramped indoor and outdoor locations, whether the pier itself or crowded apartment spaces, that Black and trans people of color find themselves struggling for in a world still resistant to their identities. Pier Kids is raw; shooting subjects in their nocturnal environs, and almost always on the move, adding to the unpredictable and pulsating momentum that carries throughout the film. Black LGBTQ people’s struggle for survival—whether it is having something to eat that day, being accepted and loved by your blood family, or trying to keep your chosen family alive—are the central components to Bratton’s film, and make it essential. [⭐⭐⭐1/2] —CMG


“Experimental Shorts: ON QUEER UTOPIAS” Seven films. Total runtime appx. 83 minutes. Streaming on Sunday, August 2, 4pm.

If poppers could prevent AIDS, who would come to the party? The Fathers Project (dir. Leo Herrera, 40 min.), unlike the other selections in Wicked Queer’s “Experimental Shorts” program, is not a short at all—it’s an autofictive webseries docuhistory of the “Queer Colonies,” chronicling Vito Russo’s 2020 presidency, Robert Mapplethorpe’s Instagram popularity, and Seal Team 6’s raid on Chechnya. Voiced-over by an anonymous female narrator, the Project documents an alternative history in which AIDS exists, but the AIDS crisis never happened. Herrera’s cumulative, nitty-gritty world-building—replete with faux pharmaceutical ads juxtaposed against footage of Martin Shrekeli’s testimony to court—convinces and provokes. But as with all histories, who gets named as protagonist is telling. Here, the Tom of Finland look is standard while Marsha P. Johnson is forgotten. It leaves me to wonder: What moral fault lines would score the earth if the gay man had ruled since 1980?

RUN! (Malic Amalya, 11 min.) was filmed on location in Los Alamos and other nuclear-age American landmarks in saturated, analog color; you almost taste the dust. Using midcentury placeholders like plastic toy soldiers and Boomer-era biology slides, Amalya positions the military past in conversation with contemporary fears about Trump’s warheads. As political art, though, the film lacks urgency, keeping the aesthetic of the nuclear threat—one the film aims to raise as urgent—safely in the sixties.


His Eyes Behind Mine (Ziwei Qin, 6 min.), a Grindr-era Fuses (1967), places text against digitally manipulated film stock—an infrared camera heat senses for personal drama, the film working between analog and digital aesthetics to portray the candyland between hookups and romantic trysts. Qin’s short, like Closeted Lesbian (Bia Lee, 6 min.)—which sets confessional text against images of oral sex—does away with the traditional cinematic marriage of text/image/sound, instead throwing written words against background visuals with the utility of ticker tape. And while His Eyes Behind Mine deploys it more creatively than Closeted Lesbian, the technique is still a cheap focal point.


Eadem Cutis: The Same Skin (Nina Hopf, 6 min.) animates the intaglioed body parts of John Hopf as he talks about his transgender experience. In this film, Nina utilizes her two primary forms: Animation, that medium directed by imaginative—and etching, directed by the scalpel—are the short’s reigning visual metaphors for being trans—which is generalizing, boring, and tired, no matter how well crafted.


In these queer utopias, people avoid speaking directly on film. The disembodied, sometimes silent voice prevails, speaking from far beyond the horizon line. —Carina Imbornone

All films streaming on xerb.tv, see wickedqueer.org for more information.


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