INDUSTRY BEAT: In the wake of Prop 8, will a new Queer Cinema rise at Sundance? By Anthony Kaufman
Here’s Anthony Kaufman’s Industry Beat column for the upcoming Winter issue.
“Gay Marriage Ban Inspires New Wave of Activists,” declared a recent headline in The New York Times. If the passage of California‘s Proposition 8 initiative — which denied same-sex couples the previously granted right to marry in the state — could stir hundreds of newly politicized members of the gay community to join together and fight back, will that same activist energy jolt America‘s gay and lesbian filmmakers to do the same?
If a new, more radicalized LGBT cinema were on the rise, trend spotters would likely find murmurs of it at this year‘s Sundance Film Festival, which recently found itself at the center of the Prop 8 debate. On one hand, the festival has been subject to attacks from gay activists because of its close proximity to Utah‘s Mormon power players — key funders of the Prop 8 campaign; on the other, it is the birthplace of the New Queer Cinema, as identified by critic B. Ruby Rich after stylistically and thematically confrontational films such as The Hours and the Times, Edward II, The Living End and Swoon screened at the event‘s 1992 edition.
This year‘s LGBT writers, directors and producers heading to Sundance have a divergent range of opinions on how Prop 8 may affect a new gay cinema, and what it might or should look like.
Experimental filmmaker Jenni Olson, whose latest short 575 Castro St layers audio recordings from murdered gay activist Harvey Milk over images from the Castro Camera Shop set of Gus Van Sant‘s Milk, believes more activist/political films are on the horizon post-Prop 8. “I hope for a return to our roots as a community of people who actually want to see films that are politically engaged,” she says. But the concept of an activist film movement also needs to embrace the “aesthetics of queer filmmaking as well,” she adds. “I strongly believe in the transformative impact and political importance of avant-garde work.”
Similarly Julian Breece, whose short film Young and Evil, about a troubled African-American teenager on a mission to contract HIV, says he‘s already seeing more and more films that are “presenting a strident challenge.” If a gay-themed movie such as 1995‘s Oscar-winning short Trevor “tugged at people‘s hearts,” Breece advocates a more oppositional strategy. “You have to grab people by the throats and let them know they have blood on their hands.”
Breece‘s agenda also speaks to the complexity and diversity of the gay community. As an African-American gay filmmaker, he believes current queer cinema needs to address the mainstream gay community, which he believes “is slowly, gradually becoming a privileged community. We can‘t isolate ourselves to one particular image of what we consider to be a more civilized or accepted queer imagery in our politics, which I think is happening and which I think is backfiring,” he says. “As filmmakers, our responsibility isn‘t to normalize, but to show the truth of our sexuality and sexual diversity.”
“We‘re not just challenging the straight community anymore,” he adds. “We have to continue to challenge ourselves as well.”
Writer-director Cherien Dabis, whose feature debut Amreeka (pictured above) focuses on a divorced Palestinian woman and her teenage son‘s life in rural Illinois, agrees that the mainstreaming of gay media — in TV shows such as The L Word, for which she has directed episodes — seemed to suggest that homosexuality was more widely accepted. “So people forgot,” says Dabis, regarding the prejudice revealed by Prop 8. “It kind of snuck up on everyone.”
Now, Dabis says, “People are angry. And I think we‘re going to see that translated into passionate activism, both inside and outside the media. And maybe we‘ll see a surge in gay films.” For her part, Dabis says she‘s planning to tackle explicit gay themes in her upcoming work for the first time.
But for Dabis, a Palestinian Jordanian-American whose cultural background is at odds with provocative gay imagery, a subtle aesthetic, not a confrontational one, is imperative. “That‘s the way to affect change,” she says. “If you‘re up in people‘s faces, that‘s not going to work.”
Veteran producer Lee Daniels (Monster‘s Ball) adopted a similar strategy for his second directorial effort Push, which is playing in this year‘s Sundance competition. While Daniels admits that Push is not the “gay story he has to tell,” the film includes a glamorous black woman character that helps the young heroine, and it‘s not until three-quarters into the film that her lesbian sexuality is revealed. “I sucker punched them,” says Daniels. “I played the movie for my aunt — she‘s the type of person who would have voted against gay marriage — and she shook her head after watching it. At first, I thought it was disgust, but it was embarrassment because she fell in love with this woman.”
Filmmaker Madeleine Olnek, whose short Countertransference will be at Sundance, also prefers a less provocative approach. A veteran of New York City‘s downtown theater scene and a former AIDS activist, Olnek believes comedy is the best way to reach — and educate — an audience. “I think it‘s notable that the most dramatic social sea change [regarding gay awareness] came about with the Ellen coming-out episode,” says Olnek. “You can‘t put activist demands on art,” she continues, “because the job of the activist and the artist are two different jobs. Sometimes art results in activism, but it can never be the intention of art to be activist.”
That said, Olnek also says filmmakers can take a lesson from Harvey Milk‘s belief in “stepping up to the plate and telling your story and responding specifically to the charges. If you‘re a gay filmmaker and you water down your story to make it palatable to the widest group of people possible, you lose the edge of truth.”