From contemporary kids upholding voguing tradition to backstage goss from the dancers who made the magic during Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, the blood, sweat and tears of performers are at the heart of queer documentary highlights in this year's 63rd Sydney Film Festival program.
They’re joined by a strong dramatic feature contingent that explores culture clashes and fraught family bonds, with festival director Nashen Moodley and documentary programmer Jenny Neighbour itching to share their favourites in a line-up that celebrates the diversity of the LGBTQI community worldwide.
Here are their top ten queer picks:
Being 17 (Quand on a 17)
A stalwart of French cinema, Being 17 director André Téchiné collaborated on the film's script with one of the country’s hottest up-and-coming stars in writer/director Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy). Both champions of queer stories on screen, Being 17 stars Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Fila as warring classmates inextricably drawn to one another.
“Ciamma really understands young French people, and the issues of race and sexuality,” Moodley says. “She has her finger on the pulse and Téchiné is a great director. Though a great part of Being 17is about these two young men, it’s also about their relationships with their mothers and it’s just a beautifully made film that I think audiences will adore.”
Australian writer/director Craig Boreham expands his 2009 short Drowning with debut feature Teenage Kicks, starring Love My Way’s Miles Szanto as a young man haunted by his brother’s death and struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, hiding it from his immigrant family and best friend Dan (Daniel Webber, 11.22.63), with whom he thought he shared a unbreakable bond.
“Teenage Kicks is a powerful debut feature with really remarkable performances by a very talented young cast,” Moodley says. “I was instantly impressed with the film and think it will find a very appreciative audience at the festival.”
A passion project for Irish director Paddy Breathnach, Viva is set in Havana, Cuba and follows the travails of a young hairdresser Jesus (Héctor Medina) who works in the city’s vibrant drag club scene, helping the ladies transform. Just when it looks like he might make the jump on stage himself, his estranged father Angel (Jorge Perugorría) is released from prison.
“He doesn’t take very kindly to his son’s new career path, so it’s about the relationship between this former boxer and this young man,” Moodley says. “It’s a really heart-warming film and Paddy’s done a fantastic job.”
An incendiary highlight of this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival, scooping Best Feature award, writer/director Stephen Dunn’s debut Closet Monster is the cinematic progeny of a wild night out between Xavier Dolan and Gregg Araki, with a dash of Cronenbergian body horror. Breaking the rules of coming-of-age and coming out yarns, American Crime’s Connor Jessup is fantastic as confused teen Oscar, disturbed by a homophobic crime his witnessed as a kid that has a visceral affect on his sexual awakening. It also features the vocal talents of Italian legend Isabella Rossellini as talking hamster Buffy.
“I really liked the very fresh approach of Closet Monster and particularly how it combines magic realism with moving drama, and the talking hamster is a blast,” Moodley says.
From Afar (Desde Allá)
Taking out the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival - something of a coup for a debut feature - Venezuelan writer/director Lorenzo Vigas’ From Afar tells the story of closeted Armando (Alfredo Castro) who pays young men he picks up off the street to take part in look but no touch sessions. When Luis Silva’s 17-year-old Elder robs him, things take a very different turn.
“It’s a very strong fist film that’s a bit of a mystery that gradually reveals the backstory,” Moodley says. “I can’t give away too much, but it’s beautifully made and brilliantly acted.”
LA-based Korean filmmaker So Yong Kim’s Lovesong stars Jenna Malone as Mindy, the high-spirited former college mate of Mad Max: Fury Road star Riley Keough’s young mother. On catching up again several years later, just as Mindy is about to marry, the largely unspoken spark between them reignites.
“This is a really delicate, wonderful film as they grow to realise their connection may be a bit stronger than just friendship,” Moodley says.
Korean American writer/director Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night stars Joe Seo as David, a closeted teenager who takes a job at a spa to help his family pay the bills, but is soon drawn inexorably to the undercover gay scene flourishing there.
“He has to deal with the expectations of his immigrant family that’s working really hard to get ahead and there’s a great deal of pressure on him to succeed,” Moodley says. “At the same time, he has to deal with his sexuality and it becomes clear he’s intrigued by his work. It’s an incredible film because it looks at these issues with equal strength and, again, it’s a very impressive first feature.”
Strike a Pose
In Bed with Madonna aka Madonna: Truth or Dare purported to take us behind the scenes of the megastar’s Blond Ambition tour in 1990, but soon afterwards it was mired in controversy when one of her back-up dancers sued. 25 years later, they get to tell their side of the story in Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s candid documentary.
“Some of them have really struggled with secrets about being HIV positive or that they hadn’t come out to their family,” Neighbour says. “They recognise in each other that these long buried secrets haven’t done them any favours, but it’s now made a closer connection between them and Strike A Pose ends up being really moving. It becomes less about Madonna and more about their relationships with each other.”
An unofficial sequel of sorts to Paris is Burning, Sara Jordenö’s doco Kiki secured the queer Teddy Award at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. It revisits New York’s competitive voguing ballroom scene, made famous by Madonna’s appropriation, and explores the many challenges still faced by LGBTQI and ethnically diverse youth.
“Though many things have changed in the world since Paris is Burning, these kids are still really struggling with homophobia, homelessness, poverty and conflicted relationships with their parents, all those things teens face plus more,” Neighbour says. “They’re trying to find a community and a connection to cope with the problems in their lives and the filmmakers clearly have tremendous empathy with their subjects. It’s got some great dance tracks too.”
When queer Kiwi journalist David Farrier stumbled across the bizarre world of competitive endurance tickling, where buff young men are held down and tickled for as long as they can endure, he had his next strange story packed with laughs and strange homoeroticism. But when he and colleague Dylan Reeve began to explore, things took a turn for the very dark as a creepy mogul hiding in the shadows is exposed, with shades of Foxcatcher.
“When David starts talking about it, he gets a cease and desist letter followed by a homophobic rant,” Neighbour says. “There’s clearly a queer agenda here, but everyone’s in denial, so he travels to the US to find the true story. It’s extraordinary.”
Sydney Film Festival runs June 8-19.