Queer Screen 2019: Right Now’s top picks

By Caitlin Cassidy, David Branigan, Amilee Myson and Samaya Borom
Still from Rafiki – Credit to Queer Screen
Queer Screen

Heralded as one of the top queer film festivals in the world, Queer Screen celebrates and showcases the diversity of sexualities and gender identities through an annual exposé of film and video. Below, our reviewers reflect on just four of the fantastic films Queer Screen has to offer.

José

Directed by Li Cheng

Review by Caitlin Cassidy

José is a 19-year-old queer Guatemalan living with his deeply religious mother in a small, dingy apartment in Guatemala City, a place still defined by machismo values. Each day, José rides a packed bus to work, where he rushes between a shopfront and parked cars, encouraging them to visit a sandwich shop nearby. The money he earns he delivers to his mother, who both dotes on him, deeply depends on him, and prays for him to see the light for his deviant lifestyle, which her deep-seated religious beliefs cannot accept.

Away from the weight of their home life together, José secretly sees young men he finds on dating apps in flophouses rented by the hour; until he meets Luis, who makes him question the path he is taking, and who he wants to be.

Cinematically, José is beautiful in the neorealist way it captures the aimlessness of youth. José wanders the streets of Guatemala, playing soccer, drinking beers in the local cafes, milling on the streets watching the lives of passersby. Yet even more poignant is how director Li Cheng explores, through fleeting, secretive moments with José and Luis, how we search for ourselves inside others – and what we may find when we do.

There are moments of simple beauty in this film – stealing kisses on motorcycle rides through the countryside, intimate snippets of the conversations we have when no one is watching – but it also presents a deeply meditative perspective on what it means to navigate queerness, who we are allowed to love, how much, and why.

José will screen at 6pm on the Sunday the 24th of February. Tickets can be purchased here. Watch the trailer below.

Believer

Directed by Don Argott

Review by David Branigan

Believer is a tear-jerking vision quest cum slice-of-life documentary that follows American singer and practicing, but questioning, Mormon Dan Reynolds as he sets about organising a queer positive music festival called LoveLoud to speak to his acolytes about LGBTQ youth suicide, inclusivity, and his own belief that love is love in the face of his church’s vocal repudiation of same sex attraction and marriage.

Less adrenalised vanity project than scathingly on-point skewering of church and state (and familial) overreach in contributing to LGBTI harms and policing desire and identity, Believer’s aesthetic is suitably Behind the Music, all straight (ahem) to camera earnestness interspersed with performance and diary footage.

Reynolds’ band Imagine Dragons are a plodding, particularly American behemoth, pedalling ’90s inspired flannel rock which is seemingly focus-grouped with heartland wallets and the status bro in mind (apparently with huge success).  The hulking straight man of God having an awakening that his voice could use its reach for good – “my band was a big puddle of nothing” – is a killer hook, but the filmmakers’ slavish focus on Reynolds is both perplexing at times and telling.

The film’s middle act sags as the dramas encountered in organising the event are laid out, and the voices of Reynold’s wife and of fellow Mormon and musician Neon Tree’s singer Tyler Glenn, a much more fragile and genre fluid artist who’s shown slowly emerging as gay, are fascinating counterpoints that appear too fleetingly and seem marginalised. Reynolds is framed, presumably unintentionally and somewhat unfairly, as the white, cis-gendered heterosexual male messiah but watching him listen and puzzle out his own path illustrates the huge impact a truly open mind can have, and his big softy shtick is appealing and clearly genuine – especially when he suddenly realises his complicity in othering and, as he admits, standing for bigotry.

The empowered voices – young and older – shown in vox pops and crowd reactions at the actual event are too long coming, which may be the films’ most salient truth. The emotion so many attendees express in feeling seen and included is genuinely touching and the epilogue notes that “the event will be held annually, until it is no longer necessary”, speaking to the real value of allies and the power of belief on the path to equality.

Believer will screen at 4pm on Sunday the 24th of February. Tickets can be purchased here. Watch the trailer below.

Transmilitary

Directed by Gabriel Silverman & Fiona Dawson

Review by Amilee Myson

Back in July 2017, in a late-night flap of tweets, President Trump resurrected the ban on transgender military service in the United States. These rapid-fire commands reintroduced a discriminatory policy that had only recently been dismantled by the Obama administration. In January 2019, the Supreme Court made a decision effectively upholding Trump’s transgender recruitment ban.

Transmilitary, directed by Fiona Dawson and Gabriel Silverman, is like a dolly zoom cut in at a critical moment in time that vividly highlights the impact of American policy devolution on transgender recruitment in the US military.

The film places, front and centre, the experiences of a tetrad of active duty, high-ranking, transgender women and men: Jenn Peace, a captain; El Cook, a first lieutenant; Laila Villanueva, a corporal; and Logan Ireland, a soldier based in Afghanistan. The audience follows the internal campaign of a group called SPARTA, working to dismantle the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ (DADT) policy – a legacy of the Clinton administration. SPARTA’s campaign places the paradoxical outcome of DADT policy in sharp focus: Pentagon officials claim to be motivated by creating the most effective military possible, but policy like DADT will result in the military’s loss of thousands of personnel just like the highly trained, dedicated and meritorious garrison, featured in the film.

Transmilitary will air at Queer Screen in Australia within a few weeks of the US Supreme Court decision fortifying Trump’s ban on transgender recruitment. The film is an empowering artefact of the revocation of DADT, an equalising policy change. It is also a reminder that discriminatory policy does more than disservice to the individuals it touches – it undermines the institutions that perpetuate it.

Transmilitary will screen at 7pm on Wednesday the 20th of February. Tickets can be purchased here.

Rafiki 

Directed by Wanuri Kahiu

Review by Samaya Borom

Rafiki, directed by Wanuri Kahiu, has an interesting backstory in that it is the first Kenyan film to make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, and there was talk of it being submitted as Kenya’s entry for Best Foreign Language film at the 2018 Academy Awards. But in order to get there, and to have audiences view Rafiki, Kahiu had to bring a lawsuit against the Kenya Film Classification Board and the Kenyan Attorney General.

The promotion of same sex relationships in Kenya is illegal under the Kenyan Penal Code so the depiction of a blossoming romantic relationship between two young women, Kena and Ziki, whose fathers are political rivals, was originally banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board due to the films lesbian themes.

In order to have the film, with its sublime hyper-real colours and beautiful cinematography submitted to the Academy Awards, it needed to be released domestically. A High Court challenge resulted in a temporary lift on the ban of the film and audiences sold out the screenings. Watching Rafiki, it is easy to see why. Kahiu has captured the tenderness and excitement of friendship and love between Kena and Ziki, who don’t want to be “typical Kenyan girls”, whilst also highlighting the danger around the expression of their relationship within their tight-knit community in Nairobi.

The film moves along to a great soundtrack that ebbs and flows along with their story. Whilst Kenya didn’t end up submitting Rafiki to the Academy Awards the hype around the film is well deserved and will have you thinking about it long after you’ve left the cinema.

Rafiki will screen for the Closing Night Gala at 7pm on Thursday the 28th of February. Tickets can be purchased here. Watch the trailer below.

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