The Melbourne Queer Film Festival is done for another year, but Right Now was there to review the human rights-themed films that made a huge impact.
Out in the Night | Blair Dorosh-Walther
Film review by Alexandra Berry
Out in the Night offers an impassioned deconstruction of the case against Venice Brown, Terrain Dandridge, Renata Hill and Patreese Johnson, otherwise known as the “New Jersey Four”.
The women were charged with gang assault and attempted murder for defending themselves against a man who, after unwelcome and lewd sexual advances, threatened to “fuck them straight” and instigated physical violence.
With the media quick to sensationalise the events as the “Attack of the Killer Lesbians” who were “bloodthirsty” for a mere “admirer”, it became evident that these self-defenders were in no favourable position.
As Johnson’s mother proclaimed, not only were they black and female, but they “had the nerve to be gay”, alluding to an undercurrent of racism, homophobia and sexism that has engendered stereotypes against women who resort to violence.
Seven years in the making, director and producer Blair Dorosh-Walther’s documentary offers a meticulous account of the events that unfolded from the perspective of the “New Jersey Four”.
Interviews, court testimonials, security camera footage, and police dispatch audio reveal the gross prejudgment of a legal system. Insufficiency of evidence and misdirection of the jury were, ultimately, found to be grounds for appeal.
Out in the Night seeks to compensate for the inadequacy of the justice system’s handling of the case. It exposes the women’s previous experiences with police enforcement that had left them predisposed “never to call 911”, and to take their defence into their own hands.
This was particularly so for Johnson, who lost her younger brother to a police shooting and felt compelled to carry a small pocket knife on her at all times. Ironically, it was the same justice system that necessitated her need for self-protection that punished her the most severely.
Although balance would have been aided by interviews with the judge, prosecutor or male “victim”, Out in the Night is a necessary watch that speaks broadly to the plight of coloured LGBTQ victims of violence, and challenges preconceptions of race, class, sexual orientation and gender expression.
Stand | Jonathan Taieb
Film review by Christieanna Ozorio
“The status of the LGBT community is a good litmus test for the status of human rights in society more broadly, precisely because it is such a vulnerable minority – similar to the proverbial canary in the coal mine” — Ken Roth, directeur exécutif of Human Rights Watch.
Stand, written, produced and directed by French film producer Jonathan Taieb, offers a rare glimpse into life in the time of Putin. Since passage of the infamous anti-homosexual “propaganda” law in 2013 – justified as legislation with the purported purpose of protecting Russian children – anti-LGBT harassment and violence has become widespread.
Neo-Nazi and other militant groups across Russia have been targeting LGBT individuals with impunity in a systematic and, at times, highly organised and orchestrated method, including luring targets through homosexual chatrooms and dating websites.
It is in this setting that Taieb frames Anton and Vlad’s relationship. They constitute a homosexual couple who witness a homosexual man, Nikolay, being beaten, and subsequently flee the scene in fear for their own safety.
Upon hearing of Nikolay’s death, Anton, understanding that both Russian law enforcement and media turn a blind eye to hate crime, begins an amateur investigation into his murder. Anton progressively meets with Nikolay’s homosexual friends online in order to find his murderer, who had lured Nikolay out on the pretence of a date.
At first, the film seems to chart Anton’s hell-bent quest to avenge Nikolay’s murder, and in turn stand up for his rights and the rights of his community in a country where “non-traditional” sexuality warrants state-sanctioned brutality with no hope of justice for victims.
But Taieb has particularly captured one man’s struggle with guilt and his pursuit of redemption. Taieb’s emphasis, highlighted in the highly confronting final scene, is on Anton’s need to atone, to absolve himself of Nikolay’s murder, which he blames himself for.
There is no clear political statement in Stand, no Les Miserables act of rebellion in the face of injustice. While it highlights and reminds the spectator of the morally indefensible human rights situation of modern day Russia, it is not a call to action, and ends on an ambiguous note.
Stand is an immensely philosophical feature that explores life in the aftermath of a violent crime and the dark depths of human guilt, which made it quite an uncomfortable watch at times. Taieb’s take-home message in Stand is far from clear, but he certainly makes you shiver from the hostility and fear hanging crisply in Moscow’s still winter air.
Drunktown’s Finest | Sydney Freeland
Film review by Samantha Jones
Life isn’t always easy, especially if you’re on the marginalised side of the fence. The Navajo reservation in Southwestern US, aka Drunktown, is on that side of the fence: beautiful land of Native American traditions burdened with a legacy of crime, violence and drugs.
This is where we find Felixia, Nizhoni and Luther, each battling with their identity. Felixia is transgender, accepted by her family but not by society, Nizhoni is Navajo but disconnected to her heritage, and Luther is the man of the house but doesn’t know how to be. Each of them run a course parallel to each other; connected in the end by their origins.
Each of the characters struggle in their own way, but it is through Felixia’s character that the viewer is privy to the day-to-day struggles of being transgender – the shame and embarrassment of those who once used her, the cruelty of the ignorant and the fear exposure generates in Felixia.
The trajectory of Felixia’s character is subtle but insightful, and is a frank portrayal of the complex tensions that come with being a transgender Native American.
Felixia’s grandfather, the Medicine Man of the land, endearingly supports Felixia with anecdotal wisdom, reflective of his Navajo ancestry. He shares stories of the third gender (Nadleeh) and how they bought harmony to the divide between genders. Heart-to-heart interactions like these are interspersed among all the conflict.
This is Navajo writer and director Sydney Freeland’s debut work. It is a charming coming-of-age film that portrays important underexplored issues for the LGBTIQ and Native American community.
It highlights the need to belong, illustrating the power of which community, acceptance and love can carry within an individual, enabling them to run beyond the fences that box them in.
As the Medicine Man says: “Wherever you go, whatever you choose to do, you’ll always have a home here.”
Feature image: Purple Sherbert Photography/Flickr