This year’s USA Film Festival features some compelling queer content
The USA Film Festival has been around far longer than the Dallas International Film Festival — its 42nd incarnation premieres Wednesday — but it takes place for half as many days as DIFF, with fewer venues (everything at the Angelika Film Center), fewer screenings and fewer films. And that’s OK with us. In just a few days, they’ve packed several interesting gay documentaries (including the opening-night centerpiece) plus a campy short film. Add some classics and a Texas shorts showcase, and we are so there.
How to Survive a Plague (April 25 at 6:45 p.m.). Scan the pages of a publication like Dallas Voice nowadays, and the protests you’ll likely see reported as taking place in the gay community probably relate to marriage equality, the right to serve in the military, police brutality and recognition of trans rights. But 30 years ago, gay activism looked very, very different.
Back then, gay protestors were less concerned with the right to live their lives openly than the right to live, period. The AIDS epidemic — the “plague” in this emotional and fascinating documentary — dragged a lot of gay folks not only out of the closet, but into the harsh lights of the public square. Where once they kept their sexual orientation secret, now that was front-and-center, as they sought funding for AIDS research, treatment with dignity even in charity hospitals and a cure which, while still not achieved outright, has at least given hope to millions of HIV-positive people who had previously considered the diagnosis a death sentence.
With the title How to Survive a Plague, it might seem to be focused on a single person, or a specific approach, but really, director David France has given us a rangy, rich festival of rare archival footage showing the breadth and desperation of a host of people who committed to stirring the pot for change.
Largely, that means those involved in ACT UP, one of the most radical groups fighting for AIDS victims. There’s no one hero here, though Peter Staley — who fearlessly faced down the likes of Pat Buchanan and Dr. Anthony Fauci (prodding him and the National Institutes for Health into more decisive action) — comes close. The righteous anger of Staley, Larry Kramer and the countless others who marched and protested because their lives were, quite literally, on the line, resonates even today with a deep, abiding respect.
For those who remember the craziness of the era, it’s an arresting reminder of how far we’ve come. (It’s infuriating to re-watch that disgusting homophobe Jesse Helms bloviating from the Senate floor with the callous hatred and lack of compassion a hunter might evince for a fox killing his hens.) For those too young to know of AIDS as anything more than a “manageable disease,” it’s a wake-up call honoring those who made that possible.
Tom Brokaw may insist that the men who lived through the Depression and fought WWII were the Greatest Generation, but for those of us in the gay community, we know different: They were at once the Greatest Generation and the Lost Generation, an entire decade of young men cut down in their prime who, with literally their dying breaths, fought for justice and dignity not just for themselves, but those who followed them. How to Survive a Plague is their elegy, and seeing it a way to pay homage to countless heroes — male and female, gay and straight — whose names you probably never even knew.
Dallas Voice Life+Style Editor Arnold Wayne Jones will moderate the after-screening Q&A session with director David France.
Queen (part of the Short Film Showcase) (April 27 at 7 p.m.).
Nikki Holliday is a glamour gal at night, sparkling through her drag show (she even sings, not lip-synchs), but when she comes home, the realities of her life are the real drag. She and her partner have broken up, and her chance of adopting a child — she lives her life as a woman — all but gone. But there’s hope in a young man at the club…
Queen avoids the clichés of the Sad Gay Life while still managing to be poignant and very real in its portrayals of the challenges people in the LGBT community (especially trans) still face. It manages to be hopeful without tying up its message to neatly. The characters live beyond what we see.
Director Adam Rose in attendance.
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (April 27 at 9:15 p.m.). Evolution can take millions of years, but in this documentary, it happens under the knife as musician Genesis P-Orridge and his wife, performance artist Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, pursue their “pandrogyny project” to become a single entity.
A mixture of home films and guerrilla camerawork, Genesis provides the hypnotic voiceover, recounting his bio from bullied kid in Britain to frontman of industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle in the mid-‘70s. Glimpses into the alt-music scene are incredible, as are scenes with his mentors William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. But the build-up runs a bit long until Genesis inhabits a sort of trans-Hitler persona.
The relationship is presented through Genesis’ eyes, as he recounts their wedding day (Genesis as the bride, Lady Jaye as groom — and proudly held on Friday the 13th). But it’s their art project that holds the most curiosity.
Instead of children, Genesis explains their idea of creating a new person out of him and Jaye. Deciding to look as much like each other as possible, they undergo cosmetic surgery to create a third being, dressing the same and tattooing moles and beauty marks in pursuit of a strange philosophy.
“This is the future of the human species,” Genesis says in the film. “Pandrogyny is a cry for survival.”
Unfortunately, the film shies from delving too deep into this.
We’re given clips of them at the plastic surgeon, running around streets in bandages and exploring their breast implants. Director Marie Losier always seems on the edge of jumping into the complexities of the situation, but pulls back.
The film then reverts into a music doc of Genesis’ newest band, Psychic TV AKA PTV3. The psychology of everything that just happened is left only to his perspective and sometimes Jaye’s.
Ballad straddles the line of train wreck and mystical exploration. It’s a fascinating story of the lengths two people go through in the name of love and art, though it falls short of providing a full understanding of it.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 20, 2012.