Silver’s the new gold

This year’s Silverdocs film festival is bigger than ever and includes strong gay offerings
By GREG MARZULLO | Friday, June 13, 2008

Washington boasts a daunting cultural calendar, but one of the year’s top events is Silverdocs, the AFI and Discovery Channel Documentary Festival. This international slate of documentary films, now in its sixth year, has grown considerably during its tenure at the AFI Silver Theatre, so much so that this year’s festival has added days and increased screening venues.

The Silverdocs programmers whittled down almost 2,000 submissions to 108 eight films from 63 countries, and the movies run the gamut from the political to the sacred and the delightfully profane.

This year’s opening film is “All Together Now,” a backstage look at the creative process for “Love,” a Beatles-inspired Cirque du Soleil stage production at Las Vegas’ Mirage hotel, so those with a penchant for the Brit band’s music and the brilliant artistry of the visionary circus should check it out on opening night, Monday, June 16, when director Adrian Wills is scheduled to attend.

Of equal interest is the closing night film, “Theater of War,” which also follows artists in the creation of a very different type of show — George C. Wolfe’s 2006 outdoor performance of “Mother Courage and Her Children,” starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. The film, screening on June 21, looks at the connections between art, war and capitalism. Special guests are expected, but haven’t been announced.

Each year, Silverdocs honors a notable filmmaker for his or her contribution to the documentary oeuvre, and this year’s honoree is Spike Lee. The festival will screen “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “4 Little Girls,” a chronicle of the bombing of a black church that killed four girls during the civil rights movement, and “We Wuz Robbed,” following the drama of the 2000 presidential election. On June 19, Lee will be interviewed by Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy after a screening of clips from his documentaries.

EACH YEAR, SILVERDOCS includes a handful of films with direct queer content (last year’s “Super Amigos” is one of the best gay-related documentaries of all time), and this year’s offerings, though few, are rich and provocative in content and cultural analysis.

Of real historical interest is “An American Family” and its attendant follow-up documentary “Lance Loud!”

Long before today’s so-called reality shows, PBS was the first to follow a group of people in verité style through their regular ups-and-downs. The 12-hour series, which aired in 1973, was “An American Family,” and it captured the lives of the Loud family and their attendant dramas, including the divorce of the parents and the coming out of the eldest son, Lance.

He’s reportedly the first real person to come out on television in so clear a fashion, and he was roundly vilified for it (as was the series in some quarters). The not-always-so-liberal New York Times called him “the evil flower of the family,” but he was heralded as a hero by many gay people who had never seen their image on the small screen coming from a real family.

Silverdocs will show the entire series, so you can see lots of Lance in his ’70s bliss, but make sure not to miss “Lance Loud!” (screening Friday, June 20, 9 a.m.) which captures Lance during his dying days in California. After decades of struggling with drug addiction (while somehow still writing columns for high-profile magazines, including Vanity Fair and the Advocate), Lance finally succumbed to AIDS and hepatitis.

The original PBS series’ filmmakers, Alan and Susan Raymond, got a call from Lance in 2001 saying that he was nearing the end and wanted them to film it all. What follows is a touching and often-heartbreaking portrait of a life that was lived blissfully, but also went horribly awry.

Shots of the exhausted Lance, succumbing to his ailments and walking timidly with a cane at only 50 years old, are paired with archival footage of the vibrant man in his 20s who was the frontman for a popular (and given the clips a fantastic) band in ’70s New York, the Mumps.

Lance says he injected speed for 20 years and even injected rat poison when he was out of his drug of choice, slipping into drug-induced furors because he had “given up on life,” but now that he was dying he deeply regretted his choices.

This perhaps is the emotional crux of the film — regret, and not just Lance’s. His father, Bill, was not supportive of his son’s sexual orientation, saying in one clip that he “detest[s] his way of life.” Yet, during a 2002 interview after Lance’s death, this typical 1950s-era patriarch breaks completely while saying, “Words can’t express how you feel when you lose a child,” adding that he’ll never get over his regrets and “should haves” despite admonitions from his friends not to look back or feel guilty.

The film ends, appropriately, with Lance’s widely attended memorial service, with guests including filmmaker and actor John Cameron Mitchell, writer Victoria Galves and singer Rufus Wainright, who sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It’s hard to say whether or not Lance would have gone his self-destructive route regardless of “An American Family,” but it’s not a difficult jump to see how being thrust into the limelight and then being given a sound drubbing from the American establishment could contribute mightily to anyone’s tenuous grip on a healthy self-image. What wreckages will we see 30 years from now after the onset of this era’s almost macabre obsession with other people’s “realities?”

THE MOST HEARTENING queer offering at Silverdocs is “Bi the Way,” a wonderful look at bisexuality (or perhaps more appropriate “fluid sexuality”) through the eyes of younger generations, researchers, psychologists and gay pundits. Filmmakers Josephine Decker and Brittany Blockman travel the country from New York, through the heartland and to the West Coast, taping stories of acclaimed bisexuals and the comments of random folks from various backgrounds and social strata.

One of the commentators calls this current generation of teens and 20-somethings the “whatever generation” when it comes to sexual expression, and from the subjects interviewed by Decker and Blockman, this moniker seems particularly apt.

Pam, a late teen, doesn’t like labels, but is definitely interested in both men and women. Taryn, probably in her 20s, is happily bisexual and negotiates a healthy open relationship with her boyfriend based on refreshing honesty and perfect examples of healthy communication. Women across the country talk about their sensual experiences with other women as if it’s no big deal, and researchers cite a study where 11 percent of girls between 14 and 19 have reported having some form of same-sex contact.

However, this isn’t just a story about the women, and given the doubt raised by most gay men about the very existence of bi guys, this is where the film digs into the prejudices from both sides of the sexual aisle about bi experience.

The most endearing personal story is of Josh, the 11-year-old son of queer filmmaker Jonathan Caouette of “Tarnation” fame. Josh lives with his mother in Texas and expresses pre-pubescent desires for both boys (the ripped hero of “Smallville”) and girls.

Even from an early age, the child contemplated these issues. His mother tells the story of 5-year-old Josh asking if he had to be gay like his father so he’ll be loved by him. (This raises the interesting notion that the orientation of a parent does come into play in the identity-formation of a child — something pro-gay family advocates often deny.)

Commentators from sex columnist Dan Savage to theologians and Kinsey Center sex researchers offer fascinating context for the issues at hand.

One bit of research suggests that the brain forms three different pathways related to deep attachment (the type felt for a longtime partner), sexual arousal and the giddiness of falling in love. Accordingly, the brain is capable of feeling deep attachment to one person, falling in love with another and sexual yearnings for a host of folks — simultaneously. For people who have bisexual inclinations, this could give a much-needed scientific boost to their experiences.

‘Bi the Way’ is a smart and heartening look at the experiences of young bisexual people, many of whom are more interested in forging an authentic identity than adhering to outmoded ways of thinking about sex and relationships. (Photo courtesy of Silverdocs)

But more importantly, the film asks why the science should matter? The research lends objective credence, but when dealing in the murky waters of love and desire, a person’s experience should be enough.

DIRECTOR RUBY YANG had a hit at Silverdocs with her 2006 “The Blood of Yingzhou District,” which went on to win the Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar in 2007. The film revealed the grim lives of children who had lost their parents to AIDS in China and included the stories of children also afflicted with the disease.

Sticking again with China, this year Yang shows “Tongzhi in Love,” an eye-opening look at being gay in China. As with her previous film, the director punctuates the thematic elements with the landscape and physical realities of the highlighted subjects.

Surrounded by silhouetted cityscapes and lit by the unearthly and disorienting glow of amber street lamps, three young men “Frog,” Xiang and Long all express their conflicted feelings around their desire for other men. A deep sense of shame over fulfilling family obligations is what haunts these young men most.

While American gays might recognize this hurdle, China’s one-child policy (restricting families to only giving birth to a single child) adds immense pressure to a culture that already places a high value on ancestors, descendants and filial piety.

“If you live your whole life for yourself and not your parents, how are you going to fulfill your responsibilities as a Chinese man” asks Long angrily, confronting another gay young adult whose laissez-faire attitude toward procreation enrages Long.

Like gays in countries around the world, the three men find themselves in an urban center, but their rural family life is ever-present in their minds, especially because of their isolated sexual identities. Xiang returns home to his country family for a visit, and despite his very feminine demeanor and obvious love of other men, he again contemplates settling down with a girl.

“Frog,” who finds other gay men once he attends college, walks the lonely streets of Beijing, trying to discover the middle road between a life that “holds all the treasures for which a person thirsts” and one that “holds obligations to family and friends.” As he’s contemplating these weighty choices, a young, smiling toddler runs by and plays near “Frog’s” feet, a shining example of all that “Frog” should want and might saddle himself with to perpetuate a culture bent on smothering his expressions of love.