Having attended two international film festivals this year (the SXSW and Tribeca), and I can tell you that all those claims you hear about cinema transforming to be more inclusive of right representation and telling stories that are real and raw, is actually not that far from the truth. It’s not a massive wave, nor is it going to overturn the entire industry with one season, but change is slowly and steadily seeping into the foundations and laying down roots. Two changes in particular make me happy. One is more opportunities and recognition for stories of, for and by women. And the other is LGBTQ+ stories of, for and by queer storytellers. At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place smack in the middle of Pride month, I had the privilege of watching some truly amazing LGBTQ+ stories that stayed with me long after I was done watching them.
Now let me tell you, I had quite the ambitious list of ‘films to watch’ (I’m going to go ahead and say 60+ titles) and within that, a list of films with LGBTQIA storylines or characters—Building A Bridge, Beautiful They, Coded. And it sucks that I wasn’t able to watch them all. I consciously picked out some LGBTQ+ stories, like No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics or The Legend Of The Underground, because their premise, and the insight they were going to offer into this world that is so persecuted and yet manages to stand proud, deserved to be seen. It fascinated me, but at the same time, I wanted to understand and know these stories, since educating oneself is how you become a true ally. And indeed, they were such eye-openers! Others, like The Novice, weren’t mainlining a queer theme, but it was merely a part of the character’s story, yet still impressive in how they presented this aspect of their personality.
So as Pride Month ends, and brands return to black and white messaging *sigh* (even though it ought to be a Pride celebration 365 days because that is celebrating life), here are 4 LGBTQ+ films at the Tribeca Film Festival that I really enjoyed watching.
Directors Giselle Bailey and Nneka Onuorah, who reportedly have a history of telling stories that pair art and activism, bring their film The Legend Of The Underground, a documentary about the discrimination against queer youth in Nigeria. The documentary, executive produced by John Legend, Mike Jackson, and Ty Stiklorius, just had its premiere on HBO.
I went into watch this one, knowing that it might be a difficult watch. Most queer youth have to deal with not being accepted by their own family and friends. But to have the entire country and legal system against your very sense of self can make life unimaginably hard. The youth of Nigeria had two choices—either migrate to a country where they are free to be themselves, like the United States, or live a life of non-conformity that could put them at risk of being deemed criminals in the eyes of the law. Through the stories of Michael and James and other such queer youth, we learn how both roads might run parallel and even converge, but ultimately lead to a battle that must be fought to secure a better future for the members of the LGBTQ+ community in the country.
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The Legend Of The Underground also made a very strong case for the Internet and social media being the catalyst for social revolution, because these voices and their stories and plights, though suppressed and living closeted in their home nation, were finding a way to make it out into the world and inspiring many to stand their ground and fight. Or at least have the courage to own their truth.
There was nothing ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about the path they chose. And I think he documentary didn’t try to point us in either direction. Instead, it celebrated the fighting spirit and non-conformity of the members of this underground community that should’ve been able to live freely and openly.
The most heartwarming moments for me where watching these young men showcase their talents, whether it was photography or designing campy outfits that best represented the people wearing them! The moment of homecoming was also quite emotional, because you can see the risk and danger juxtaposed with the gravity of what that gesture meant.
This one is hands down my favourite! I was fascinated when I read about this documentary; I have this newfound love for documentaries since the past two years now. I am not an avid comic book nerd, but I am a book nerd, and I was curious to know more about yet another underground chapter that was doing its bit to keep the LGBTQ+ movement alive and flourishing, in colourful art and story. And, I loved the name. No straight lines indeed!
This documentary is directed and co-produced by Vivian Kleiman, who is a Peabody Award winning filmmaker, with cinematography by Andrew Black, and editing by Christiane Badgley and Linda Peckham. It is inspired by the Lambda-winning and Eisner-nominated book No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, written by Justin Hall, who is also the co-producer.
The film brings to the forefront the journeys of five comic book artists—Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Jennifer Camper (Rude Girls and Dangerous Women), Howard Cruse (Gay Comix), Rupert Kinnard (B.B. And The Diva) and Mary Wings (Come Out Comix)—as they began creating some of the very first comic book characters to feature queer characters. Eventually, these became full-blown series that were highly in demand and became important milestones in LGBTQ+ history, while helping many queer youth to accept their identity and see that they were not alone. These comics also helped share the real experience of being queer, from writers who were queer, which served a purpose of busting unsavoury myths about the LGBTQ+ community as well.
No Straight Lines looks incredible, because along with the talking heads, we also get to see clips of these comic artists’ works, which speak to the different aspects of the LGBTQ community and have their own distinctive styles and voice. This makes for an audio-visual experience that is very pleasant, playful and enjoyable, and exactly how history ought to be taught in schools, if I might add! And oh boy, there’s such amazing history there. I started making notes, when midway, I realised this was turning into a TBR list-cum-Wikipedia page entry for these artists. I now want to read Dykes To Watch Out For, which was published in a feminist newspaper and destigmatised not just lesbian sexuality but also women’s bodies.
One of the best things about this documentary is that it does a fantastic job of marrying the personal with the political context of the time these comics were written in. So you’ve got them talking about how the underground movement for comics actually flourished, and how their own personal and professional experiences shaped the stories they wrote. These comics came out at a time when being queer was much more dangerous than it is now. And to bring out this comparison, the documentary also features younger queer comic writers who talk about how these works not only helped them personally but also professionally. They also acknowledge their own privilege; for example, Rupert Kinnard back then had to have his black characters interact with some white characters at least. But the writers of today don’t have to do that anymore. They can have all black characters.
And while we talk about these queer comics at their peak, there’s also the period of the AIDs epidemic that dealt a severe blow to this community, and how they’d embed satire, dark humour and rage (Seven Miles A Second) into their comics as an outlet for their real emotions. Howard Cruse, who got referred to as the godfather of queer comics, even wrote one inspired from his and his partner’s relationship (Dirty Old Lovers)!
No Straight Lines was an easy-breezy watch; fun, light, and enjoyable, and providing a history lesson that has a lot to unpack. The journey of these writers is incredible, and when you finally see them emerged from the underground and on to Times bestseller lists and Broadway stages, it makes your heart well up with warmth!
The Novice is easily one of my unexpected favourites from the Tribeca lineup. Lauren Hadaway directs and edits this debut film, which follows the intense physical and psychological journey of a college freshman as she tries to make it to the varsity rowing team. Now if you know anything about this sport, you’ll be aware of just how much it demands from anyone who is pursuing it. And the obsession that Alex Dall, portrayed with brilliant fierceness by Isabelle Fuhrman, has with outperforming everyone on the rowing team is uncannily reminiscent of Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Or even Miles Teller in Whiplash, for that matter.
Hadaway channels her personal experience as a competitive rower, and her direction is visceral, putting is really up close with Alex’s cutthroat obsession with being the best. The tight closeups that focus so closely on the sweat, blood and toil, and the rigorous movements of Alex’s body create this fever dream of an environment, until the climax scene arrives and steady consciousness returns. I remember watching this film with very muted yellow lights, while alone at home, and finding myself completely immersed into this world, thanks to the cinematography (the rowing top shots are something!) and score.
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There’s something inexplicably refreshing in the way Hadaway handles the queerness of her female lead. Alex Dall already has a great love in her life, rowing. But she meets Dani, and the attraction between them is so palpable, it’s exciting! The chemistry between Fuhrman and rowing is of course the main attraction of The Novice, but the one between Fuhrman and Dilone, who plays Dani, is electric, and at the same time normalised and not made a big deal out of. I loved it.
This feature is part of our Hauterrfly x Tribeca Film Festival Coverage. Read more Tribeca reviews here!