Quote of the Week: Queering Health Care

A queer approach to the issue would question the norm of a health care delivery system that privileges those people who are willing and/or able to organize their lives into a traditional household

Katherine Franke

One of the major stumbling blocks for me around the marriage debate has been this idea that marriage will solve all of “our” class woes by extending tax breaks, inheritance, and health care to married queer couples. The reality is that while marriage will extend these benefits to those who have them, they do nothing for those who do not. In other words, people who do not have insurance or property to extend to their partners will still go without and people who do not make enough to qualify for certain tax breaks requiring marriage (or who are childless) will still go without those as well. Like other mainstream models of social change, the marriage movement has taken middle class status for granted from the foundation of its organizing outward. And when called on this presumption, the answer has often been to:

  1. point to the endless number of people who will benefit even if everyone does not
  2. point to the few ways everyone benefits
  3. simply change the subject to the larger issue of perceived equality

There are critical merits to all three of these arguments that cannot be ignored. Both in terms of hegemonic processes (ie perception) and actual gains, marriage equality does offer something to everyone in our community/ies from the smallest move toward being more equal under the law to the larger issues of being able to visit one’s loved one in hospital. make critical decisions about partner and child care, or take their body home should they die.

At the same time, the energy put into the marriage movement has left other issues out in the cold both in terms of social justice action and discourse. By focusing on middle class liberalism at the national level, the queer community/ies have lost the ability to examine radical social justice and put that radical social justice on a national agenda. In terms of health care, this has meant a buy in to a family based health care system that at this point only extends to people who have insurance and whose employers and wages allow for full coverage of families. It neither questions the sexism or classism at the root of “family health care” nor does it confront the homophobia and transphobia of the health care provided. Given that part of the queer community is represented by two female incomes of color, the least likely group to be insured or provided adequate care, especially when those women are transgendered, the queer community/ies should have been at the forefront of re-imagining health care reform from provision to insurance. And in so doing,  we could have articulated a national platform that would ultimately have benefited not only our entire community/ies but also helped heterosexual groups like female heads of household, unemployed and uninsured, poc experiencing health care disparities, and trans women and men in het relationships. They “gay agenda” could have become the model for the “national agenda” and given our cause(s) more credibility with the people who continue to deny them as “special interest.” Instead, a middle class focus has left much of our community’s/ies’ health care needs unexamined and reduced are piece of the health care reform debate going on in Congress to HIV/AIDs funding. That marginalization has in turn left many in our community/ies ambivalent about gay marriage all together.

Who Do You Have to Ask to Get Married?

I saw this PSA from Ireland a little over a month ago, by way of @queerty, and actually teared up:

Long time readers know that I believe in two things when it comes to the marriage issue:

  1. equality under the law is a must
  2. marriage does not offer most of the protections and promises the movement has insinuated it will

That means, for the most part I support gay marriage efforts by writing about pending legislation on the blog, signing and circulating petitions and materials, and working on education campaigns, but I am not married myself nor do I imagine I ever will be. I also agree that gay marriage organizing has not taken into account transgender people (see my post on this) but I believe that is an issue of expanding the marriage discourse.

Yet watching this commercial made me think about what the world would be like if everyone literally had to go beg everyone in their town for permission to marry. (Or, as is currently the case in Washington and was the case in California just this summer, beg yearly or almost yearly for permission for their marriage to remain valid.) I could not help but think that maybe my own cynicism about marriage is getting in the way of seeing why it is seems so dire to others in our community/ies. And all the more committed to the reality that as long as we are denied access to basic rights granted the majority, and upon which many discourses of morality and economic and social gain depend, we cannot hope to be seen and treated as equal by the nations in which we reside.

The Guitar: Why Mainstream Feminism is Never Revolutionary (A Film Review)

I recently sat down to watch the film festival favorite, “lesbian” “women’s” empowerment film The Guitar this weekend. I’ve been looking forwardguitarmovieposter to seeing it since I saw the seemingly naked Saffron Burrows backed up against her guitar in huge relief at the local video store. Unlike those flocking to the image because of Saffie’s aristocratic beauty, I was instantly drawn to the juxtaposition of girl and guitar a trope of female empowerment that is often born out in night clubs, woman centered music festivals, coffee houses and lesbian bars across the world. And while “a girl with a guitar” often conjures up images of long-haired white women whining about their broken hearts to my college age male students, many a guitar playing female has captured the feminist angst of a generation, spoken to the rebellion, strength, needs and desires, and infinite whimsy of being women. Poets, philosophers, and activists come in all shapes and sizes, but for many young women they are born on the strings of a guitar.

Couple the way this stark image defines the film with a female director, a highly regarded avant garde No Wave male screen writer, selection at Sundance (and two other film festivals), and the heady choices Saffron Burrows has made in her own career and anyone could see why this film would intrigue. Add to that the very subtle media blitz coming from the queer dvd industry, tla and wolfe in particular, and The Guitar comes with a pedigree that should make any feminist, especially a queer one, and certainly any hipster film geek rush right on out to the video store with fist proudly in the air …

Why I call this film “mainstream” then is not its independent credentials or distributor, but rather its content. The plot is a typical mainstream mantra with a predictable ending. The fact that it is loosely based on a true story makes it no less trite.

The film opens with Saffron Burrow’s character Mel finding out that she has two months to live. Mel, a mousy working class woman with an obnoxiously self-centered boyfriend and a dead end job, has throat cancer that is literally stealing her voice from her. Her doctors tell her that she is going to slowly grow silent and then die, an all too obvious metaphor for the trajectory her life has already taken.

guitarsaffiealoneOn that same day, Mel loses her job and gets dumped by her boyfriend.

Alone and dying, Mel takes her severance pay, her credit cards, and her disappointments and transforms them into a fantasy life where she can afford her every heart’s desire and act out on all of her repressed whims. For a generation raised on consumption as revolution (yes, I am talking to you organic coffee drinking, American Apparel wearing, green car driving, gentrified neighborhood living, hipster extraordinaire) her choices are empowering. After all, in just two short months Mel has gone from a dowdy, frowning, peon, who no doubt lived in a hovel, to a top floor condo with posh furniture, one of a kind designer clothes and jewelry, take out every night from the finest restaurants and people who seemingly adore her.

Scratch the surface of this story however, and underneath you will find nothing but suffocatingly stale air. Mel is just as locked away in her fancy condo as she was in her dead end job. She talks to no one, she goes nowhere. In fact, her supposed road to empowerment is even more small and isolated than her pre-cancer life. Her only connections are to material things and the people who deliver them. Everything she buys is essentially stolen, excused away like the bankers on Wall Street because she is dying. And while she revels in many fine pieces, none of it seems to have much real substance to her. In fact, as the boxes arrive, she is almost always busy ordering more.

What kind of empowerment is trading being ignored in the real world for being Rapunzel locked in her tower? Are we to believe that feminism lies in her fancy things and her ever brightening smile like a singing bird in a gilded cage? Certainly some forms of mainstream feminism have said as much with their emphasis on consumption and the power guitarroscoembedded in affording and pursuing one’s own materialist desires free of the income of a man. And while not being beholden to male power purse strings is empowering, shopping does not a revolution make. In fact, when one thinks about where most of the items she ordered were made and by whom, it can in fact unmake it as we have seen in the rifts between feminists far too often.

Perhaps, we are meant to see Mel’s empowerment in her new found sexual expression. As I said earlier, when we meet Mel, she is in a crumbling relationship with an inattentive self-absorbed man who takes her for granted and dumps her to focus more on himself. As the film progresses, Mel’s only contact to the human world, the delivery workers who bring her food and clothes, become her lovers. A married African immigrant named Rosco Wasz, played by award winning actor Isaach de Bankole, lugs all of her heavy boxes up to  her home, often unpacking them while she is oblivious to his presence.

One day Rosco inquires about her life, critiquing her seeming theft and/or materialism, for which he later apologizes. Within moments of that apology, she flaunts her big baby blues at him, plants tentative kisses on his forehead, and all his moral authority melts in between her open thighs. Thus begins an extramarital affair in which film viewers are given no information about the delivery man or their relationship; now besides lugging her heavy boxes Rosco is regularly there for sex. This fantasy black man, moving from menial laborer doing drudge work she will not do herself to readily available sexual stud, flies under the radar of most viewers trained not to see the exploitation of black bodies or working class people in the interest of centering the em/power/ment of realizing ones own class and sexual desires.

Mel’s other delivery person is a working class woman of color named Cookie Clemente, played by Paz de la Huerta. I believe she is meant to be read as at least half Italian in this film, but that is played as ethnic Other just as much as racial Other. Like Rosco, she comes from immigrant roots, at once calling up the multiculturalism of NYC that is largely missing from the rest of this film and the specific domestic pazdelahuertaexploitation of immigrants of color that has become common place amongst the rich in the City. Notably, the  only other people of color in the film are two Asian immigrant women who enter the elevator immediately after Mel finds out she has terminal cancer and an Indian cabby who yells at her near the end of the film. What these characters have in common is their foreign languages, something that will come up later to literally establish the objectification of poc in this film. The failure of the director to translate the dialogue highlights how little the dialogue of any of these poc characters matters to the trajectory of the film or its star.

In stereotypical gendered fashion, the film’s Asian women gossip to Mel’s chagrin, the black man lugs the heavy furniture & throws off his wife of 7 years and the brown woman offers up good home cooking to keep the misses well. Cookie delivers almost all of the food Mel eats. The more often she brings it, the more intrigued she is by the rich [white] lady locked in her posh tower.

Mel picks up on Cookie’s interests and propositions her one day over the newly delivered food. A scene that could have played like a seduction over wine, instead reinforces the sense of difference between Cookie and Mel.  Cookie’s enthralled by all of her things, while Mel, who is equally working class, seems at ease and accustomed to those same things. Cookie’s sense of wonder leads Mel to tell her the meaning of her collection in what is perhaps the most transparently directed moment of the film:

They speak to me, the objects. They whisper in a strange language. The language of objects. They give me hope by whispering rumors of my redemption.

In one simple recitation of Smith’s actual words, Mel both seduces Cookie and lays bare the way she sees the two people of color in her life. They are objects in her collection leading the way to her self-absorbed redemption. Like Rosco’s name or the unnamed Asian women in the elevator, they speak “strange languages” and have no real place beyond the attempt to find herself. It is a sad misreading of Smith, flattened out by overtly racialized directing.

Both of these characters in one way or another represent colonial fantasies about people of color that continue to permeate the meaning of white female empowerment even on the left. They come and go on the whims of the main female character with little character development of their own. More than that, they exist simply to serve her; whether it is carrying her things, feeding her, or offering themselves sexually, it is always and forever about her. In fact, according to this plantation mistress fantasy, both people of color willingly throw off their other commitments and relationships at the promise of her touch. Rosco forgets his wife with one look and Cookie forgets her boyfriend Vitto with a simple smile. pazyroscoBoth of them come to check on Mel long after their work is done, despite the way she has treated them b/c like Mammy they just naturally love her. And even tho they are all working class, having these two people of color serving her credentials Mel’s upper class passing as much as any of the things she buys.

(It should be noted that Mel also has a white male phone service worker who is equally stereotypical. He is overly chatty and speaks in a contrived vernacular seemingly mimicking the way Amos Poe imagines working class people speak. Not only is he another example of classism issues in the film but his sexuality is never exploited, illustrating the racialization of sexual awakening in this film.)

For many, the film seemingly redeems itself both in the subtle subversions the actors of color engage in and when both Rosco and Cookie ultimate leave Mel for their real lives. The former involves Mel acting in seemingly elitest or potentially racist ways and being called on it. When she meets Rosco for the first time, she makes fun of his name and he in turn makes fun of hers to expose the slight. But this soon turns to bonding when Mel explains her name has meaning, assuming that her name is special and his is not, and he tells her that his has meaning as well. For Cookie the slight is misunderstanding: when she delivers the first pizza to Mel’s condo she has no clothes and won’t let Cookie in and Cookie takes offense. She slams the door in Cookie’s face and then does not tip her, which Cookie calls her on. Again this moment of privilege is quickly excused away when Mel explains she has no cash, as if a tip cannot be put on credit with all of the other purchases she cannot afford. Later when she almost bludgeons Cookie with boxes she is discarding out the window, b/c apparently she is too delicate to walk to the garbage shoot or recycle bin, Cookie calls her a b—h, but then promptly helps her carry a heavy package into her house and get it situated. For me these moments serve to mask underlining issues of inequality just as clearly as the “finding oneself through sexual abandon with lesbians and poc” storyline precisely because the ability of the characters she offends to talk back allows the audience to consider the matter dealt with, without ever questioning how these scenes work to establish expected racial narratives that renders each character known without ever really giving the poc subjecthood in the film. Like the Indian cabbie who is just there to yell in a foreign language, these moments of disdain and judgment from Cookie and Rosco follow a particular racial script.

The departure of Cookie and Rosco are equally unsatisfying. Rosco’s wife of 7 years is pregnant and he stops by long enough to tell Mel he is going to be a daddy. While he can throw over his black wife of 7 years for Mel, Rosco’s patriarchal commitment to fatherhood is more important; with a whiff of stereotypical black masculinity and denigrated black femalehood, he is gone. Cookie  arrives at Mel’s condo with a huge bruise on her cheek explaining that her boyfriend called her a “d–e” and stabbed her in the cheek with a fork. In an utterly unsatisfying scene, Cookie breaks up with Mel as much to protect them as she does because of guitar3somethe sexual slur that clearly rocks her self-definition. This woman, whose only real power in the film comes from her initiative in connecting to Mel is lost in a word that inspires more fear than a fork to the cheek.

The hate crime reinforces the image of poc and/or ethnic misogyny and homophobia while at the same time introducing a critique of class and classism. While Mel wants to call down to the restaurant, Cookie reminds her that if she gets fired she will lose her everything. While I don’t think it is the director or writer’s intention, this scene opens a comparison between the vicarious position of actual working class lesbian/bisexual of color Cookie and fantasy land Mel. When Mel was faced with losing everything, she walked away from her job, her boyfriend, and her working class trappings, and found empowerment through a credit card and poc servants. The film tells us, Cookie has no similar access to mobility, however fantastical that mobility may be.

With Cookie’s exit, so goes the “lesbian” storyline. A forgiving reading of this film would cast both women as bisexual and questioning.  For Cookie this questioning, much like the rest of her identity, is missing from the film to highlight Mel’s sexual desires. For Mel being a bisexual with internalized homophobia that prevented her from acting on her same sex desires until she is diagnosed with cancer could fit a more well-executed film. However, partially because of the intersecting of race and sexuality in this film, and partially because of the overall execution, homosexuality in this film is always tangential to an overarching heterosexual narrative. The failure to flesh out the people with whom Mel is having sex in any real way makes these relationships smack of slumming or “out there” experimentation rather than anything real or meaningful that challenges a heterosexist reading of her sexual identity. Mel moves from her white boyfriend, to her black handyman, to her brown lesbian lover with little sign of attachment, discussion, or desire beyond the ever pressing collection of foreign objects. In a scene that defies reality, Rosco even walks in on the women and ultimately joins in. Thus any semblance of homosexuality is subsumed by male heterosexual fantasies of lesbians just waiting around for a man to really get it done. (There is some redemption in this three-way, in that it centers Mel as the object of desire rather than Rosco, ie both partners work for her pleasure rather than the porn fantasy where the “lesbians” take turns with their male third. At the same time, through the lens of whiteness, the centering of Mel’s sexual pleasure while she simply drifts of in sexual ecstasy without an ounce of reciprocity to her poc lovers is hardly revolutionary.) And while she shows some real affection for Cookie, the final scenes of the film imply a return to heterosexuality, that thoroughly marks Cookie as the anomaly.

At film’s end, Mel has stopped trying to find happiness in people and things and embraced her own happiness and creativity. And while this is a powerful anti-consumption message that runs counter to much of the action of the film, it is still mired by questionable racial and sexual guitarsaffienarratives. After all, if the message of the film is that money and things are not the answer, we cannot forget that both people of color and her same sex activity in this film are counted among those “things.” This is hardly the revolutionary and open life that Patti Smith lived, one in which both sexuality and racial consciousness, as well as outspoken feminism, were definitive aspects of her personality. As much as it pains me to say this, much of the failing of this film is in the directing. Rather than trust her subject and her actors, all of whom have garnered critical praise, Amy Redford shoots people, at least people of color, like the objects that Mel is constantly ordering over the phone. Despite taking the time to shoot scenes where the characters are obviously talking to one another Redford consistently presents these scenes sans dialogue or stripped of any meaningful development. Where we could have seen three-dimensional characters getting to know each other and revealing critical ways that they impacted each others lives, these scenes play like credentialing music videos. Worse, ever single person of color in this film is an immigrant and most don’t speak English further otherizing poc in N. America as foreign specifically to capitalize on gross misreading of Smith’s poetic description of the meaning of passing moments in her life, a gross misreading that is wholly the director’s responsibility. Her handling of sexuality is equally non-commital failing to walk the thin line between sexuality normalized through lack of examination, ie centered and naturalized, and sexuality exploited. Mel comes across as a Freshman WS major experimenting before marriage rather than an adult woman opening herself to the possibilities. Ultimately Redford’s directorial decisions render her actors two-dimensional and the film’s cinematic gaze both sexually and racially questionable. It does a disservice not only to the actors of color but to the real life of the woman upon whom Mel is based. And as storytelling, it reduced a film that should have showed us an anti-racist, feminist, queer consciousness forming under the most adverse conditions to one of self-absorption and thinly veiled oppression. Even the film’s metaphors are overwrought from the throat cancer induced silence to the fact that Saffie is naked for the first 20 minutes in her new apartment symbolizing rejection of her old life and the rebirth of her new one.

Unlike Smith, Mel doesn’t build a multicultural, polymory, life at the end of this film, where she loves openly and embraces all of the pieces of her we have seen. Mel just becomes a supposedly more enlightened, seemingly straight, [white] woman who can now play the guitar.

So where is the girl with the guitar that so poignantly graces the movie poster and the film jacket? It seems, when Mel was a young girl, she stole a red electric guitar that her parents forced her to return, and she had wanted to learn to play ever since. Among the many purchases she makes guitarchildsaffieon her two month spree is a similar guitar which she learns to play in the background of the action of the film. Thus many of the night time scenes of the film, when the poc have gone back to their real lives only to come a runnin’ in the morning, are punctuated by Mel rocking out on her guitar. As expected, her skill increases exponentially over time, so that by film’s end she can play with the best indie bands.

As shot, the guitar is totally sublimated in this film despite being the core part of the story. Had the director spent more time showing Mel learning to play and what that meant for her, and less time cataloging frivolities, we would have gotten some sense of the little girl who lost her way and found it again in the power of music. The message of the movie, stripped of all its race-class-sexuality madness, is the girl with guitar finding her voice and embracing her life. It was a powerful message that director and writer lost track of to the point of rendering her final on stage triumph cliche and uninspired.

For those who can tune out all of the questionable issues in this film and simply lose themselves in the hegemonic fantasy of individual female empowerment through riches gained and lost, sexual “freedom”,  and finding oneself, you will still have to contend with the slow pacing of this film and the ultimate failure to tell the story of the girl and her guitar. Given who this film is really about, that is as much a travesty as the issues of oppression. For viewers like me, ultimately, The Guitar is just another “feminist film” that fails to be very feminist.

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  • all images are from Dir. Redford, Amy. The Guitar. Lightening Media, 2008. except photo of Paz de la Huerta/unattributed and Paz de la Huerta & Isaach De Bankole @ The Limits of Control Part/unattributed

By Request “Cool Queer People of Color indie films/documentaries”

A post in progress:

The request has come in for “cool people of color indie films/documentaries” from Black Folk. Part of the request is really about films that are Mangos with Chiliteachable since the goal is to find films to use in class. For me, teachable films may not alway be “cool” films. Many of the films below are among my favorites to watch and to teach. You can follow the links beside those that have been reviewed on this blog or listed in my movies to watch over and over post. I’ve committed to posting more reviews of the films on this list after realizing how many people are unaware of the breadth o films by, for, starring or co-starring a queer person of color particularly those that do not recreate stereotype.

However, despite the plethora of movies on this list and others on the blog that I absolutely love, it should be noted that there are many documentaries and films I use in class that have problematic elements or that are not among the movies that I would watch regularly myself. As learning material they are amazing because they provide opportunities to both learn from the good points of the films and to critically examine the slippages. I’ve never been one who subscribes to the all or nothing school of intellectual inquiry, ie I don’t think we can educate ourselves and others if we subscribe to the idea that film or politics have to perfectly reflect a single definition of identity or desire in order to be accurate otherwise it is killing people. After all, our communities are wide and varied & just looking at some of the discussion on films on this blog alone point out to differences in how we define queer cinema, critical interventions in queer media, etc.

I’m also not a big fan of films that victim blame, play oppression olympics, vilify cultures rather than anti-gay or trans ideologies, etc. While us-grants-panel-2008these are also teachable, they require advanced standing and are not entertaining unless you too subscribe to the unexamined ideologies they present. I’ve tried not to include any of those films here, though there are a few that will require supplemental reading for students inclined to see poc as more homophobic or to question the legitimacy of transgender identity. I have marked them accordingly.

Also since I teach globally, many are also “foreign films.” It can get muddy to include global people of color in a list on N. American people of color and vice versa, however I think it is equally important to think about global constructions of the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender transgression to better develop a language for understanding those intersections truly mean. To be honest, sometimes “foreign films” do a better job of representing intersections and cultural perspectives outside of white N. American norms than what is available in the U.S.

So here is my list. Many of these will be reviewed on the blog at some point or have been reviewed already (see links):

documentaries

  • Tal Como Somos/As We Are Dir. Judith McCray
  • I Exist Distrib. Arab Film Distribution
  • Brother Outsider Dir. Sam Pollard
  • China Dolls Dir. Tony Ayres
  • Honored by the Moon Dir. Mona Smith
  • Tongues Untied Dir. Marlon T. Riggs
  • Latino Beginnings a Logo Documentary Dir. ?
  • Khush Dir. Pratibha Paramar
  • Looking for Langston Dir. Isaac Julien
  • Jihad for Love – Parvez Sharma (review forthcoming)
  • Milind Soman Made Me Gay Dir. Harjant Gil (read my review here)
  • Paris is Burning Dir. Jennie Livingston
  • Bricando el Charco Dir. Frances Negron-Muntaner
  • Jumpin the Broom Dir. ?
  • Coming out Coming Home Distr. Asian Family Pride
  • still black Dir. Kortney Ryan Zigler (read my full review here)
  • The Hunting Season Dir. Rita Moriera (requires literature to balance against seeing poc as more homophobic)
  • Juchitan Queer Paradise Dir. Patricio Enriquez
  • Pecah Lobang Dir. Poh Si Teng
  • Be Like Others Dir. Tanaz Eshaqhian
  • For Straights Only Dir. Vismita Gupta-Smith
  • BD Women Dir. Inge Blackman
  • Cities of Lust Dir. Raul Ferrera-Balanquet
  • Kim Dir. Alyn Gajilan
  • Almost Myself Dir. Tom Murray (will need accompanying literature on gender queer identity)
  • Boys from Brazil Dir. John Paul Davidson
  • Cruel and Unusual Dir. Dan Hunt
  • U People Dir. Hanifah Waldah (best if also used with music video for context)
  • And the March Continues Dir. Guadalupe San Miguel
  • Pick Up the Mic Dir. Alex Hinton (nice when used with music by out rappers of color, see my post on lesbians and rap here)
  • Shinjuku Boys Dir. Kim Longinotto
  • 1 in 2000 Dir. Ajae Clearway  (includes interviews w/ intersex ppl of color that can be pulled out)
  • Transgression Dir. ?
  • The Agressives Dir. Daniel Peddle
  • The Body of a Poet Dir. Nancy Kates
  • James Baldwin Dir. Karen Thorsen
  • In the Name of Allah Dir. Parvez Sharma

films

  • Watermelon Woman Dir. Cheryl Dunye (read my partial review here)
  • Saving Face Dir. Alice Wu (see clip under my Top Queer Films post here)
  • Clandestinos Dir. Antonio Hens
  • Love My Life Dir. Koji Kawano (review forthcoming)
  • Fire Dir. Deepa Mehta
  • Adios Roberto Dir. Enrique Dawi
  • Before Night Falls Dir. Julien Schnabel
  • The Journey Dir. Kaya Behkalam
  • The Amazing Truth of Queen Raquela Dir. Olaf de Fleur (read my review here)
  • Noah’s Arc Dir. Patrick Ian-Polk (read my review here)
  • Drifting Flowers Dir. Zero Chou (my review forthcoming)
  • A Brazilian Dream Dir. Limongi Djalma
  • Desi’s Looking for a New Girl Dir. Mary Guzman
  • Floored by Love Dir. Desiree Lim (this movie is very cute & two movies in one; my review forthcoming)
  • Finding Me Dir. Roger S. Omeus Jr.
  • Round Trip Dir. Shahar Rozen (my review forthcoming)
  • The Color Purple Dir. Steven Speilberg
  • Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros Dir. Aureaus Solito
  • Truth Hall Dir. Jade Dixon (really fluffy borderline teachable)
  • Frida Dir. Julie Taymor (minimal lesbian content)

multiculti films w/poc lead

  • When Night is Falling Dir. Patricia Rozema (see clip under my Top Queer Films post here)
  • Nina’s Heavenly Delights Dir. Pratibha Parmar
  • The Bubble Dir. Eithan Fox
  • Making Maya Dir. Rolla Selbak
  • Chutney Popcorn Dir. Nisha Ganatra
  • Incredible True Adventures of Two Girls in Love Dir. Maria Maggenti (see clip under my Top Queer Films post here)
  • Under One Roof Dir. Todd Wilson
  • The Buddha of Suburbia Dir. Roger Michell (I prefer the book)
  • Chicken Tikka Masala Dir. Harmaqe Kalirai (my review forthcoming)

What movies would be on your list?

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  • Mangos w/ Chili. promotional image. unattributed.
  • members of Astrea Foundation. unattributed.

Top 10 Queer Movies to Watch Over and Over

A person on twitter asked me what my favorite, “watch over and over” queer movies are . . . Long time readers know I teach queer media and it is one of my favorite subjects to get all femme-fantastic fangirl about. So you know I am sharing my answer with you all right?! (Long time readers should also be able to answer this question w/me.) One thing, this list is supposed to be films I’d watch repeatedly for entertainment and is not the same list I would generate if I was listing the top GLBTQI movies. Several of the movies that would make that list would be much older than the ones on this list and include films like Watermelon Woman, Boys Don’t Cry, and Lilies. Nor does this list include movies I find deeply amusing or intriguing but don’t watch nearly as much as the ones on the list or I have stopped watching as much as the other ones, those films would include East Side Story, Johns, D.E.B.S, Puccini for Beginners, Nico and Dani, & Imagine Me and You. And as if cheating by putting all these extra films into this preamble were not enough, you know I listed more than 10 right?

Latter Days – b/c I know what it’s like to grow up in a religious tradition that denies our right to exist and yet provides a foundation from which your moral compass on most things is set; the good news is you can have both see my post on Bible lawsuit if you just shook your head

When Night is Falling- tho the exotic can be problematic it is still cinematically beautiful and the love story at its center is entralling and b/c like Latter Days it dares you to reject a faith that denies love but not faith in general.

The Incredible True Adventures of Two Girls in Love – this movie has everything you could possibly want in it, loving same sex parents, crazy academics, and a love story to move mountains

Zerophilia – cutest comedy ever about gender confusion, gender acceptance, and sexuality and ever since Blood Ties, I’ve always wished kyle Shmid was a girl anyway so . . .

Nina’s Heavenly Delights – magical realism meets lesbian love story all wrapped up in yummy food preperation. hello.

Urbania – its depressing but fascinating and I love teaching it b/c it gives us a way to talk abt “truths” and meaning in a world that denies oppression while perpetuating

Show Me Love – this is the cutest coming out story you will likely ever see

Donald Strachey Mysteries – yes I’m cheating b/c there are 4 but Chad Allen turns in one of the most heart felt performances in this series talking about DADT and Sebastien Spence’s performance in Ice Blue is spot on. besides you know I love thrillers

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – if you don’t want to sing along, there is something wrong with you I love the “Origin of Love”

Saving Face – b/c I love the way it juxtaposes several women’s issues and thoroughly grounds women’s sexuality at every turn

No Regret – it is a depressing film abt repression and desire, as well as class and classism, but amidst all the bad happening to the fam in this movie, when they get it right there is something so beautiful about it I could watch this movie multiple times in a single night

Family Pack – the juxtaposition of ability and desire are often problematic but some times quite poignant. Again this is another family drama in which women’s choices and desires take center stage across a wide spectrum and there is something quaint and sweet about it that resonates.

The film listed on youtube as “Family Pack” is actually Feulle

Broken Sky – its lyrical beauty and ability to express profound emotion without words is cinematic magic. (warning lots of naked in this unofficial trailer)

Better than Chocolate – art, bookstores, first love, and musical numbers, with a wide range of lesbian identities and an equally centered trans woman, can you ask for anything more?

Antarcitca – b/c it is so beautiful, seriously if you’ve forgotten what love is or fallen into a rut, rent this movie and be reminded.

Shelter – which as I have said before resonates at a cellular level for me and leaves me unable to write a review not b/c of the coming out issues but b/c of the class ones.

Butch Jamie – b/c its just great. watch it.

Want to really know what I think about this subject, read the blog, ask about obscure queer films, and representation on tv. I am currently crushing on both the representations in Skins on BBC America & the Israeli show Until the Wedding & that’s just for starters. 🙂

So what is your top 10?

BLBG: Staceyann Chin Other Side of Paradise a Review

This is the second review of books from our Black Lesbian Book Group at Swandiver’s blog. My review for our first book, which I didn’t like, can be found here. As I committed to at the beginning of the summer, I will review the rest of the books as we read them.

Staceyann Chin’s The Other Side of Paradise begins with a mythic birth scene that imagines Chin as wholly unto her own. It is a metaphor that foreshadows the main point of the nearly 300 page autobiography in which Stacyann figures as a precocious, unwanted, and abused child. For the bulk of the book, she is shuttled between relatives and caregivers who provide the littlest amount of care possible. In this version of her childhood, Chin is a victim of overzealous religiosity, classism, colorism, and sexism long before she stumbles on homophobia.

A poor child, abandoned by her mother and rejected by her father, Stacyann spends her early years with her protective brother and her God-fearing, hard working, grandmother. Though they don’t have much, the three of them live mostly happy lives of Bible study, school, and dreams of their mother’s return until they inexplicably lose their house and have to move in with the first of many Aunties. While women unrelated to Chin are often depicted as Aunties who care for her during her stormy childhood typified by severe beatings and humiliation punctuated by Bible passages, her blood relatives are mostly “long suffering black women” who see her as an undue burden. Through it all, her grandmother and her brother do their best to help tame the rage that Staceyann feels at not receiving enough love or being punished for being “too” inquisitive, “to0” self-directed, and “too” forthright.

At age 9, even they fade into the background of increasing poverty, sexualized abuse, and desperation. By the time Staceyann passes her exams to go to high school, her brother doesn’t even talk to her. By the time she is ready for college, he has immigrated to Germany without a word. For most of her tweens, he lives with his father on the other side of town and barely waves at her if they pass by one another on the way to school. Her grandmother is gone from the story all together, left behind when one of their Aunts decides to punish their mother by sending the children back to her. Both of them reappear once or twice in the later half of Staceyann’s story but the ease with which they disappear from her life and her narrative illustrates how fragile and fleeting human relationships are in Chin’s childhood.

Her brother’s slow and unexplained abandonment is typical of the men in The Other Side of Paradise. Men in the book represent a fleeting yet significant presence in Chin’s life. Most of the adult men in her early life are sick, drunk, and/or mentally ill. Their absenteeism is ever present whether it is physical absence or psycho-social.

Her father, who is the most important man in her life b/c of his ongoing absence, denies her to her face. Though he does pay for her schooling, and help her get into college, he treats her as a somewhat unwanted associate never his flesh and blood. While his indifference chafes, her brother’s father’s seeming care is soon undermined in similar ways. Both men write checks, but neither offer love. Worse, though he gives Staceyann money and food, he also makes uncomfortable and unexplained advances on her that often leave her feeling violated by his touch. Other men, like the Preacher in her church make overt sexually advances, behaving in predatory ways that Chin inexplicably avoids.

Young men in the book are almost all sexual aggressors. She spends her tweens and teens dodging three of them in her own home. They try to catch her in the bathroom or changing her clothes, and corner her in various parts of the house. Her first attempt at a boyfriend results in a sexually explicit letter asking for favors she has made clear she is unwilling to give. And tho she has a seemingly normal relationship with her second boyfriend, the normalcy is undermined by his unwillingness to make any real commitment to her, transforming him into another emotionally distant man who uses her for sex. When she comes out in college, these boys transformer into a raving band of rapists in a scene that not only rings true but also reflects a general sense in the narrative the young men are just old rapists and drunks in the making.

Lest anti-feminist readers see this as yet another example of  “feminazi man-hating,” women and girls fair little better in Staceyann’s text. Staceyann’s mother starts out as a sympathetic character whose return transforms her into a self-obsessed violent woman. Her erratic behavior and violent shifts from cooing at her children to raking them with her long red nails and bitterness mirror that of clinical schizophrenia so much so that I expected to be told she hadn’t abandoned the children but instead been sent away. Not so. Though Chin makes her mother sound clinically ill, this too is a function of the child narrator, who experiences the terror of her mother’s behavior but has no explanation for it.

The other adult women in Chin’s life, with few exceptions, seem to take great pride in humiliating her in front of classmates and female peers. They demean her because of her heritage, her class, and her inquisitiveness. Most importantly, they check her outspokenness with swift violence designed to silence her voice and teach her to become invisible. Their anxieties about her precociousness and blunt struggles with social norms and religion, speak to the fears of working class and lower middle class women about “respectability” and male power. Yet while Chin is thoughtfully introspective about why she acts out against them, her child narrator is unable to provide similar introspection about the reasons they discipline her so harshly. There is no excuse for their abusiveness, but Chin’s corrective look back on it in the epilogue is lacking in the story itself.

Not only do adult women figure prominently in her ongoing physical abuse, but young girls seem to torment Staceyann wherever she goes. Whether they are relatives or kids at school, the girls Staceyann meets mock and humiliate her because of her color, her class, and sometimes her diction. Colorism and classism dog Staceyann at every institution, in ever person’s home she visits, and even causes a bitter fight between her and her brother.  Despite what she says about juxtaposing homophobia in Jamaica to racism in the U.S. in the book promo clip at the beginning of this post, her book makes race (colorism) a central plot point in which it is no less salient to her life than racism would have been in N. America. Her prose is never more honest nor poignant than when lessons about color and poverty hit home in the text.

All of these characters represent the pain and abandonment that is at the center of the entire story. They figure far more prominently than the nuns, teachers, and friends who are actually kind to Staceyann in her childhood. The underdevelopment of the latter gives her story a sense of urgency at the same time that it makes her narrative seem somewhat overdetermined. The truth value of one’s memories is less important to me than what falls out as a result.  Because Chin gives us no concentrated description of mentors or heroes her memoir gives us no insight into how she became an artist. Subtle glimpses of her being assigned journaling or finally finding a home in the theater department are like footnotes in the long and painful story of abandonment and abuse. When did she decide words were her refuge? When did she find the excitement in sharing her voice instead of the shame that was almost always put upon her every time she spoke in the book? Where are the inklings of the poet in her childhood?

Those looking for a poignant coming out story that mirrors the powerful and beautiful poetry Chin writes, will also be disappointed. Chin has two crushes in her early childhood but neither are written in a way that foreshadows same sex attraction or the awakening of same sex desire. Instead, one of her crushes isn’t even identified as an object of desire until they mutually come out to one another in college.  Her desires for the other girl are easily overlooked by both girls pursuits of boyfriends and Christian morality that permeates their lives. There are subtle ways the prose lets those of us who know what we are seeing, know we are seeing it, but for those uninitiated, much of the subtlety will be lost. In both cases, Staceyann’s emotions for them are wrapped up in class longing, desires for friendship and popularity at school, or gratefulness for the kindness of adults these other girls experience. Thus for many readers, only the very blunt jokes about not marrying boys will hit home in these passages while the homosocial commitment to one another, the subtle care in the way they are with one another, etc. will be lost.

Chin doesn’t speak about her sexuality until the book is almost over. With only 70 pages left, she embarks on the subject of her coming out and trying to find women to be with at a break neck speed that barely leaves any time for character development, internal reflection, or some other narrative device that would make the sea of rejection and hookups crammed into this section as insightful as her poetry on the subject. It’s unfortunate because this portion of the book has an adult narrator who could be introspective and multi-viewed about the characters introduced. In many ways, it feels as though Chin is still holding this part of herself back from her readers, afraid of what prose, as opposed to poetry, might tell us and her about these tumultuous days before she immigrated.

As a result, her coming out years whiz by, literally punctuated by cliched lesbian music and the shaving of her head. While Chin hints at a thriving underground queer culture, she never lets her prose linger on it long enough for us to get a sense of what queer Jamaica looks like to her or how GLBTQI ppl navigate homophobia there. As an insider, her insights on these issues could have been a critical counterpoint to a colonialist gaze on Jamaica that elevates violence against the queer community there while erasing it in the West. It’s unclear if she is trying to protect the women she left behind by not describing them or their encounters in detail or if she has sacrificed this aspect of the story to make her larger point about the homophobia in Jamaica that drove her to leave. If it is the latter, homophobia has not only robbed her of her home but her readers of a story about sexuality and (fraught) communities, for one of violent homophobia. Both are clearly present, but as in other identities represented in the book, the latter dominates.

Thus while women, female lab partners, sexual encounters, and her growing attachment to the stage moves so quickly they blur into nothing, the homophobic potential gang rape Chin survived in her college bathroom is described in detail. For survivors it will likely be triggering. For people inclined to vilify Jamaica as the most homophobic place on earth,  it will provide perfect fodder. And yet, this moment is a defining one in Chin’s life. The prose she uses to describe it not only reflect the way time works for some survivors during abuse but also ensures that readers cannot look away from the intersection of sexism and homophobia, fear and male-sanctioned violence. Its familiarity opens the doors for talking about global homophobia, sexism, and male violence in ways that expand rather than contract feminist discourses on the subject for anti-imperialist readers. Not only is this moment critical to understanding Chin’s critique of homophobia, it is also perhaps the most feminist moment in the book because it not only exposes male domination but also demands bodily integrity for all women and feminism from men.

Ultimately, if you commit to the story Staceyann Chin has set out to tell, you will not be disappointed by this book. For those looking for the feisty feminist lesbian who bellows out the words in proud defiance of social norms, you will see glimpses of her here but never quite connect the dots. And those looking for an immigration based bildungsroman ala other Caribbean-American writers, you will have to look elsewhere, as Chin acknowledges the ever-presence of immigration while also proving how life in sending communities is about the dailiness of living not just a holding pattern until one goes abroad. In a world where we have come to expect artists lives to be unique and special, punctuated by clearly defined awakenings, it is an act of extreme bravery to depict oneself as rejected, broken, and yearning for love just like everybody else. That is the story Staceyann wants us to know, the story of a girl who overcame, who makes her living speaking when so many tried beat her into silence. And tho it isn’t the story I was expecting, I for one, respect that.

The Black Lesbian Book Group is discussing this book now. The current discussion question from Luna Kiss is: what were your impressions of the title before you read the book? (Obviously this question is meant to go beyond Chin’s own statement that she was referring to the class divide in the town of Paradise where she spent her formative years.)

B/C I Miss Ianto and Godric just . . . (TB Spoilers)

An unfinished thought piece (Torchwood vid @ bottom):

So I was sitting  here thinking about writing a post about the gay window dressing on True Blood between Godric and Eric. I’ve been intrigued by the character precisely because of the homoeroticism in an otherwise hyper-heterosexually saturated program. While the existence of Lafayette certainly argues against reading the show as completely heterosexist, I don’t think we can underestimate how his stereotypical flame-a-licious-ness helps to uphold the overriding depiction of sex and sexuality on the show; moreover, Lafayette’s storyline has been largely devoid of either sex or overt-sexuality for the better part of this season and last season he only had sex for money or drugs. Godric on the other hand, who never identifies but instead is read both visually and through innuendo and fact as a queer figure (in multiple senses of the term) allows for a counter-narrative to both Lafayette’s flamboyance and Eric’s misogyny. The connection between nativism, humanism, and queer identity wrapped in a childlike body that acts as “father, brother, and son” to a hypermasculine vampire who thrives on violence, erotic submission, and manipulation was an interesting one because it humanized Eric while playing off of both gender and “noble savage” stereotypes.

When Godric finally meets the sun, in a scene that is heartwrenching tho expected, I couldn’t help but wonder if his statement about being too different and concern about what punishment awaited from God was as much code as the desires that ground him as a queer figure. If we think of Lafayette’s own racialized “punishment” this season, the issue of hetero bodies vs. queer or queered ones becomes all the more salient b/c his response is to reject those outward signals that marked him as queer in the original season. Eric’s involvement in both storylines further complicates both the sexuality and racial narratives at play in this show, narratives that have been largely absent from fandom.

My attraction to these questions and these relationships as ripe for theory, and also as counterpoints to the Tom Cruise driven heterosexualizing of Lestat and the heterocentric Twilight, meant returning to the source material. Who is/was Godric in the books?

From what I can gleam through secondary sources, Godric in the books is not Eric’s maker. Nor is he someone who has evolved to a point where he “no longer thinks like a vampire.” Instead, Godric is a pedophile. His insatiable appetite for the violation and murder of young boys leads him to commit suicide via the Fellowship of the Sun.  Suddenly, the potential for heterosexist messages in the Godric character of the tv series transformed into potential homophobia and heterosexism in the books.  What does it mean that the True Blood creators, ppl who chose to use footage of kids at a Klan rally as part of the opening credits every week and who have shied away from showing same sex sex while saturating the show with unending hetero kink, transformed Godric into a god-like figure of latent sexuality and sorrow beyond measure? What does it mean that both Godrics meet the same death and both as atonement for their appetities? Is the lesson of his death different b/c he is no longer a gay pedophile or is it just more palatable b/c his quest to “make amends” is for something that dare not be named? Certainly the show should be applauded for undoing the stereotype of the gay pedophile from the books, but my question remains, did they do much more to reverse the overarching fear of the queer Godric seems to represent?

Somehow, these unfinished thoughts made me return to Ianto and something Gay Prof said about BSG killing its only gay character and making all the lesbian characters psychotic shrews who they also eventually killed. This year has been one of the worst for queer characters on televsion with more networks receiving a failing grade on representing positive images than possibly any other year since the ratings began in 2006. Ianto and Jack’s relationship has been both groundbreaking and profound in its depiction of love through the lifecycle, both normal and ever changing, comfortable and erotic, and most of all beautiful and compelling. Yet, as After Ellen so astutely noted, Ianto’s death seems to serve no purpose except heartbreak for fans and punishment for Jack. So it could be said his death and Jack’s subsequent retreat to the stars, not to mention the utter absence of homo- or bi-sexual desire outside of Ianto and Jack and manipulative Rupesh, is part of the disciplining and punishment of queerness on television.

That depressing thought, meant that I had to move away from my favorite research area for a moment and look at something joyful that celebrates not only queer characters (yes, Ianto, I keep saying queer even tho it isn’t 1950) but also the reality that more people are open and celebratory of our differences than the networks or the news wants you to believe. In this 2008 Comicon panel with Barrowman and  David-Lloyd, fan girls and fan boys, straight and gay, and all of the wondrous identities in between, laughed along as the boys delighted with decidedly queer innuendo. The heterosexual castmates and writers/producers were as astute in moving within a queer aethetic and humor as the gay ones, showing us that while the media has largely failed the people making it are becoming more and more clever about pushing the envelopes where they can.  (forgive the interrupting titles/captions on this video, I wish it just played through w/out editorializing but its still lovely):

Laughing along with this video (except mb that Mexican comment that I do not understand and worry about), I suddenly forgot how sad this season of scifi/fantasy television has made me through the killing of gay characters or worse, the creation of queer characters that are offensive or predicated on offensive originary texts. And again, I find myself wondering how Torchwood will look without Ianto next season much as I wonder how True Blood will continue to hold my attention for the rest of the season when all it can offer up is a crazed psuedo-God and a series of increasinly racially questionable moments, you know accept for the Jessica storyline which is both compelling and problematic for other reasons.

My first large lecture on the import of Torchwood to queer media is in a few months, so maybe by then I’ll have wrapped all these thoughts together in a pretty little academic bow. (If not,  I’ll just rock my heels and hope they miss my teary eyes, after all, it’s not TB so my eyes won’t leak blood.)

The Secrets – A Movie Review (Spoilers)

I’ve just finished watching the Secrets, a film about women’s empowerment, shame, love, and orthodoxy.

Secrets_largeNaomi and Michelle study in library/movie still

The Secrets centers around the relationship between Naomi and Michelle during their brief stint at a Midrasha – an all-female seminary –  in the holy city of Safed, Israel. Naomi is the daughter of a Rabbi and has spent most of her life studying the Kabbalah with her father. She is engaged to be married to a man who one day hopes to take her father’s place with his blessing, and who makes it clear that he thinks women are less intelligent and too emotional. When her mother dies from what is repeatedly implied as suicide or other complications related to chronic depression, she asks her father to postpone her wedding so that she may go to Midrasha. Once there she hopes to immerse herself in the sacred texts amidst other committed scholars and under the tutelage of a seemingly feminist head mistress who tells her students on the first day that faith that prevents women from studying or holding spiritual leadership positions is set up to discriminate against women and must be challenged to reflect the true equality of G-d. She tells them, that they can and should strive to be the first women Rabbis and break open the promise of their faith for everyone.

Michelle, on the other hand, is a French educated, chain smoking, problem child who has been exiled to the Midrasha by her father for getting into too much trouble at her last school. Michelle picks fights with the other girls regularly; one of her main targets is an “overweight” roommate who eats snacks incessantly all the while complaining about her figure. This roommate, pictured in the far right below, tries to heal wounds of rejection from her father with food, fearing that she will never be attractive enough to be loved by anyone. While the other girls are sympathetic to her needs as one reflection of their own, Michelle judges her and the rest of her peers as weak.

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The Secrets/2007 movie still/dir. Avi Nesher

Michelle does make friends with the only other girl in the school who is not taking study seriously, pictured to the left above. They bond over being rebellious exiles in a provincial school. Their relationship soon ends when Naomi and Michelle are assigned to bring food to a dying French woman named Anouk. As they bond, their roommate is seen in the background becoming more confused and throwing herself into her studies to become the most legalistic devotee of orthodoxy in the school. In subtle scenes that mirror those of Lilies, a film about how the unrequited love a Catholic school boy for his fellow student leads to murder of his lover and destruction of his life, there is some implication that their friend sits in judgment of both Anouk and them for similar reasons.

As the film unfolds all of the women struggle with finding their own truth and the peace that it should bring them. Anouk is desperate to find forgiveness from G-d for adultery, participating in risque paintings, and “accidentally” killing her lover when he abandoned her but discovers that her real desperation is in finding acceptance for daring to let her heart rather than society rule. As her story unfolds, it becomes clear that much of her trials in life have been the result of sexism that expects women to stay in loveless marriages and contain their desires. Her sons abandon her because she left her marriage for her lover even tho she wants to and tries to continue parenting them. She is convicted of murder and shunned by the community, despite testifying that her lover slipped during a fight about him having used and abandoned her. There is no similar judgment for him for having seduced a married woman or painting her in the throws of passion. So her 10 year prison sentence seems more a punishment for defying patriarchal norms than actual guilt of murder.

When she begs for help making peace with G-d she is shunned by the Rabbis as a gentile and a fallen woman. Their disdain for her is so entrenched that the Rabbi threatens to close the Midrasha if the girls do not abandon her to die alone. The headmistress acquiesces on the surface, forbidding Naomi and Michelle from helping her but sends their two roommates to continue to bring her food. The decision acknowledges that the Rabbi’s anger is as much about the religious knowledge of the girls as it is about Anouk. It also attempts to continue including women who have chosen their own way without actually challenging the status quo, a strategy that will typify the headmistresses decisions throughout the film and calls into question liberal vs. radical feminism.

Anouk’s attempts to come to terms with her life and her faith open Naomi’s eyes to her own struggle to find her true voice. First, Anouk provides an opportunity for Naomi to take command of her vast knowledge of the Kabbalah and become the Rabbi her father has groomed her to be but denied her because she is “the wrong sex.” As the rituals of purification go on, Naomi begins to realize desires for her life and herself that she never knew were there. At first, she tries to discipline her body through prayer and pain, but one critical moment alone with Michelle makes that impossible.

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The Secrets/2007 movie still/dir. Avi Nesher

The film’s focus on the struggle for freedom in the face of women’s oppression, does not end with easy answers. Anouk realizes that she is not sorry for following her heart even after all of the punishment and ostracism she has endured. That realization opens the door to Naomi articulating her own willingness to follow a path of study and sexuality that are both equally shunned by her orthodox community. Unfortunately, It also results in Naomi and Michelle being kicked out of school for defying gender norms and standing in solidarity with Anouk.

Their headmistress, who spoke so bodly about female empowerment that first day, expels them with claims of the “bigger picture” of ensuring the school stays open to one day educate the first female Rabbi.  She tells the other girls not to follow in their footsteps. For all of her revolutionary talk, she not only undermines direct action but is also educating girls while helping to arrange marriages for the girls that will mean the end of their studies.

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The Secrets/2007 movie still/dir. Avi Nesher

Some viewers will find the film’s ambivalent conclusions regressive or unsatisfying in a an era of queer films that take same sex desifre for granted. While it would have been nice to see the town feel shame for the shame they heaped upon Anouk, or to have the girls and their headmistress have a big ol’ feminist revolution, the film’s message of being true to oneself is a realistic one; it celebrates choice while warning that that truth may ultimately result in societal pressure and marginalization being heaped down on you for failing to be “a real woman.” It reminds us that their is empowerment in the struggle as much as their is when we triumph. More than that it also promises that following your own truth is where the real power for each of us in our lives lay and that the real suffering is in trying to shove oneself into a gender box designed to be too small and confining for most women in the world.

Despite the absence of a gender and sexual revolution at the end of The Secrets, there is no sympathy for compromise. iBoth Naomi and Michelle’s husband have dialogue that complicates any other interpretation, championing honesty and equality over everything else. Ultimately, some of the women choose conventional misery over punsihed freedom, some hope that mainstream choices will make them happy, and others dare to dream of that somewhere, where there is a place for us.

The pacing of The Secret may appear slow to some viewers, but its introspection allows each character, both major and minor, to be fully realized. Their relationships make sense because we watch them form. Every seemingly tangential moment is part of a larger picture of the choices these women will make and why. We see them measuring themselves not only against society but one another, including Naomi’s sister and dead mother. And as we watch them acting like carefree young girls amidst the intentionally cloistering set and the disappointments and compromises of the older women around them we cannot help but know their choices will be hard ones no matter what/who they choose to become. (This is not a movie about generational conflict, but rather one that shows two equally complex generations in which the younger one looks to the older one for the answers to where their choices may lead.)

The acting and the direction in The Secret is all solid. The story complex and layered while still keeping a youthful hopefulness throughout. It shies away from dichotomous thinking on any level, whether it is in presenting both good and bad men and women or allowing for choices about gender and sexuality that validate any number of choices. The questions it raises are still incredibly relevant to both orthodox and secular society as well. And at the end of it all, the two leads turn in compelling performances that will pull you into this world and hold you there until the very end.

This movie is available on DVD and Netflix.

Pedro – A Film Review

DVD_SleeveConferencing with the boys this weekend meant that we had the chance to have a movie night at Dean GQ’s casa like old times. 🙂 Several of us have been debating whether to watch Pedro, a film based on the life and death of former Real World SF participant and activist Pedro Zamora who died Nov 11, 1994 of AIDs related complications.

My own mixed feelings came from a promo for the film that compared Puck’s oppression based acting out to Pedro’s own disappointment at not getting more air time b/c he had joined the cast of the Real World to raise awareness about HIV/AIDs. I was concerned that the project was financed and directed by the Real World Team.  The potential for MTV to spin Pedro’s life in ways that would benefit the television station and/or the show was high. I worried that they would soft peddle the ways they allowed tensions between Pedro and Puck to go unchecked during filming, even when it posed health hazards, and how they have continued to make money off of Puck (and other seemingly bigoted people or people involved in bigoted moments in their reality shows) by providing ongoing platforms for them while ignoring or minimizing the ongoing exposure of those people who actually worked to make social justice choices in their lives; after all, if we’ve learned anything from reality tv it is that obnoxious or bigoted sells.

The boys also worried that the Pedro some of them had known personally and all of them have been inspired by in their lives and their careers would disappear into a poorly funded and/or poorly executed film.

On the other hand, I was excited to hear that Pedro Zamora’s life story would get a chance to influence a new generation of youth, especially youth of color, around the topics of sexuality, honesty, and HIV/AIDs. I could not imagine a better script writer than Dustin Lance Black who was a fan of the Real World and inspired by Pedro. Black’s work on Harvey Milk, who also inspired him, was academy award winning and his acceptance speech highlighted his powerful and passionate soul. Black is also committed to HIV/AIDs activism who recognized that Pedro had made the message about awareness accessible and relevant to communities largely ignored by mainstream education projects.pedro18

Ultimately, we decided to watch it b/c Pedro was such an important figure to all of us.  My own use of MTV films in my classroom also gave us hope for production values and critical analysis of the important issues embedded in Pedro’s life.  As a group, we were also the same folks I wrote about bursting into collective tears when Black accepted his academy award, so you know . . . we had high hopes for his writing talent in this film as well.

Pedro Zamora was an important activist for AIDs and HIV awareness, especially among youth and communities of color. He wrote a book, did radio and television interviews, spoke in schools, rallies, and at events, and stayed on the Real World despite emotionally damaging and sometimes physically threatening circumstances. His activism and stint on the Real World encouraged youth of color and white youth to embrace who they were and work to fight the spread of AIDs and HIV that are disproportionately impacting communities of color.  He initially worked raising awareness in Miami amongst his own Cuban community and then outward to other communities in the same area. Unlike other large urban centers, Miami did not have a huge HIV/AIDs movement at the time, making Pedro’s work essential. When he fell in love with a San Fran resident and activist, he joined the HIV/AIDs fight there but also parlayed his stint on the Real World to national level awareness campaigns. For a certain generation of Xueers, he was a hero whose honesty and struggles made him wonderfully human.

The film about his life gives us small glimpses into his dynamic story. Through vignettes and flashbacks, we learn about his mother’s struggle with cancer, his sister’s initial heterosexism, and the growing relationship between him and his partner. Despite my misgivings, the MTV portion of the film is minimal; while it does not valorize the show, it does present a largely benign relationship which I think is misleading. Much of the film is done in flashbacks, with a disjointed narrative that not only moves back and forth between time but also between seemingly unconnected moments. This style makes it hard to connect with the film or become enmeshed in the pedroyseanstory. Worse, the narrative stays on the surface, failing to give us a clear picture of Pedro as a person or activist when he is healthy.

As Pedro becomes ill, the film abandons disjointed narrative for a linear one based in character development and plot. The shift greatly enhances the film, by finally telling us who the people in Pedro’s life are and how they interact with him and cope with his illness. The writing and acting are strong in this section of the film and speak to how much better this film could have been if they had trusted the audience to invest in the life of a Xueer Latino with AIDs. Unfortunately, by the time they trust us as viewers and themselves as writers and directors, Pedro has already fallen ill and cannot even talk. He is a ghost in the strongest part of his own story and that is a terrible shame.

I wanted to like Pedro the film in the same way that I had loved Pedro the activist, and I am sad to say, I did not. While I don’t regret having watched the film nor do I think other people familiar with Pedro Zamora will, if they see it, I’m not sure there is enough of a storyline and/or information at the beginning of the film to make non-fans keep watching. Despite strong acting and powerful resource material, Nick Oceano’s directorial decisions ultimately robbed viewers of Pedro’s voice and the things that made him so important to a generation and a cause. While the first half of Black’s script falters the second was powerful and will tug at your heart as Pedro fights from within illness induced silence to keep his lover involved in his life despite his family’s interference and then slowly withers away on screen. The final images of actual footage of Pedro’s commitment ceremony and updates on what happened to all of the major characters is perhaps the hardest to weather because it reminds you of how many people were impacted by Pedro’s life and that he is really gone in ways the film fails to do.

Pedro initially aired on MTV in April of 2008. It was highly rated by other reviewers whose reviews praised the film for providing some previously unknown information about his life, but also largely criticized the production value and format. The rights are currently owned by lesbian owned Wolfe Video. You can watch it on DVD through netflix or buy it directly from Wolfe Video or other mainstream distributors. You can read the full plot of the film here.

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images

  • Pedro the Movie promotional image/unattibuted
  • Pedro Zamora/unattributed
  • Pedro and his partner Sean on set of Real World/unattributed/MTV Productions

Update on Giveaways

As part of a summer long Pride campaign to raise awareness about queer literature and film and expose new communities to our lesser advertised work here at the blog, we have been giving away videos and books written by and/or about GLBTQI folks. This month’s giveaway was supposed to be one my favorite campy good films about Chicanos, gentrification, and cross-cultural dating: East Side Story.  Unfortunately, the people who were supposed to come through with our free copy have gone out of business . . . (depressing I know.) I really want our next giveaway to be a Xueer one b/c next months giveaway is already set for a 1-4 book giveaway on the intersections of dis/ability and queerness. So I just wanted you to know that I am still working on the August giveaway plan, but fear not dear readers the July giveaway of Were the World Mine does not end until Friday, so there is time.