Movie Reviews: Inside Out and Hot Docs Film Festivals

I wrote the following reviews for Shameless Magazine. They originally appeared here: Hot Docs reviews, Inside Out reviews

Still from The Legacy of Frida Kahlo, courtesy of Hot Docs
Still from The Legacy of Frida Kahlo, courtesy of Hot Docs

THE LEGACY OF FRIDA KAHLO
DIRECTOR: TADASUKE KOTANI
2015, JAPAN, 89 MINUTES

This hypnotic film captures the convergence of two unique women, Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist famous for her searing and allegorical self-portraits, and Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako, whose previous work includes Things Left Behind, a series of images taken of the belongings of people who died in the bombing of Hiroshima. InThe Legacy of Frida Kahlo, the filmmakers follow Ishiuchi as she photographs many of Kahlo’s belongings, which were found, untouched for decades, in a sealed off bathroom belonging to her husband and fellow artist, Diego Rivera. However, the film is less about the legacy of Frida Kahlo, as much as it is about the influences that shaped Kahlo, and how she in turn became a symbol of those things to her country and to the world. The movie ventures to the ancient Mesoamerican pyramids at Teotihuacan and to the homes of the women of Istmo. It is these women who, to this day, painstakingly embroider the traditional Oaxacan dresses that Frida made famous. The filmmakers ask the visitors to Kahlo’s museum what Kahlo means to them, and the answers show them engaging not just with her art, but with her struggles with chronic pain and injury, with her pride in her heritage, and with her desire to be seen on her own terms. Ishiuchi’s touching and personal photos of mended stockings, handmade shoes, and painted plaster corsets are able to bring Kahlo, in all her facets, back to life.

CHECK IT
DIRECTORS: DANA FLOR AND TOBY OPPENHEIMER
2016, USA, 91 MINUTES

Check It chronicles a few months in the life of members of the Check It, a gang made up of Black gay and trans youth in Washington D.C. The capitol of the United States is a study in contrasts – townhouses owned by some of the richest and most powerful people in the world are mere kilometres from neglected neighbourhoods experiencing cycles of poverty, drugs and violence. The Check It was formed out of self-defense, a grassroots response to one of the highest levels LGBTQ hate crimes in the country. The portrait of the gang is unflinching—to build a reputation, the Check It had to become as violent and impulsive as any other gang. Many of the members eke out a living as sex workers, facing the daily threat of rape and assault. Still, the Check It is inspiring for being able to carve for itself a place of relative safety and community in a viciously hostile world. Another thing that sets the gang apart is its love of fashion—members delight in owning the streets with their unique style. The film follows a few members as a local gang counselor tries to give them opportunities to get off the streets. Skittles goes the route of movie cliché—a reckless street fighter training for the boxing ring in a rough-and-tumble gym—though the cliché is upended by the homophobia he faces there. Tray, Day Day, and Alton end up in a fashion camp tasked with putting on a runway show at the end of the summer. Watching, you want desperately to believe that they will be able to pull it off, and also that this small success will have a lasting impact on their lives, despite how many cards are stacked against them in the deck.

STRIKE A POSE
DIRECTORS: ESTER GOULD AND REIJER ZWAAN
2016, NETHERLANDS BELGIUM, 83 MINUTES

Strike a Pose reunites some of the original dancers from Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, which was chronicled in her controversial tour documentary, Truth or Dare, released in 1991. Blond Ambition gained notoriety for its provocative dance routines and revealing Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes. Truth or Dare broke boundaries with its frank talk about sex and by featuring a passionate kiss between two of the male dancers. Twenty-five years later, the world is a different place, and the dancers, all but one of whom is gay, still receive touching letters from admirers, telling them how much it meant to see openly gay men starring on stage and screen. Still, watching Strike a Pose can be frustrating. It never transcends the level of reality TV, and many difficult questions go unasked. The dancers describe Madonna as a mother and a friend, but several sued her and none have seen her in decades. The mother of one dancer who died of AIDS is still filled with rage at the treatment her son received, but this is never satisfactorily explored. Questions about Madonna’s cultural appropriation of the dance and style of gay men of colour are never addressed. Two of the dancers, Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez, members of the Harlem ballroom scene’s House of Xtravaganza, choreographed Madonna’s video for “Vogue,” which helped launch her to super stardom. None of the dancers featured in Strike a Pose have managed to achieve a similar socioeconomic status. Despite these flaws, the dancers are charming, and clearly relish the opportunity to tell their own stories and show off their still fabulous moves, which makes watching Strike a Pose a bittersweet experience.

SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR
Director: Deborah S. Esquenazi
2016, USA, 91 minutes

In 1994 in San Antonio Texas, four young Latina lesbians were charged with aggravated sexual assault on a child. The group of friends was accused of sexually assaulting two young girls, the nieces of one of the four women. Convicted and sentenced to between 15 and 37 years in prison, the women, known as the San Antonio Four, have steadfastly maintained their innocence. This documentary reviews the details of the case, the virulent homophobia in the Texas justice system that led police and prosecutors to use their sexual orientation against the women, and the strange and disturbing currents that ran through the collective consciousness of the United States in the Nineties. The title of the film, Southwest of Salem, is a reference to a finding by the doctor who examined the little girls of evidence of “satanic-related sexual abuse.” Indeed, there were more than a few similarities between the case against the San Antonio Four and the Salem witch trials, including misogyny, male jealousy, and societal panic over the shifting of women’s roles. The film spends a bit too much time dwelling on this sordid aspect of the case when it could have explored the much greater problem of how lesbian, queer, and trans women of colour are so often the victims of persecution by the law. Despite this, the film serves as a painful reminder of what it was like to be gay in North America in the Nineties, and is a perfect showcase for why we must continue to fight against the injustices being perpetrated against LGBTQ people of colour to this day.

ORIENTED
Director: Jake Witzenfeld
2015, UK/Israel, 86 minutes

Oriented profiles three young, gay Palestinian friends living in Tel Aviv during the lead-up to the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. The film works to unseat every possible stereotype, the first and foremost being that gay Palestinians don’t exist, or that they need to be “rescued” by the Israelis. The camera follows the young men, Khader, Fadi, and Naim, as they go to parties, visit their families, argue about politics, and discuss the difficulties of dating Israeli Jews. They describe the conflicts they feel in their own identities—as Arabs they face discrimination in Israel, but they also feel disconnected from fellow Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza. Their frustration at the marginalization, injustice, and state violence they see on so many levels in Israel leads them to create Qambuta, a group dedicated to promoting gender and national equality through the creation of videos they share on social media. While the film is structured more like reality TV than a documentary—the dinner party where they decide to form Qambuta, for instance, seems almost staged—there is no doubt to the truth of the experiences of these three men in the world. Oriented is an excellent antidote to the mainstream portrayal of Palestinians in the media as well as a window into the lives of three friends trying to do some good in the world.

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War

Afghan Women - Lynsey Addario
Afghan Women – Lynsey Addario

IT’S WHAT I DO: A PHOTOGRAPHER’S LIFE OF LOVE AND WAR

Lynsey Addario

[Penguin Press]

Throughout her memoir, It’s What I Do, photojournalist Lynsey Addario reiterates the reason why she has risked her life – time and again – to capture images in the world’s most dangerous places. Her goal has been to bring awareness to the suffering of the most marginalized people, and to replace ignorance with understanding and compassion. Addario has paid special attention to the lives of women, using her gender to gain access to spaces forbidden to male journalists, photographing women’s hospitals in Afghanistan and women’s madrassas in Pakistan. While her writing style can stray towards cliché, Addario’s stories and two decades of photography bring nuance to areas that the Western media has often presented with broad brushstrokes. From Darfur to Syria, Addario is lucky to have survived when so many of her colleagues have fallen. Her memoir serves as an indictment of the freelance economy, where news organizations offer up small fees for photos that were paid for with blood.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2015.

How Poetry Saved My Life

HOW POETRY SAVED MY LIFE: A HUSTLER’S MEMOIR
Amber Dawn
[Arsenal Pulp Press]

How Poetry Saved My Life book coverMidway through How Poetry Saved My Life, Amber Dawn’s memoir of her life as a sex worker, she recalls a client telling her “Now I feel human again.” A few pages later she asks “What would I pay to feel human again?” This collection of stories and poems is harrowing, taking readers on a journey from working class Fort Erie to Vancouver’s notorious “kiddie stroll,” and through the daily violence visited upon the women who make their living on the street. Finding solace in the generosity of her fellow sex workers, the warmth of the butches she takes as lovers, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, and the simple act of a kiss on the cheek, Amber Dawn tells us exactly what she paid to feel human again.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2013.

Canadian History through the Stories of Activists

GENDER AND SEXUALITY: CANADIAN HISTORY THROUGH THE STORIES OF ACTIVISTS
&
RESISTING THE STATE: CANADIAN HISTORY THROUGH THE STORIES OF ACTIVISTS
Scott Neigh
[Fernwood Publishing], http://talkingradical.ca/

Resisting the State book coverHistory is often described as being written by the victors; a single story in which voices of struggle and resistance are often lost. Scott Neigh’s pair of books, Resisting the State and Gender and Sexuality, work to counteract this dominant account of history, entering “Canadian history-from-below through the words of long-time activists.” Neigh’s books tell the history of opposition, oppression, and struggle. These are the voices of the people that resisted settlement, resisted residential schools, resisted war, resisted the dominant paradigm of racism, sexism, ableism, and heteronormativity.

Each chapter in the books contains the story of a particular activist, told in their own words through interviews conducted with the author. These personal stories are prefaced with thoroughly researched commentaries by Neigh, taking the very specific story of one person and giving it a context within centuries of world history. For instance, the preface to an interview with Lynn Jones, a Black woman who fought for power and respect within the labour movement, contains a history of the African Nova Scotian community going back to 1605, explaining the impact of the slave trade, the destruction of Africville, and the legal struggles of Viola Desmond.

More importantly, Neigh weaves the chapters together, showing the connections between the fights for Indigenous sovereignty, against domestic violence, for immigration reform, for LGBT rights, and against the psychiatry movement. As 2013 kicked off with the rise of Idle No More, the words of Josephine Grey, founder of Low Income Families Together (LIFT), resound: “I may never see another success for as long as I live, but I made a promise… If the seeds that I plant today sprout in six hundred years, I don’t care, I’m going to do it anyway. I’m just going to keep going.”

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2013

 

Venus With Biceps

VENUS WITH BICEPS: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF MUSCULAR WOMEN
David L. Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky
Arsenal Pulp Press

Venus with Biceps book cover For David L. Chapman, the bodybuilding women of 1950’s-era Muscle Beach inspired a fascination with muscular women that has lasted for decades. This passion led him to amass a collection of rare postcards, photographs, and broadsides depicting strongwomen, bodybuilders, dancers, and gymnasts. These remarkable women, many of whom lived during the buttoned-up Victorian era, have fantastic names like Vulcana, Madame Herculine, Miss Lala, or Flossie La Blanche, and are shown flexing, posing, wrestling, and lifting, often while wearing feathered headdresses, frilly skirts, or nothing at all. Chapman isn’t satisfied to collect these images as objects, he is also fascinated by the women themselves, seeking out the survivors of Muscle Beach, the inspiration for his years of collecting. Asking them why they dedicated their lives to the pursuit of a body type that is subject to ridicule and rejection, the women tell him that it was all about self- fulfillment—they were doing it only for themselves.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2012

Counter Culture Classics: Bikini Kill

Bikini Kill album coverThis summer I found myself standing in the narrow aisles of the stacks of New York University’s Fales Library, reaching inside a shallow cardboard box to touch the thin fabric of a musty dress. “That,” exclaimed the excited librarian of the Riot Grrrl Collection, “is the dress from the cover of Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped.”

Founded in Olympia, Washington, in 1990 by Kathleen Hanna, Billy Karren, Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill helped kick off the riot grrrl movement, a feminist punk revolution that quickly swept across North America. Riot grrrl’s DIY ethic encouraged young women to pick up guitars, learn three chords, and take over the clubs that previously only hosted all-male hardcore bands. In those pre-internet days, word travelled via handmade flyers and ‘zines cobbled together with scissors, glue, and illicit late night photocopying. These fragile pieces of paper, like the dress from Pussy Whipped, were the Holy Grail of female empowerment and agency for thousands of teenage girls.

I admit that when I first heard Bikini Kill, and lead singer Kathleen Hanna’s distinctive nasal growl, I thought they were too abrasive, too scary, too hard. I wasn’t ready for their message, which was in direct opposition to everything mainstream culture found acceptable. Bikini Kill didn’t behave like ladies. Bikini Kill didn’t believe in propriety. Kathleen Hanna spit and cursed and owned her sexuality, prowling the very edge of the stage in micro-mini skirts, daring anyone in the audience to try and grab her. Frankly, I found Bikini Kill intimidating.

But as I ventured out of my teenage bedroom and into the real world, I found myself running up against the misogyny and violence that Bikini Kill sang about. Just like I needed feminism to give me strength, I needed Bikini Kill. In three short albums, Bikini Kill managed to cover issues of sexual assault, domestic abuse, incest, eating disorders, and poverty. These thirty minute bursts of noise became my feminist Bible, with each three minute song standing as a psalm of righteous indignation. Now, when rape culture rears its ugly head, I have “I Like Fucking” and its last lines, “I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe.” When men harass me on the street, leering at me and my girlfriend, I always return to the power chords and defiance of “Rebel Girl,” which marked the first time I ever heard someone express the power that can be found in being queer. Bikini Kill’s rebel girl embodies revolution–a queer revolution, an outcast revolution, a feminist revolution–“in her kiss,” screams Kathleen Hanna, “I taste the revolution.”

The riot grrrl movement was imperfect, often falling into the same trap as the mainstream feminist movement in prioritizing the voices of middle class white women, and eventually ending up co-opted and repackaged as the Spice Girls. Despite these problems, the net result of riot grrrl was a sea change in the music world. Rock clubs and guitar shops never returned to being all-male spaces. Teenage girls kept picking up guitars and learning to play. The space that Bikini Kill helped carve out was permanently occupied by queer and trans and all-girl bands. Women’s voices and self-expression became important enough to be collected by university archives. Kathleen Hanna went on to form Le Tigre with J.D. Samson, and J.D. Samson went on to form MEN, a queer dance band that I saw play at Toronto’s Sneaky Dee’s last year. When J.D. sang the opening lines of Bikini Kill’s “Double Dare Ya,” the crowd went wild. “Hey girlfriend, I got a proposition, it goes something like this: Dare ya to do what you want. Dare ya to be who you will. Dare ya to cry right out loud. You get so emotional baby.” Bikini Kill broke up in 1998, but revolution grrrl style now is forever.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2012.

Unpersons

UNPERSONS
The Pack a.d.
[Mint Records]

Unpersons album coverUnpersons is an unrepentant breakup album, with all of The Pack a.d.’s quieter, gentler tendencies drained away and distilled into tight, angry rock. Drummer Maya Miller bangs out backing rhythms as vocalist Becky Black howls out the pain of a broken heart. But even in their sadness, The Pack have maintained their trademark nerdy humor. The video for “Take,” with its plaintive chorus of “And you take everything I love” was shot, for no discernible reason, as an homage to “Cars” by Gary Numan, a decidedly un-sad song about… a car. Just as improbably for a garage rock album released in 2012, the accompanying press release quotes bubblegum pop king Neil Sedaka’s 1962 song, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” Well, yeah, it is, but it’s made so much easier by bluesy songs involving robots.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2012

Love is a Hunter

LOVE IS A HUNTER
Rae Spoon
[Saved By Radio/Vinyl], www.raespoon.com

Love is a Hunter album coverAbandoning the spare country folk of 2008’s superioryouareinferior, Rae Spoon’s latest album, Love is a Hunter, pulses with barely contained dance beats. Backing their signature high tremolo with electronica makes for an odd, but enthralling combination of vulnerability and bravado. Singing “You can dance with the one you came with, or you can come home with me,” Spoon manages to bring romance and emotional honesty to what would have been a shallow club track in the hands of anyone else. Most importantly, Love is a Hunter is a stellar collection of queer anthems, ranging from the solidarity and strength of “Joan,” a “love song to the trans community,” to the power of “Dangerdangerdanger”’s final verse: “Glitter in our eyes/from Berlin to Calgary/Hold each other up/Queer’s surviving.”

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, Spring 2011.

Butch Hagiography

ELISHA LIM & THEIR ILLUSTRATED GENTLEMEN
Elisa Lim
Feminist Art Gallery

Elisa Lim & their Illustrated Gentlemen

Tucked away behind the home of Toronto-based artists Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue is the brand new Feminist Art Gallery (FAG). Not quite able to believe that such a magical place could actually exist, I went on a fact-finding mission this spring. Entering through the sunny garden, I found myself in a combination art studio/queer refuge, complete with a chipper volunteer sipping tea in front of plastic bins full of practical items such as macramé, vintage Playboys, ribbons, plastic doll heads, and sets of fangs.

The gallery’s inaugural show was Elisha Lim & the Illustrated Gentlemen, the centerpiece of which was one whole wall, floor to ceiling, covered with panels from Elisha Lim’s series of narrative comics 100 Butches, soon to be published in book form. Some pages were colorful and complete; some were mere sketches on delicate tracing paper; all included handwritten blocks of text to accent Lim’s signature shaky line drawings. On a facing wall, the butches exploded off the page into a mural, gazing down on gallery visitors.

Taken together, the show was a love letter to the butch—to masculine women, transmen, gender queers, drag kings, and everyone in between. Each frame told the story of a different butch, with a carefully recorded first-person narrative accompanied by a portrait. The illustrated gentlemen were an international bunch, telling stories of queer lives lived in places ranging from Berlin to London, Singapore, Israel, Palestine, Malaysia, New York, and Toronto. The stories were as varied as the locales, bringing together charming tales of first crushes and coming out with painful accounts of homophobia, racism and violence.

In my favorite page, an older woman describes the early lesbian scene in Toronto, where the only women’s space was Saturdays at the Cameo Club, a bar plagued by fistfights and police raids. Having moved to Toronto in 2006 to find a city so full of queer life that in five years I still haven’t been to every gay bar, I find it hard to imagine a time when it was necessary to crawl out the back window of one to avoid being arrested.

Collecting these stories is Lim’s greatest strength as an artist. In works like The Illustrated Gentlemen and polyamo rage, their ability to coax personal histories from their subjects results in a real sense of intimacy between the artist, the subject, and the viewer. polyamo rage, a small zine, collects stories from people who have experimented with polyamory. On one page, a photograph of Lim looking equal parts introspective and sad is paired with the text “I have to respect the rules if I don’t want to lose you. I’m going to try to make my partner happy.” Other pages detail the guilt, jealousy and rage that can often accompany polyamorous relationships. The back cover reaches out to the viewer asking, “What do you want? Do you think you can get it from poly?”

Signed “Elisha Lim and many,” polyamo rage, like 100 Butches, is a collective work, giving voice to often invisible ways of being. In North America, where the dominant queer voice is predominantly white, conservative, monogamous, and male, the diversity encompassed by Lim’s “many” is stunning.

100 Butches will be released as a book by Magnus Books in December 2011.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2011.

Butch Hagiography [pdf]

Rage: The Toronto Bathhouse Raids

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Track Two, a 1982 documentary on the Toronto bathhouse raids. After nearly being lost to time and decay, the film has finally been digitized and made available in its entirety for free online, thanks to the generosity of Xtra! and the Pink Triangle Press.

Rage!
The screening took place at Buddies in Bad Time Theatre and was sponsored by Queer Ontario and Xtra!, with proceeds benefiting the 519 Community Centre’s Seniors program. In attendance were two of the filmmakers, Gordon Keith and Jack Lemmon, as well as The Body Politic‘s Ken Popert and Gerald Hannon. It was a truly amazing experience to share a room with so many of Toronto’s gay liberation activists, without whom queers such as myself wouldn’t have all the rights we have today.

After the screening, I spoke with the filmmakers, who wanted to know how I, as a woman, felt about the movie. They said they had tried very hard to show lesbian contributions to the fight, and they were curious to know if they were successful. I told them that it was incredibly powerful to see the footage of lesbians taking to the street in defense of the men and the gay community as a whole. It was also thrilling to see interviews with some of my queer heroes, Pat Murphy and Chris Bearchell, and rousing speeches from Margaret Atwood and June Callwood.

Watch the entire film on YouTube, or read more about it and download a copy from Xtra!

Originally published on the Shameless Magazine blog, March 30, 2011