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


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.

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 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.

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.

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


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

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

Scott Neigh
[Fernwood Publishing],

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

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.


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