The King of Queer Film Festivals

By  · Published on June 14th, 2016

We preview Frameline as it turns 40.

Spa Night

Frameline, the world’s longest-running and most widely recognized LGBTQ Film Festival, will return to the Bay Area June 16–26 to celebrate its fortieth anniversary. Staying true to its mission – “To change the world through the power of queer cinema,” the selection of this year’s films reflects contemporary concerns of the community – more nuanced looks at the richness and details of how we live, looking forward and into the past.

This year’s selection of broadly politicized films (subsidized with a generous grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the purpose of examining how queer cinema has impacted the course of our history) not only deals with issues members of the community have to confront in their everyday lives, but also on discrimination within the community itself. Thus, along with tender movies that sympathetically focus on relationships and adolescence, a wide range of this year’s films center on queer identities often lived away from the gay mainstream. Frameline 40 also pays homage to important cultural figures and pioneering elders who shaped gay culture and fought for social recognition and legal rights – but who themselves remained somewhat invisible.

Opening with Kiki, a wonderfully joyous documentary on LGBTQ-youths of color and their contemporary version of the ballroom scene in New York City – a sequel of sorts to Jennie Livingston’s fabulous 1990 film Paris is Burning, a portrayal of Harlem’s vibrant Vogue scene as well as the support structures this environment provided throughout the 1980s.

In a similar vein, Kiki takes the viewers into specific lives to document a scene in which each resiliently vogues their way through, challenging gender as well as class in a community that revels in performance not only as an art form and but as a way of thriving with passion and visibility on society’s margins.

Like Kiki, the vibrant documentary Strike a Pose takes on the legacy of the 1980s ballroom culture by retelling the story of those seven male dancers, who famously ‘struck a pose’ in the spotlight (and in film and on MTV of course) during Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour in 1990, which not only brought widespread attention to voguing but made these dancers overnight sensations.

In letting these men each tell their own story, Strike a Pose takes the spotlight off Madonna to let her dancers reveal the momentous changes they lived through, of heady partying, neo-conservative backlash, reinvigorated religious fundamentalism and the devastating culture wars of the Reagan/Bush era, and of course AIDS.

Another refreshingly inspired documentary takes the LGBTQ civil rights struggle from the streets and ballrooms of Harlem to the arid and often stale-seeming state capitol of California.

Political Animals

Political Animals tells the incredible story of the four pioneering lesbian politicians who starting in the early 1990s fought over and over with unflagging determination and intelligence to pass anti-discrimination laws that we take for granted these few years later. The film traces the passage of early education and domestic partnership legislation, which would eventually lead to marriage equality. The structure of the film itself follows the deliberate pacing required gradually over several election cycles to win acceptance and support from a slowly expanding group of straight allies. It becomes clear that the authenticity these women projected won over legislator after legislator – and for viewers spending quality time with these strong-willed mavericks proves to be a festival highlight.

Just one shocking example of the prevailing discrimination and prejudice against members of the LGBTQ community is a dreadful modern-day witch trial that Southwest of Salem retells. In 1994, the same year that Sheila Kuehl became the first openly gay member of the California State Assembly, four lesbian Latinas were accused of sexual assault against young girls in San Antonio, Texas. The trials were marred by bias from the start – a homophobic police department, jury and judge. These four innocent women were convicted and sentenced to as much as 37 years in prison. Focusing on the personal impact this trial had on them and their families, Southwest of Salem also charts the efforts of the Innocence Project, whose lawyers worked tirelessly to debunk outdated scientific evidence and allied with one of the alleged victims in an ultimately successful fight for exoneration.

Authentic portrayals of the lives and relationships of LGBT people remain at the heart of the festival, and a trio of ruminations on romance standout. Summertime is a moving film about the relationship between a French country lesbian Delphine and the beguiling and initially straight city sophisticate Carole. They meet in the protest movement and fall in love shorty after. Delphine has just moved to Paris and quite by accident joins a raucous and lovingly portrayed group of feminist activists. As family and farm drama pulls Delphine back to her beloved rural France, she finds herself torn between her love for Carole and the ties to her family and farm life as it takes a front seat to her feminist struggles and the love she found in the capitol.

Being 17, from French auteur André Téchiné, follows an erotic awakening of two beguiling French teens, Thomas and Damien, who have almost nothing in common except for their interest in each other. Also striking in this coming out and coming-of-age film is the way in which their sexual tension finds a pre-sexual release outlet in the structure of fighting. We all know how fighting can segue into heights of passion and this film does not disappoint. It is also gorgeously shot in a mountainous rural France over the passage of seasons, so there’s that.


This theme of emotional proximity and estrangement is also the focus of the award-winning Austrian movie Tomcat, which explores in a provocative, unsettling way what can happen to a relationship hit seemingly from out of the blue by the unexpected. After a shocking, violent incident shatters two lovers’ perceptions of one another, the lives of Stefan and Andreas and their cat Moses are forever altered.

Acting almost as a driving force behind the unraveling of the narrative, the feline takes up half of the on-screen time in the first 30 minutes, which mainly consists of snapshots of an idyllic life lived among the orchestras and vineyards of Vienna and its surrounds. Then suddenly this idyll is interrupted with a violence that neither Stefan or Andreas can explain. What follows is a very realistic observation of the emotions and dynamics in a life shaken to its core and the journey back into light – like a Norse fable or a Viennese opera.

Two films included in this year’s line-up celebrate the legacy of gay filmmakers Howard Brockner and Robert ‘Bob’ Hawk (who were important figures both in Frameline’s own history and that of late 20th century independent film).

Film Hawk

The aptly titled Film Hawk is a documentary about Robert Hawk that conjures up associations traditionally attributed to a majestic bird – bravery, foresight and ascension. Hawk is a classic ‘guy-behind-the-guy’ who distinguished himself with an infallible instinct for talent and sage advice and help for those he takes under his wing. As the camera follows his 75th birthday celebration, friends and protégés pay their respect and share stories about this visionary man who made an indelible mark on the independent film world.

Equally unknown to most outside of independent film was the director Howard Brockner, now the subject of an affectionate and deeply felt biography titled, Uncle Howard. Brockner made a real breakthrough with his widely seen and much respected 1983 documentary about the iconic William S. Burroughs, and along the way he became a central figure in New York’s arts scene and gay counterculture, working together with the who-is-who of Downtown’s creative industry (like Andy Warhol or Patti Smith).

But Brockner also made a very profound and lasting impression on his nephew Aaron, whose baby this doc entirely is. It not only delivers a moving insight into an important and nearly lost story, but also into New York’s art and film scene during a crucial period and the devastation of AIDS. It brings in great surprise characters like Jim Jarmusch and invites us along on an adventure most rare – the unearthing of a lost treasure. This little film achieves its bigness by allowing the viewer to come along for a great ride, and thus to come away feeling fully familiar with its subject. Nothing of Warholian mercurially teasing and evasive here. It’s all right there from the intimate to the publicized, and it’s a true gem of a film.

And while the two popular shorts programs Fun in Boys Shorts / Girls Shorts remain the premier programs in their class at the festival, two other shorts programs, We Need to Talk and Worldly Affairs focus on male relationships and most importantly men speaking to each other. There are some real gems throughout the short programs including the ridiculously fun and farcical short “Sauna of the Dead, a Fairy Tale.”

Lastly, don’t miss the small, lovely and subtle dramatic debut work from Los Angeles Director Andrew Ahn, Spa Night. It is that rare gift of storytelling that follows in the footsteps of – but also updates and makes contemporary, fresh and knowing – the often overly staid traditions of Social Realism. The film details a Korean American youth and his efforts to navigate his journey into young adulthood while wearing lightly a mighty burden of family responsibility and loyalty to his parents and culture. Its authentic, heartfelt depictions of immigrant class struggle are rare in American film today.

Related Topics: