One of the greatest villains of the 20th Century, Roy Marcus Cohn (1927-1986) is fixed in popular memory thanks to Tony Kushner’s epic drama “Angels in Ameirca” which depicts the final days of the political operative, Mafia lawyer and all-purpose “fixer” for the rich and infamous as he died of AIDS. Actors as noteworthy as Al Pacineo and Nathan Lane have played Roy on stage and screen.
But as Matt Tynauer’s new documentary “Where’s My Ry Cohn?” reveals no one played Roy as well as Roy himself.
Assembled with great care from extant footage of Cohn and his cronies and new interview — an especially interesting one being with an ex-boyfriend of Cohn’s who found him fun,’ this is a startlingly in-depth study of a closeted gay man, who lived wild and freewhen the closet was the rule,
He had, however, no intention of extending the freedom he made for himself to others. In fact, quite the contrary.
Cohn worked long and hard at making things worse for other gays, most memorably with the help of his equally closeted front man Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Together they launched what has come to be known as the “Lavender Scare” — a reign of terror that stretched across the nation from Washington D. C. to Broadway, Hollywood and anywhere else the LGBT might find shelter. Being the mastermind of this jihad, Cohn is the model for self-hating gays who persist even in this post- “Stonewall’ and post-“Obergefell” era persist. And though Cohn, Tynauer shows how this self-loathing operates when it’s working at full throttle.
Tynauer whose films include “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” discovered Roy Cohn via the making of his last documentary “Studio 54.”
Cohn was the lawyer for that fabled “Celebrity” mosh-pit. He was there constantly to hang out with the swells and have sex with the waiters, busboys and high-end hustlers who were its featured attraction for the rich and closeted.
There was however little he could do for its tax-avoiding owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, for by the time they came to grief Cohn’s fortunes had fallen so low he was being disbarred.
Cohn first made a name for himself as the U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor in the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — American Communists who supposedly “Gave The Bomb to the Russians.” as the New York tabloid press would have it.
As Tynauer shows what Julius Rosenberg and his brother-in-law David Greenglass were dealing with were minor bits of information the Russians had. For cooperating with Cohn, Greenglass was given a stretch in prison.
He died in 2014.
One of the highlights of the film are heretofore unseen shots of demonstrators in the streets of New York protesting the Rosenberg execution and sobbing and falling apart on hearing it has taken place. Ethel Rosenberg simply typed the notes her husband gave her.
But Cohn was intent on not simply linking her to her husband and brother’s crime but going so far as to claim she was the mastermind. Cohn was obsessed with the notion of killing ma Jewish mother — and with Ethel Rosenberg he got his way.
Tynauer’s film shows Roy declaring on camera that he would have loved to have pulled the switch that executed Ethel himself. Outside of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, I daresay nothing this individually monstrous has been seen on screen before.
Without making too fine a point of it Tynauer suggests what may have been behind Roy’s rage at Ethel was his own mother. As the ilm shows Dora Marcus was widely referred to as the “ugliest woman in New York”
Her marriage to New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert E. Cohn was an “arrangement’ in which the wealthy Dora virtually”bought” him to become a “Sadie Sadie Married Lady” (as the song from “Funny Girl” put it) and have a child.
Roy was the apple of his mother’s eye. But he was a rotten apple to core thanks to no small degree from her efforts to “fix” his nose in a botched operation resulting in a large hideous scar across it. Cohn’s own attempts at augmenting his looks with plastic surgery were equally egregious. But power and “clout” can often trump beauty, and hide potential scandal.
Cohn made quite a spectacle of himself when he and his then-boyfriend, hotel chain heir G. David Schine (as handsome as Cohn was ugly) began their affair.
In 1952 Schine published a six-page anti-communist pamphlet called Definition of Communism,and had a copy placed in every room of his family’s chain of hotels. Brought to Cohn’s attention the pamphlet and its author became central to his life as they began a tour of U.S. Military bases in Europe to distribute it and hold forth on the dangers of “Communist Infiltration.”
This tour became so well-known that William Burroughs satirized it in “Naked Lunch” with Cohn and Schine portrayed as “Mr. Bradley and Mr. Martin.” Gore Vidal, who needless to say was onto the whole thing opined that in Washington “We used to sing ‘Come Cohn or Come Schine.’ ”
What happened after this wasn’t made into a musical — though Jerry Herman would do well to take a crack at it. For Cohn’s efforts to have the U.S.Military grant his boyfriend special treatment resulted in what became known as “The Army-McCarthy Hearings” — the first major liveTV spectacle.
Cohn had McCarthy “investigate” the U.S. military for “Communist subversive ,” but came a cropper in the most spectacular way. Trying to show Schne’s importance he offered as “evidence” a cropped photo of the private standing near some high ranking officers.
When the Army’s:lawyer Joseph Welch showed the photo this cropped one came from (in which Schine was a bystander of no importance) McCarthy hemmed, hawed and professed ignorance as to how this could have happened.
“Well who do you think did this,” Wech asked,” a pixie?” McCarthy then declared no knowledge of what a pixie might be. “Well it has been my impression that pixie is a close relative of a fairy,” said Welch — in the “diss” of all-time, nailing Cohn as McCarthy’s “pixie.” McCarthy’s reign was almost instantly over. Coh however continued.
As a Mafia lawyer he was responsible for overseeing the mob’s swankiest 50’s era club “The Latin Quarter” and its boss Loy Walters. Lou’s daughter was Barbara Walters. The telejournalist, now retired and reportedly in ill health, passed on speaking to Tynauer.
But for many years she was Roy Cohn’s “beard” and even, the film notes, harbored hope of one day of marrying him. That was not to be.
But in a last burst of notoriousness Cohn came to the aid of New York real estate shark named Donald Trump, helping him reach a “settlement” when the inveterate racist was charged with discrimination in refusing to rent his properties to African-Americans.
Cohn helped smooth the way for the man who is now President of the United States.
But Trump being Trump he dropped Roy Cohn when he learned of the latter’s AIDS diagnosis.
The film’s title comes from Trump the importance of always having a Roy Cohn like advisor in his life remains, and he may well have found one in Stephen Miller. Miller doesn’t figure in Tynauer’s film on Roy Cohn. But he’s a prime candidate for a Tynauer epic of his own.
Meanwhile, we have this film to offer enlightenment and a quasey sort of “entertainment.” For while Roy Cohn couldn’t make ugliness beautiful he did manage to make it unforgettable.
The ‘Spoiler’ is you’re going to cry
Films like these don’t play their big moments for drama, or even for laughs, to keep us involved – they play for truth
It’s been a refreshing year for LGBTQ love stories on the screen. From “Fire Island” to “Bros,” from “Crush” to “Anything’s Possible,” we’ve seen narratives that offer up hopeful and positive alternatives to the gloomy outcomes presented by movies of the past. Instead of stories that reinforce the tired trope of doomed queer romance, we’re finally seeing ourselves get the same chance at a happily-ever-after ending as everybody else.
It’s been a welcome change – but just when Hollywood finally seems to have finally figured out that all our relationships don’t have to end in tragedy, “Spoiler Alert” has come along to remind us that sometimes they still do.
Based on the best-selling memoir by Michael Ausiello (“Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies”) and directed by Michael Showalter from a screenplay by David Marshall Grant and gay blogger/author/pundit Dan Savage, it’s the true story of a couple (Ausiello and his eventual husband, photographer Kit Cowan) who find love and build a relationship over the course of more than a decade only to face the heartbreak of Kit’s diagnosis of – and his (SPOILER ALERT, hence the title) premature passing from – a rare form of terminal cancer. Though It’s not exactly a rom-com, it does try to keep things light-hearted, and it aims for the uplift despite its foregone tragic conclusion.
That’s a tough tightrope to walk. The book, penned by veteran television and entertainment journalist Ausiello, pulled it off successfully, becoming a bestseller – and not just among queer readers – with its warts-and-all celebration of what it truly means to commit to love. After all, we may adore our fairy tale fantasies, but we all know that even a couple’s best-case scenario is guaranteed a sad ending; Ausiello’s first-person written narrative managed to get the point across that it’s all worth it, anyway.
Sometimes, though, a literary device that works on the page doesn’t translate easily to the screen, and on film, Ausiello’s “we-already-know-the-outcome” premise faces a more resistant challenge.
In the first act of the film, which details the meeting and early romance of its two lead characters (Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge as Michael and Kit, respectively), our knowledge of the ending becomes an obstacle. This may be particularly true for more jaded viewers, who are apt to be keenly aware of the emotional payoffs being set up in advance. Heartwarming moments can easily come off as deliberate, even manufactured, and one might sense an obvious bid to force our identification with the characters in the movie’s deployment of all the standard “new gay relationship” tropes. In reading, it’s easy to personalize such universal moments through our own imaginations, which can fill in the spaces (and the faces) in a way that rings true for us. On film (this film, at least), such communally identifiable experiences run the risk of feeling manipulative: a little too perfect, a little too pat, a little too “meet-cute,“ and a little too… well, precious.
The dissonance between formulaic fantasy and genuine lived experience is sometimes made even more obtrusive by occasional flashbacks to Michael’s childhood, framed as excerpts from an imagined 90’s sitcom, which distance us further from the story – a stylistic ploy which seems intended to keep the tone of the narrative as far from tragic as possible.
When it’s time to get real, however, Showalter’s film lands on more solid ground. Once the blissful “happy-ever-after” couple-hood of the two men is established, the movie takes us into deeper, more mature – and therefore, less predictable – territory. Things don’t end up being perfect in Michael and Kit’s ostensible lover’s paradise: jealousies, self-esteem issues, and the inevitable individual growth that sometimes drives wedges between us in our relationships take their toll. As any successful long-term couple – queer or otherwise – is bound to discover, relationships take a lot of work, and seeing the two protagonists confront that seldom-told part of the story goes a long way toward making their experience more relatable for those who are looking for more than mere aspirational fantasy.
So, too, does the acting from the two leads. Parsons, who struggles against the obvious artificiality of playing against being two-decades-too-old in the film’s earlier scenes, blossoms once the story moves ahead in time to deliver an emotionally brave and affectingly authentic portrait of a man overcoming the baggage of his awkward and socially isolated youth (there’s a Smurf addiction involved, need we say more?) and finding the resilience to weather a battle for his lover’s life. Aldridge, a Brit flawlessly playing American, is perhaps even better – not that it needs to be a competition – as Kit, whose easy-going self-esteem masks a world of unresolved insecurities and makes an almost-too-good-to-be-true character endearingly real; perhaps more importantly, the emotional journey he’s tasked with portraying requires an absolute dedication to unornamented truth, and he delivers it impeccably.
It helps that the two actors, who carry most of the movie’s running time, have a convincingly natural chemistry together that gradually persuades us to invest in these characters even if we had resisted becoming invested in them before. Bolstering the emotional solidity even further is the presence of seasoned pros Sally Field and Bill Irwin as Kit’s parents, who deepen this not-as-clueless-as-they-seem pair beyond the familiar stereotype they represent and raise them above the easy sentimentality they might otherwise have carried into the story’s already-poignant mix.
These considerable advantages are enough to help us forgive the movie’s contrived expository beginnings, though its ongoing sitcom conceit for childhood flashbacks – as well as its occasional fourth-wall-breaking interruptions from Michael’s TV obsessed imagination – continue to feel a little gimmicky, especially after the plot has passed the point where such amusements are welcome or even necessary.
Still, the movie’s fortunate choice to play against its tearjerker underpinnings – such as when it undercuts a particularly histrionic scene of hospital drama by calling itself out on its own shameless nod (which any gay movie buff will surely already recognize) to an iconic moment from a cinema classic – keeps the tears which finally come from feeling as though they’ve been shamelessly manipulated out of us. It’s this quality that marks the best entries in the tearjerker genre; the thing that movies like “Terms of Endearment” and “Steel Magnolia” have in common (besides Shirley MacLaine) is their ability to lean fully into the artifice of their own weepy, sentimental style without sacrificing the sincerity of their emotional payoffs. Films like these don’t play their big moments for drama, or even for laughs, to keep us involved – they play those moments for truth. “Spoiler Alert” clearly aspires to the same standard.
It mostly succeeds, after an awkward start; though some viewers might find its quirkier narrative conceits to be an overcompensation for its weepy ending, its characters are real enough to get past all that and win us over. And though it’s hard to deny that it’s ultimately another tragic gay love story, it manages to remind us that love is worth it even when you know it’s going to end badly.
After all, just because a romance is doomed doesn’t mean it has to be a downer.
Powerful queer films from across the globe ignite AFI Fest 2022
AFI FEST 2022 takes place November 2-6, 2022 & features groundbreaking stories from a wide array of dynamic and diverse artists
LOS ANGELES – AFI Fest returns to Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatres this week, bringing its usual intoxicating blend of glitzy red carpet premieres (like The Fabelmans and She Said), special screenings of buzzy Oscar contenders (like Women Talking), and the best and boldest in indie filmmaking from all corners of the planet.
Spanning continents, identities, genres, and themes, the cream of this year’s indie movie crop comes to Los Angeles
Kicking off on Wednesday, November 2 with the world premiere of Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me, the festival will run through Sunday, November 6, showcasing some 125 films from more than 30 countries along the way—including a very healthy mix of LGBTQ+-themed content, often in its first public appearance in Los Angeles, and usually accompanied by post-screening conversations with directors and stars.
Call Me by Your Name’s director-actor power-pairing of Luca Guadagnino and Timothée Chalamet returns with the cannibalistic road trip love story Bones and All, which has been hailed by Mashable as “the next great queer horror movie,” at least metaphorically. The film also stars Taylor Russell, with a chilling supporting appearance by Mark Rylance. Guadagnino and Russell will be present for a Q&A following its special AFI Fest showing on November 5.
Another director quite familiar to contemporary queer film audiences is Belgium’s Lukas Dhont, who garnered both praise and outrage for his 2018 film Girl, the tale of a teenage trans ballet dancer who goes to excruciating lengths to perfect her young body. Dhont returns this year with Close, the story of a pair of 13-year-old boys whose affectionate friendship for one another is torn asunder after they’re targeted by school bullies. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Close is also Belgium’s Best International Feature entry for the 2023 Academy Awards. Dhont will appear for a Q&A after the film’s November 5 screening.
In Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica, Transparent‘s Trace Lysette stars in the title role as a masseuse whose lengthy estrangement from her family comes to an end after her mother (the always fantastic Patricia Clarkson) approaches death, gradually leading to the rewiring of their long-tense relationship. Pallaoro, Lysette and Clarkson will all take part in the Q&A after the film’s November 6 screening, along with producer Christina Dow.
From Pakistan comes Joyland, the story of an aimless young man whose life is transformed (as well as the lives of his entire family) after he takes a job as a backup performer in an ensemble led by a trans dancer Biba. Appearing at AFI Fest in its U.S. premiere, Joyland took the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and is Pakistan’s Best International Feature entry for the 2023 Oscars. Director Saim Sadiq and producer Apoorva Guru Charan will take part in a conversation after the film’s November 5 screening.
Lesbian film lovers will delight in the latest from French actor Adèle Exarchopoulos (from 2013’s iconic Blue Is the Warmest Color), who appears as the mother of a young girl with strange olfactory powers in the genre-bending The Five Devils. The girl’s powers kick into overdrive when her long-gone aunt returns to town and family secrets are revealed.
Exploring the complicated and uneasy relationships between Tahiti’s indigenous population, European tourists, and the Polynesian island’s French military presence, the hypnotic thriller Pacifiction focuses on the developing bond between a French bureaucrat and a third gender Tahitian choreographer. Director Albert Serra will appear in a Q&A after the film’s November 4 screening.
Blurring the lines of documentary and fiction, Dry Ground Burning (Mato seco em chamas) tells the story of two sisters who lead a notorious all-girl gas-stealing biker gang in central Brazil. Joana Pimenta (who co-directed with Adirley Queirós) will take part in a Q&A after the film’s November 3 showing.
Adding interactivity to his experimentation, director Sam Green presents 32 Sounds, an immersive audio tour of the history of sound science and experimental music, featuring original compositions by queer music darling JD Samson. Headphones will be provided for this special binaural screening on November 4, which will be followed by a Q&A with Green.
On an even more experimental tip, the German film Piaffe tells the story of introverted Berliner Eva, who takes over a sound effects job for her sister when the latter is committed to a psychiatric hospital, only to begin growing a horsetail from her body that unleashes newfound confidence and a sensual awakening.
Several shorts at this year’s AFI Fest also have LGBTQ+ themes, including the excellent Barbara Hammer biography Love, Barbara (screening as part of Shorts Program 1 on November 5); the North American premiere of Portuguese trans love story An Avocado Pit (Um caroço de abacate, screening as part of Shorts Program 5 on November 5); and the ambiguous Israeli romance Colony Collapse Disorder (הפרעת התמוטטות המושבה, screening as part of Shorts Program 4 on November 5).
Also on tap at this year’s AFI Fest is a special showing of the sweet 2012 female coming-of-age movie Mosquita y Mari, as part of festival Guest Artist Director Ava DuVernay’s showcase of women filmmakers. Director Aurora Guerrero and stars Venecia Troncoso and Fenessa Pineda will take part in a rare Q&A after the film’s November 5 screening.
For tickets and complete info about this year’s AFI Fest, head to fest.afi.com.
Academy Museum to screen classic doc about anti-LGBTQ violence
LGBTQ+ individuals continue to be targeted for violence in our society, no matter how far they’ve come in the fight for acceptance & equality
LOS ANGELES – Late last week, trans woman Nikai David was shot dead in Oakland, California, becoming the 50th known victim of fatal violence against the trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming community in the United States.
In Los Angeles County, last year saw a 20% increase in hate crimes; among those, crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation increased by 17%, and 84% of those targeted gay men.
With statistics like that, it’s clear that LGBTQ+ individuals continue to be targeted for violence in our society, no matter how far we may have come in our fight for acceptance and equality. It’s important – perhaps more important than ever – to raise awareness in the community about this issue, and that’s why the timing is perfect for the Academy Museum’s upcoming public screening of “Licensed to Kill”, Arthur Dong’s groundbreaking 1997 documentary about anti-LGBTQ violence and the people who perpetrate it.
The final installment of the Museum’s screening series, “Sound Off: A Celebration of Women Composers,” the film takes a riveting journey into the minds of men whose hatred of homosexuality led them to commit murder. Attacked 20 years ago by gay bashers on the streets of San Francisco, filmmaker Arthur Dong took his camera behind bars to confront seven different murderers of gay men, face-to-face, and ask them directly: “Why did you do it?”
The answers vary; one young man claims he justifiably killed as protection from his victim’s sexual advances, a defense known as “homosexual panic”; another was triggered by childhood abuse which lead him to fear a “loss of manhood”; others acted out of internalized homophobia, or anger over “gays in the military,” or simply because they were looking for “easy prey”.
“Licensed to Kill”, which won Dong the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, offers an uncompromising investigation into the roots of anti-gay violence, filtered through the eyes of the murderers themselves. Examining the social, political and cultural environments of these men, it questions whether society itself had given them a “license to kill”, through the interviews and videotaped confessions from the perpetrators, news reports, court footage, police files, home and police videos of anti-gay violence, and more..
Additionally, the screening caps off a series of films celebrating women composers. The score for “Licensed to Kill” was composed by out-Lesbian composer Miriam Cutler, who also scored the LGBTQ themed films “Vito”, “Chris & Don”, “Pandemic: Facing AIDS”, and “Scout’s Honor”. In addition, she has scored award-winning documentaries “The Hunting Ground”, “Love, Gilda”, and “RBG”.
More info on Miriam can be found on https://miriamcutler.com/.“Licensed to Kill” screens in the Ted Mann Theater at the Academy Museum, 6067 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, on December 14 at 7:30 PM.
‘Mayor Pete’ emerges as a likable enigma in new doc
An early snapshot of a history-making figure in the making
LOS ANGELES – For reasons that should be obvious, it’s difficult for a filmmaker to avoid adopting a subjective stance in a political documentary. Many such movies have a tendency to feel like they’ve crossed the line between journalism and propaganda, which may not seem like such a bad thing to a viewer who is on the same “side, but can be infuriating to those whose political ideas run in the opposite direction. It goes with the territory.
Amazon’s much-touted “Mayor Pete,” which drops on Prime Nov. 12, is bound to incur those kinds of reactions from its audience, even though it makes an effort to avoid the kind of divisive politicizing that now seems like business as usual.
After all, it is the story of the first openly gay man, who is both a millennial and a Democrat, to become a serious contender for the office of president of the United States. Depending on where you stand with regard to the plethora of potentially thorny issues raised by those circumstances, you’re undoubtedly going to have strong feelings about this movie, one way or another.
Filmed over the course of a year by a film crew granted unprecedented access to Pete Buttigieg (as well as his husband Chasten and his ambitious young staff) on the campaign trail, it offers a briskly paced profile of the titular candidate during his bid for the Oval Office, from throwing his hat in the ring to his victory in the Iowa primary and beyond, culminating in his historic appointment by eventual winner Joseph Biden as Secretary of Transportation.
It’s a chronicle that will be fresh and familiar to the many viewers who undoubtedly followed it in real time, and one that we know will take a disappointing turn before the triumphant twist in which America gets its very first out Senate-confirmed LGBTQ Cabinet member.
What makes it more than merely a left-leaning rehash of recent events, however, is the way director Jesse Moss takes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with a presidential hopeful — and his steadfastly supportive husband — and turns it into a springboard for a wider contemplation of Buttigieg and his place in American political history.
Through extensive interviews conducted over the course of the candidacy with both Pete and Chasten, we are allowed to get to know them both at a far more intimate level than we are usually allowed with political figures; this is enhanced and illuminated by behind-the-scenes footage, which provide us with in-the-moment glimpses of them each in action that perhaps tell us as much or more about who they really are than anything they say or show us in the controlled environment of their interviews; finally, through the inevitable exploration of Buttigieg’s status as a gay man and the impact (or lack of it) that has on his viability as a candidate, we get a snapshot of an American culture at a time when it is perhaps more accepting and evolved around the subject of sexuality than anyone really expected — despite the occasional purveyors of virulent homophobia who predictably turn up to spout their bigotry every chance they get.
While it’s always interesting to gauge public reaction to an out-and-proud public figure (particularly when that public figure is able to arrive at a place where the American presidency is almost within his grasp), what is most fascinating about “Mayor Pete” is Mayor Pete himself.
His face, his voice, and his famously hard-to-pronounce name may already be familiar, but here we are given a fuller and more detailed view. The man that emerges for us is a bit of an enigma, a light-hearted stoic who exudes sincerity even as he fine tunes the optics of his public image with his team, but somehow that manages to make him even more compellingly charismatic.
After all, before he ever ran for any office he was a real American hero, a military veteran whose tour of duty clearly helped to shape what he would become. His entire manner belies his background; his respect, his sense of duty, his patriotism, unflappability and get-it-done determination — all these are the hallmarks of a former soldier. He even carries himself like a soldier.
Unfortunately, though, the self-assured calmness born of Buttigieg’s military service proved to be an issue that, as the documentary reveals, became an issue that would plague him throughout his bid to become the youngest American president in history.
His even-tempered demeanor was interpreted by many as coldness, an emotional distance that made it difficult for would-be supporters to connect with him. Worse, his compassionate idealism was seen by seasoned politicos as too good to be true, and some suggested that his inspirational rhetoric was ultimately just a disguise designed to conceal a lack of substantive policy ideas.
Watching Buttigieg through the candid lens of Moss’ profile, it’s easy to see how someone with a cynical bent might draw such conclusions; there’s something about his careful, contemplative discourse that suggests things hidden below the surface.
Yet at the same time, as the film (and his quest for victory) progresses, there’s a cumulative effect that reinforces the first impression served up by his infectious blend of old-fashioned optimism and forward-thinking ideology and makes it difficult to believe he is anything less than authentic.
Rather, we get the sense that he is evolving as he goes, holding back his deepest thoughts because he himself is still weighing and considering them, and that he is taking us with him on the journey as he goes. The end point may be uncertain, but we somehow seem to know he’s on the right track.
Pete is not the only Buttigieg in the movie, however, and his husband Chasten comes close to stealing the show from him, matching him every step of the way in terms of positivity and dedication, and adding to the mix the kind of steadfast support that any man — or any person at all, for that matter — dreams of having from their spouse.
Best of all, Moss gives us several quiet, fly-on-the-wall scenes that show the tenderness of their connection, the strength of their bond, and the thrill of their love for each other. They are, quite simply, an adorable couple, and they go a long way in the film (as they continue to do in real time) toward erasing old prejudices and assumptions about gay relationships that, sadly, still linger in the imagination of social conservatives and religious fundamentalists who are too caught up in their fear of change to see the beauty in two human beings loving each other that completely.
In the end, the greatest value of “Mayor Pete” may eventually be as an early snapshot of a political giant in the making, depending on Buttigieg’s future career trajectory, of course. In the meantime, though, it’s a thoughtful, personable, and — yes, I’ll say it — inspiring look at Buttigieg as a man, rather than a phenomenon or a political event.
And somehow, it makes it even clearer that he is all of these things at once.
NBC Universal cancels Golden Globe awards broadcast for 2022
NBC Universal announced the network would not broadcast the 2022 Golden Globes awards ceremony
BURBANK – In the wake of an in-depth investigation into the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the organization responsible for the Golden Globes by the Los Angeles Times, which revealed a lack of racial diversity among its voting members and various other ethical concerns, NBC Universal announced Monday the network would not broadcast the 2022 Golden Globes ceremony.
This past February ahead of the HFPA’s 78th Annual Golden Globes ceremony, HFPA board chair Meher Tatna told Variety magazine that the organization that the organization of international journalists which covers the film, television, and entertainment industry has not had any Black members in at least 20 years.
Actor Sterling K. Brown, a Golden Globe winner and two-time nominee, posted to Instagram;
Criticism of the HFPA, which puts on the Globes and has been denounced for a lack of diversity and for ethical impropriates, reached such a pitch this week that actor and superstar celebrity Tom Cruise returned his three Globes to the press association’s headquarters, according to a person who was granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the decision, the Associated Press reported.
“We continue to believe that the HFPA is committed to meaningful reform. However, change of this magnitude takes time and work, and we feel strongly that the HFPA needs time to do it right,” a spokesperson for NBC said in a statement.
“As such, NBC will not air the 2022 Golden Globes,” the spokesperson added. “Assuming the organization executes on its plan, we are hopeful we will be in a position to air the show in January 2023.”
NBC’s decision comes as Vogue reported that the backlash to the HFPA came swiftly and decisively. Some of Hollywood’s biggest studios, including Netflix, Amazon, and WarnerMedia, announced they were severing ties with the organization until efforts were made to increase diversity and stamp out corruption, while a group of more than 100 of the industry’s biggest PR firms released a statement in March in which they pledged to boycott the ceremony for the foreseeable future.
The HFPA did not immediately respond to inquiries by media outlets requesting comment about NBC’s decision.
In February, the organization said it was “fully committed to ensuring our membership is reflective of the communities around the world who love film, TV, and the artists inspiring and educating them.”
“We understand that we need to bring in Black members as well as members from other underrepresented backgrounds, and we will immediately work to implement an action plan to achieve these goals as soon as possible,” it said.
HFPA also announced a full timetable through this summer for implementing promised reform initiatives in response to NBC’s decision.
“Regardless of the next air date of the Golden Globes, implementing transformational changes as quickly — and as thoughtfully — as possible remains the top priority,” the HFPA board said in a statement. “We invite our partners in the industry to the table to work with us on the systemic reform that is long overdue, both in our organization as well as within the industry at large.”
Witness to the horrors in Chechnya
It’s a film that makes you want to look away but doesn’t let you do it.
HOLLYWOOD – In an era when documentaries often seem geared more toward a slick and buzzy “docu-tainment” style than to the unfiltered presentation of real-world facts and experiences, “Welcome to Chechnya” blasts you in the face like a gust of icy wind.
A harrowing look at the “underground railroad” that sprung up within Russia to help the victims of the notorious “gay genocide” being perpetrated under Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, it’s a film that makes you want to look away but doesn’t let you do it. It conveys the unthinkable trauma of living in a constant state of terror while making a desperate, clandestine run for your very life; more than that, it permits us to put a human face – albeit a digitally altered one – on the crisis.
Part of the film’s impact undoubtedly stems from its subject matter, but it’s at least equally due to the artistry of its director, David France. It’s not the first time he’s been behind a heavyweight LGBTQ documentary. The longtime journalist made his directing debut with “How to Survive a Plague” in 2012, documenting the early years of the AIDS epidemic with an activist’s passion in a film that won him a host of awards and nominations for a several more, including an Oscar.
Now, “Chechnya,” which premiered at last year’s Sundance Festival and was released by HBO last summer, has made the shortlist for this year’s Academy Awards, raising the possibility for a second chance at taking home the coveted statue. Yet Oscar gold was not what France had on his mind when had a conversation with the Blade about the film earlier this week. Rather, he wanted to discuss the people it’s about.
France, like everyone else, had been appalled by the tales coming out of Chechnya in 2017. “We all read the stories,” he tells us now, “but it wasn’t until I read Masha Gessen’s New Yorker piece about the work that ordinary Russians were having to take upon themselves that I became really fascinated.”
He is referring to the network of LGBTQ activists that mobilized in the absence of outside help to extract refugees in daring escapes, hide them in safe houses across Russia, and work with groups around the world to get them out of the country. In “Welcome to Chechnya,” he follows a handful of these accidental heroes, as well as several of the survivors they protect, as they orchestrate and enact spycraft that would be right at home in an episode of “The Americans.” In the process, he shines a light on more than just the atrocities being committed against queer people in Chechnya. He also illuminates a level of courage that most of us have never had to muster up.
“That’s what drew me in,” France says. “The fact that ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to intervene, to try and save lives, while the rest of the world was doing so little about it.”
“It’s not like they had been already doing this work,” he explains. “Olga [Baranova, one of the activists who appears in the film] was running a community center that had an annual arts fair – that’s the extent of her training for the kind of cape-wearing heroics that you see her carrying out.”
With his cameraman and producer Askold Kurov, France spent months in the underground, chronicling the efforts of the activists and the stories of the survivors under their care, and getting plenty of first-hand experience with the kind of fear under which they had to willingly chosen to live, day after day.
After all, getting out of Chechnya wasn’t enough to make anyone safe; Chechen authorities were willing to stop at nothing to make sure nobody had a chance to expose what was going on, up to and including tracking down, recapturing, and maybe even killing any potential witnesses – and anyone who stood in the way was putting themselves in peril, too.
“I remember going on one of the extractions,” he relates. “We were getting ready to make a run with a couple whose location had been found out. We had only a few hours to get them to the airport, and then we got word of a rumor that a group of assassins had been dispatched to prevent them from leaving the country. We had one bodyguard, with one sidearm, with us.
“That kind of unbelievable peril is what hung over, and what still hangs over, every aspect of the work these ordinary Russian activists have taken on for themselves.”
It’s also what made it a challenge to film the refugees, for whom anonymity was a matter of life or death.
“I wanted to show what they looked like,” he tells us. “The pain that they wore on their faces, the hope – and certainly the fear. And most of them wanted the world to know what had happened to them, to expose these crimes – but they also understood what it would mean for them and their families if they stood up publicly and revealed their truths. They were terrified, and here I was asking them to let me film them anyway and then figure out how to solve this problem later.”
There is still a touch of awe in his voice as he says, “Remarkably, a couple of dozen people agreed to let me do that.”
He continues, “There were people, of course, who couldn’t take that leap with me. There was one person who was nervous even about me filming other people in the shelter. These were people who had just escaped the most horrific abuse and torture, and violation from their own families. They were hiding from their brothers and their uncles, from their own fathers. That dislocation of familial love was so traumatic to everybody there that some of them were just on a very sharp edge – unable to reckon with the past, unable to find security in the present or see hope in the future. You see that in the film with one of them, who even attempts suicide. For those people, it was a difficult arrangement to have me shooting even on the other side of the shelter house. I understood that and I tried to be very respectful.”
The challenge of maintaining privacy would eventually be surmounted by new, state-of-the-art identity protection software, a high-tech touch that France – savvy storyteller that he is – was able to parlay into one of the film’s most dramatic and unexpected moments. A considerable amount of screen time in “Welcome to Chechnya” is devoted to an anonymous refugee who has escaped from his tormentors into the network, where he is reunited with his family and his boyfriend of ten years; a turning point comes when, despite being poised for removal to another country, he chooses to go public with his story and make an official complaint to the Russian government.
As he makes that decision, the false features realistically rendered over his real ones melt away before our eyes, revealing his unaltered face – and with it, his true identity. It’s a powerful effect, and it’s our official introduction to Maxim Lapunov, whose subsequent appearance before a Russian court to tell his story is captured in the movie. Unsurprisingly, his claims are dismissed, and the need to get him and his loved ones out of the country becomes even more imperative.
In talking about Lapunov, the awe returns to France’s voice. “Maxim’s moral courage is unmatched. It was really clear that his life was going to be fucked up for the foreseeable future, no matter what he did. The courage that he showed was the courage to throw his body in the way to make sure that other people don’t get treated the way that he was treated – to save people’s lives. He could have gone anywhere in the world, and just nursed his post-traumatic memories in safety, but instead he went back into the fire.
That was remarkable. I watched him make those decisions, I watched him take on that risk, I watched him bring his family along on that journey and win their allegiance in these choices – these are human dramas like you see in Hollywood films that actually are taking place in the queer battle against the crimes in Russia.”
He segues into a similar expression of respect for David Isteev, another activist prominently featured in “Chechnya.”
“When you look at his face, you just get this incredible sense of high alert and of moral purpose. It makes me think of the stories we have heard from the Holocaust, of citizens who would otherwise have been untouched who reach into some deep reserve to do something. That’s him. And being in the presence of that was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.”
If it sounds like he has bonded with his subjects, it’s because he has. Being embedded in the shelter network for such an extended period of time, he and Kurov became part of the underground themselves. “We were no longer visitors from outside,” he says. “We were experiencing what they were. I spent nights full of terror inside those safe houses, when rumors were flying about people who might have been seen, locations that might have been revealed, dangers that might have been heightened – I felt that with them. We huddled together, and, in a way, I became part of their journey.
“I do feel personally attached to those people having been through that with them. It’s something like the bond of warfare that you read about. I would do anything for David. I would do anything for Maxim and his family.”
The real emotion apparent in these professions of kinship is surely one of the reasons why the documentarian is still, more than six months after his film’s debut, eager to talk about it. The people with whom he developed these strong bonds are still very much at risk.
The biggest horrors in “Welcome to Chechnya” are only glimpsed briefly in dark and blurry videos intercepted from the web by the network, or described in the stories of torment, humiliation and brutality told by the survivors, but they cast a dark enough shadow over the imagination to make us want to believe they are safely in the past.
Unfortunately, as France is quick to remind us, LGBTQ persecution in Chechnya is still very much “an ongoing humanitarian crisis.” Just last week, two refugees were kidnapped from the network by Russian authorities and returned to Chechnya, an incident that brought the situation there back into the headlines.
“These were two very young men, one of them twenty, and the other seventeen – not even a man,” relates France. “They had been abducted last summer in Chechnya and tortured, they barely got out alive. They were rescued and extracted by the network and were being held in a safe house while the work was being done with foreign partners to try and get them out. Now they are back in detention in Chechnya. It’s a very volatile situation.”
Yet it’s also a situation in which, perhaps ironically, he sees a hope that has been scarce for the past four years.
“The United States, in this new administration, has expressed great concern for those two kids and demanded information on their safety,” he points out. “The European Court for Human Rights has demanded access to them, and safe passage for them to get back to the safe house where they were being held.”
For him, it’s a call to action. “The Russian LGBT network is on the ground, still fighting this fight,” he says. “We can urgently throw our voices behind their efforts with regard to these two youngsters – we could save their lives. There are petitions, but that’s not enough. We know from watching these activists’ work that it’s essential, it’s extensive, and as you can imagine, it’s costly. They cannot raise money within Russia, so they’ve asked people who see the film to help them by donating.
There’s a donation page on the movie site. We’ve just watched almost $200,000 move through there, in the six months since the film came out, and that money goes to the Moscow Community Center, Olga’s group that runs the shelter system, to the Russian LGBT Network that does the extractions and runs the global hotline for the crisis – and it also goes to Maxim and his legal case, which is still percolating through, and showing great progress in, the European courts.
“So, I think there’s hope, but we have to act urgently. I think what’s shocked us all, in the last few years, is how easily we can lose ground. All this progress that we’ve made over the last thirty or forty years can be reversed in a heartbeat, and that’s what’s happened in Russia, and Russia has led the way in this dramatic reversal of queer progress, all across Europe. It’s going to take a lot of people coming together internationally to stop that, but it is possible.”
He’s a realist in his expectations, though. “We can’t hope for is regime change in Chechnya or in Russia. Those are not practical, immediate goals. But we can force Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya to stop this. He is a puppet of Putin’s. If we make it politically untenable for Putin not to intervene there, then he will lift up the telephone and say to Kadyrov, ‘Stop it.’ That’s all that it takes. It’s that simple. We haven’t gotten there because we haven’t had the kind of global leadership that can bring collective pressure on Putin to do that. I think we’re in a place where we can now.
“Even just watching the film is an important step. The Russian government has said repeatedly that this is not happening, that there’s no evidence, even – ridiculously – that there are no queer Chechens. They say that no one has come forward, but Maxim did that, officially, and they rejected his claims. The people protected by the digital technology we deployed in the film have also spelled out their stories, so they are witnesses. And we’re all witnesses, now.”
The passion creeps back into France’s voice as he recalls, “That was my promise to the people in the network, when I said I wanted to film with them, that I was going to help make this so that everybody in the world knows what’s happening.
“Anybody who sees the film becomes a witness, and it becomes an act of resistance just to talk about what you see in it.”
A Trans superstar of South Pacific music- I’m Moshanty
“I am one of the strong voices of this beautiful country of Papua New Guinea for my transgender community.”
Papua New Guinea has earned its nickname as the ‘Land of a Thousand Cultures’ based on the fact that it is made of more than 600 beautiful islands, atolls and coral reefs, with populations speaking over 800 different languages.
But for veteran LGBTQ filmmaker and longtime U.S. State Department Arts Envoy, Human Rights Ambassador, Cultural Affairs expert and film documentarian Tim Wolff, a chance encounter led to the incredible story of a transgender music superstar and Papua New Guinea national hero Moses Moshanty Tau.
Speaking with the Blade this past weekend, Scott detailed the background of his film which is now available to stream on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
“In 2017, I met a legend at the very end of a trip to document the lives of LGBTQ persons in Papua New Guinea. Moses Moshanty Tau was a superstar of South Pacific music and an out trans activist. I was able to record her most lucid interview and her last live performance before she passed away on her 50th birthday, during editing and plans to return to PNG to shoot for weeks,” he said.
Wolff described the encounter as one of hoping that both his battery and SD Memory Storage card would last on what proved to be a hot and educational journey crammed into a full van with the windows rolled part way up and no air conditioning bouncing along the dusty highway.
“I had five hours of battery life left and only one camera SD card, so it did present a challenge,” he noted.
“I had to make both an introduction to and a eulogy for an activist and hero to millions of people, from 3 hours of footage.” he said.
“For the effort it took to shoot and edit, for the human rights progress and activism that it might hopefully inspire and to preserve the memory of Moshanty for viewers in the years to come, I’m glad that I had the opportunity especially since Moshanty had died before I had a chance to spend more time documenting her story.”
When he returned to his home in Massachusetts, Wolff edited the film he had shot along with footage from available various YouTube videos, producing the 57 minute feature.
I’m Moshanty. Do You Love Me? begins with a pitch black screen with the words “Newsreel footage from the exploitation of colonial Papua New Guinea.”
This footage showed clips from the past describing the people of Papua New Guinea as a “hostile and primitive people.” In the past, the people from Papua New Guinea were depicted as “uncivilized.” The narrator of the clips at the beginning of the documentary says, “Our imagination thrills at the thought of the great changes destined for them in the years to come.”
These changes were described as becoming “commercially civilized.” Although there are people who view Papua New Guinea in this light, the documentary highlights the bright parts of Papua New Guinea’s culture as well as the problematic parts that deal with homophobia and transphobia.
The film kicks off with some statistics: “Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s worst places to be a woman’ with over 70% of women and girls reporting that they experienced domestic and sexual abuse before the age of 15.” Though women are treated unfairly, there is a stark difference between the way ciswomen are treated and the ways in which trans women are treated.
“Trans women are the most likely to be denied education or employment and living under the greatest possible threat of robbery, rape and murder,” the film points out.
“There is one transgender woman who is beloved by nearly all of the eight million plus residents of Papua New Guinea, Moses Moshanty Tau.” The documentary narrates her life story.
At an early age, Moshanty grew up with parents who were pastors, and although one might jump to the conclusion that pastors in Papua New Guinea might be against Moshanty coming out as trans, the documentary shows her parents as being caring and loving. Moshanty’s mother says, “The scriptures say “do not judge.” Moshanty commented on people preaching hate by saying, “If there is no love, what’s the point of preaching about love on the pulpit if you have all that hate in you?”
Moshanty capitalized on her voice by becoming a musician and songwriter. Growing up with pastors as parents, Moshanty was a singer at her church growing up which inevitably led to her becoming a star in Papua New Guinea for her voice. Moshanty said, “….‘97, ‘98, ‘99. I was number one in all parts of PNG [Papua New Guinea].”
Although Moshanty is a performing artist, she is also an advocate. “I am an advocate, “ Moshanty said, “ and I am one of the strong voices of this beautiful country of Papua New Guinea for my transgender community.”
The film follows Moshanty closely and the transphobia that people in her nation face. Discussions run from the criminalization of being LGBTQ+ to videos of trans women being beaten and robbed are all shown in this documentary. While it may seem that transphobia runs rampant, there are groups and communities that are accepting and serve as safe-spaces.
Moshanty was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer which led to her inability to sing, but that didn’t stop Moshanty from raising money to help people with illnesses. Eventually, Moshanty died at age 50 from cardiac arrest. Although Moshanty passed away, the impact that she left behind was incredibly memorable.
Since graduating from the California Institute of the Arts Directing for Theatre and Film program, Wolff has traversed the globe filming documentaries ranging from a documentary about the criminal U. S. deportees of Port-au-Prince in Haiti to a documentation project of LGBT personal histories in Costa Rica and co-produced, with the U. S. Embassy in San Jose, a short documentary on the status of LGBT equality and freedom in Costa Rica.
In March 2016, Mr. Wolff traveled to Vietnam, for the U. S. Embassy, Hanoi. While in Hanoi, he produced the short documentary “A Family in Vietnam” from an interview with U. S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, his husband Clayton Bond and their two adopted children. The resulting documentary reached 100,000 views in the first ten days of its being posted on the Embassy’s website and the Ambassador’s personal Facebook page.
In October, 2017, Mr. Wolff traveled to Papua/New Guinea at the invitation of the U. S. Embassy in Port Moresby. There he documented the transgender communities in the villages of Hanuabada, Goroka and Hula for the purposes of a short documentary. He conducted workshops at University of Papua New Guinea, The American Center in Port Moresby and at the Center for Social and Creative Media, University of Papua/New Guinea, Goroka.
In October of 2018, Wolff returned to Papua New Guinea to screen ‘I’m Moshanty.’ The movie showed at the Human Rights Film Festival of 2018 and 2019, in Goroka, Madang and Port Moresby, PNG.
In February, 2020, Mr. Wolff traveled to Turkey at the invitation of U. S. Mission Turkey, to screen the Moshanty documentary at the Pembe Hayat Kuir International Film Festival in Ankara and Istanbul. While there he again conducted workshops on independent filmmaking at the Istanbul Experimental Film Festival, The Istanbul Cinema Network and MEF University in Istanbul.
I’m Moshanty. Do You Love Me? is available now in Amazon Prime and iTunes.
Trans Youth Acting Challenge- Bringing awareness
“We have to support young people coming up and letting them shine – letting them be their authentic self.”
BURBANK – When examining queer people in the media, it’s easy to see a lack of representation especially for trans and non-binary people. Although actor Michael D. Cohen does not necessarily call himself- “trans”, last year he came out in a story in Time Magazine about his personal journey – his gender transition.
“I was misgendered at birth,” Cohen says. “I identify as male, and I am proud that I have had a transgender experience — a transgender journey. [..] I have worked so hard to get to the truth and I’ve taken on labels in the past that didn’t feel true for the sake of convenience at that moment,” he told the magazine.
For many, they probably can not name many actors and actresses who have transitioned, so Cohen is making waves. Yet, even though this is fantastic for accurate representation, some ask who he is. Cohen’s a Canadian actor who has appeared in a litany of shows and movies with some of the most memorable roles being Schwoz Schwartz in Henry Danger and all of its spin offs such as Danger Force. He has also appeared in shows that aren’t strictly Nickelodeon such as Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place and ABC’s Modern Family.
Although he’s making a name for himself, it does not mean that his journey was easy. Cohen talks about the process of coming out in an industry surrounded by children. It is not hard to understand that those parents who hold extreme values regarding the nature of gender identity are usually upset when confronting the fact that there is a person who transitioned on a children’s show.
Cohen has faced this backlash and he commented; “People don’t understand. They think this has to do with sexuality and it doesn’t. They think this has to do with pushing an agenda on kids and it doesn’t,” he says. “What it does is send a message to kids that whoever they are, however they identify, that’s celebrated and valued and okay.”
But, what about his current gig on Nickelodeon? Their response to one of their employees coming out should not be one that bashes a person’s identity. When Cohen was asked by the Blade how Nickelodeon responded, he replied, “They handled it the way they should’ve. They stood behind their values and backed me up.” Now, one of the television shows that Cohen appears as a cast member on Nickelodeon has more than 750,000 children watching each week.
He understands the issues that trans and non-binary youth face in today’s entertainment industry, which is why he launched the “Trans Youth Acting Challenge.” According to Cohen, “It’s a casting call for Nickelodeon to see trans and non-binary youth in consideration for roles for show.” His background of being an actor in a field which greatly underrepresents trans and non-binary people, especially youth- shows that he has a clear goal to trying to transform the industry writ large.
“The reason I did it is because I wanted to create more opportunities for trans and non-binary youth,” Cohen said adding, “It’s already changed the landscape just by having this initiative.”
Posted on the website is a video of Cohen calling upon trans and non-binary youth to submit video audition submissions to have an opportunity to be potentially cast in one of Nickelodeon’s shows. Cohen has made the process incredibly simple; Upload a video of yourself acting with lines provided. On the website, there is a list of different scenes that an actor is able to choose from.
Is there accurate representation for trans and non-binary youth? According to Cohen, currently, no. “Representation in the media is a breach in familiarity. The more that we are represented and represented accurately in the media, the more people who can gain awareness that’s based in truth, love, connection, and community.”
This opportunity for trans and non-binary youth is based off of the experience of an actor who has successfully transitioned and is now paying it forward by reaching out to youth who aren’t afforded many opportunities to express their true selves in this industry.
“There’s nothing more important than providing support to young people. That’s what we’re here for. Regardless of anybody’s identity, that’s what adults are here to do,” Cohen says. “We have to support young people coming up and letting them shine – letting them be their authentic self.” In this regard, Cohen understands the necessity of reaching out to trans and non-binary youth in particular.
Cohen ended his interview with the Blade with a note of positivity telling children to come out when they are ready because even though he felt comfortable coming out – not everyone has that comfortability. “We’re keeping the finalists confidential and anonymous… It’s up to them and their family to decide if they will be public about [coming out].” Approaching the auditions in this way will allow the youth to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Cohen tells people to be themselves; “We have to bring awareness to the areas in which we have these false beliefs about who we are,”… and maybe a way in which we can bring awareness would be through the Trans Youth Acting Challenge.
‘Jose’ finds hope in Guatemalan drama
Torn between love and commitment to family
There’s a sequence in Li Cheng’s movie “Jose” when its title character rides down the highway on a rented motorbike while entwined in the arms of his boyfriend, who huddles close on the seat behind him. Moving forward in delicate balance, existing for the moment in a bubble where taboos against intimate contact between men are suspended by necessity, he bathes in the sensual delight of the experience, and the giddy feeling of freedom that comes with it.
The scene sticks with you for at least two powerful reasons. Most obviously, it’s because the expression on the face of the film’s lead performer, Enrique Salanic, exudes a dazzlingly authentic bliss that draws us so deeply into the moment that it feels like we are experiencing it first-hand. It’s a high point in a performance that has rightly earned the youthful actor star-making accolades at film festivals around the world.
On a more subtle level, however, the sequence stands out as one of very few joyful moments in a drama that paints a very bleak picture of life as a young gay man in Guatemala City.
Presented by the Chinese-born American filmmaker in a gritty documentarian style that evokes the post-WWII neorealism of Italian directors like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, “Jose” follows the day-to-day life of a teenage boy who lives with his street-vendor mother in a life of oppressive poverty. His existence is mostly a thing of routine; he divides his time between working at a café to help support the household and stealing away for hookups with men he meets through phone apps. One of these encounters is with Luis, a temporary transplant from the Caribbean coast who is in Guatemala City for a construction job. Something clicks between then, and as the relationship blossoms, Jose begins to see a chance to escape the isolation of the closet for a life of contented happiness he never dared hope could be possible – if only he can free himself from the guilt imposed by his responsibility toward his aggressively pious and manipulative mother.
To American audiences – contemporary ones, at least – Jose’s choice might feel like a foregone conclusion. But Jose and Luis are not in New York City, or even Lubbock, Texas – they are in Guatemala City, a place where deeply embedded homophobic bias places overwhelming social and cultural obstacles against anyone trying to live an openly LGBTQ+ life, and where conservative religious values exert crushing pressure to conform not just to traditional boundaries around sexuality, but to the strict adherence of maintaining family and household roles. In such an environment, his decision becomes much less of a no-brainer.
What makes Jose’s dilemma even more grim is the inescapable reality of his poverty. Unlike the protagonist of another recent Guatemalan queer film, “Temblores” (“Tremors”), who faces a similar choice from the perspective of wealth and privilege, he is faced with the certain knowledge that leaving his mother is to be responsible for placing her even deeper into hardship; couple this with the lingering specter of his own father’s abandonment of the family when he was a child, and Jose’s conflict becomes monumentally difficult to resolve.
Li Cheng’s movie doesn’t try and find an easy or moralistic way out of this situation; in fact, it is far less interested in finding a way out than it is in exploring the many-tiered system of social repression behind it. Through Jose’s eyes, she shows us a lifestyle that is forced to exist in the shadows, in squalid, rent-by-the-hour sex havens during hours stolen away from the rigid mandates of work, church, and family; she shows us a repeated generational cycle in which men, chafing from the yoke of their responsibility to home and family, leave women and children behind to cope with the trauma of being abandoned by their provider to fend for themselves; she hints at a subtle, real-world social network through which friends and family exert hidden influence to manipulate events behind the scenes to “protect” their loved ones; most of all, she reveals, without narrative embellishment, the heartbreaking atmosphere of resigned hopelessness that exists for so many LGBTQ+ people in Guatemala – and by extension, any of the too-many other places around the world where ancient prejudice combines with social hierarchy and government policy to repress and erase them.
“Jose,” for all its refusal to shy away from the disheartening reality it is trying to convey, isn’t just a cold, hard statement of fact, however. Through the narrative flourishes she does allow herself, the director (who also co-wrote with George F. Roberson) also provides a faint undercurrent of hope to bubble up to the surface, as well as an unmistakable push for the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people. These are most apparent in the scenes between Salanic and Manolo Herrera, who plays Luis; the two have a sweet, infectious chemistry that is hard to find even between the most gifted of Hollywood A-listers, and the authenticity they each bring to their roles keeps it from ever seeming manufactured. They are fully nude in many of their scenes together, and their sexuality is explicitly portrayed – but far from seeming exploitative, the “realness” of these intimate scenes underscores the inherent humanity of sex, no matter the genders of the participants. Additionally, perhaps, it not-so-gently confronts audiences with the fact of non-heteronormative sex, in an effort to normalize it through familiarity within a wider culture.
“Jose” won the prestigious Queer Lion Prize at the 75th Venice Film Festival in 2018, and it was lauded on the international festival circuit both for its director’s austere-yet-passionate cinematic vision and Salanic’s performance. As an ominous footnote to its success story, however, the charismatic young actor – who trained in the US on a scholarship as a teenager but now lives with his family in his native Guatemala – was denied a US entry visa to attend the film’s US premiere in New York last week; in the grip of Trump’s nationalist fever, it’s just another reminder that America, instead of being the beacon of hope it once aspired to be, is in danger of becoming just another systemic obstacle in the path of freedom for all.
Li Cheng’s movie, at least, does give us something to cling to. Riding on that motorbike, her protagonist – and the audience, by extension – gets a taste of the freedom that happens when you are able to live your life in the open, without fear. Because he experiences it, he knows it is real – and because it was real, he now knows that it is possible to achieve.
Though the film’s slice-of-life conclusion leaves Jose facing an uncertain future, regretting a missed opportunity and despairing over lost love, that’s something that the rest of us, at least, can call hope.
‘Temblores’ addresses love that hurts in Guatemala
Forced to choose family and status or true love
The reason for the title of Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante’s “Temblores” becomes clear within its first few minutes, when the tempestuous anguish of a family conflict is suddenly rendered immaterial for a few brief minutes as the earth begins to shake violently. It’s Guatemala, where earthquakes happen frequently, and they are taken very seriously.
Even before this literal “tremor” strikes, however, the filmmaker’s masterful prologue sequence hints at deeper layers of the movie’s title by pulling us immediately into the situation of Don Pablo, the younger son of a wealthy and influential Guatemala City family, just as his world begins to fall apart. Despite his flawless image as a happily married, devout Christian heterosexual man, he has a male lover – and his secret has come out, even if he hasn’t. As the film opens, he drives through the stormy night into the family estate to face the fallout from the revelation, and even though we don’t know any of that yet, the sense of impending disaster is palpable.
The ensuing confrontation predictably, is histrionic to the point of being comical – or would be, if it weren’t for the ugliness wrapped inside the unanimous recriminations being hurled at him by his wife, parents, and the other members of the extended clan. Despite the temporary reprieve granted by the rumbling threat of natural disaster, his personal life has been turned upside down. No longer welcome at home, he moves in with his boyfriend, Francisco – liberated, out, and completely comfortable with his sexuality – while still attempting to protect himself and his family from “shame” and scandal. At first, he embraces his freedom and the bliss he feels with Francisco; but as his conservative religious family ramps up the pressure and the whispered rumors and secrets cost him his job and his status, he finds himself being pulled inexorably backward. Powerless against the combined force of the evangelical church and the deeply homophobic Guatemalan legal system, he will be forced to make a choice: stay with Francisco in his newfound gay life and lose everything he’s ever had, including his beloved children, or do whatever it takes, even submitting to church-directed “therapy,” to return to his family and give up the only authentic adult love he’s ever known.
For U.S. audiences (at least the ones that are likely to seek out “Temblores”), the subject matter Bustamante tackles here has become familiar enough – so familiar, in fact, that the movie’s raw truth may catch them off guard. Conditioned by American film narrative conventions, viewers here are almost certain to expect that love and reason will ultimately prevail and the movie’s protagonist is sure, after a perfunctory emotional struggle, to come out on the right side of his journey and find a way to make peace between his two worlds – or at least the hope of it.
That expectation is part of what gives this exquisitely crafted drama so much power. Pablo’s world is not a Hollywood fantasy, and the reality it shows us is one that goes against the grain in a culture that is, by comparison, as free-thinking and progressive as the one we are privileged to enjoy in America – or at least in its cosmopolitan areas. This is not the cultural climate we are used to seeing in movies about contemporary LGBTQ life; despite the seeming sophistication of its urban setting, under the surface it more closely resembles the oppressively homophobic atmosphere seen in “Brokeback Mountain,” and however confident we may be of a happy ending, such an outcome seems less and less certain as the film goes on.
As for the romance at its center, we might be conditioned also to cling to the bond between Pablo and Francisco as the shelter that will protect them – and us – from the metaphoric tremors that rumble through their lives. Bustamante has not made a love story, however, no matter how tempted we may be to view it through that lens; the heartfelt authenticity he bestows upon the relationship between his two leading men – aided immeasurably by the beautiful performances of Juan Pablo Olyslager (Pablo) and Mauricio Armas Zebadúa (Francisco) – might give us temporary respite and hope, but it also serves to provide a stark contrast between the two conflicting parts of Pablo’s life.
In fact, it’s contrast that fuels “Temblores.” Not only does the telenovela-level near-absurdity of Pablo’s family turmoil appear in stark relief to the blissful oasis he shares with Francisco, so too does the gap between the ideals projected by the church and the actions and behaviors they inspire. Pablo’s family refer to the damage he is causing, yet we repeatedly watch as their various responses to the situation wreaks havoc on all of their own lives; they refer to his sexuality as an “illness,” yet it’s they who seem to be sick. Watching a roomful of anguished churchgoers, arms flailing feverishly as they raise their voices in a cacophony of desperate prayer, it’s hard not to be reminded of the kind of imagery more typically associated with suffering sinners in hell.
That brings home the point of Bustamante’s film, of course. As the filmmaker himself has put it, “It’s a movie that speaks about conditional love, shameful love, love that hurts, about the divine and celestial love that is needed in a context where the earth trembles and destroys everything. The love that gives us an excuse for our extraordinary mastery of double standards.” It’s a context within which it becomes heartbreakingly understandable how a man like Pablo, well-educated and with access to an equally real world where he is free to be who he truly is for the first time in his life, can be trapped into making a choice that denies him his own happiness in favor of satisfying a code of morality he has already recognized as false.
As disconcerting as that realization might be, it’s even more upsetting to recognize that such a situation is still very much a fact of real life for many LGBTQ people all around the world. It’s a testament to Bustamante’s skills as a writer and a director that he has made a film of such nuance and observational honesty that we can view all those involved, even those who oppress themselves in the name of their own oppressors, with compassion.
“Temblores” has met with acclaim at film festivals internationally, including a win as Best Narrative Feature at New York’s NewFest and a Best Actor prize for Olyslager’s charismatic performance at LA’s Outfest. It opens in Los Angeles on Dec. 6.
Sign Up for Blade eBlasts
Health orgs distribute Fentanyl test strips & Narcan in WeHo
DeSantis education purge begins after school board takeovers
Anti-LGBTQ+ far right activist questioned in NC power outage
Kane’s Cuisine: Tangy soy-glazed meatballs
K. M. Soehnlein’s Army of Lovers, a review
Biden outlines plan to renew fight against HIV/AIDS
Blinken: PEPFAR shows ‘what American diplomacy can do’
Portrait of Matthew Shepard dedicated at National Cathedral
Anti-LGBTQ+ far right activist questioned in NC power outage
Charlie Kirk smears Out Calif. State Sen. Scott Wiener on Twitter
AIDS and HIV5 days ago
Biden outlines plan to renew fight against HIV/AIDS
State Department3 days ago
Blinken: PEPFAR shows ‘what American diplomacy can do’
District of Columbia4 days ago
Portrait of Matthew Shepard dedicated at National Cathedral
North Carolina18 hours ago
Anti-LGBTQ+ far right activist questioned in NC power outage
Politics5 days ago
Charlie Kirk smears Out Calif. State Sen. Scott Wiener on Twitter
Congress4 days ago
Rep. Raul Ruiz calls for ending IRS rule for same-sex couples
Sports5 days ago
World’s largest LGBTQ sporting event returning to Las Vegas
Asia5 days ago
Japanese court: Ban on same-sex marriage constitutional
Notables2 days ago
First openly gay GOP former member of U.S. House dies at 80
California5 days ago
Newsom to hold oil industry accountable for price gouging