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Academy honors queer films but omits queer talent

Mixed bag of nominees as heterosexual actors playing gay win nods

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Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

LOS ANGELES – The race for Oscar — Hollywood’s favorite sport — officially began Tuesday morning, when past winner Riz Ahmed and “M3gan” actress Allison Williams appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to announce the list of nominees for the 95th Academy Awards.

As always, that list was mostly comprised of established favorites, boosted by the momentum gained from wins and nominations for other film awards, with a few inevitable snubs and surprises thrown into the mix just to keep things interesting.

From a movie-lover’s perspective, the Academy’s final ballot reflects a year that has yielded a better-than-average crop of films, even as post-pandemic box office numbers skewed away from the kind of “prestige” movies that usually win Oscars. With plenty of deserving front-runners among the nominees, cinema buffs will have plenty of worthy choices to root for when the Academy Awards presentation airs on March 12.

Looking at the nominations through a queer eye, on the other hand, there’s not much to get excited about. But let’s focus on the good news first.

Among the movies nominated for Best Picture, several include LGBTQ characters and storylines. In “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the popular indie sci-fi comedy that received the most nods (11) of any movie in the pack, the fate of the multiverse hinges on – among other things – a woman’s ability to acknowledge and affirm her daughter’s queer sexuality; the controversial but acclaimed “Tár” is built around Cate Blanchett’s consummate performance as an acclaimed lesbian symphony director accused of sexual misconduct, and features numerous queer characters among the supporting cast; “Women Talking,” Sarah Polley’s powerful drama about victims of sexual assault in a Mennonite colony, includes a transmasculine character (portrayed by nonbinary actor August Winter) in a small but crucial role.

In addition, “Elvis” was helmed by queer director Baz Luhrmann, who snagged a nomination as one of the film’s producers; and “The Fabelmans” was co-written by out gay screenwriter Tony Kushner, who likewise gained a nod as producer as well as sharing a nomination for Best Original Screenplay with Steven Spielberg.

Cate Blanchett stars in ‘Tár’ (Image courtesy of Focus Features)

As for the acting categories, a handful of performers earned nominations for playing LGBTQ-identifying characters. Blanchett, in “Tár,” is seen as a shoo-in for Best Actress; similarly, first-time nominee Brendan Fraser, whose “comeback” performance as an obese gay man consumed by grief and regret after the death of his partner in “The Whale” gained almost universal praise despite controversies surrounding the movie itself, is a strong contender among a slate of other first-timers in the Best Actor race.

‘The Whale’ with Brendan Fraser (Image courtesy of A24)

Stephanie Hsu, who portrays the above-mentioned lesbian daughter in “Everything,” also became a first-time Oscar nominee, for Best Supporting Actress; lastly, though it might be a bit of a cheat, it’s worth mentioning that “Everything” also depicts – quite memorably – versions of the characters played by Best Actress nominee Michelle Yeoh and Best Supporting Actress nominee Jamie Lee Curtis as [SPOILER ALERT] a same-sex couple in an alternate universe.

Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michele Yeoh in EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE
(Image courtesy of A24)

Other notably queer-inclusive films in the overall Oscar lineup include: “Close,” directed by filmmaker Lukas Dhont, a Belgian coming-of age drama nominated for Best International Feature; “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” the comedy crime caper sequel that confirms the queerness of detective Benoit Blanc (played by Daniel Craig), earned writer-director Rian Johnson a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay; “Babylon,” Damien Chazelle’s ambitious ensemble drama about 1920s Hollywood, which was snubbed in the “major” categories but earned nominations for Justin Hurwitz’s original score and its costume and production designs; and incredibly enough, “Top Gun: Maverick,” which scored multiple nominations including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, makes the inclusion list through the involvement of queer ally Lady Gaga, who is co-nominated (with BloodPop) for writing Best Original Song contender “Hold My Hand.”

While the inclusiveness in some cases could be perhaps described as marginal, at best, and none of the nominated titles are predominantly queer focused, it’s still heartening to see a crop of widely varied films in which an LGBTQ presence is not only visible, but normalized, almost routine. That’s a far cry from 2006, when the high-profile nominations and wins for “Brokeback Mountain” provoked outrage and outcry among industry old-timers. Progress has clearly been made.

Unfortunately, while the Academy has clearly become more comfortable with movies that allow queer people to exist on the screen at all, it’s still prone to some of its old habits – and this year’s nominations underscore the importance of keeping up pressure on the Hollywood establishment to prevent backsliding. In recent years, LGBTQ-themed films and out queer performers have increasingly been part of the party on Oscar night, with movies like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Rocket Man” and more emerging as major contenders and, in some cases, even taking home the prize; but this year, the roster is frustratingly straight.

This is most telling in the acting categories, where – true to what has become a long-standing Oscar tradition, at this point – none of the nominees, including those playing LGBTQ characters, identify as queer. There’s no argument against the worthiness of Blanchett, Fraser, or Hsu, each of whom does superb work and deserves recognition for it; what is more pertinent is the omission of actual LGBTQ people from the roster, like Janelle Monáe of “Glass Onion” or Jeremy Pope of “The Inspection,” whose much-lauded 2022 performances put them high on the short list for Academy recognition.

The LGBTQ community is not the only one with reason to be disappointed. After two consecutive years of being won by women, the Best Director category is once again made up entirely of heterosexual men; female filmmaker Polley, despite the Best Picture nod for “Women Talking,” failed to make the cut – though she did pick up a writing nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Recognition for people of color also took a step backward. This is particularly notable in the acting categories, where only two Black performers – Angela Bassett (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”) and Brian Tyree Henry (“Causeway”), for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively – received nominations. Among the year’s potential nominees were snubbed powerhouses like Viola Davis (“The Woman King”), Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”), Gabrielle Union (“The Inspection”), as well as the aforementioned Pope and Monaé, any of whom might have helped to even the balance.

Don’t get us wrong; there are plenty of reasons to be happy with this year’s Oscar contest, not the least of which is the element of surprise – though there are definite favorites, there are no clear winners in most of the categories. Returning to our focus on the positive, there’s a strong showing of Asian-American nominees in the mix, thanks to “Everything,” and it’s worth adding that, with queer-inclusive films scoring high in total nominations, some of them are sure to win – and that will give us ample reason to celebrate.

It won’t keep us, however, from expecting Oscar to do better next year. Until then, don’t be surprised if this stumble on the road to real LGBTQ equality in the movies spawns a new hashtag: #OscarsSoStraight.

The complete list of Oscar nominations is below:

Best picture

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– “Elvis”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “The Fabelmans”

– “Tár”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

– “Triangle of Sadness”

– “Women Talking”

Best director

– Martin McDonagh, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– Steven Spielberg, “The Fabelmans”

– Todd Field, “Tár”

– Ruben Östlund, “Triangle of Sadness”

Best actor

– Austin Butler, “Elvis”

– Colin Farrell, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Brendan Fraser, “The Whale”

– Paul Mescal, “Aftersun”

– Bill Nighy, “Living”

Best actress

– Cate Blanchett, “Tár”

– Ana de Armas, “Blonde”

– Andrea Riseborough, “To Leslie”

– Michelle Williams, “The Fabelmans”

– Michelle Yeoh, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best supporting actor

– Brendan Gleeson, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Brian Tyree Henry, “Causeway”

– Judd Hirsch, “The Fabelmans”

– Barry Keoghan, “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– Ke Huy Quan, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best supporting actress

– Angela Bassett, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”
– Hong Chau, “The Whale”
– Kerry Condon, “The Banshees of Inisherin”
– Jamie Lee Curtis, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”
– Stephanie Hsu, “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best original screenplay

– “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Martin McDonagh

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

– “The Fabelmans,” Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg

– “Tár,” Todd Field

– “Triangle of Sadness,” Ruben Östlund

Best adapted screenplay

– “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell

– “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” Rian Johnson

– “Living,” Kazuo Ishiguro

– “Top Gun: Maverick,” Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie, story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks

– “Women Talking,” Sarah Polley

Best cinematography

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”

– “Elvis”

– “Empire of Light”

– “Tár”

Best international feature film

– “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Germany)

– “Argentina, 1985” (Argentina)

– “Close” (Belgium)

– “EO” (Poland)

– “The Quiet Girl” (Ireland)

Best documentary feature film

– “All That Breathes”

– “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”

– “Fire of Love”

– “A House Made of Splinters”

– “Navalny”

Best animated feature film

– “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

– “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”

– “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”

– “The Sea Beast”

– “Turning Red”

Best live action short film

– “An Irish Goodbye”

– “Ivalu”

– “Le Pupille”

– “Night Ride”

– “The Red Suitcase”

Best documentary short film

– “The Elephant Whisperers”

– “Haulout”

– “How Do You Measure a Year?”

– “The Martha Mitchell Effect”

– “Stranger at the Gate”

Best animated short film

– “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”

– “The Flying Sailor”

– “Ice Merchants”

– “My Year of Dicks”

– “An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It”

Best original score

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Babylon”

– “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “The Fabelmans”

Best original song

– “Applause” from “Tell It like a Woman”

– “Hold My Hand” from “Top Gun: Maverick”

– “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Naatu Naatu” from “RRR”

– “This Is A Life” from “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

Best film editing

– “The Banshees of Inisherin”

– “Elvis”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “Tár”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

Best production design

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “Babylon”

– “Elvis”

– “The Fabelmans”

Best costume design

– “Babylon”

– “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Elvis”

– “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

– “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”

Best makeup and hairstyling

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “The Batman”

– “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Elvis”

– “The Whale”

Best sound

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “The Batman”

– “Elvis”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

Best visual effects

– “All Quiet on the Western Front”

– “Avatar: The Way of Water”

– “The Batman”

– “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

– “Top Gun: Maverick”

Film

Highways Presents
Behold!
Queer Film and Performances 

All events are RSVP and pay what you can & in person at HIGHWAYS PERFORMANCE SPACE, 1651 18th St, Santa Monica, CA 90404

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Los Angeles Blade graphic via HIGHWAYS PERFORMANCE SPACE

Friday, February 3rd, 8:30 PM
1-900-BODY-ON-THE-LINE (curated by Celeste Kamppila)

Curator Celeste Kamppila is a multidisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. She is best known for her music project under the name of Celeste X, formally known as Celeste XXX. Celeste blends together a bedroom pop sound with harsh distortion and siren-like melodies. Her unforgettable live performances bring to life a raw display of the feminine experience, transmuting emotions ranging from distress to sensuality. She draws inspiration from horror and sexuality which blend together to make an interesting psychodrama visual, using images of prehistoric goddess to 1980s VHS adult films. She uses many mediums that range from music, video, and performance art to SFX make-up.

Untitled, Tita Cicognani,2023 United States
Turtledove, Chantel Beam 2021 United States 5:22
Hentai and Crack Vol 1, Nastya Valentine, 2023, 14:00
The MagicianMatthew Kaundart, 2016, 8:00
Ricochet, Daviel Shy & Valerie Whitehawk, 2022, 4:00
Untitled, Peter Kalisch, 2023, United States
Permanence is Only a Word , Kayla TangeChuck HohngLuka Fisher, 2020, 4:00, United States
Mz Neon (FOLLOWED WITH A LIVE PERFORMANCE BY MZ NEON)

Saturday, February 4th, 8:30 PM
TIGHT: An exploration of the architectures of restriction (curated by Gina Young)


Confinement. Repression. Stress. TIGHT is an exploration of the architectures of restriction and how the body and soul respond. Our protagonists– many of them queer, nonbinary, trans– find themselves trapped by the limits of the gendered gaze, of memory, of the Covid-19 shelter-in-place lockdown, or of mysterious situations beyond their control. Whether they find their way to freedom or not? May vary.

gina young (she/they) is an award-winning writer, director, performer, and curator. Their stage work, screen work, and curated events have been presented nationally and internationally from The Hammer Museum and REDCAT to punk clubs and gay bars across the US and Europe. ROOM TONE, her screenwriting debut starring A League of Their Own’s Roberta Colindrez and directed by Whitney White, is currently making the film festival circuit as part of the anthology film KEEP THIS FAR APART. gina is a winner of the Jane Chambers Award for Playwriting, the Humanitas/PLAY LA Prize, and a two-time finalist for the Sherwood Award for boundary-pushing artists. Connect with gina and her production company SORORITY at ginayoung.com or @ginagenius on Instagram.

Creature, María Silvia Esteve, 2021, 15:27, Argentina, Switzerland
Schindler House Haunting, 
jas lin, 2022, 17:00, United States
Safe at Home, Zoë DeLeon & Michelle Calderon, 2022, 4:00, United States
Room Tone, gina young, 2022, 9:00, United States
Suspension, Dulcinee DeGuere, 2022, 15:00, United States
Basic Needs, Karla Espino, 2022, 3:00, United States
Princess, Jason Vu & B Gosse,2021, 8:00, United States

Saturday, February 11th, 8:30 PM
Ecstasy and Reminiscence: Nights Out in Los Angeles (curated by Dino Dinco & Juan Fernández)

Emerging with fits and starts from a prolonged, challenging quarantine and its social isolation, we celebrate the return to sharing physical space and intimacy by reflecting on Los Angeles nightlife and live performance, particularly the richness and vibrancy that live in the margins and fringe after dark. Tonight’s works draw poignant threads that link Los Angeles dance floors, art galleries and artists, backyards, and dark rooms from the 1980s through present day, where ecstatic moments collide with mortality and for so many of us, “going out” was going home.

Pacoima Techno & Soltera 818 kick off the night with collaborative video work and live performance.

Pacoima Techno use their experience growing up in the San Fernando Valley, specifically Pacoima, as the basis for their music, live performance, and community organizing. https://www.instagram.com/pacoimatechno/ In addition to creating sultry, hard-edged dance music, Soltera 818 is the host of the online radio program Todo O Nada centralizing the roots and influences of electronic music across genres while featuring underrepresented artists globally and locally. https://www.instagram.com/soltera818/

A screening of Artbound: Mustache Mondays (directed by Marianne Amelinckx, 2021, PBS), 55 min.
“See how a roving LGBTQ night club event in Los Angeles called Mustache Mondays became a creative incubator for today’s leading edge contemporary artists. This film examines the history of these spaces and how they shaped the Queer cultural fabric unique to Southern California.” – PBS

A new performance work by Creepypasta Puttanesca (aka Alice Cunt):
“Creepypasta Puttanesca is a dish best paid for in advance as she is a hearty serving of a hauntingly delectable specter of the digital realm, a finger-licking ghost in the machine that comes with a complimentary order of all you can eat breadsticks and side salad. Beverage sold separately.” – Creepypasta

An installation by the anonymously run social media account Noche de Jotiar, highlighting “joteadas y pendejadas estílo Los Ángeles.”
The installation features a collection of candid photos and video (many of them previously unshared) along with flyers and music from inside and around queer Latinx/e nightlife in Los Angeles dating from the late 1980s to 2000s. The collection includes photos taken at Hollywood’s Circus Disco, Arena Cafe, and backyard T-parties around the greater Los Angeles area.

Curators

Dino Dinco is a film and theater director, performance art curator and maker, writer, and lecturer in the Department of Visual Arts at UC San Diego. Based in Tijuana, México, his work has been exhibited in solo exhibitions in Paris, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, in group shows internationally, and is included in the collection of Le Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain de Haute-Normandie, France, as well as private collections in Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, Los Angeles, Barcelona, New York and London.

Dinco’s first feature length documentary film, Homeboy, explores gay Latino men who were in gangs. His award-winning short film, El Abuelo, with San Antonio poet Joe Jiménez, premiered at the Tate Modern, has screened internationally, and is included in the online LGBTQ film platform, Frameline Voices. Dinco co-founded You Wear it Well (2006-2008), the first traveling international film festival dedicated to short films on fashion.

He was a Consulting Producer on the Fall 2021 installment of KCET’s Artbound documentary film series which profiled the itinerant Downtown Los Angeles queer dance party, Mustache Mondays (2007 – 2018), of which Dinco was a co-founder. www.dinodinco.com

Juan Antonio Fernández (He/Him) is a media scholar, cultural producer, and educator.  Juan has recently relocated to Los Angeles and has produced theater, art installations and performance in New York, Oakland, and San Francisco.

LISTING INFO:
 IN PERSON AT HIGHWAYS PERFORMANCE SPACE, 
1651 18th St, Santa Monica, CA 90404

Info at Highways.org
All events are Pay what you can with an RSVP https://www.highwaysperformance.org/shows

Fri-Sat. February 3-4 & Sat. February 11
BEHOLD! Queer Film and Performance Series, curated by Gina Young, Celeste Kamppila, Dino Dinco, and Juan Fernandez, featuring performance and multiple feature and shorts programs that showcase works from and about the LGBTQ+ and Latinx communities spread over three curated categories.

Friday, February 3rd 8:30 pm
https://www.highwaysperformance.org/events/1-900-body-on-the-line
1-900-BODY-ON-THE-LINE (curated by Celeste Kamppila)
An exploration into the nuanced realm of fantasy, love, and validation from the POV of todays’ “public enemy” – the outcast, sex worker/symbol, the working artist, the queer.

Saturday, February 4th 8:30 pm
https://www.highwaysperformance.org/events/tight-an-exploration-of-the-architectures-of-restriction-curated-by-gina-young
TIGHT: An exploration of the architectures of restriction (curated by Gina Young)
Confinement. Repression. Stress. TIGHT is an exploration of the architectures of restriction and how the body and soul respond.

Saturday, February 11th 8:30 pm
https://www.highwaysperformance.org/events/ecstasy-and-reminiscence-nights-out-in-los-angeles
Ecstasy and Reminiscence: Nights Out in Los Angeles (curated by Dino Dinco & Juan Fernández)
Los Angeles dance floors, art galleries and artists, backyards, and dark rooms from the 1980s through present day, where ecstatic moments collide with mortality and for so many of us, “going out” was going home.
Full Festival Schedule and descriptions available at 
https://filmmaudit.eventive.org/schedule
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“Learn With Love:” A film full of trans joy and acceptance

This documentary is the 1st short film co-produced by The Trevor Project, the leading suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ+ young people

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Kristen and Kaiden courtesy of The Trevor Project

LOS ANGELES – Could a new film be the antidote to the venomous anti-transgender laws and bills spreading across America? In Learn With Love, three young trans people share compelling stories about how they found love and affirmation from adults who struggled with acceptance. 

Trans man Kaiden and his mother Kristen traced their difficult journey with the filmmakers on the day he celebrated his 21st birthday. “How in the world could you know that you wanted to be a man at three and four years old?” says Kristen. She said she recognized her child was a tomboy, because she was, too.  

But over time, this Michigan mom from Nashville realized Kaiden was exactly who he told her he was, and what she needed to do: “Learn, support and most important, love.” 

This documentary short film is the first piece of content co-produced by The Trevor Project, the leading suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ+ young people. The nonprofit calls it a new content strategy aimed at raising public awareness of the experiences of trans youth and their families, and an investment in a campaign to counter misinformation and help change hearts and minds.

“Our goal is to develop content that amplifies the human experience and ultimately helps foster deeper understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ young people among the general public,” says Megan Stowe, head of content at The Trevor Project and Director of Learn with Love, which was filmed in Los Angeles and produced in collaboration with IMPOSTER, a boutique production company. “This film is just the beginning of a larger content series we have planned, and we hope that this new way of storytelling will be a powerful force in shifting public perception and drawing more allies and advocates to our critical work.”

In Learn With Love’s brief running time of 28 minutes, viewers also meet Lyndon, a trans man whose family turned their backs on him, taken in by Danny, pastor of a conservative Christian church in Southern California. 

“I was taught that God created male and female,” says Danny. “That when someone is born either male or female, that’s God’s original intent and God doesn’t make mistakes.” Danny says his church would “pray the gay away” if someone admitted to a same-sex attraction, and set up a fund for conversion therapy, which has been outlawed in California since 2012. 

But the pastor says hosting this introspective, kind and caring individual who at one point considered suicide forced him to reject stereotypes and re-evaluate everything he knew. 

“Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God and love neighbor. If loving God and loving neighbor is the greatest commandment, then that means the opposite of that, to not love is the worst sin,” says Danny. “It dawned on me, I was the one that was committing sin. I was the one that was committing harm.” 

“To have him tell me, ‘You are loved exactly as you are and God loves you,’ I can’t put it into words, honestly,” says Lyndon, who called Danny and his wife’s invitation to live with them “very powerful,” and “mind-blowing.”

Lyndon and Pastor Danny courtesy of The Trevor Project

“Seven in ten Americans have never met a transgender person, and it can be hard for them to distinguish between stereotypes that saturate today’s national discourse and what it really means to be transgender,” says Kasey Suffredini, vice president of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project. “More than 230 anti-LGBTQ bills have already been introduced in 2023. This harsh, stigmatizing political climate only raises the stakes to protect transgender youth, who are already marginalized. When Americans learn their stories, they are moved to support them. In a time of increasing polarization, Learn with Love captures three beautiful stories and shows the power of one-on-one connection to overcome misinformation and change hearts and minds.”

The third subject of Learn With Love is effervescent pre-teen Skyler Morrison, a trans girl whose grandfather spent a weekend getting to know her, and reconnecting with Skyler’s dad, his son, Andrew, after a long separation. 

Grandad Tom Morrison is asked by the filmmakers when he started to accept Skyler for who she is. “Yesterday,” he says, crediting The Trevor Project’s invitation to spend a weekend together: “Because otherwise it probably wouldn’t have happened,” says Tom, who admits to being embarrassed. “We have not been together for six years, and it may have been longer than that. It’s been a waste.” The film captures the moment he apologizes to Skyler, and her response.

Skyler, Andrew and Tom Morrison courtesy of The Trevor Project

With the headlines each and every day dwelling on the persistent barriers that so many transgender young people face, the makers of this documentary focus on the breakthroughs and the significance of openness, education, and love. 

Learn With Love: Trailer

If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, trained crisis counselors at The Trevor Project are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting 678678.

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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

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Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge star in SPOILER ALERT - image courtesy Focus Features

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.

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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

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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.

‘CLOSE’ Photo Credit: AFI Fest

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.

‘MONICA’ Photo Credit: AFI Fest

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.

‘JOYLAND’ Photo Credit: AFI Fest

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.

‘THE FIVE DEVILS’ Photo Credit: AFI Fest

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.

‘PACIFICTION’ Photo Credit: AFI Fest

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.

‘PIAFFE’ Photo Credit: AFI Fest

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.

MOSQUITA Y MARI’ Photo Credit: AFI Fest

For tickets and complete info about this year’s AFI Fest, head to fest.afi.com.

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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

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Arthur Dong and Robert Shepard during shooting of Licensed to Kill (Photo by Angi Rosga)

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.

Tickets can be purchased at the Museum’s website.

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‘Mayor Pete’ emerges as a likable enigma in new doc

An early snapshot of a history-making figure in the making

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‘Mayor Pete’ is out now via Amazon. (Image courtesy Amazon)

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.

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NBC Universal cancels Golden Globe awards broadcast for 2022

NBC Universal announced the network would not broadcast the 2022 Golden Globes awards ceremony

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Screenshot NBC coverage of the Golden Globes from previous years on YouTube

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.”

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Witness to the horrors in Chechnya

It’s a film that makes you want to look away but doesn’t let you do it.

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Activist David Isteev is prominently featured in “Welcome to Chechnya” (Image courtesy of HBO)

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.”

Olga Baranova. (Photo Courtesy HBO)

“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.

Grisha (left) reuniting with his boyfriend Bogdan (right). (Photo Courtesy of HBO) 

“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.

David France. (Facebook)

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.”

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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.”

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Moses Moshanty Tau (Photo courtesy of Tim Wolff)

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.”

LGBTQ filmmaker Tim Wolff- 4th from left- and the “ensemble cast of I’m Moshanty. Do You Love Me?” during a stop in Hula, PNG, October 2017. (Photo courtesy of Tim Wolff)

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.

Still from I’m Moshanty. Do You Love Me? (Photo courtesy of Tim Wolff)

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.

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Trans Youth Acting Challenge- Bringing awareness

“We have to support young people coming up and letting them shine – letting them be their authentic self.”

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Actor Michael D. Cohen launches a new initiative for Trans & non-binary youth who are aspiring actors.

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. 

Instagram Post December 1, 2020

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.

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