Wednesday, July 25, 2012

According to Ben: Outfest 2012!

Outfest 2012
 It’s always so exciting to see the huge diversity of films and videos that pop up at any LGBTQ film festival, and the many lives and stories that they make visible. At this year’s Outfest, documentaries included How to Survive a Plague (2012, David France), which chronicles the AIDS crisis and the founding of ACT UP; Homeboy (2011, Dino Dinco), recounting the lives of gay Latino men who are former gang members; I Am a Woman Now (2011, Michiel Van Erp), about a group of 70-something year old transwomen; and Children of Srikandi (2012, Imelda Taurinamandala), in which eight women seek to answer the question: “What is life like for lesbians and transwomen in Indonesia?” Fictional features included Margarita (2012, Dominique Cardona and Laurie Colbert), about a Mexican woman working for a Canadian family whose full life threatens to become up-ended when she is fired because of financial hardships; Facing Mirrors (2011, Negar Azarbayjani), in which a tense relationship forms between an Iranian woman cab driver and a transgender man desperately awaiting a passport that will help him to escape to Germany and have gender reassignment surgery; and Cloudburst (2012, Thom Fitzgerald), a road movie starring Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as a randy lesbian couple driving to Canada to get married. I, regrettably, was only able to see three Outfest films this year—but all were memorable.

Jeffrey Schwarz’s Vito
The festival opened with Jeffrey Schwarz’s Vito (2012), a new documentary about Vito Russo, the renowned activist and film historian. Perhaps best known for writing The Celluloid Closet, Vito was sort of a Zelig of post-war LGBTQ life: He watched the Stonewall riots from a nearby tree, started the first predominantly queer screenings of Hollywood films, and co-founded The Gay Activists Alliance, GLAAD, and ACT UP. Unlike Zelig, he was characterized by fierce individuality, which is wonderfully documented in Schwarz’s film. Archival footage of Vito, who died from AIDS complications in 1990, allows him to narrate his own groundbreaking story. Schwarz also uses a great deal of stunning archival material to document Vito’s life, and the ways in which he both shaped and was shaped by his tumultuous times. Schwarz has said that he made Vito partly because many people who grew up after the 1980s are not aware of him and his accomplishments. This wonderful film gave me the feeling that we need Vito more than ever, and I suspect many will agree once they see  film, which will air on HBO (and HBO On Demand) in the coming months. Vito adored popular narrative movies, and he continuously demonstrated that film spectatorship can be its own form of important authorship. Because of this, it feels immensely gratifying to watch Vito, which lets him star in a movie of his life that is as riveting and moving as a great Hollywood epic, and a hundred times smarter and more honest about queer life. I think that Vito would have loved it.

Earlier this year I think that I scandalized some of the students in my queer film class by saying that I think any depiction of LGBTQ sex on screen is great. In the town where I grew up, sex scenes in movies were not to be watched and discussed, and queer sex scenes in movies just didn’t exist in the collective consciousness. Even now, in these “more accepting times,” queer sex is still the aspect of queerness that homophobic America most fears and wants to repress. Images of queer couples at the altar, or having barbeques with their children, are infinitely more acceptable than naked queers in the throes of passion. This fact manifests itself in much of our popular culture: it took an online protest campaign to get Cameron and Mitchell, the current pinnacles of acceptable mainstream queerness, to share a chaste kiss on Modern Family. The sex scene between Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right (2010) had to be a slapstick farce, while the sex scene between Moore and Mark Ruffalo could be cathartic and “hot.” This cultural context gives me added appreciation for Travis Matthews’ I Want Your Love (2012) which, like John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), makes a noble, welcome, and political effort to incorporate unsimulated sex with an engaging story and well-developed characters.  

Travis Matthews’ I Want Your Love
I Want Your Love presents a few days in the life of Jesse (Jesse Metzger), a struggling performance artist in San Francisco. He prepares to move back to his midwestern home town after finding that he can no longer afford to live in the city. The film chronicles his and his friends’ interactions as they prepare for and deal with his imminent departure (a plot structure that, although reminiscent of 1986’s Parting Glances and 2011’s Weekend, nonetheless yields limitless possibilities). I Want Your Love is likable and engaging, but uneven. Some of the film’s dialogue scenes ring true: as friends and roommates, Jesse and Wayne (Wayne Bumb) seem like they’ve been confidantes for a decade, as they discuss Jesse’s transition and Wayne’s fear that his boyfriend will make him clean up his mess when he moves in. Being used to pop culture’s favoring of rich, white, toned gay people, I thrilled at seeing a multi-racial cast of characters with different body types, some of whom struggle financially. Other scenes of dialogue seem hollow and underdeveloped, especially those between ex-lovers Jesse and Ben (the very charming Ben Jasper). However, the movie’s sex scenes consistently shocked me with the depths of intimacy that they convey. Messy, hot, and often sweet, they reveal some of the infinite number of ways in which people use sex to communicate and meet needs. The movie illustrates more about its characters and their relationships with moving bodies than words, which I found striking and wonderful to watch. A week after seeing it, I am more forgiving of what I perceived to be its weaknesses and grateful for its strengths. I find myself wanting to remember the time I spent with these characters. 

I anticipated the Los Angeles premiere of Jonathan Caouette’s new film Walk Away Renée (2011) like others anticipate summer blockbusters. His Tarnation (2003) is a favorite of mine, and I feel an unusual connection with his unique way of processing the world and his experiences. Walk Away Renée shifts focus from Jonathan’s own life journey to his relationship, as an adult, with his mother Renée, who has been diagnosed with acute bipolar and schizoaffective disorder. The film chronicles their journey from his mother’s home in Houston, TX to an assisted living facility in Rhinebeck, NY, closer to Jonathan’s house in Astoria, Queens. The film goes back and forth in time, presenting the layers of history that inevitably inform every moment of their trip. When Renée’s medications are misplaced, they both find themselves in a sort of purgatory, as both her Texas and New York doctors refuse to write prescriptions to a woman who is no longer the patient of one and not yet a patient of the other. As Renee’s condition worsens, the film becomes a devastating and sometimes frightening depiction of the effects of a mental health care system that prevents its practitioners from helping those that accidentally fall through the cracks of its policies.

Several critics called Tarnation exploitative of its subjects. I understand this argument, but I have never agreed with it, and I find it even harder to do so after Walk Away Renée. Caouette strikes me as an enormously compassionate person and filmmaker, and this film exudes love: the love that Jonathan, Renée, Jonathan’s partner David, his grandfather Adolph, and his son Joshua have for one another, and Jonathan’s love for the subjects and spaces he documents (ranging from a sparkling waterfall to the streets of New York to movie memorabilia in his house). The film is finally a deeply moving portrait of a group of peoples’ successful efforts to help themselves and each other live fundamentally good lives while rolling with some nasty punches.

Vito Russo happily titled his article about the 1987 San Francisco Gay Film Festival “Visions of Our Lives.” I’m so grateful that Outfest, and LGBTQ film festivals everywhere, continue to bring us such varied visions. I look forward to seeing what Outfest, and The Outfest Legacy Project (a collaboration with The UCLA Film & Television Archive devoted to preserving LGBTQ films), will bring us in the coming year.  
—Ben Sher

Ben Sher is a graduate student in the Cinema and Media Studies Program at UCLA and an editorial assistant and graduate student researcher at CSW.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Women, War and Political Empowerment: Notes from Rwanda

Kigali, Rwanda. It was recently named the cleanest capital city in the world by the UN. Photo by author

I arrived in Rwanda for the fourth time in early May to conduct the final phase of my dissertation research on women’s political empowerment. Kigali has changed dramatically since my last trip here in 2009—more streets are paved, high-rise buildings dot the horizon, and the country’s impressive economic growth is visibly apparent. Led by President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has made
progress since the 1994 genocide that devastated the country.  Just last week the controversial Gacaca court system—designed to quickly and efficiently prosecute the estimated one million suspected genocide perpetrators—was declared finished. Perhaps most famously, Rwanda has been heralded for its successful promotion of gender equality and currently has the world’s highest percentage of women in Parliament (56%). While these achievements have garnered international praise, the Rwandan government is increasingly coming under scrutiny for its human rights practices, its rumored support of the bloody war in Congo, and its heavy-handed control over the daily lives of its citizens.

 2012 meeting of the Rwandan National Women's Council attended by members of the NWC, parliamentarians, and civil society representatives. Photo courtesy of Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion 2012, Rwanda

My fieldwork here has thus been caught in an interesting trap. On one hand, I’m looking at the tremendous progress women in Rwanda have made since the genocide. Women’s mobilization after violence in community organizations, local women’s councils, and eventually in national politics represented a dramatic shift away from the male-dominated political realm before the violence. Before the genocide, as one parliamentarian told me, “Politics…was a male domain. It was like their personal bedroom where no one else could go in.” After the genocide, however, women began to take on key roles in their households and communities by caring for orphans; rebuilding houses; and finding food, shelter, and healthcare. Thousands of informal associations of women formed after the violence to address these immediate needs, and these groups became the locus for sustained collective action. Many women who joined these grassroots associations eventually ended up in national politics, and the Government of Rwanda played a key role in their advancement
National Parliament, Kigali, Rwanda. The political progress in Rwanda is often juxtaposed with the memory of recent violence — here the Parliament of Rwanda, home to the highest percentage of female legislators in the world, is deliberately left damaged from artillery and grenades during the genocide 18 years ago.

On the other hand, I’m constantly running into the appendages of a strong, authoritarian state, and finding evidence that “women’s empowerment” in Rwanda is full of contradictions and far from complete. A recent debate centered on a bill passed by Parliament that absolves criminal liability for women who get abortions under certain circumstances (such as when the pregnancy originated in rape, incest, or a forced marriage, or when the life of the mother is at risk). This highly controversial bill comes at a time when hundreds of girls in Rwanda are in jail for seeking abortions, and, according to the Ministry of Health, an estimated 60,000 abortions are conducted illegally every year—40% of which lead to medical complications that require treatment. 
At the root of the abortion debate is the inconsistent development between the core and the periphery of the country, and the tension between implacable government regulations and the ability of ordinary citizens to accommodate them. Millions of Rwandans have been left out of the country’s impressive economic development. They are “stuck”—as Marc Sommers has described them—between deeply engrained cultural expectations about marriage, sexuality, and gender roles, and a country that is rapidly advancing and actively promoting women’s rights. Last week a woman in her mid-twenties told me that she couldn’t possibly go to the health center to get birth control because she is “still a girl”—in Rwanda, you are a girl (umukobwa) until you are married. Yet, there are 9 men for every 10 women in this country, and housing and land shortages mean that traditional marriage expectations are increasingly hard to fulfill. This country also has with a national health care plan that provides free or low cost family planning resources to anyone who wants them.

My research here thus faces the challenge of balancing the various ways in which women’s progress is understood. As I interview women in politics and civil society organizations, I remain optimistic that the gains at the national political level will eventually translate to progress for the masses but I also remain unconvinced.
— Marie Berry

Marie Berry, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at UCLA, recently received A CSW Jean Stone Dissertation Research Fellowship. She holds an B.A. with honors from the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and an M.A. from the Department of Sociology at UCLA. Her dissertation, “From Violence to Mobilization: War, Women, and Political Empowerment in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Beyond,” explores the effects of mass violence on women’s participation in politics and community organizations in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 2010 she joined the Board of Directors of Global Youth Connect, an organization that empowers youth to advance human rights through cross-cultural training programs in post-conflict countries. 

Photos: Top: Kigali, Rwanda. It was recently named the cleanest capital city in the world by the UN. Photo by author Middle: 2012 meeting of the Rwandan National Women's Council attended by members of the NWC, parliamentarians, and civil society representatives. Photo courtesy of Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion 2012, Rwanda. Bottom: National Parliament, Kigali, Rwanda. The political progress in Rwanda is often juxtaposed with the memory of recent violence — here the Parliament of Rwanda, home to the highest percentage of female legislators in the world, is deliberately left damaged from artillery and grenades during the genocide 18 years ago.