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Grab Bag of Queerness: 17th Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival

Jennifer Bendery

Whether they reflected something true-to-life or were just bizarre, these films united a whole community of queer people who might not otherwise feel connected to each other.

Un Amour De Femme

At this year's 17th Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF), I spent the better part of the week looking at lesbians. On-screen and off-screen. It was great. All shapes, all styles, all colors and even a few with mullets. The best part is, I didn't mind the mullets. I was just happy to see them out, blowing freely in the wind.

Like other queer film festivals, the great thing about this 12-day event is that it's more than just an opportunity to go out with a friend and see a six-minute movie about a chirping cockroach that sparks a love connection between two women. Especially if you're living in a not-so-gay-friendly state like Texas, a festival like aGLIFF is a welcome reminder that there are in fact hoards of other gay, lesbian and transgendered people in your community.

Indeed, half the excitement in checking out the latest cinematic depiction of queer culture is seeing who sits next to you to share in the experience. Without a word spoken, there is a comfort in knowing that the person in the gum-encrusted seat beside you is interested in gay and lesbian issues and has an appreciation of avant-garde films.

This year's aGLIFF had more than 180 films from 18 countries, plus dozens of visiting filmmakers. Since so few lesbian films see the light of day (well, ones that aren't constructed for heterosexual male viewers, anyway), I decided to give them some overdue attention. France's contributions included Un Amour De Femme (2001), a refreshingly fleshed-out story about two women who fall for each other under less-than-ideal circumstances. Jeanne (Hélène Fillières) is the quintessential lonely, heterosexual wife and mother until she meets the spunky dance teacher Marie (Raffaëla Anderson), who is, in the words of Jeanne's suspicious husband, "trouble" and "crazy" (translated: lesbian). Thanks to director Sylvie Verheyde's emphasis on the subtle, the sexual tension that develops between these two women feels real, instead of like watching two heterosexual actresses groping at each other trying to seem "hot."

The sincerity of Un Amour De Femme was a stark contrast to the frivolity of April's Shower (2003). Picture this: you're at a bridal shower. You're drinking box wine and picking at cheese bits on a dish. You sit down to chat with party attendees when suddenly the maid-of-honor blurts out that she used to date the bride-to-be and neither of them is over it! Scandal! This sets the stage for April's Shower, directed by and starring the lovely Trish Doolan. With the requisite flamboyant gay male friend bouncing in and out of scenes to incite drama and humor, the film is a bit over the top. But its few serious moments remind of the very real fear that can accompany lesbian or gay relationships when one partner isn't ready to be "out."

Gone are the days when documentaries were reserved for PBS broadcasts about antelopes. This year's aGLIFF lured in the crowds with its documentaries about various aspects of queer culture. The winner of this year's Best Documentary award went to Drag Kings on Tour (2004), a film by director Sonia Slutsky (great name, by the way) that packs you aboard a motor home with an eclectic troupe of drag kings touring such American hot spots as Biloxi and St. Louis. As evidenced by encounters with the kings' parents as well as strangers on the street, girls in drag get strong reactions out of everyone.

But no matter how "redneck" some of these towns seemed, it didn't take long for girls at the shows to squeal in ecstasy over a king's flirtatious Annie Lennox solo or politically charged spoken word performance about androgyny. The film is smart and honest -- it's the first I've seen that gives insight into what inspires kings to push the limits of gender, even at the expense of alienating loved ones. Kudos to Slutsky for conveying regional attitudes about sex and gender in a fair light instead of just making local yokels look stupid.

Goldfish Memory

If gender roles were thrown out the window in Drag Kings on Tour, sexual orientation was tossed out the backdoor in Goldfish Memory (2003), in which straight women become bisexual, gay men have sex with lesbians and nobody seems to remember why their relationships keep failing (hence the film's frequent images of goldfish, which are thought to have no memory). Director Liz Gill offers a comedic take on the lives of a group of sexually fluid hipsters in Dublin trying to figure out how to be in a relationship -- and which sex their partner should be. Winner of Best Narrative Feature at last year's Los Angeles film festival, Goldfish Memory pokes fun at a stereotype nearest and dearest to a lesbian's heart: the desire to stay home and nest with a partner, even when given the option of going out on the town. A scene where Angie (Flora Montgomery) is confused as to why her new bisexual girlfriend Clara (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) would want to go out dancing when they could stay in and cuddle suggests their relationship may be on the rocks -- in part, the film implies, because Clara's desire to party deviates from how women are thought to behave in lesbian relationships.

Short-length films also had a strong presence at this festival. Nine lesbian film shorts were lumped together under the heading, Outside of Your Box, because of their shared theme of women who go beyond their comfort zone for love. Many of these shorts were so abstract I would actually lump them into a "WTF" (What the fuck?!) category. In Guns Cocked (2004), a cockroach skitters around a woman's kitchen and suddenly two beefy men are ripping apart the place to prove their manhood by finding a bug. That is, until a lesbian neighbor shows up in search of her pet roach in the last 30 seconds of the film, at which point the two women start flirting and agree to see each other again, all thanks to a cockroach. WTF? The P-P-P-PICK-UP(2002) won the most laughs with its story of an awkward lesbian who tries to flirt with a woman at the swimming pool -- without letting her know 1) she can't dive (she points her arms and falls into the pool); 2) she can't swim (she splashes around until grasping for pool's edge) and 3) she is the same girl who was wearing the fuzzy penguin costume and face paint moments before.

Merci... Dr. Rey!

The film that stole the show, however, was the festival's closing night movie, Merci... Dr. Rey! (2003), which filled every last seat in the theater. Directed by Andrew Litvack, this French film is a zany murder mystery centering on Thomas (Stanislas Merhar), a glum, pasty-faced lad at odds with his homosexuality and with his domineering mother, played in surprisingly true diva form by Dianne Wiest. After Thomas responds to a personal ad and ends up witnessing the murder of a man (who turns out to be his thought-to-be-long-dead father, gasp!), he befriends the neurotic Penelope (Jane Birkin), a failed actress whose aspirations for theater were ruined after nerves led to an infamous vomiting incident onstage. Instead, she chose the next best career: she became the foremost celebrity of voice dubbing for Vanessa Redgrave in French films.

Thomas' struggles with his homosexuality are eased when he learns his dad was gay. But then he starts batting his eyelashes at the man who he witnessed murdering his father just days earlier, who it turns out was hired by Thomas' mother to commit the murder! Add to the mix some hash brownies and snobby stage actresses (including one played by Jerry Hall), and you have Merci.Dr. Rey!. An added bonus: Redgrave stars in this movie as a bitchy version of herself. Upon meeting the star-struck Penelope (who is ready to vomit again from nerves), she tells her that her voice reminds her of the person who dubs her voice in French films and wonders aloud, "How could they give me such a tacky French voice?"

aGLIFF had to come to an end, of course, but I'm still reveling in its aftermath. Whether they reflected something true-to-life or were just bizarre, these films united a whole community of queer people who might not otherwise feel connected to each other. Even if was just until the final credits started rolling.

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