Changes: Torino 21st Gay & Lesbian Film Festival
As part of its Winter Games-hosting honors, Torino was adorned in red banners declaring 'Passion Lives Here'. It would make sense to see the streets festooned in hot pink in honor of the year-long 'Torino Pride 2006' project. But we are in Italy, after all.
Time may change me,
But you can't trace time.
Strange fascination, fascinating me,
Changes are taking the pace I'm going through.
-- David Bowie, "Changes"
Change when it comes, cracks everything open.
-- Dorothy Allison, O Magazine (January 2004)
Now that Torino has received some world attention, thanks to the 2006 Winter Olympic Games, it no longer requires lengthy introductions. As part of its Winter Games-hosting honors, the city was adorned in red banners declaring the city's Olympic motto, "Passion Lives Here." It would make sense, therefore, to see the streets also festooned in hot pink in honor of the year-long "Torino Pride 2006" project. But we are in Italy, after all, and so it is difficult for this event, which celebrates worldwide visibility of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual people, to be so widely publicized.
Pride's calendar is rich with cultural events, debates, films, games, and meetings promoting the inclusion of all sex and gender groups in celebrating and informing people about difference and tolerance. This includes the 21st edition of "From Sodom to Hollywood, Torino International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival," held from 20-27 April.
Once again jam-packed with "films that change lives," the 180 film program included four competition sections along with out of competition screenings and homages to such diverse directors as American documentary filmmaker Barbara Hammer, Hong Kong's Yonfan, eclectic Englishman Ken Russell, and the young French cult figure Alain Guiraudie. From micro-budget personal projects to large scale Hollywood productions, the Festival maintained thematic connections with "Torino Pride 2006." The documentary competition section, the focus of this article, was an international showcase -- with work from Cuba, Israel, India, Europe, and America -- of the complex choices and sometimes non-choices people face in our world regarding sex and gender.
Thomas Wartman's Between the Lines: India's Third Gender (Germany 2005) won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. It is the story of Indian photographer Anita Khemka, who befriends various eunuchs of India while writing a book about them. Treated as outcasts, intersexuals, or Hijras, are religious Hindus who worship their own God. While they are supposed to be infertile, they are also believed to have a "talent to spread fertility." Khemka explains early on in the film, "As a child, I was afraid of them. There were some who lived near my grandmother's house. She would say, 'If you don't behave, I'll leave you with them.'" And yet the young Anita saw eunuchs at every celebration, ceremony or wedding, blessing or threatening according to how they were treated.
The film primarily follows three Hijras, as Khemka photographs and interviews them in and around Bombay. Initially they seem cool, even bothered by the presence of this woman. But they come to explain the subtleties of their existence with candor and ease. Asha, referred to as a woman, has worked for 17 years as a prostitute, only to find herself with almost no clients now. She appears walking the beaches of Bombay, "blessing" couples in her sheer white cotton gown. She angers easily and claps her hands loudly in the faces of unsuspecting people, conjuring fear even as she too fears being an outcast within her own community.
Rhamba is a soft-skinned, long-haired beauty first seen from afar, begging at a busy intersection in a sea of cars. Castrated at 10, she now lives in a temple and works as a dancer in a pub at night. Her double life is signaled by color: a gorgeously candlelit ceremony to get rid of an evil spirit features tinkling bells, soft drum beats, and murmured prayers. Outside the temple lies a dull grey and decaying Bombay, inhabited by unflinching people who do not accept her. The third subject, Laxmi, is on one hand a choreographer and dance teacher who lives with his parents outside of Bombay. In his darkened, traditional Brahmin home, Raju's father says, over tea, "We find it strange, but there is no cure."
What is strange is the son's other life, for which he wears a brightly colored, gauzy sari and flirts openly with male passengers on a train, smiling and winking. Laxmi tells Anita, "I never dress up in front of my parents because they produced me. We never talk about the other life." He reveals to Anita that he is not castrated. "If you are castrated, you are stigmatized. Now I live two lives. I want to maintain that unspoken word between two lines." While Between the Lines doesn't offer answers, it raises questions concerning these double lives with dignity and some semblance of tranquility.
The Jury Prize for Best Documentary went to Seres Extravagantes - Odd People Out (Spain 2004), directed by Manuel Zayas. Shot entirely in Cuba, the video is a type of collage homage to the writer Reinaldo Arenas, including interviews with his mother, relatives, and fellow writers. After being arrested for meeting with some young prostitute boys, Arenas wrote of Castro's regime, "I realize it was not a true revolution, but a dictatorship with new rules." While his books were published in 10 different countries, Arenas was shipped out of Cuba along with thousands of other "misfits." He claimed, "Mine is not an obedient writing. In a dictatorship, irreverence is punished."
From his new home, in the U.S., he wrote, "I went out of Cuba and found a country with no soul, based on money. I left a revolution and found a soulless country." Interviewees describe Arenas' vision, hope, and refusal to change his ideas or sexual orientation. "From the beginning," says one friend, "to be homosexual in Havana was to be a rebel." Toward the end of his life, his mother reveals, she learned he might be suffering from "that disease" (AIDS), and then, that he had committed suicide.
Elizabeth Scharang's Tintenfischalarm - Octopus Alarm (Austria 2006) profiles another outsider. Alex Jurgen, a 20-something hermaphrodite, met the director in 2002 on Scharang's weekly radio show. Here Alex spoke out for the first time about her condition and the choices made for her. The film is a mix of their conversations, road trips, and Alex's own video diary entries.
In the spring of 2004, the film shows, Alex decided to recover the sex taken from her at age two. (Even though Alex had a penis and internal testicles, her doctors and parents chose to "make" her a girl, through numerous operations and hormone therapy throughout her childhood and adolescence.) The movie documents her physical changes brought on by male hormones, as well as Alex's anger, confusion, frustration, and determination. Scharang believes that Alex "has the heart of an activist."
They travel together, meeting various people with whom Alex can finally talk about himself openly. As he prepares to attend his first intersexual meeting, he says, "I've been looking for a soul mate all my life, someone to give me security, the feeling of security, comfort. I would like to make new friends and hear their stories." Alex tells a therapist, "I feel unmotivated," to which the therapist replies, "You have survived so much. Why do you need more proof of your strength?" Indeed, Alex is also a cancer survivor, in a coma for 13 months when he was 20. He explains this added trauma by saying, "I know I got leukemia because I hated myself and my body so much. Then I started to love myself."
Scharang paints a hopeful portrait even as Alex is in the midst of change and crisis. After only three weeks of testosterone therapy, Alex says, he dreamed "something was growing down there. When I woke up, I was aroused. This is a crucial point in my life." At last, he feels he might emerge from hiding. "Being intersexual means keeping secrets," he says, and now, he is living and working "like a man. People see me as a man. I am male on my passport. I'm a little in between, but I find happiness in being who I am."
Other documentaries at the Festival told other stories, of coming out, having a child in a same sex relationship, going through a M2F sex change. The films told these stories honestly, sometimes almost crudely. At 21, "From Sodom to Hollywood" is a mature showcase of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual films, worth looking forward to for years to come.