Love Stories: Torino Gay & Lesbian Film Festival

Ellise Fuchs

The 2005 Festival delivered on its motto: 'A cultural project proud of its deep roots and fed by the love of cinema and of freedom'.

It seems winter is drab in most corners of the earth. Here in Torino, the future home of the 2006 Winter Olympics, we are afflicted not only by cold, but also by an onslaught of construction sites. With the "build up" to the Games, the greyness of concrete, the dust and deafening noise, this winter seemed particularly dull and endless. Every April, however, brings the sweet revenge of spring, all bright colors and pungent smells, and the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

Now in its 20th year, the "From Sodom to Hollywood" is a respected and serious showcase for many out-of-the-way gems of gay and lesbian themed films. The 2005 Festival delivered on its motto: "A cultural project proud of its deep roots and fed by the love of cinema and of freedom."

The TGLFF is the brainchild of filmmakers Ottavio Mai and Giovanni Minerba, who realized that many important gay films never made it over to Italy. Initiated in 1985, it was designed "to keep an eye on the artistic and internationally acclaimed cinema that would never have a go in our country, a kind of cinema that has always had difficulty finding distribution in Italy." The Festival garners recognition from a diverse press and a dedicated audience, gay and non.

In addition to the juried films, competing in the categories of feature length, short, documentary, and video, this year's program included panoramas and retrospectives, a total of some 300 films. The Swiss-Canadian filmmaker Léa Pool was honored with a showing of some of her features and documentary and tv work. A tribute was also made to the distribution company Lucky Red, for playing "an important role in the process of the 'normalization' in the way society sees homosexuality." Lucky Red is responsible for bringing such films as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Happy Together, and Velvet Goldmine to Italian cinemas.

The John Waters retrospective featured the man himself, along with the presentation of a book by Vito Zagarrio, entitled John Waters. His most recent film, A Dirty Shame, made its European debut on opening night at the Festival. Waters was welcomed by writer/entertainer Platinette, the evening's host(ess), gorgeously bedecked à la Divine, in a tight-fitting black sequin gown. Before the films rolled, a popular Italian rock band played an energetic set, heralding the infusion of young film enthusiasts and queers into the "older set" who has been running the Festival since its inception.

One documentary exemplifying this duality -- young and old together -- was the Swiss film, Katzenball (Feline Masquerade). Directed by Veronika Minder, this richly researched film was awarded a Special Mention by the jury for its "sensitive rendering of past and present lesbian life in Switzerland." It follows the lives of five women, ranging in age from 20 to 80, intertwined with old film clips, letters, and photos, along with current footage and interviews. Though the documentary style was rather standard, the women's fascinating tales didn't need any special effects.

This year's films focused repeatedly on love, stories ranging from the search for true love, the adventures of first love, and the devotion to religion. Kanerva Cedestrom's gorgeous documentary Lost and Found tells the story of a gay man who chooses to leave his native Russia for Finland at age 18. His voiceover recounts the discrimination and psychological trauma he suffered as a boy in Russia. "There was one obstacle," he narrates. "He loved boys. When he grew to know what love was, he got in trouble. The boy was expelled from his school because he was gay. He was put in an institution, blacklisted, couldn't work or study. The system wanted to break this boy down, but he wanted to hold on. He wanted to be the person he was born to be. He decided to leave home. In this new country, the fairy tale came true." The use of short depth of field throws objects in and out of focus: his long hair, his transvestite eveningwear, his religious icons and the elderly people with whom he works by day. The jury gave a Special Mention to this film as well, for "its poetic cinematic language and the expansion of the technical form of documentary."

Another documentary that stretched the limits of cinematic style and structure, the Israeli video Et Sheaava Nafshi (Keep Not Silent - Ortho Dykes) tells the stories of three Orthodox Jewish women who consider themselves lesbians. In the orthodox religion, one is obligated to marry and have children, one out-of-focus woman explains. Since she was not sure about her feelings, she made a pact with herself: if, after 20 years of marriage, she still has feelings for women, then she would act. Now that her time is up, she is coming to terms with her sexuality.

The other two women in director Ilil Alexander's film are more experienced. One is having an affair, about which her husband and children are aware. The third "marries" her girlfriend, in a traditional glass-smashing and chair-dancing ceremony. Alexander explained during a Q&A that the film took four years to make, with more than half of that time spent trying to find women who would tell their stories. She was sensitive during production, often using scarves, veils, soft focus, and dramatically backlit> images to hide her subjects' identities. Keep Not Silent won the Israeli Oscar for Best Documentary and the Audience Award for Best Documentary in Torino.

In the Short Film category, the quality varied but love stories again prevailed. The sweet Swiss Hi Maya recounts the reborn romance between two initially reluctant elderly women who bump into each other at their hairdresser's after 40 years. With a series of flashbacks to a tender chasing embracing scene at a swimming pool, the women's past is reconstructed. On the other hand the French Plutot d'accord tells about a young, shy boy who, thanks to help from a female colleague, searches for the love of his life at work. The jury gave a Special Mention to this film, noting that "Sometimes to smile is a conquest."

A range of films were screened in the Feature Length section, including work from Europe, Russia, Brasil, North America, and Asia. At week's end, it was Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Sud Pralad (Tropical Malady), a co-production from Thailand, Italy, Germany, and France that won the Jury Prize as well as a Special Mention. This rather pokey, poetic film contrasted with most of the other features, which involved more action, conflict, and linear narratives. The first half of Sud Pralad is a simple romance between a young soldier and the son of farmers. They go to the movies, have meals together, and take walks, smiles on their faces. Their relationship has no particular urgency, but just "happens," against the backdrop of a lush, pre-tsunami Thailand.

One morning, the soldier wakes up to find his boyfriend has disappeared. At this point, the film turns dark in tone and focus. Villagers say there is a wild beast killing cows and an old legend surfaces about a man turned animal that stalks the inhabitants. Chilling scenes, full of close-ups of the soldier and a nude, animal-like man separated by thick leaves in the forest, suggest that the soldier is delirious. Famished and weak, he finds himself being stared down by an enormous tiger. We wonder if the lovers are paying for a "sinful" relationship or if anyone might be prey in this mysterious jungle. Sud Pralad opened in Italian theaters the day after the Festival concluded; the Festival director called its success a "sign of civilization."

At the Awards Ceremony, the Festival was brought to a close by the Mistress/Master of Ceremonies team of Vladimir Luxuria and Fabio Canino. They made fun of most everyone, present or not. During Festival week, they announced, Spain had once again shown its progressive politics in approving gay marriages. With the new Pope in place, the announcers said, Italy is, unfortunately, not following Spain's lead. Still, "From Sodom to Hollywood" delivered a diverse set of films that challenges viewers. As the Italian cultural administers, who openly support the project stated, "Through increasingly unusual and highly personal points of view, the Festival is capable of involving not just cinema fans and sector specialists, but a vaster audience as well, a public that is animated by desire for an awareness, for new ideas and new opportunities for learning."


Ottavio Mai Grand Prize and Jury Special Mention: Sud Pralad (Tropical Malady), directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, produced by Charles de Meaux (Thailand/Italy/France/Germany, 2004).

Jury Award: Gan (Garden), directed/produced by Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz (Israel, 2003).
Jury Special Mention: Lost and Found, directed by Kanerva Cedestrom, produced by Ulla Simonen (Finland, 2003) and Katzenball (Feline Masquerade), directed by Veronika Minder, produced by Valerie Fischer (Switzerland, 2005).

Jury Award: Last Full Show, directed by Mark V. Reyes, produced by Coffy David (Philippines, 2004).
Jury Special Mention: Embrasser les Tigres, directed by Teddy Lussi-Modeste, produced by Jean Christophe Reymond (France, 2004) and Plutot d'accord, directed by Christophe and Stéfane Botti, produced by Patrick Maurin (France, 2004).

Jury Award: Dorian Blues, directed by Tennyson Bardwell, produced by Portia Kamons, Frank D'Andrea, MB Taylor, and Tennyson Bardwell (USA, 2004) and Anfanger!, directed by Nicolas Wackenbarth, produced by Erica Margoni (Germany, 2004).
Jury Special Mention: Some Real Fangs, directed by Desirée Lim, produced by Hirotaka Asano, Koji Kormura, and Desirèe Lim (Canada, 2004).

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