From the 16th until the 27th of November, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) will show over three hundred documentaries at various locations. For nearly thirty years now, IDFA offers an inspiring program, with touching, intriguing, revealing, incredible and bizarre real-life stories that show there is more than just one reality.
IDFA was founded in 1988 to stimulate the world of both national and international documentaries. At IDFA, the creative documentary that falls under the category art takes center stage. A documentary maker is an artist - not a journalist. Where the journalist tries to present reality as objectively as possible, the artist follows his or her own ideas. The rules of journalism therefore do not apply to creative documentaries; the documentary has its own quality standards.
For the Amsterdam festival, social relevance is of the utmost importance. Therefore it didn’t come as a surprise that IDFA introduced a Gay Day some years ago. Meanwhile, this has been renamed Queer Day, as “queer” in contemporary English usage attained a broader meaning and is often used as a synonym for the letter sequence that indicates gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and others, as a group. The programming is made up of five recent documentaries about “queer” related topics with a number of short debates and discussions by film makers and experts in between and after screens.
The diversity of the “queer” community becomes evident in the documentaries about the life and work of Robert Mapplethorpe; the experiences of an Israeli gay in London who is diagnosed with HIV; the adventures of a group of colored youths in New York, finding a way out in the vogue subculture; the struggle of a group of gay and transgender youth in Washington who start a gang to counteract the bullying they are exposed to on the streets, and Jonny von Wallström’s “The Pearl of Africa” (Sweden), the story of a transgender woman in transphobic Uganda. We will introduce the first four.
Mapplethorpe’s Erotic Universe
The title of “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” is derived from an angry exclamation by conservative senator Jesse Helms, who in 1989, some months after Mapplethorpe’s death, ranted about government subsidy for an exhibition of photos by Mapplethorpe, “a known homosexual who died of AIDS,” who’s work also shows depictions of sex and S&M. The film begins with the ranting of Helms, which led to the closure of a Mapplethorpe exhibition in Washington and, more generally and for many years, has had a far reaching impact on US cultural policies.
Looking at the photos is exactly what the makers of the documentary do, but where Helms is mostly referring to the content - the bare skin, the genitals, the bold placement of a whip or a fist - they take the photos as a point of departure for an empathic biographical portrait. The photos are placed in the context of his life and artistic vision. “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” offers an unvarnished account of Mapplethorpe’s life, from his childhood in a large Catholic family in Queens, New York, until his AIDS related death at forty-two in 1989. The film makers could fall back on a series of rediscovered interviews in which Mapplethorpe talks about his passions in all honesty. They also interviewed dozens of relatives, friends, companions, models and lovers, among them Jack Fritscher, the former editor of the leather magazine “Drummer,” who was affiliated with Mapplethorpe from 1977 to 1980, sex icon Peter Berlin, Warhol’s bosom friend Bob Colacello, biographer Patricia Morrisroe, singer Debbie Harry and actresses Fran Lebowitz and Brooke Shields.
Mapplethorpe studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but left prematurely in 1969. In the second half of the 1960s, photography was considered more of a trade than art. In the film Philip Gefter, the author of the biographical study “Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe,” remarks that photography gained status simultaneously with the gay rights movement. In this respect, Mapplethorpe started his career at an opportune time, as he embraced the link between art and eroticism early on. Initially, he experimented with collages for which he used photographs from gay porn magazines. He made his first pictures in the late sixties and early seventies with a Polaroid camera, and then he bought himself a Hasselblad. Mapplethorpe’s earliest work anticipates his most famous photos. Examples of these photos are shown abundantly in the film. The photos can be incredibly sexual or as cold as marble. When Mapplethorpe settled in Soho in New York in his twenties, he even described himself as “a pornography photographer.” In the course of his professional career, this proved to be far too limited a characterization, but it does indicate that Mapplethorpe was not afraid to shock.
Some critics resent it that the directors, although they pay much attention to Mapplethorpe’s photographs, “seem more obsessed with his personal sexual peccadilloes and his journey into sadomasochism” and that it would have been better if “more screen time was spent showing the less obvious work and concentrating more on other lesser known series, such as his flower imagery and portraits. But sex sells, and the artist knew it, as do the film makers here.”
“Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” is directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who made name for themselves with the film “Party Monster” about “Club Kid” Michael Alig, who under the influence of drugs in general and Special K (ketamine) in particular, turned into a killer. Baily and Barbato also produce “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”
Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?
In the years after Mapplethorpe’s death, advances in medicine meant that HIV is not automatically a death sentence anymore, but the diagnosis can still cause personal and social problems, as becomes clear in the Israeli-British production “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?,” described as a “comedy-drama.”
“Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?” follows the adventures of Saar Maoz, a forty-year-old gay Israeli living in London and singing at the Gay Men’s Chorus. He is far away from his orthodox family, but they still play a part in his life. It turns out that he more or less was thrown out of the kibbutz he grew up in, and that this still evokes feelings of shame in his family. He has lived in London for the past twenty years now. The film’s title refers to his despair when HIV is diagnosed, just when he reaches middle age. He says he contracted the virus during binges of sex and drugs he immersed himself in after a long-term relationship fell apart. His friends at the Gay Men’s Chorus cherish him and take care of him, but his family wants him to come home. His mother fears for the future of her son, but his grumpy, drill instructing father can only pose questions such as “can’t you just take a pill for this?” or “why don’t you just call it the ‘men’s chorus’?” According to a critic, the father is “the kind of character that you can’t make up, and the film springs to life when he’s on screen.”
A completely different kind of love his parents radiate in spite of everything, emerges in the tender songs of the London choir, one of the rare places in which the power of gay men is in their sheer number. The motivating songs performed by about a hundred of cheerful gay voices give the film some time to catch your breath.
Despite of Saar Maoz’s struggle to balance different aspects of his life, the directors of “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?,” the brothers Tomer and Barak Heymann, succeeded in a “comedy-drama” which has the audience regularly erupt into laughter. The background, however, remains serious because Maoz’s experiences tell the ever re-emerging story of a gay man who comes into conflict with the expectations of a basically conservative society. Maoz’s brother acts as if the entire family is under attack, only because his brother has HIV.
Dancing as Survival Strategy
The black youth in the American-Swedish production “Kiki” by Sara Jordenö, who wrote the film in collaboration with Twiggy Pucci Garçon, have completely different problems. “Kiki” is about the so-called “kiki scene” in New York, where gay and trans youth find a home in a voguing subculture. Twiggy Pucci Garçon, who suggested to Jordenö to make the film, is a key figure in this scene, and therefore was the perfect guide to the director.
Many of the young people in “Kiki” live on the edge, and are often more or less homeless being rejected by their families and shunned by their communities after coming out as gay or transsexual. They find solace in the dance competitions between different “houses” with names that already point to their streetwise theatricality. These dance “houses,” led by “housemothers” play a vital role as surrogate families, while also ensuring an collective activist voice. It is remarkable to see how team leaders not older than fifteen or sixteen often take responsibility for large groups.
Although the dance scene provides a certain grip, it does not protect them from everyday problems, often exceptionally big for these young people. However, they find strength and liberation in the “kiki scene,” which is visualized beautifully in the film by, for example, scenes of gorgeous displays of voguing attitude in public spaces like Christopher Street Pier.
“Kiki” won a Teddy Award as the best GLBT-related documentary at the International Film Festival in Berlin earlier this year. It is already seen as an unofficial successor to Jennie Livingston’s influential “Paris is Burning” (1990).
Queer Gang in Washington
The battle of youth is also the subject of “Check It” by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer, but this documentary takes place in Washington, D.C. “Check It” portrays a group of African-American transgender and gay youth who started their own gang “Check-It” for self-protection in 2005. Meanwhile, the gang now consists of more than two hundred, many of them armed and dangerous, but also fierce and fabulous. At a very young age they were molested by their peers because of their often notable feminine demeanor.
Grouping together seemed a good way to cope with this victimization. And the strategy worked, because the Check-It soon had the dreaded reputation that they were more than willing to fight. These “sissies” perhaps looked and behaved girlishly flamboyant, but they were carrying brass knuckles and knives, and had a fiery temper. This violent defense strategy appeared to work for years, but some of the leaders recently discovered that this decisive reputation also has drawbacks as they reach adulthood and want to realize their dreams. The film follows four gang members in their struggle to find a way out taking a very remarkable route: fashion.
IDFA, Nov. 16- 27, Amsterdam
The full programming of IDFA can
be found on www.idfa.nl.