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Surviving the Silence

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In the case of the military, a closet hides not just the identities of gay, lesbian and transgender service people, but the skeletons of an institution’s refusal to offer dignity to non-heterosexual personnel.

In Cindy L. Abel’s detailed doco, Surviving the Silence, Col. Patsy “Pat” Thompson – a high-profile nurse who had served her career in-the-closet – denotes her thirty years of service in the American military. Thompson’s achievements, reflected in rank and decorated military honours, would not have occurred had she been open about her sexuality. Her discretion, a sign of systemic oppression towards the LGBTQ community, protected not only her career but her and her partner’s (Barbara) livelihoods.

It is clear that Thompson has always carried herself with the spirit of a soldier. Her involvement in the army is a natural fit for her stoic demeanour. The depth of which is captured impeccably by Abel as a series of interviews between Thompson, Barbara, and fellow military personnel who continue to fight for equal treatment.

Thompson observed the hardships of inequality from early youth. Raised in 1950s North Carolina, a setting deeply ingrained in religion, the inequalities felt by women (already troubling enough) amplified towards those attracted to the same sex.

The film contrasts Thompson’s experiences with the history of oppression received by LGBTQ military personnel. Intersecting this are animated stills which reveal the policies and laws which denied queer service people parity. (The inclusion of animation only feels out-of-place when sound clips and introductory text resemble the opening credits of 24.)

Where Surviving the Silence strikes hardest is in its optimism for better. It chooses to reflect on the past not as a means of indignance (however appropriate that would be), but in recognition of the disadvantages overcome by military personnel. The defining example of this being the film’s later coverage of Thompson’s involvement in the case of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer; an openly gay military official who was dishonourably discharged because of her sexuality.

Despite their problematic experiences, the individuals front-and-centre of Surviving the Silence possess ample respect for an institution that had long deprived them of their dignity. The film does not condemn nor position interviewees as being complicit in facilitating the cycle of mistreatment, but rather, reinforces their deep sense of duty and determination to better the world. The result culminates in being a thoughtful homage to queer service-people.

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Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club

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Rugby has a certain image tinged with toxic masculinity. One which hasn’t been helped by players such as Israel Falou and his homophobic vitriol disguised as freedom of speech. Steelers: The World’s Frist Gay Rugby Club looks set to bleach that image by dismantling stereotypes and perceptions, and acting as a joyful celebration of the sport.

Directed by former Aussie news reporter, Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, the film follows the trials and tribulations of the titular Kings Cross Steelers, a London based rugby team founded in 1995 at the Central Station gay pub. The team’s aim then, as it is today, was to give gay and bisexual men an inclusive environment in which to play rugby. Over 20 years later, there are now more than 50 LGBTQIA clubs in the world. Not bad at all.

Having experienced a concussion 6 weeks into a season playing for the Steelers, Ashton-Atkinson picks up a camera to film the team’s chances as they enter the Bingham Cup, a competition named after gay rugby player, Mark Bingham, who died on the ill-fated flight, United 93. With the team in Amsterdam, and going up against teams like the Sydney Convicts, the director follows three members of the team, including coach Nic Evans, as they talk candidly about coming out and their relationship with Rugby.

Ashton-Atkinson clearly cares for his subjects as much as he does his sport, perhaps to a fault. As he manages to get them to open up, he’s almost apologetic about how they’ll be viewed once the film is released. And to be fair, for players like Simon Jones, the documentary is just another way of putting yourself out there that has not worked out for him in the past.

However, Ashton-Atkinson really shouldn’t worry. Steelers is a life affirming film that manages to whack a great big smile on your face. The joy and love the players have for each other is infectious, and even if you have no particular interest in the sport, you’ll be hard pushed not to be cheering them on as they charge towards the Bingham Cup final.

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Ahead of the Curve

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Mainstream success means more than financial reward for the people employed at fringe lesbian magazine Curve (formerly Deneuve): it means progress.

Curve magazine’s thirty-year history of championing lesbian voices is articulately explored in first time director Jen Rainin’s contemplative documentary, Ahead of the Curve.

The film follows the contribution made by founder and former Editor-in-chief Frances “Franco” Stevens. Her ambition is to advance lesbian representation in media, stemming from her frustration towards the suppression – if not erasure – of queer voices.

The film documents Stevens’ hardscrabble efforts to launch a publication – compounded by HIV/AIDs affected, Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell’ America – intercut with interviews from colleagues (well-known participants including Melissa Etheridge and Lea DeLaria) and present-day efforts in understanding how the publication fits within wider queer media. These complexities are expressed as the side-effects of an overabundance of online queer content, a decaying magazine landscape, and Trumpian politics.

Where Ahead of the Curve finds its stride is in its comprehensive dissection of current lesbian identity. We learn through the eyes of the extremely personable Stevens who, despite being a pioneer in the advancement of lesbian visibility (her grounding based in the liberal attitudes of ‘90s San Fran), reflects on what female representation looks like within contemporary LGBTQ society.

This level of self-reflection allows Ahead of the Curve to comment on the present issues faced by queer identity: the terminology and use of language, particularly the divisiveness of the term lesbian. The film recognises the distinction (and overlap) between communities based on sexuality and gender. Their forever evolving definitions are revealing of a greater need for broader education on queer culture.

That said, the communities themselves are not without their destructive tendencies. The point made in the film is that by having these discussions, it hammers home the need for ongoing dialogue, and the importance in having safe spaces/outlets for communities to not only embrace their culture, but to preserve it.

Told with humour, intelligence and an abundance of personality, Ahead of the Curve posits that the spectrum of lesbian identity is greater than the product of its struggles. It is a stark reminder of the importance of visibility (particularly for women who remain under-represented at the best of times) in the fight for equality.

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Katie

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In the world of professional boxing, Irish Olympic gold medallist and world titleholder Katie Taylor is as much of a champion outside the ring as she is inside it.

Training as doggedly as any other competitive boxer, Taylor, to the failure of society, is denied the equal treatment with her male contemporaries.

Exploring Taylor’s turbulent career and her fight for equality in a profession dominated by men, Ross Whitaker’s documentary Katie offers a spirited look at the strength of women.

Taylor’s rise from athletically gifted youth to world-class boxing sensation is told with loving candour. It is clear that there are no greater Katie Taylor supporters than her own family. Their deep admiration, seeping through every ounce of the film, is expressed through interviews and archival footage.

Whitaker positions boxing as a wider stand-in for gender inequity. He uses Taylor’s difficulties in accessing equal treatment through promotion and pay, to denote the systemic practices that disadvantage women. The contribution made by Taylor in campaigning for women to compete in boxing at the Olympics, an achievement not rectified until 2012, becomes a troubling example of the pace at which professional sports trails behind the times.

Katie Taylor does not need sympathy, nor does she need her struggle to be romanticised. What she demands is immediate action in the fight to have women be fairly represented in not only positions of power, but in all facets of society.

She will continue to push for this with a sheer determination in hand and an ego left at the door. Unfortunately, she just has to wait for the world to catch up with her.

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Lovemobil

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A palpable stillness fills a lonely country road sitting outside of Wolfsburg, Germany.

As though the dead-silent streets weren’t eerie enough, the total darkness, illuminated only by the deceptively inviting lurid glow of a roadside caravan, does little to ease the mood.

It is women who occupy these caravans (known as Liebesmobiles); many of whom travel from afar to earn a living performing sex work.

The stories of these women and their systemic oppression are explored with a sympathetic gaze in hard-hitting documentary Lovemobil.

We spend most of Lovemobil inside a caravan belonging to Uschi; a former sex-worker who when not enforcing strict housekeeping demands upon her employees – Rita (from Nigeria) and Milena (from Bulgaria) – can be seen overwhelming her dogs with affection. It is a duality that expresses both desensitiaation and benevolence; the latter being a courtesy denied to the women she exploits to make a living.

For many of the women employed by Uschi, assault, neglect and death prove more than just concerns, but realities of their employment. Their dreams of freedom from a life of sex work, initially met with glowing optimism, become short lived when jolted back into the present. Forced isolation and financial captivity amplify their mounting trepidation; a byproduct calcified by the looming threat of danger which presents itself with each client.

Director Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss does an exemplary job connecting the experiences of women with the institutionalisation (and commoditisation) of their abuse. The astute filmmaker directs with an incisiveness that not only respects and grants dignity to interviewees but presents the implications of their inequality in contrast to broader society.

It is considered documentary filmmaking at its most potent.

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Trailer: Brazen Hussies

Five years in the making, Catherine Dwyer's documentary - produced by Philippa Campey and Andrea Foxworthy, and executive produced by Sue Maslin - explores the revolutionary Women's Liberation Movement (1965 -1975) in Australia.