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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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Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Even outside of lockdown conditions, watching certain independent features can instil one with a very specific type of jealousy. The kind where, after seeing a single name attached to so many aspects of a single production, you remember how much of a trek it was to get out of the bed that morning and become bewildered at how any one person can have that much energy.

And in the case of filmmaker/actor Matt Fifer, his feature debut has him firing on all cylinders, co-directing alongside Kieran Mulcare, writing the script with co-star Sheldon D. Brown, editing next to Kyle Sims, as well as carrying the bulk of the emotional load onscreen. The only thing better than seeing someone that motivated is seeing all that hard work pay off in such gratifying fashion.

What makes Cicada truly shine, for all the incredibly murky and uncomfortable material it delves into, is its remarkable deftness of touch. When showing Fifer’s Ben and Brown’s Sam’s budding relationship, the tenderness and genuine intimacy between them creates a healthy bedrock for their musings and confrontations with their respective traumas. And whether it’s providing montage material or simply gliding over these lovers in each other’s arms, Eric Schleicher’s camera work taps into the indie ideal of making the everyday look wondrous. The way he plays around with water and reflections, in particular, is captivating.

It all adds to the film’s intentions of realism, reportedly built out of Fifer and Brown’s own experiences, and the resulting depiction of trauma certainly gives that impression. Exploring notions of racial prejudice, the effects of sexual abuse (with the grim spectre of Sandusky looming over the film’s period setting), the apprehension about coming out (which, unfortunately, can still be a difficult task even today), and all the while keeping the strictly LGBT framing from descending into armchair psychology clichés.

That on its own is already an impressive move, but the film’s larger connections to the LGBT umbrella manages to improve on that. The inclusion of the fabulous Jason ‘Freckle’ Greene, who shines with one of the script’s purple-r moments, mingles with the recurring ‘abolition of gender’ imagery to reinforce genderqueer solidarity, and with Ben specifically – he marks one of the more complex depictions of bisexuality in modern cinema.

Fifer’s characterisation plays into mainstream stereotypes (where ‘can have sex with any gender’ gets conflated with ‘will have sex’), and yet through delicate thematic touches that involve, surprisingly enough, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, recontextualise it as simply part of the standard courting practice. With how much flak the Bs still get in the mainstream (and even within the LGBT grouping), that on its own makes this whole endeavour worthwhile.

Cicada is an indie romance that manages to cover a lot of ground, both sexually and psychologically, with a refined hand and playful direction, making for a progressive outing that feels like you really just watched two people learn to live and love happily.

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Gossamer Folds

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It’s 1986 and Young Tate (Jackson Robert Scott, IT) has been uprooted from his life in ‘the city’ to a more – let’s say – close-knit community on the outskirts. Unbeknown to him, this move is a last ditch attempt by his mum and dad, played by Sprague Grayden and Shane West respectively, to salvage what’s left of their marriage.

Things already don’t look good as the two argue openly in front of their son within 24 hours of stepping over the threshold. As his parents tear strips off each other, Tate becomes fascinated with his twenty-something neighbour, Gossamer (Alexandra Grey, Transparent) who lives with her retired father, Edward (Franklin Ojeda Smith) and somewhat dim friend, Jimbo (Ethan Suplee).

Gossamer is a Trans woman and noting this, or at least presuming she’s just a man in a dress, Tate’s father quickly forbids his son from interacting with the neighbours. This being the ‘80s, his demands are laced with homophobia and Tate looks like he’s destined to take on his father’s prejudices. However, Tate’s curiosity gets the better of him and after a disagreement over a skateboard, Gossamer takes him under her wing.

Being a person of colour, as well as a Trans woman, there’s an initial fear that Gossamer Folds could devolve into a white saviour tale or perhaps worst, fetishise its lead to make her the magical answer to all of Tate’s issues. Instead, thanks in part to Grey’s performance, Gossamer is allowed to be her own person in her own story. In one of the strongest scenes, finally alone with her thoughts after a troubling night, Grey manages to convey so much without saying anything. Equally, her relationship with Tate is, quite frankly, adorable to watch as they bond over David Bowie and silver nail varnish. For his part, Robert Scott handles the material well and is thoroughly charming throughout.

Whilst Tate and Gossamer’s relationship grows, director Lisa Donato and screenwriter Bridget Flanery hint at darkness lurking around the peripherals. And it’s here that perhaps the film falters slightly. Over the course of the movie, Gossamer and her friends discuss a series of bashings that are happening in town, whilst she regularly has to contend with her father dead naming and misgendering her. These are day to day occurrences in Gossamer’s life, but the film doesn’t feel as strong as its protagonist does in order to tackle these issues, or at least not successfully. These plot threads just sort of hang in the air without any real closure. Sure, life isn’t really a series of endings that wrap up neatly, but there’s a feeling of wanting from the film’s ending; as if it wasn’t really sure how it wanted to finish. A small shame when everything that came before it is so strong.  That said if your heart is looking to be warmed up this spring, Gossamer Folds is a treat for the emotions.

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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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Asian Cinema, Home, Review, sci-fi, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Exploring with deft-handed candour themes of existentialism and spirituality, writer-director Aratia Kadav elevates sci-fi storytelling convention with incisive grace in the Hindi language space-drama Cargo.

Gliding through space with the same gentle motion as a jellyfish moving through water, the crew of Demons (yes, you read correctly) on-board the Pushpak 634A are given the dubious honour of ushering the souls of the deceased, affectionately called ‘Cargo’, into their reincarnated afterlives.

Greeted by the deceased with a sense of bewilderment and desire for closure denied by the Pushpak 634A’s no phone policy, the lone duo helming the ship – telepath Prahastha (Vikrant Massey) and newly recruited healer Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi) – navigate the complexities of their nine-to-five slog with a keen sense of duty.

Buckling under the weight of this shared sense of purpose is Prahastha and Yuvishka’s initial reservedness, with the zealous demons’ relationship developing far beyond a point of head-butting upon their continued self-reflection. The film flourishes as a result of impeccable performances from Massey and Tripathi, with their characters’ sentience and passing banter revealing the gamut of hardships faced by their Earthbound contemporaries.

These themes, particularly those relating to class and gender, are articulately executed with profound realism thanks to Kadav’s compassionately written, albeit slow-burning screenplay.

There is a retro quality to Cargo’s production design that is undeniably influenced by Kubrick and ‘60s Star Trek. It proves as stylish as it is an effective tool to express Prahastha’s exorbitant tenure in orbit. That said, Cargo’s modest budget becomes glaringly obvious when the film dabbles in visual effects, with examples of the ship passing through space – neither in sync with the retro aesthetic nor detailed enough to look realistic – detracting from otherwise attractive set-design.

Upping the thematic ante with a candid optimism for better, Cargo offers a stylish, thought-provoking and well-acted alternative to the influx of ‘straggler-in-space’ films dominant in Western filmmaking.

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Australian, Australian New Wave Filmmakers, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Set in Blacktown, Western Sydney, Benefited follows disparate tales of desperate youths living in modern Australia. Binding the tales together is Dity, played by the film’s writer/director Clare McCann, a 20 something who has fallen pregnant to her abusive partner, Ray (Ryan Bown). McCann plays with time as she bounces her audience back and forth to different points in their lives from first kiss to first brutal assault. Elsewhere, 15-year-old thief Will (Cristian Borello) struggles to connect with his half sister and finds solace in drugs and burglary.

This a thoroughly bleak film which doesn’t pull its punches, and with good reason. As proven by the film’s closing text, Benefited wants to paint a picture of domestic violence without the Hollywood lacquer painted over it. Ray doesn’t come into Dity’s life twirling his moustache and looking menacingly at the camera. He woos her after a festival; he defends her against her drunken stepfather. It’s the little things he does after this that are troubling, so slight that you wouldn’t notice. Even being the first to say ‘I love you’ is merely a ploy to control Dity.  It’s the mundanity of the things he does, that McCann writes about, which underlines the domestic terror her protagonist is in.

Elsewhere, perhaps less successfully, McCann tackles the state of Australia’s social benefits system; painting a world of grey cubicles peopled by apathetic office workers. Having managed to give Ray several layers, it’s a shame to see people Dity encounters on the dole as nothing more than pantomime villains, something to push Dity on a downward spiral.

A sad and down spirited film, Benefited might not be Australia’s answer to I, Daniel Blake, but it is the kind of film that can burst a few misconceptions people have about domestic violence.

Available now on Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo on Demand, Prime Video, Fetch TV

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The Boys: Season 2

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The Boys comic book series, by writer Garth Ennis, seemed destined never to be adapted for the small screen. Unlike some of his other works that include Preacher, Hitman and Punisher MAX, The Boys was simply too violent, too misanthropic and, frankly, too disgusting. The ultra-controversial series ran from 2006-2012 and in that time pretty much managed to offend everyone on earth, with its mixture of profane humour, savage superhero satire and bloody ultraviolence. It was also, it has to be said, daks-browningly hilarious and like much of Ennis’ work, contained a lot of heart, particularly in its excellent conclusion. It’s pleasing then, not to mention surprising, that The Boys has ended up being the best representation of Ennis’ work thus far – certainly much better than the ungainly Preacher adaptation – and while it plays fast and loose with the comics, it captures Ennis’ subversive spirit shockingly well.

The Boys season two (with a third already confirmed!) picks up where we left off in the previous season. The Boys are on the run, Butcher (Karl Urban) is nowhere to be found and Homelander (Antony Starr) continues to be an absolute mad bastard with the power of a living god. Super powered terrorists (aka “super villains”) are popping up all over the world and The Seven have a new member in the form of Stormfront (Aya Cash), whose sly wit masks the fact that her powers might even match those of Homelander himself. Meanwhile, poor wee Hughie (Jack Quaid) has to try and keep his troubled relationship with Annie January (Erin Moriarty) aka Starlight alive. Oh, and Vought CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito) takes centre stage, setting up a conflict that starts nasty and only gets bloodier from there.

Season two continues to do the things you loved about the first. The superhero satire is back, Karl Urban’s accent – that somehow makes him sound like he’s from nowhere and everywhere simultaneously – makes a triumphant return and the gore that made you chuckle guiltily the first time around is enthusiastically prolific. Episode three, in particular, really showcases the bloody best this series has to offer, with a mixture of slapstick, eye popping gore and the kind of language that is likely to make people who use words like “problematic” come down with the vapours. It’s business as usual, certainly, but business is good and for fans of Ennis or subversive pisstakery in general, The Boys is an absolute treat.

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Edge of Extinction

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Is it too hyperbolic to say that post-apocalyptic movies are particularly timely these days? At the very least, the five-car pile-up of real-world events of the past several months have given audiences worldwide a taste for the worst case scenario on the screen, either as a form of doomsday prep by seeing how others handle that situation or just as a reminder that things haven’t gotten quite that bad yet. But given how the isolated nature of our current predicament has resulted in quite a bit of socially-distant malaise, there’s an argument to be made that this film represents the modern apocalypse better than most. It isn’t an argument in the film’s favour, though.

A very WalkingDead-sans-zombies take on the ravaged wasteland in the wake of World War III, this film likewise relies on its characters to keep things interesting. But what we primarily get are a collection of people that are definitely abrasive, but not in a particularly engaging way.

It holds the central idea that collaboration and unity is needed to rebuild or even just to survive, a common conceit for the genre, but it constantly shows this by highlighting those who vehemently reject that idea. The hunters, the cannibals, the scavengers; the people who grab any resource they can find, whether it be food, lodging or breeding stock.

It’s like a monochromatic wash of nihilistic misanthropy, made drearier by the more-than-frequent wonky line reads from the actors. Admittedly, most of the cast do well enough with their nameless characters, but none of them manage to imbue their roles with the life needed to make them engaging. It begs for an Alex Garland to balance out the displays of self-destruction with an understanding that that is only one piece of the larger human puzzle, instead going for a Purge­-ian simplicity that makes all the characters feel like ciphers.

But even that could’ve been suitable, as the actions of dangerous individuals is usually the reason why the apocalypse happens in the first place. And with how adequately staged and filmed this wasteland is, it might’ve made for a decent yarn. But at over-two-hours, there truly isn’t enough narrative content to make this feel like it deserves that much time to make its point. Even ignoring how plain the characters can get, what happens to them as far as plot and even the decent fight scenes don’t fill out the innards to an acceptable level.

Calling this outright ‘bad’ would be doing it a mild disservice, as it shows enough skill at film craft to pass the bar. But in a way, being this dull to sit through might be an even worse indictment, as the urge to fall asleep in the midst of all this bloodshed is way too strong to make this feel like a journey worth taking. Audiences shouldn’t be able to look from their screens to their windows, and think the latter shows a more entertaining end of the world.

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One Man and His Shoes

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Netflix’s Michael Jordan/ Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance covered similar terrain as this documentary by filmmaker Yemi Bamiro. One Man and His Shoes explores the relationship between Michael Jordan and Nike and how together they created a third entity: Michael Jordan the brand.

Nike reaped the benefits of a shrewd decision to forge product sponsorship deals with young college basketball players (including a young Michael Jordan) that would foster a brand loyalty that would (ideally) extend into the player’s NBA career. That led to Michael Jordan as a rookie player, making a deal with Nike that comprised of various royalties and profit participations that were largely uncapped when the deal was made. The insane sales that followed took Nike by surprise and remade Jordan as a sporting icon, not to mention a billionaire. When first released, the original Air Jordan Nikes were quickly banned by the NBA because they weren’t white, so wearing them courtside meant Michael Jordan incurred a fine. The fine was happily covered by Nike, who benefitted massively from the publicity and subsequently sold a million pairs of Air Jordan shoes that year.

On the face of it, the documentary threatens to be a corporate hand job on the virtues of capitalism and the glory of Nike, but it’s undeniably fascinating to learn how a corporation found a way to occupy a significant amount of real estate in popular culture.

The fascinating ‘happy accident’ of Nike marketing executives seeing Spike Lee’s film She’s Gotta Have It was instrumental. In that film, Spike Lee portrays Mars Blackmon, a man devoted to his Air Jordan shoes, he even wears them during sex. Nike executives saw an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and asked Lee to direct a number of distinctive Air Jordan commercials, (with Lee starring alongside Jordan as the character of Mars) leading to a style and artistry in creating the ads that would go on to further cement Nike (and Air Jordans) as more of a cultural icon than a brand.

Nike’s ad campaigns and deliberate under-supply creates a demand that has succeeded in making the shoes a sought-after commodity, a status symbol. Collectors across the globe are interviewed, some with million-dollar collections.

The most compelling part of the documentary is when it calls into question the negative effects of the ‘Cult of Nike’ and in particular the criticisms that have been levelled at Michael Jordan: his disinterest in taking a stand on social and racial issues affecting young black Americans (while he and Nike are happy to take their money) and, in particular, the awful phenomenon of young people being killed solely for their ‘Jordans’.

Overall, it’s an examination of how popular culture can be hijacked and hacked, how humans can be manipulated into associating athletic ability, competitive success, self-worth, desire and esteem – with a shoe.