Flicks that click | Selected titles from this year’s Milwaukee Gay & Lesbian Film/Video Festival

Gregg Shapiro, Contributing writer

UWM’s Peck School of the Arts presents the 2013 Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival from Oct. 17 to 20. Following are reviews of some of the fesitval’s many diverse offerings, but the list is only partial and does not include entries in the short film category. For more information, go to arts.uwm.edu/LGBTFILM or visit facebook.com/mkelgbtfilm. 

 ‘I Am Divine’

During the past few years, gay filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz has made some of the most enlightening and entertaining documentaries to hit the screen. In 2008, he released “Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon,” which covered (so to speak) the life and career of the late gay porn star Jack Wrangler. Vito Russo, the legendary AIDS activist, gay journalist and author of “The Celluloid Closet,” was the subject of Schwarz’s 2011 excellent doc “Vito.”

Now Schwarz has trained his lens on Divine, the iconic drag star of some of John Waters’ most enduring films. 

“I Am Divine” opens in February 1988 at the Baltimore world premiere of Waters’ film “Hairspray.” The occasion would prove to be a mere month before Divine’s sudden, unexpected death.

“Cinematic terrorist” Divine was born Harris Glenn Milstead. Interviews with his late mother Frances, who died in 2009, are emotional and touching. Their turbulent relationship, which alternated between support and banishment, led to a lengthy period of estrangement that was eventually resolved.

In addition to Divine’s mother and Waters, an exhaustive array of people share their Divine memories with Schwarz. Included are childhood friend Diana Evans, longtime friends such as Pat Moran and Sue Lowe, and co-workers such as Ricki Lake, Mink Stole and Tab Hunter. Among the other personalities who make an appearance are Michael Musto, Holly Woodlawn, Bruce Vilanch and members of the performance troupe The Cockettes.

In interviews with Divine, including with Larry King Regis Philbin, we get to hear his own words about his life and career.

Schwarz makes excellent use of period footage and tosses in enough new information about the star’s life to titillate the hardcore fans. We learn about Divine’s early obsession with looking like Elizabeth Taylor and see his triumphant appearances at Washington, D.C., drag balls. We come to understand how Divine used food to fill an emotional a void and how he parlayed his film career into theater and dance music. Perhaps most surprisingly, we learn that Divine was a very sexual person.

‘Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton’ 

Awakened by a “glittering stranger” at three years old, Broughton met his “angel,” who offered him the gifts of intuition, articulation and merriment, culminating in a kind of big joy. A West Coast bohemian, Broughton said his films were a way for him to see what his dreams looked like. Poet Neeli Cherkovski called him “an outsider’s outsider, under the underground.”

Broughton, who lived “the pleasures of the flesh” and said things such as, “When in doubt, twirl,” survived a difficult California childhood with an abusive mother. He came into his own during the 1947 San Francisco Renaissance, the artistic revolution out of which grew the Beats, led by Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Madeline Gleason, Kenneth Rexroth and Broughton.

Unable to live his dream of becoming a dancer – Broughton admitted in a 1998 interview that he simply wasn’t graceful enough – he turned his attention first to writing, co-creating the Festival of Modern Poetry in 1947. Around this time, the bisexual Broughton began a relationship with film critic Pauline Kael and discovered a new life as a filmmaker. Beginning with his short film “Mother’s Day,” Broughton became a leading experimental filmmaker. He went on to receive the Poetic Film Award at Cannes Film Festival. His hero Jean Cocteau presented it to him.

“Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton” is a joyful portrait of an artist, writer, teacher, filmmaker, father, lover, Radical Faerie, and man whose far-reaching impact still lingers. This excellent doc will inspire viewers to learn more about Broughton’s life and his work.

‘Reaching for the Moon’

Movies about poets seem inherently risky. There’s the good, as in the case of “Stevie,” starring Glenda Jackson as poet Stevie Smith. Then there’s the fair, such as “Howl,” starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. Of course, there’s also the downright dismal – for proof, watch Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in “Sylvia.”

Fortunately, “Reaching for the Moon,” starring Miranda Otto as lesbian poet Elizabeth Bishop, is in the successful category.

Based on a true story, “Reaching for the Moon” begins in 1951 in New York, with Bishop (Otto) reading an early version of her poem “One Art” to poet and confidant Robert Lowell (Treat Williams) in Central Park. Declaring herself the “loneliest person who ever lived,” Bishop decides to take a trip to visit Vassar classmate Mary (Tracy Middendorf), who lives in Brazil with her female partner Lota (Glória Pires), a renowned architect. 

Because she lives with a woman, Mary has lost contact with her parents back in the United States. 

What begins as a three-day visit, made uncomfortable due to Elizabeth’s alcoholic social awkwardness and Lota’s abruptness, turns into a prolonged stay after Bishop is taken ill due to a nut allergy. Soon Lota starts coming on to Elizabeth, prompting the jealous Mary to leave for Rio. Elizabeth feels bad for hurting her friend, but that doesn’t stop her from becoming intimate with Lota.

In an unusual turn of events, Mary returns and the three women set up house together, although Elizabeth is clearly the focus of Lota’s attention. Lota constructs a stunning studio for Elizabeth, and the poet is grateful and prolific.

More complications arise, including Lota’s plan to adopt a baby for Mary. Nevertheless, Elizabeth says she’s never felt more at home in her life, and she completes the manuscript for “North & South: A Cold Spring,” a book that earns her the Pulitzer Prize.

Brazilian director Bruno Barretto grounds and enriches the film by weaving the political upheaval of the time into the three women’s personal story. Like the country, Elizabeth and Lota’s relationship takes a sudden turn for the worse. When Elizabeth accepts an offer to teach at NYU, Lota goes into an emotional tailspin that’s made worse by the nation’s military coup. Hospitalized following a nervous breakdown, Lota writes letters to Elizabeth and sends her a sizable lock of her hair. But Mary, still in love with Lota, never mails the letters or package. 

When Elizabeth and Lota are finally reunited in New York, where Elizabeth is now involved with a woman named Margaret, the story reaches a tragic conclusion. Despite all the drama, “Reaching for the Moon” is not overwrought. Instead, it’s respectful of its subjects.

The performances, particularly those from Otto and Pires, are riveting. “Reaching for the Moon” isn’t merely one of the best movies of this year’s Milwaukee Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival, it’s one of the best movies of the year. 

‘The New Black’ 

The title of Yoruba Richen’s doc “The New Black” is a play on fashion, but make no mistake about it, this movie is dead serious.

It begins on the day of the 2012 presidential election, just a few months after Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley had signed a same-sex marriage law in his state. But the law was challenged, and a referendum turned its fate over to the citizens of Maryland. The subsequent campaign turned the state into a battleground every bit as politically charged and seething with hate as California experienced in 2008 prior to the Proposition 8 vote.

Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, identifies herself as a “sistah” in the movement, in pursuit of the “unfinished business of black people being free.” Determined not to have a Prop 8-style situation in her home state, Lettman-Hicks’ commitment to the passage of Question 6 was unflagging.

On the other (or wrong) side of the fence, Pastor Derek McCoy of the Maryland Marriage Alliance did everything in his power to defeat Question 6. Denying a connection to the National Organization for Marriage and the other powerful, moneyed religious groups that succeeded in passing the anti-gay Prop. 8 in California, McCoy was relentless in his failed mission to defeat what he saw as the redefining of traditional marriage. 

Richen makes a fair and balanced presentation here, giving both sides of the issue plenty of opportunities to share their arguments. Even though we know that love eventually triumphed at polls, “The New Black” is still a nail-biter. 

‘Valencia’

This multi-director, multi-actor adaptation of Michelle Tea’s award-winning queer cult novel of the same title is as frustrating as it is exhilarating. The segments are alternately rewarding and pretentious, daring and leaden.

Set in San Francisco’s Mission District during the early 1990s, “Valencia: The Movie/S” has a narrator/main character named Michelle whose social/sexual escapades are the foundation of the story. Michelle’s failed relationships with Willa, Iris and Cecilia provide a fertile source of comedy and drama. The characters, played by an assortment of actors, both male and female, struggle with a range of issues, including sex work, drugs, infidelity, alcoholism, sobriety, sexual experimentation, violence, dating, family, making art and queer pride.

The most successful segments in “Valencia” include innovation and experimentation without sacrificing entertainment value. The shrooming section, which incorporates claymation, is a good example. Comedy is an important component, and the funniest segment, which involves Iris’s sister’s wedding and a mishap with Daisy the dog, is laugh-out-loud funny. Equally humorous is a portion of the film in which movies starring Angelina Jolie (including “Hackers,” “Gia” and “Girl, Interrupted”) are overdubbed with new dialogue and animation.

Not surprisingly, the closing section, directed by Jill Soloway (the UW-Madison grad who won best director at Sundance this year for “Afternoon Delight”), is the highlight of the work.

‘Bwakaw’

In “Bwakaw,” Rene (Eddie Garcia), a curmudgeonly elderly man who came out as gay late in life, and his obedient dog Bwakaw (the adorable Princess) live in a rundown house in the Philippine countryside. The dog is Rene’s closest companion, the only one he doesn’t fight with. But he still won’t allow Bwakaw to sleep in the house with him.

Retired from his custodial job at the post office, Rene nevertheless shows up regularly with Bwakaw and continues to do his job as if he never left. He also makes regular appearances in the church confessional, not to confess his sins but to give local parish priest Fr. Eddie (Gardo Versoza) updates to his will.

Other than Bwakaw, Rene avoids social interactions, including those with neighbor Nitang (Beverly Salviejo), who is obsessed with his santo entierro statue; old friend hairdresser Zaldy (Soxie Topacio) and Zaldy’s cross-dressing partner Tracy (Joey Paras). Rene does manage to strike up an unlikely friendship with thuggish tricycle/taxi driver Sol (Rez Cortez). Rene also visits Alicia (Armida Siguon-Reyna), an ex-girlfriend with dementia living in a managed care facility.

Writer/director Jun Lana makes good use of comedy and tragedy to balance this story of aging, coming out and companionship. When, near the end of his life, Rene tells Bwakaw a secret – that Zaldy isn’t his best friend but rather Bwakaw is, we believe him. Then we wipe away our tears.

‘Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth’

Lesbian filmmaker Pratibha Parmar directs her lens at lauded African-American writer Alice Walker for a highly revealing documentary. Walker’s praises are sung in interviews with a host of her contemporaries, including Sapphire, actor and activist Danny Glover, Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem, Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg, activist Angela Davis, Walker’s ex-husband Melvyn R. Leventhal, her ex-partner Robert Allen and many others.

Of course, it’s Walker’s own words, in recent and vintage interviews, that reveal the most. She contends that being a writer saved her life, which was challenged by “venom” from her own community because people had a problem with her “disinterest in submission,” her “intellect” and her “choice of lovers.”

From her roots as the great-great-great-great granddaughter of a slave and the daughter of a mother who stood toe to toe with a white landowner, Walker’s Southern identity informs every cell of her being. Coming of age as a college student at Spellman in the early 1960s, Walker longed to take part in anti-racist protests but feared losing her scholarship. After transferring to Sarah Lawrence, she wrote poems night and day and found herself part of the emergence of a new awareness.

Incorporating the changes taking place in the South, the 1963 March on Washington and the summer of 1966 when she met her (now ex-) husband Leventhal, the doc takes us through the significant events in Walker’s life leading to the publication of her first novel “The Third Life of Grange Copeland.” We follow her through her teaching jobs, the birth of daughter Rebecca, her move to New York (where she wrote for Ms.), the formation of The Sisterhood (with June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange and others), her divorce, her rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston, her writing of “The Color Purple,” her Pulitzer Prize – and beyond. 

Of special interest to LGBT viewers is Walker’s sexuality. As she says in the film, she loves “cuddling” and “it’s very nice to have a sweetheart.”

Walker says she “went off into adventures with women and loves with women and good times with women and growth with women. It was all marvelous, even the heartache.” She shares memories of her relationships with singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman and other women. Ultimately, Walker states she is “not a lesbian, not bisexual, just curious.” 

‘Born This Way’

This unsettling doc, co-directed by Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann, looks unflinchingly at the horrors of gay life in Cameroon. Under a strict penal code, same-sex displays of affection can result in harsh jail sentences. Arrests are regularly made using unverified evidence and false accusations.

In other words, to be gay, you have to leave Cameroon. 

But a group of young gay men and lesbian activists, including Cedric and Gertrude, are doing what they can to make acceptance and visibility a possibility for future generations. Cedric and Gertude work at Alternatives Cameroon, an LGBT center that focuses on HIV testing, treatment and education. Cedric, who credits Lady Gaga with his courage to be authentic, isn’t out to his mother or sister, who live in the countryside. Cedric lives in a dangerous neighborhood in the city, made even more risky because his neighbors, who know he is gay, make death threats and assault him. 

Gertrude has a somewhat easier time of it. She has a girlfriend. Her struggle involves her decision to come out to the Mother Superior who raised her in the convent. Despite the negative messages generated by religious organizations in Africa, Gertrude’s coming-out goes better than she expected. In fact, it’s one of the most endearing scenes in the film.

Running parallel to Cedric and Gertrude’s stories is that of gay rights lawyer Alice Nkom. We see her in action as she takes on the case of two lesbians arrested in Ambam.

This portrait of three pioneers staying and fighting for the cause in the country they love is at turns informative and terrifying. 

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