NewFest brings a bevy of LGBT films to NYC

ScreenerBlog

Today marks the beginning of the 29th annual edition of NewFest, New York City’s premier LGBT film festival. I know, I know – the New York Film Festival just ended, not to mention the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, so NYC cinephiles could probably use a day or two to lie back and do what New Yorkers do best: order Seamless and complain about the MTA. However, if you do find yourself with some reserves of energy yet untapped before NewFest’s conclusion on Tuesday the 24th, there are a lot of good movies you’ll have a chance to discover.

NewFest kicks off tonight with a screening of Anthony Caronna and Alexander Smith’s Susanne Bartsch: On Top. RuPaul, Simon Doonan, Amanda Lepore, Michael Musto and more lend their reminiscences to this tribute to New York’s “Queen of the Night,” a fiercely independent fashionista/party producer/tastemaker who’s been blessing New York’s nightlife with wild parties for decades. Caronna and Smith go into Bartsch’s role in creating a sort of roving LGBT mecca, going from club to club, fueled by alcohol and pounding club music and outlandish outfits that were practically required if you wanted to get through the door. The illuminating documentary’s real selling point, however, is its access to Bartsch herself. She’s a candid person who's open and matter-of-fact about a lifetime of difficulties and triumphs both professional and personal. Ultimately, Bartsch emerges as an intriguing figure: one who values self-expression while also grapping with the question of who she really is behind her extravagant public persona.

On the decidedly more heavy side of things is director Itako’s Boys for Sale, screening this Sunday in partnership with the Japan Society and Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York. Itako takes NewFest attendees across an ocean to the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, where young men ranging from their teens to their late 20s (and one 30-year-old who’s shaved a few years off his age) have sex with men for money.  These urisen, as they're called—some of them wearing masks, others making no effort to hide their identities—are frank and unassuming as they detail the realities of this particular corner of the sex-work industry. Most of them are straight, and those who aren’t are instructed to tell customers that they are as a way to discourage unwanted intimacy. Many of them have been victims of sexual violence, which they detail in a way that’s heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. Many lost homes and livelihoods in the 2011 Fukushima disaster and moved to Tokyo to rebuild; to those with nothing, the prospect of a high-paying, part-time job of going on "dates" proved an enticing prospewct. (An owner of one of the clubs, also interviewed, denies misleading potential urisen about the fact that their job mostly involves having sex with other men; several of the urisen themselves dispute his claim.) Boys for Sale sidesteps potential exploitation by inviting these men to tell their stories, unvarnished, in their own words.

Itako recruits some more “expert”-style talking heads as well, among them a few figures involved in promoting sexual education among Tokyo’s bustling gay community. It’s an area that’s woefully lacking. Most of the urisen, when engaging in penetrative sex, don’t use condoms, and several go quiet and seemingly scared when the subject of STDs comes up. The general rule: “Don’t talk about it.” In Boys for Sale’s most distressing moment, the interviewer (presumably Itako) asks a 19-year-old urisen if he knows what STDs are. The response: “You mean men get them too?”Asked if he knows how one gets an STD, the urisen guesses that it’s from blood-to-blood contact before admitting, “I have absolutely no knowledge of that.”

Other NewFest docs go into LGBT history, among them Jeffrey Schwarz’s The Fabulous Allan Carr, about the showbiz legend who produced Grease; Jochen Hick’s My Wonderful West Berlin, about the LGBT community in Germany’s capital post-World War II; Andrea Weiss’ Bones of Contention, which looks at the human-rights atrocities of Franco-era Spain through the lens of LGBT persecution; and Against the Law, a documentary/narrative hybrid about journalist and gay-rights advocate Peter Wildeblood (played in narrative segments by Daniel Mays), who was at the center of a 1954 trial that eventually contributed to the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.K. With Against the Law, one wishes that director Fergus O’Brien had gone either full documentary or full narrative. Instead, the film shuffles back and forth between a narrative telling of Wildeblood’s story and the talking-head input of gay men who lived during that period. All the same, Against the Law proves a valuable primer for those unfamiliar with how gay men were treated in the U.K. in the '50s. Something similar can be said of Bones of Contention: It’s a little broad, a little surface-level, jumping back and forth between discussion of the Franco regime's persecution of gay men and more insidious suppression of lesbian women; the fate of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca; and the still-ongoing argument about how the atrocities of the Franco decades should be memorialized in modern-day Spain. There’s enough material here for a whole handful of movies. While those already familiar with the subject matter may find their attention wandering, those unfamiliar with this particular slice of history—among whose numbers I count myself—should find Bones of Contention illuminating.

Constance Wu stars in Jenée LaMarque’s The Feels, a comedy-drama in which a bachelorette weekend goes off the rails when one of the brides-to-be (Angela Trimbur) admits that she’s never had an orgasm. And Tony winner Lena Hall stars in closing-night film Becks, about a Brooklyn musician (Hall) who moves back in with her ex-nun mother (Christine Lahti) after a bad breakup, only to fall for a married woman (Mena Suvari). In terms of plot, both films offer fairly standard fare—I could do with a moratorium on “30-something artist moves back to their hometown and discovers themselves” movies for a while—but are rescued from mundanity by great performances. Lena Hall is a rock star, literal and figurative, while in The Feels “Fresh Off the Boat” star Wu gets to shine as a woman whose apparently picture-perfect life begins to splinter. (Special kudos must go as well to The Feels’ Ever Mainard, who turns in one of NewFest’s standout comedic performances as the guileless straight-shooter—well, not straight shooter, but you know what I mean—Helen.)

Sunday, October 22 sees a Spotlight Screening of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, about the real-life trio—psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), his psychologist wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their shared mistress Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote)—who created the character of Wonder Woman. Professor Marston is already out in the United States, and if you’ve yet to see it, you should really get on that ASAP. As a bonus for NewFest attendees, this particular screening will be followed by a conversation with writer/director Angela Robinson about “media representations of female desire, bisexuality and polyamory.”

This year’s New York Centerpiece is After Louie, screening Sunday the 22nd, which examines the evolution of the gay community through the lens of an intergenerational relationship between artist Sam (Alan Cumming), who survived the AIDS crisis, and younger Braeden (Zachary Booth). The day prior sees the New York premiere of International Centerpiece God’s Own Country, which is winding down its run on the festival circuit in advance of its U.S. theatrical release on October 25th. Those who miss out on God’s Own Country’s NewFest screening—and hey, look at that, it’s rush only—should make a point of seeing the film a few days later when it hits theatres. The film marks an assured debut from writer-director Francis Lee, who brings a sense of authenticity and lush romance to his tale of first love. The lovers in question are Johnny (Josh O'Connor) and Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu)—the former a young man who spends his nights drinking and having casual sex when he should be (his father says) pulling his weight on the family farm, the latter a migrant worker brought on to help Johnny with lambing season. There’s a bit of Brokeback Mountain-by-way-of-Yorkshire here, but God’s Own Country ultimately proves more hopeful than the earlier film. At turns sexy and heartrending, God’s Own Country hinges on O’Connor’s brilliant, nuanced performance of a young man stepping into adulthood.