The Good, the Bad, and the Thought-provoking at Melbourne Queer Film Festival

So that’s a wrap for the 22nd Melbourne Queer Film Festival. And after 14 sessions, and an interesting selection of films, I hit my queer film threshold, and piked on my final session. We went hard, and then we went home. But not before we’d seen a number of good films, and at least one disaster.

The Argentinian film 'Absent'

I kicked off last week’s screenings with an Argentinian film, Absent, directed by Marco Berger, whose first film Plan B screened in 2010. Absent is about a 16 year-old boy who contrives a way to stay the night at his swimming instructor’s apartment. It’s clear – although not to the instructor, initially, that this boy is infatuated with said instructor, and the sexual tension literally drips off the screen. The infatuation is not returned, but it does trigger something of a sexual awakening in the instructor. Absent says a lot with very little dialogue, and explores desire and sexuality in a detached but compelling way. If only some US filmmakers could tell stories like this too.

The AIDS documentary 'We Were Here'

Wednesday night was a two-films back-to-back night, both very good, and both sobering and thought-provoking. The first, We Were Here, was a documentary about the beginning of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco. A series of first-person accounts from people who lived through the late ’70s and 1980s as many of their friends and lovers died around them. A moving way to see how far we’ve come, and a reminder that the battle isn’t over yet.

The very repressed Francois in 'Beauty'

The South African film, Beauty (Skoonheid), treads a dark path, with a middle-aged married man, Francois, who attends men-only sex sessions but denies he’s gay, becoming obsessed with a friend’s young and very attractive son, the flipside to Absent, really. With more than a touch of Death in Venice, it’s a tense story about a fairly unlikeable man, but its ambiguity and an enlightening final act make for engaging viewing.

Vito Russo, gay activist and writer

An interesting companion piece to We Were Here is the doco¬†Vito, the story of gay activist and writer Vito Russo. It charts similar territory, focussing on Russo’s activist work in New York during the ’70s and ’80s. And like We Were Here, it’s a very moving and timely portrait of an important figure in queer history.

I only got to see one short film package, Sex Drives & Videotape, and what was most interesting about that was the number of short films now dealing with how gay man relate to each other, either in relationships or sexual hookups. The quality of the filmmaking has gotten better, and demonstrates a growing confidence in storytelling.

The cliched and insubstantial 'eCupid'

Unfortunately, confident storytelling isn’t something I can ascribe to eCupid: Love on the Download. This was my Festival Fail for the year. Essentially a gay rom-com that had a promising premise – a smart phone app interferes with the lead couple’s relationship – it just couldn’t fulfill. With wooden acting, dreadfully trite dialogue, and a cheesy and annoying habit of spelling out everything the characters were feeling, this was a throwback to the kind of US gay comedies I thought we’d seen the back of five years ago.

My own Private Romeo...

Private Romeo, on the other hand, was a brave fusion of a group of young and attractive military cadets rehearsing an all-male version of Romeo and Juliet. The more they rehearse it, the more it takes over their lives, and results in a simmering sexual interpretation of the play, complete with Shakespeare’s original text. Not everyone’s cup of tea, and hard-going for a late Friday night film, but rewarding nonetheless.

'Hollywood to Dollywood'

Another film that could have benefited from a different time and venue was the doco Hollywood to Dollywood. Midnight at the Greater Union in Russell Street on a Friday night wasn’t ideal, especially when punters were encouraged to dress up as Dolly Parton. Suffice to say, there was only one, a woman. the fact that a pack of drunken straight men passing the cinema before the session and wondering loudly why there were ‘so many poofs’ in the cinema may have had something to do with that. the film itself was a fun road trip with gay twins Gary and Larry on a mission to drive to Dollywood in Tennessee to hand deliver a screenplay they’ve written for Dolly.

An important and weightier documentary was The Cure – an exploration of ex-gay programs run by Christian churches in Australia. Having had a rigorous Pentecostal upbringing myself, many of these stories were very familiar to me, and credit must go to the interviewees for being so open and honest about their experiences. Hopefully this film will be picked up by SBS or the ABC, because it really needs to be seen by a wider audience beyond queer film festivals.

A hot 'August' day...

My final film was August, one that I’d heard mixed reviews of. Starring Australian actor Murray Bartlett as Troy, a man returning to Los Angeles after living in Spain, and reconnecting with his ex, Jonathan, whose heart he broke when he left. Of course, Jonathan has a new boyfriend, Raoul, but that doesn’t stop him from having some hot, and very setamy sex with troy. Unlike eCupid, August doesn’t spell everything out, and maintains a smouldering sexual tension throughout the film, and just enough subtext and commentary about relationships to keep it interesting. And it made for a fitting end to the festival – for me at least.

And, as always, MQFF has left me with plenty of food for thought, especially regarding my own feature film script. One day it too will screen at MQFF. I hope…

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