Gaze Film Festival: Documentaries


The August bank holiday weekend, also saw the 25th anniversary of  GAZE – the Irish LGBT film festival. Over forty films were screened – some old classics; films soon to be released in cinema; low budget films that exist thanks to the film festival circuit; short films and documentaries. The festival was held in the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield.

The latter genre was the chosen viewing for my good self, last weekend. I caught two documentaries, based on characters from either coast of the United States.

On Sunday I saw ‘The life and death of Marsha P. Johnson’ directed by David France.

Johnson was an LGBT rights activist in New York between the 1960s and the 1990s, whose dead body was washed up on the shores of the Hudson River by the Christopher Street Pier in 1992.  The police ruled her death a suicide, after the most cursory of investigations.

She was a legend of the LGBT scene in New York. Although she self-identified as a drag queen, I guess in 2017 she’d be regarded as transgendered (not sure how I feel about posthumous assignation of identities – it seems to speak more about the assigning person rather than the subject. However that’s a different discussion).

A famous figure throughout the city, she’d either been present at, or close by the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, when the riots that heralded the arrival of the modern, American, gay rights movement kicked off.

Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera were very active in the early movement – particularly on the issue of the most vulnerable segment of the community- the homeless street queens like themselves, who were regarded as detritus, not only by mainstream society, but even by the more ‘respectable’ element of the gay community. Together they founded S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) as a shelter for those queens.

Quarter of a century after her death, trans activist Victoria Cruz is about to retire from her position at the LGBT Anti-Violence Project. Before she goes, she attempts to get the police to reopen Marsha’s case. Marsha’s friends and family had always believed that she had been murdered. However as she had been somebody on the margins, her death was never properly investigated. Mob involvement in her death was never explored, despite evidence that it could be pertinent.

It’s a decent enough film with some serious flaws. Namely the title. It is slightly misleading. The central character is a fascinating subject – whose life and times were iconic and deserving of a full film. But for large parts of the film Johnson is ignored, as the focus switches to Cruz, and an on-going modern day case about a murder trial for the killer of trans woman Islan Nettles. In other parts, the focus switches to Johnson’s friend Sylvia Rivera and her life since Johnson’s death. As Johnson only appears in short clips and her story is told by others, her character is enigmatic and not properly explored. Rivera’s story is in fact more interesting, and compelling, thanks to the fact that she was more politicised than Johnson, and gave extensive interviews. She recalls how after Johnson’s death she ended up as a homeless alcoholic, before cleaning up her life, but ultimately dying from liver cancer. But I guess that is less cinematic than an unsolved murder.

It all felt just a little disjointed. Interesting and watchable for sure, but rather it is three mini-documentaries posing as one film, with the title character’s story getting the least screen time. Worth seeing though.

The next documentary I saw was ‘Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin’ directed by Jennifer M. Kroot. This film was about the author of the ‘Tales of the City’ series of books. Maupin grew up in a conservative, Republican house in the American South. Moving to San Francisco in the 1970s he came out as gay and became a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Every weekday he would write tales about fictional characters in the real life city.

He turned these columns into a series of six books. These became a phenomenon. I remember buying the first three, in a second hand shop in San Francisco’s Haight district, when I visited in 1999. I devoured them. They were absolutely addictive, painting a magical picture of the city, and the freedom it offered to live as you wanted.

Maupin wrote the sixth and supposedly final book of the series ‘Sure of you’ in 1989.

Those six books were perfection. Sadly almost twenty years later he returned to the series for three more unnecessary books. Of these only ‘Mary Ann in Autumn’ was to the standard of the previous. Disappointing in terms of the series, I suppose they were essential in terms of pension.

I queued to buy a signed copy of ‘Mary Ann in Autumn’ in the Vrolijk Lesbian and Gay Bookshop in Amsterdam upon its release. I was so excited to meet Maupin, and to have him sign my book. Afterwards after being ushered forward (the queue for autographed copies was long), I skipped out the door of the shop, as if in a trance. It was a wet day. As I was crossing the road, I slipped and fell face first into a puddle. Only as I peeled myself from the ground did I realise, I’d not paid for the book. This was completely accidental. Such was my excitement at meeting him, I had missed the line for the checkout.

As I was covered in sludge I decided that I probably ought not to return to the shop there and then. I bought many more books in the Vrolijk in the years since to compensate for my light-fingeredness.

The film itself is watchable. I just wish I hadn’t seen it. They say that you should never meet your heroes. My previous encounter with him in Amsterdam lasted mere seconds, so doesn’t count. He’s led an interesting life I suppose, but he is a writer, not an actor. The details of his life are – in my mind – irrelevant to an appreciation of his books. He is currently working on his memoir – which I will buy in a heartbeat. It will feature his glorious writing. The real life character as shown on film is less interesting, and more mundane. He’s a lovely person apparently. It’s just that in my view writers should not appear on camera. People who use their pen as their sword ought to maintain an element of mystery.

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