More from the British Film Institute’s 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. This time it’s a quad of compelling documentaries, from glam rock fairies to country & western lesbians, and religious zealots to trans male sexing.
Director: Kieran Turner
Jobriath was vaunted as ‘The American Bowie’, and, ‘The True Fairy of Rock & Roll’. He was the first openly gay rock performer, but it was never Jobriath’s music that made him a star. Impresario Jerry Brandt threw most of his considerable money at hyping up his revolutionary find in the press, but when the music came, nobody bought it. Kieran Turner’s immersive, resourceful documentary Jobriath A.D. revisits the seventies and tries to identify where things went wrong for Jobriath, who died from AIDS in 1983; forgotten at only thirty-seven years old.
Turner is not interested in pointing fingers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his lasting lust for fame, Brandt almost becomes the star of the documentary in Jobriath’s absence. Brandt provides as much illumination about his own mangled personality as he does about the star he helped to destroy. The power dynamic between Brandt and Jobriath oscillates throughout the documentary. ‘He seduced me’, Brandt insists, painting Jobriath as equally fame-hungry, manipulative and magnetically irresistible. Other interviewees suggest a more vulnerable figure, one whose avoidance of sexual discussion didn’t fit with the flamboyant image the hype machine necessitated.
The biblical connotations of the title suggest that Turner’s project is not to discover who Jobriath really was. The multitude of identities the star moved through, from his birth name of Bruce Wayne Campbell to lounge pianist Cole Berlin, make that an impossible task. Instead, this detailed documentary tries to navigate the difficulties of launching and marketing an openly gay musician, who may have resembled Bowie, but blew apart that sort of ambiguity.
Jobriath A.D. mourns the under-appreciation and the loss of a great artist – his music is the dominant soundtrack and feels vibrant with invention – while also celebrating the groundbreaking effect Jobriath had on music culture. For newcomers, this is an enthralling education; for those familiar, this is a paean to celebrate.
Review by David William Upton
Sexing the Transman
Director: Buck Angel
The first trans male porn star, Buck Angel, takes time out of filming pornography to create this documentary probing the sex lives of other trans men, and the people who sleep with them. Angel also takes the opportunity for the audience to get to know a selection of the subjects with an unparalleled intimacy never before seen in a documentary.
Despite its somewhat shocking approach, it seems almost natural that making a documentary about sex should involve sex. As a porn director, Angel manages to capture some incredibly sensual moments from his subjects – either engaging in intercourse or masturbating – punctuating the descriptions they freely give of their bedroom antics, rising the inclusion of the explicit material beyond sleazy gimmick.
However, despite the incredibly eye-opening accounts – especially with regards to physical and emotional reactions to hormone treatment, body image, and sex drive – the rest of the documentary falls flat. The main reason is that it’s not particularly well put together. The testimonies of the interviewees are mostly unedited meaning that, whilst all are candid, open, and sometimes humorous, they tend to ramble and drag the pace. When there is editing, the chops are sudden and noticeable feeling incredibly unnatural and amateur. Also, whilst the subject is undeniably interesting, we don’t get much more depth outside of it and after a while it becomes stale.
Also, Angel doesn’t take enough care of his audience. For those who are familiar with transgender issues, the basics are covered at length. For those unfamiliar with these, the inclusion of such sexually explicit material, especially myriad close ups of trans male genitalia, can be incredibly uncomfortable and not the titillation it’s trying to aim for, distracting from the information it’s trying to get across. Furthermore, it doesn’t take the time to clarify some of the exclusive terminology. ‘Sis’ genders are not explained until two thirds through the film, and ‘stone top’ is left purely to assumption – we’re fairly sure they’re not referring to kitchen work surfaces.
It’s a real shame that this documentary falls short. It cries out for good editing to make its pace snappier and more care over the audience’s boundaries and prior knowledge. Otherwise there are some fascinating insights into unknown and often ignored aspects of gender and sexuality that are challenging and important.
Review by James Waygood
This Is What Love in Action Looks Like
Director: Morgan Jon Fox
Starring: Zach Stark, John Smid, Lance Carroll
Ex-gay ministries were a familiar proposition in the USA. But in 2005, when teenager Zach Stark was packed off to one by his parents, an unprecedented storm of controversy followed. Stark, a MySpace connoisseur, continued to blog about his ordeal, and his words soon spread virally across the internet. Friends and activists turned up at the ministry, named Love in Action, and mainstream media attention quickly followed. This Is What Love in Action Looks Like is a passionate documentary about the fallout of the controversy, created by filmmaker and activist Morgan Jon Fox.
Fox’s approach is to adopt the power of technology encased within the narrative he’s telling. Video clips are pulled on-screen as if embedded on a webpage, Zach’s words are accompanied by the sound of typing, and the title card resembles a search bar. It’s an obvious but effective method of storytelling, and, coupled with the ethereal uplift of Jónsi’s music, makes for a film with a vibrant sense of immediacy.
Interviews with former clients of the ministry, from teenager Lance Carroll to adults with ‘unwanted homosexuality’, debate the possibilities of this sort of psychological shame treatment in an organisation that identifies sexual orientation through exaggerated gender stereotypes. Meanwhile, interviews with John Smid, the program’s former director, and archive clips of Alan Chambers, the head of Exodus International (the umbrella for these organisations across the globe), reveal the awkward philosophies behind their program.
This Is What Love in Action Looks Like motors forward with a sense of purpose, and as part of the filmmaking process come the realities of progressive change – those involved were instrumental in the implosion of the Love in Action programme and the fairer, more open treatment of teenage homosexuals in the wider American culture. Packaged in youthful visual tropes, this documentary is an incisive inspection of what Love in Action looked like.
Review by David William Upton
Wish Me Away
Director: Bobbie Birleffi, Beverly Kopf
Staring: Chely Wright
Chely Wright is a world famous country music star. With her first hit ‘Shut Up and Drive’ and sensational number one song ‘Single White Female’, she coloured America not only with some of country music’s most celebrated songs, but also unyielding and selfless charity work. But for her entire life she’d been suppressing something; she’s gay. This documentary by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf looks at Chely’s journey as she takes a long overdue and brave step to come out to the world and her fans.
What makes this documentary different from the usual coming-out tales is Chely’s unique story. She’s a country and western lesbian who is a devout Christian, with an adorning public who hold conservative views and volatile attitudes. The scenario means there are umpteen depths covered here, not only dealing with an individual coming to terms with their own sexuality, but also shining a light on the mechanics of a music industry and its interests, and also presenting a complex portrait of Middle America far beyond the redneck stereotypes we’ve become so used to.
The only criticism is that there is a slight lack of focus during the first half of the documentary. Setting out Chely’s past, influences, influence, and state of mind becomes a little muddled, though never loosing the audience’s interest, and you almost forget that the documentary is supposedly charting her expedition through the closet doors. But it’s far from a major flaw.
Birleffi and Kopf’s crowning glory is their ability to be remarkable flies on the wall. Not a moment in the film feels staged or forced. Indeed, real and raw emotion torrents through the entire documentary. The conversations between Chely and her spiritual adviser are particularly moving and engrossing, whilst testimonies from friends and colleagues are bluntly genuine. The use of Chely’s own music also lovingly adds a deeper hue to understanding her life and decisions, and also hooks the viewer in on a personal and emotive level.
What all this makes for is an incredibly engaging roller coaster biopic that is extremely palpable and inspiringly uplifting.
Review by James Waygood
All films were shown as part of the British Film Institute’s 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (LLGFF). This took place between 23 March – 1 April 2012. To see more of our coverage, please visit our 26th London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival section. For more information about the festival visit www.bfi.org.uk/llgff.
Featured Image: Sexing the Transman.
All images of the British Film Institute.