Romeos opens the Vancouver Queer Film Festival with a big splash
The Vancouver Queer Film Festival turns 24 this year; the same age writer-director Sabine Bernardi was when she began work on her debut feature, Romeos. Not to ascribe any mystical significance to this, but it sure gives you an impression of how far the city’s second biggest film festival has come since it arrived in 1989 as Out on Screen.
Romeos opens the 2012 edition of VQFF on Thursday (August 16) with a major splash. Bernardi’s film takes finely drawn characters, including female-to-male lead Lukas (Rick Okon—who’s outstanding), and a strutting but deceptively complex Adonis called Fabio, played with remarkable subtlety by Maximilian Befort, and then adds a ravishing sheen on top.
If the movie tends, by necessity, to focus on the details of Lukas’s (and Okon’s) transition—it begins with the 20-year-old being assigned to a women’s dorm during community service—his fraught romance with Fabio and turbulent relationship with old friend Ine (Liv Lisa Fries) take matters well outside the film’s more earnest objectives. Plus, it’s just an exciting, sexy, beautifully observed piece of cinema.
“No one is a cliché, which I love about all of the films this year,” says director of programming Amber Dawn, during a visit to the Georgia Straight office. “Queer film has come so far. We’re not relying on these tropes any more. People can be holistic, complex, textured characters. We’re way beyond these films that are, like, Gay 101 characters. And I always love a female director. As a debut feature, it’s gorgeous.”
Romeos falls under the festival’s banner of New Genderqueer Cinema, along with an array of premieres like the breakthrough Ecuadoran documentary Angel, and the Argentinian feature Mia, which Amber Dawn refers to as her “baby”. Yet another new film about and starring a trans woman (Camila Sosa Villada), Mia took the Premio Maguey award at the Guadalajara Film Festival this year, and director Javier Van de Couter will be in attendance for the Centrepiece Gala presentation of the film on Thursday (August 23).
Of the festival’s 75 features and shorts, 17 fall under the Focus on Asian Voices, now in its third year. Man Chyna’s five-minute short "Brokeback That Ass Up" takes home the trophy for most arresting title; it plays as part of a “queerly Canadian” shorts program called From Coast to Coast Is Queer on Saturday (August 25).
Toshio Matsumoto’s 1969 midnight shocker Funeral Parade of Roses (August 25) is the cultiest item on offer, while Amber Dawn is particularly stoked about Shahada (August 19), a portmanteau looking at gay Muslims in Berlin, and Invisible Men (August 22), Yariv Mozer’s fierce documentary about gay Palestinians hiding out in Tel Aviv.
“We’re getting its Canadian premiere and I’m so excited about that," Amber Dawn says. “Mozer’s films are very in the moment. This is not hindsight; he’s not sitting back from a place of comfort, reflecting on the past. We’re seeing these men sneak under the wall; we’re seeing tension on the Gaza Strip; we’re seeing the Israeli police making arrests… Mozer got quite close to his principal subject, and the danger and the emotion is palpable.”
Invisible Men is one of the many screenings with a follow-up discussion; in this case, members of the Rainbow Refugee Committee will be on hand to talk about refugee protection. “I could have had the queer migrant film festival this year,” Amber Dawn says. “It’s just an issue that people are really exploring, anything from looking at the global economy to people seeking safe passage to more queer-friendly countries.”
Mozer’s film also singlehandedly encapsulates the larger theme of this year’s festival, which is being billed as “Films for lovers and fighters.” Says Amber Dawn: “I would like to say that many of our films and certainly our audience are kind of both. They’re coming out to our festival to see that big, queer kiss on the big screen, which is still a little bit hard to come by in this day. But our community is very motivated by human rights.”
There are other battles to consider. Getting a film made, as Amber Dawn notes, is already a “fight and a labour of love”, while queer filmmakers in particular are arguably freighted with what she calls “an enormous motivation to do right by their audience.”
Naturally, there’s a strong indie element to the work that does get made, with movies likeNate & Margaret (August 18), Mosquita y Mari (August 17), and The Falls— “Hot topic! Gay Mormons!” exclaims Dawn—all boasting a strong indie aesthetic (although we should note that the festival also ends with a bang-up major Hollywood movie, the road-trip comedy Dirty Girl. “It’s one of those sad stories where it’s got everything working for it except the audience,” shrugs Amber Dawn.)
Beyond all that, there’s the question of keeping the Vancouver Queer Film Festival healthy in an age of shrinking arts budgets and an increasingly polarized social sphere. Then again, 24 is a typically robust age. “Well, we in the arts sector have to be incredibly nimble these days,” offers Amber Dawn, with a chuckle. “But we still have 52 great opportunities to go out and see a film. We haven’t downsized in that way, and we’re still really committed to giving people that 11-day experience.”
The Vancouver Queer Film Festival takes place at various venues, from August 16-26. More information here. Watch this space for reviews, including The Falls, Austin Unbound, Mosquita y Mari, Joshua Tree 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, Mia, and much more.
Watch the trailer for Romeos