by Douglas Messerli
Sexual attraction to siblings, while often natural given that the relationships with brothers and sisters are some of the earliest connections we make with other human beings, can also terribly effect and delimit one’s own sexual identities. Parental sexual abuse can obviously destroy one’s faith in sexual relationships or confuse a child to such a degree that he or she finds it difficult to maintain healthy and effective relationships later in life, although it does effect all individuals in the same ways.
And abuse can also consist of simply being narrow-minded about the varieties of sexual possibilities or unaccepting of those possibilities when manifested in their own children. And the greatest fears and devastation of self-worth can arise from lack of parental acceptance. Although we generally tend to think of community as being one of the most central reasons why young men and women prefer to stay closeted, it is generally the fear of confronting parental disdain and even hate and rejection that keeps many youths from being able to fully come to terms with their sexual feelings. And while those issues most often are centered around a young person identifying as part of the LGBTQ community facing strongly heterosexual parents, it can exist in reverse and, just as devastatingly, effect young men and women whose mother or father are themselves secretly closeted when their children face similar feelings.
These issues can extend, moreover, to other family members beyond siblings, including uncles, aunts, grandparents, and even cousins.
Throughout these pages I have written numerous essays, too many to even selectively cite—although it is obvious that the grouping of films bears a deep connection with the trio of longer films about family sexuality that I discussed in George Stevens’ Shane (1953), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1969), and Harold Prince’s Something For Everyone (1970)—that demonstrate the complexity of how family life effects a young or even a slightly older person’s sexuality.
In this essay I have chosen a dozen different short films from 2001 to 2020 that deal with only a handful of the familial issues that complicate and sometimes destroy the individual’s sexual life and possibilities for adult love.
All of these involve “family secrets” other than sons and daughters hiding their sexuality from their parents; rather these represent a far more intricate and complex linking of secrets that when revealed sometimes lead to greater openness and freedom but just as often end up in terror and even suicide.
I was tempted to discuss these in connection with similar members of the family, but in the end felt it was simply more logical to discuss in chronological order of when the films were first released; but I have attempted to interlink each of these films with the others when appropriate.
a true story
Ben McCormack (screenwriter and director) Family Outing / 2001 [5 minutes]
Australian director Ben McCormack’s 5 minute short in black-and-white condenses a story about a young boy (Michael Curven), obviously having realized he was gay, determining to visit the baths for sex for the first time in his life.
Like so many people who find bathhouse activity intimidating, this kid finds the showering, cruising, sweating bodies of mostly elder men attractive, but is clearly uncomfortable with the public and voyeuristic aspects of most of the sex others try to illicit in the showers, the steam rooms, and the open doors to cubicles as they invite him in.
Finally, he selects to the most common and least public form of sexual intercourse, putting his penis through a glory hole in the wall between his booth and the next, thoroughly enjoying the cunnilingual sensations provided by man a within the next cubicle (Leo Bradley) while imagining the juxtaposition of images, like snapshots, we have witnessed as he stalked the Brisbane spa upon arrival.
Satisfied, he leaves the cubicle only to encounter the man who sucked him off on leaving his own room. As he looks up into the man’s face, he gasps out the words, “Dad?”
The film stops there, forcing us to imagine all the resultant difficulties of his sudden revelation. Fear, hatred, disgust, horror are all possible emotions, as well as possible understanding, comprehension of things previously unexplained at home, acceptance, and maybe even love—of whatever kind is possible given the situation.
Porn films have tread this territory; it is after all one the most severe of cultural restrictions, and accordingly an inevitable pornographic attraction. Yet this small film takes it on with all seriousness with no comfortable prurient readings encouraged since the sex itself is never represented and only hands and facial gestures are represented, the fingers of the father seen as he invites the boy to put his cock through the hole, and the face of the boy in obvious ecstasy of his sexual release.
Some of these same issues have been explored in feature films such as Tanuj Bhrama’s Dear Dad (2016) and Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio’s Retablo (2017), although in both these cases the son is not gay and we witness a resolution that is missing in McCormack’s work.
This film, however, takes its subject into even more serious territory by declaring at film’s end a documentary-like admission: “This is a true story.” which forces us to put it into the context of actual speculation of what might happen to the two individuals when such a thing occurs? No one was at fault, no abuse intended. Yet deep secrets, we are certain, have now been revealed, and they always leave spaces in the realities we have created, sometimes simply to cover over the gaps we sense in our knowledge of one another. There may be release, there may be hate; there may be anger even violence, or reconciliation, a new secret to be shared out of familial love—possibly an ever greater rupture in family life. But the notion of family will surely never again be the same.
Los Angeles, September 17, 2021
James Burkhammer (screenwriter and director) Starcrossed / 2005 [14 minutes]
Off hand I’d claim that the most common of LGBTQ family films involve two brothers who become sexually involved. It is clearly a major theme of queer cinema which shows up in various ways time and again in both short and feature films, in part because of the allure of yet another layer of forbidden sexuality that is attached to the already forbidden experience when it comes to the issue of incest.
But I’d argue that it also seems to be an issue that inherently seems unjust when it comes to legal restrictions, just as LGBTQ individuals justifiably felt about such laws created to restrain their sexuality to be.
The incest laws, as I read them, are based on two-fold cultural fears: the first having to do the issue of age, since commonly one of the two blood-related figures is older than the other; it is clear that in those instances the younger may have no full awareness of the sexual emotions that arise and the results of those physical and emotional ties, and they may easily be coerced or forced into such relationships, physically or mentally, by the elder without their full willingness. Incest laws also have a great deal to do with the genetic issues of inbreeding which result in illnesses of body and mind the children produced from such relationships that endanger their lives.
Yet often brothers may be close of age, perfectly willing and aware of their love and sexual desires for one another, and obviously will produce no inbred offspring through participating in gay sexual activity. So why are these laws still applicable in such instances? Often it stems simply from the cultural taboo concerning the idea that families might also be sexually involved in any manner, a strange emotional response, one might argue, given that many younger people spend more time with family members, particularly today when parents are more fearful about permitting their children to roam freely, than anyone on the outside. But of course that fact in itself may be perceived by some as a problem in need of correction. And obviously the taboo is also grounded in homophobic fears.
In any event, a great many films have concerned themselves with sibling relationships, two of them documented in this gathering, and both leading to quite similar tragic results.
I have previously reviewed another such short, J. C. Oliva’s Brotherly (2008), in which I bring up some of these same issues and, in what almost seems to be a subgenre of gay cinema, the sexual relationships of gay twins in which I focus on Florian Gottschick’s Zwillinge (Twins) (2010) and Adam Tyre’s In Half (2012). Certainly there will be several others along the way.
Basically, we see them trying to live
somewhat “normal” lives, participating in sports, dating girls together, and
generally interacting with society in an outwardly pleasing manner. But we
recognize even through the one instance that the film shows of their
interactions with girls, that their fondness for one another has boiled over
into something much different. As the two sit in the movie in the position of
girl, Connor, Darren, and girl, we witness that at the very same moment their
girlfriends attempt to illicit sexual responses of their boyfriends, the two
brothers are superstitiously holding hands and sexually engaging in the kind of
pre-sex activities that in a teen date movie would be
Clearly, that is a claim that cannot be met, particularly when their mother enters their room to find her sons bodily entwined in their sleep.
Their father’s angry lectures—represented in the film from a distance with mostly mute gestations, allowing us to imagine the actual fury—merely leads to their attempt at escape. In the car Darren takes to the road with Connor to an unknown destination which first appears to be simply a motel room where they might continue their love making, but we suspect will end where so many “on the road” travels wind up. Consider, for example, other LGBTQ examples such as Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) or Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992).
As the policeman closes in, now searching their room, we see the two boys at the edge of the motel pool ready to jump. When they do so they drop to the bottom, kiss one another, and cuff their hands to the lower rungs of a pool ladder, assuring that they cannot escape their fate from drowning in one another’s arms, an image similar to the first in the film, in which Darren saves Connor from the same fate.
This work from 2005 eerily foreshadows Marcus Schwenzel’s work of 2009, Bruderliebe (Brotherly Love), which I describe below, where the elder brother of a pair of such sibling lovers ends his life also by drowning.
Los Angeles, September 22, 2021
Gregor Schmidinger (screenwriter and director) The Boy Next Door / 2008 [13.59 minutes]
A businessman, Mr. Brown (Damon Preston) on the road, sitting in his motel room is watching TV, interreacting to what appears to be a talk show interview, furious at the actor’s statements since, apparently, he is her agent. He seems nervous, ready to pounce, monstrous in his anger and obvious frustrations. What we soon also discover is that he has been waiting for his favorite male prostitute, a beautiful young man, Mark (Michael Ellison) who knocks on the door and receives a kiss and a kind of quick down payment in a wad of bills upon arrival.
But something unexpected happens. A preteen boy, Justin (Truman Chambers) has just entered the room wondering where his father is. When asked why he is there, the stranger answers, oddly given the fact that he is dressed only in his briefs, “I have a business meeting with your daddy.”
Mark suggests he go back to bed, but the boy insists he can’t. There’s a monster under his bed. There are no such things as monsters answers the slightly irritated and now even more nervous call-boy. “That’s what my daddy says,” Justin responds, “but there are monsters.” “And why are you naked?”
The question says everything, suggesting both the absurdity of the situation and the potential danger both the boy and the man face in their contact with one another.
But if it hasn’t already struck us, we can only now be fairly shocked by the fact that the agent has gone away on business without even checking in on his son in the next room or even bothered to find someone, in his absence, to look after him.
“Monsters exist, really,” the child again insists.
And even the half-naked Mark has to agree, “Maybe you’re right.” Clearly there is something monstrous about a man leaving his child alone without protection.
Inevitably, the job now falls upon the visitor as he puts back on his t-shirt and suggests the boy might want to play a video game with him, Justin immediately ready for challenge, jumping into the bed with anticipation of an adult actually paying attention to him.
They quickly graduate to more imaginative bed-bound games, one frame showing their heads rising from behind a pile of pillows like indians or perhaps western cowboys shooting the intruders dead.
Soon we see them both asleep on different sides of the bed, but when the boy whimpers out of fear in his sleep, the elder slips his arm around the boy’s small body.
At this very moment the father returns, somewhat startled by what he observes. Yet, his anger is not aimed at his boyfriend but at his son, of whom he speaks almost always in the third person, using in an odd locution: “He knows exactly he’s not supposed to be in here.” Why, we can only wonder, does the boy know “exactly” or even “precisely” except if speaking is stressing the fact of the degree of his “knowing,” hinting, it seems to me, that the child has been previously punished for having entered the forbidden domain—and almost making it quite apparent that the kid is locked up in his motel room with no where else to go for the days and nights of their visit. The father summarily dismisses the child, turning to his lover to chide him, “I don’t pay you to be my son’s friend. I pay you to be mine.”
As the father moves into a deep kiss with his paid lover, the younger man at first accepts the introductory sex move as inevitable, the boy watching through the open door.
Suddenly, the prostitute pushes his john away, the man astounded by the action, demanding what right he thinks he has for his behavior. Our young “hero” throws the money he received upon the bureau and leaves, pausing outside the door in breathless amazement and some terror for his behavior.
The child joins him in the hall, standing near to the anxiety-stricken young man who slides down to sit on the floor for a moment in contemplation.
The child moves closer, holding out something to him: “I’ve got 25 dollars. You wanna be my friend?”
The action is shocking because we now know the boy has learned that to find love or even someone just to pay attention to you, it has to be purchased.
But the suddenly wiser Mark resolves the situation by saying, “I’m already your friend.”
Like the young boy in George Stevens’ Shane the boy cries out, “Please don’t go.”
The ending lines are a bit disingenuous since it is he who has killed the monster by tossing away his dependencies on both pills and prostitution. But the child has only learned it by reaching out to another human being, something which we doubt he will have the opportunity to do again in the near future. Or, perhaps, he may reach out to someone less pure in his response.
What is clear is that the secrets the father has been attempting to keep, that he has a son in the next room and that he is meeting up with young males to find love have been exposed. How he will react in the future given the knowledge that such lies no longer will protect him from the consequences is unknowable. When we last see him alone in his room he seems troubled, but that also appears to be his natural condition. Whether or not he will openly embrace his responsibilities as a father and accept truth of his empty sexual life is something we can only ponder.
This excellent short film was produced by the Bowling Green State University, presumably in conjunction with their film program, representing once again just how important university and college based film programs have become to LGBTQ cinema and to the development of young gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender filmmakers.
Los Angeles, September 12, 2021
Marcus Schwenzel (screenwriter and director) Bruderliebe (Brotherly Love) / 2009 [16.35 minutes]
German film director Marcus Schwenzel’s, a beautifully filmed work of melancholia with cinematography by Eduardo Ramierz Gonzalez, is oddly described by the few online sites that even mention this 2009 masterwork as a story of “two brothers with different intentions.” However, I’m not sure what “intentions” either of them might have had or how those intentions were different from one another. Someone obviously was confused about or is purposely attempting to confuse a rather straightforward, if very sad tale, of two gay brothers who fell in love and, to the “utter shock” of their community, were found having sex with one another.
It begins with the still extremely handsome elder brother, Peter (Thorsten Feller), arriving in his former hometown, having been just released from prison. The voiceover tells us that the only person he ever loved was his brother Ben.
He checks into a local hotel, almost immediately and quite without intention seducing the hotel clerk, Raoul (Levi Meaden) who reports that since it’s off season he doesn’t have many customers and he’s bored. He gets off, so he tells the new man he’s registering, in an hour.
Wandering around the village in the cold of winter, drinking directly from a large bottle of wine, Peter recalls the joyful times between him and his brother, a run in the park, pausing in the park gazebo for a brief loving interlude.
Soon after the two of them check into the local gym where they them undress together with intention of sharing their pleasure in one another’s bodies without knowing that they are being tracked and followed by a group of local boys, whose fingers we see pulling themselves up for a view of what is happening in the cubicle.
Peter revisits the gym where the event happened, describing another kind of truth to his brother: “You are not dead, and I am not alive,” Ben being still completely alive in Peter’s memory, but Peter himself walking around like a dead man with no will and no meaning left in his life.
Returning the next evening to Peter’s hotel room for sex, Raoul finds his new friend still out and reads articles from his notebook whose headlines scream out that the then 18-year-old was sent for three years to prison for brother love: “Bruderliebe! 3 Jahre Haft fuer 18 Jachringen.” Another headline reads “Jüngerer Bruder begeht Selbstmord nach Verurteilung im Incest – Skandal!” (Younger brother kills himself following incest sex – Scandal!).
How can such true love of a brother be so terribly punished by a society that pretends to espouse love as its major moral value? One need only to live long enough to know love is very seldom chosen over fear and hate. In the end, these boys had no familial secrets except that they did truly love one another, the younger in no way being forced into sharing what he felt. The “different intentions” attributed in the several entries about this film, I presume, were someone’s attempt to suggest that younger brother Ben was somehow not totally aware about what was happening between the two of them. But the film does not in any way suggest that.
This film was produced by the Prague Film School.
Los Angeles, September 18, 2021
an “affair” to remember
Caru Alves de Souz (screenwriter and director) Assunto de Familia (Family Affair) / 2011 [12 minutes]
The family members of Brazilian director Caru Alves de Souz’s Family Affair may all live closely under the single roof of their apartment, but they can hardly be described as a functional family or in any way happy as individuals trapped by the coincidence of blood kinship.
The mother, Eunice (Cláudia Assunção), spends long hours staring out the open window onto the street below evidently watching the activities of her neighbors such as we glimpse in a neighborhood barbecue. Her husband, like thousands of others around the world, spends his free hours staring at sports in the television, demanding his wife bring him sandwiches and beer.
Their eldest son, Cauã (Thiago Franco Balieiro) treats his younger brother Rossi (Kauê Telloli) as simply a household object to kick and keep away from as much as possible, while demanding his mother cook and serve for him in a manner more abusive than even her husband.
Pulling away a bottle of wine which Cauã has purloined from the back of a cupboard, she retreats to the storage hall to smoke, evidently forbidden, as her older boy reminds her, by her husband. The minute Cauã returns from his outing with friends, she retreats to her bedroom for a “nap,” in actuality, staring at the lost beauty of her face in a mirror and obviously regretting all the years she has served as a virtual slave to family life.
Like his mother, Rossi also spends long hours staring out the window, seemingly have no friends and certainly not being allowed opportunities to make his own acquaintances. He and Eunice seem trapped in a world controlled by the macho patriarchs who themselves lead empty lives.
The two friends Cauã returns with serve little more than buddies who share liquor and random comments on the soccer game and women. They might as well be looking out the window, even if their world is defined more by the television and the street itself.
One of Cauã’s friends, however, seems somewhat more open to allowing Rossi into their presence. Seeing him peeking through the kitchen door, Cauã tells his brother to get lost, but the friend suggests he just wants a glass of water and demands he be let in. Once there, Rossi attempts to grab a glass of the whiskey they’re sharing, which his brother demands he leave alone. But the friends suggest he let the boy try it, which he does, somewhat reluctantly and not with great pleasure, while Cauã, treating it like a challenge as he does nearly everything, forces him to drink the whole thing, taunting him for wincing in dislike of the sweet bitterness. Again Cauã orders him out of their presence, chastising his friend for even talking to him.
A short while later, the friend appears to have left the kitchen, encountering Rossi in the hall and asking him where he might find a cigarette. The boy takes him to the service room where the mother hides them, and offers him a smoke and a light. Once more, he offers the boy a new experience, a puff of his cigarette. And again Rossi coughs and finds the experience unpleasant, the friend rubbing the boy’s chest a little as he asks if it burns.
Finally, breaking away Rossi turns away with a huge grin on his face, hardly believing his fortune in having experienced such a sensuously enjoyable moment. This new sensation, unlike the drink and cigarette, is clearly something he totally enjoys.
In the film’s last scenes Cauã and his friends are seen strutting down the street, shouting out about the soccer win for São Paulo, one neighbor throwing a flip-flop from an above window that hits his face. Swearing at the assailant, Cauã and his buddies continue their celebrational stroll, staring back to watch a woman who has just passed them.
But Rossi, back in the house, we now know has a secret that has changed everything for him, something that he can never share with his elder brother, but offers him a new sense of power in the fact that he has now been loved by one of his macho brother’s buddies. LGBTQ liberation begins always in such small ways, but has such huge ramifications. Certainly, we can suppose, Rossi will never again feel tortured by his brother’s constant dismissals of his very existence.
As Alves de Souz demonstrates once more in her taut cinematic work, is just how heteronormative patriarchal attitudes negatively effect not only women but LGBTQ individuals as well. That both Eunice and Rossi remain so strong despite those forces is a testament to their own personalities and intellect.
Enrique De Tomás and Venci Kostov (screenplay), Venci Kostov (director) El hijo (The Son) / 2012 [22 minutes]
If the relationship between father and son in Ben McCormack’s Family Outing seems impossibly complex by film’s end, in Venci Kostov’s film from Spain it is so perverse that it becomes even difficult to entirely explain.
17-year old Pedro (Ignacio Montes), according to his loving mother Pilar (Fanny de Castro), is the perfect son who gets good grades in school and loves her stewed lentils, which she prepares for him most evenings even though husband detests them. Her Pedro is obedient and loving.
We happen to know that just before she utters these sentiments on the phone, he has been thrown out of a class, and storms out before the teacher can actually force him to leave. While she is saying these very words he is in the nearby bedroom fucking one of his fellow students, Luis (Mateo Rubistein), with whom he pretends to study each afternoon. After he fucks Luis, he pushes him up against the wall, slapping him hard for having looked at him in the classroom and possibly hinting where he lives.
That evening the perfect son joins a group of urban terrorists who go about town breaking into and trashing local businesses. We observe him and his gang through a surveillance camera in the back of the shop. Soon after we see his or another group associated with it driving through a gay car stop in a park—common in urban centers in Spain and South America—name-calling and mocking various groups of gay men, some engaged in sex others just waiting to be picked up or cruising the place. Eventually they jump upon an auto in which two men are engaged in sex, bashing in the front windows, and pulling the men out of the car and fucking one of them.
In the midst of the melee, we see Pedro threatening the gang members and pulling the man away from their arms, helping the man into the car before driving off with him. The man is Paco (Pedro Casablanc), Pedro’s father who works to break up the violent gangs—the reason, so he tells Pilar, he is out late so many nights.
They arrive home together, Paco making up some story as Pilar serves him up a bowl of her lentils. Paco sits at the table in anger, finally demanding the boy tell his mother was he was really doing that day, the boy responding, “Why don’t you tell her where you were?” Paco slaps the boy, reporting that they have the surveillance evidence to prove he was one of the group who trashed the small Chinese-run business which we observed being destroyed. Obviously the “terrorists” with whom the perfect son is involved are homophobic, xenophobic thugs.
Basically ignoring his comments, Pilar tells the boy to take a shower, glowering at her husband for his comments as the boy retreats to the bathroom.
The question suggests that Paco has perhaps been abusing his son, and that the son’s seemingly contradictory behavior, both his desire for gay sex his fellow students Luis and his retaliation against his father by trashing the shops of immigrants and stalking gay men are related. Both father and son are gay, but Pedro clearly resents what he may believe has “made him” a homosexual. We cannot be certain, but we are led to suspect that the contrary forces at work in the boy’s life, the perfect son who is equally the evil punk, are connected to his father and his relationship with him.
At school, despite Pedro’s stipulation, Luis approaches him insisting that he can no longer remain with his parents and suggests they both run away together. Pedro pushes him off, reminding him of his demand to never be seen with him at school, but this time Luis pushes back telling him that he’s simply a coward.
If Pedro’s tense relationship with his father and his wild, unpredictable behavior sounds somewhat familiar, the film hints at a similar pattern as the English teacher at the school speaks of Rimbaud, hinting of difficulties in the boy’s relationships—obviously having to do with another older man playing the role of father, in love with a young boy, Verlaine. In the same class other “friends” of Pedro can be seen passing notes to one another with Nazi symbols. And together they confront the boy their now mock as “Peter” (he who denied Christ) outside the school building, perhaps for his behavior the previous evening, suggesting that he join them again that evening “looking for baits in the park.”
He refuses the boys tensely gather round him, breaking away only as a teacher approaches. A moment later Pedro jumps on his motorcycle, joined by Luis and drives off. It is clear now that everything about his is now revealed to his former “mates” who he enjoyed because “they know all about me.”
If nothing else, the film has not loaded up yet another set of contradictions, of oppositional forces which seem nearly impossible to resolve. The boys speed away, followed by a car filled with the gang toughs. When they reach Luis’ home, he insists that they will both leave that night, Pedro appearing to agree.
During this same interchange we see Pilar cleaning house, reaching into a high cabinet to bring down hidden clothing, apparently to wash. From one folded denim shirt a VHS tape falls out. She sits and watches it, the tape apparently showing scenes from their wedding—that is until it cuts to a scene from a gay male porno tape. She attempts to move it ahead upon which for a moment it returns to the church, but then quickly shifts again to the porno scene.
Luis kisses Pedro, the boys committing to meeting up that night, as he drives off to his own home, the car full of thugs still apparently following.
At this point Kostov’s movie makes a seemingly radical shift to a car in which Pilar and her husband a traveling, she explaining to him that Pedro has been working so hard at school, but that there have been some weird things....”I think Perdito likes to see naked boys. Like that skinny friend of his.”
For a moment the film flashes back to Pedro in the garage caring momentarily for his motorbike before returning us to the car with Pilar and Paco, he driving into the park, explaining to his wife about how the night when he came home bloody that he had been in this park. She’s frightened, reaching for the car door handle as if at any moment she might run. As they drive slowly past shirtless men, he tells her that “it wasn’t the first time,” Pilar beginning to cry.
Kostov cuts back to the garage where we see the gang get of their car, clubs in hand. They grab him around the neck dragging him and hitting him, pausing before they finally club him, the boy falling to the concrete before they race away in their car.
When they arrive back at the garage to their apartment they immediately discern Pedro’s body on the floor and run to it, Paco holding his son somewhat as in a pietà while Pilar cries out in despair with the realization that her good son is dead.*
Almost as an addendum we observe Pilar again at the table sorting and cleaning beans for her lentil stew—whose ingredients Pedro’s voice has been listing in a voiceover for some at several points throughout the film—as Paco tells her he is leaving. She tells him to put on a heavy coat, that’s it cold. He explains that he is leaving for good. She replies
Of all the family films I include in this selection, Kostov’s The Son and Miguel Lafuente’s Mi Hermano (My Brother), which I discuss below, are the most unforgiving of failed and forbidden familial relationships. In both works, as I suggest above, there is no possible resolve, no forgiveness for the sins of loving what both family and society has deemed the wrong people.
Los Angeles, September 19, 2021
a place for us
Miguel Lafuente (screenwriter and director) Mi Hermano (My Brother) / 2015 [23 minutes]
Ten years older that his 15-year old brother, Alberto (Álvaro de Juan) has moved from his Spanish hometown to Berlin where he is happily living with an American named Nick (Jeff Frey).
Having spent the night on the two the two have slept late, Nick finally awakening his lover to tell him his phone has been ringing for a long while. Alberto calls his mother only to discover that his little brother, of whom he has just speaking, has died. His mother refuses to discuss the death on the phone, and he catches the first plane on which Nick can connect him back to his home in Spain.
We recognize that something is wrong when he tells Nick that he can’t join him, and when he returns home that family friends keep asking about his girlfriend Vicky. “Nicky,” he corrects them. Obviously, he has not come out to his family.
And when he does begin to speak with his mother (Marta Belaustegui), everything appears to be wrapped in a mystery. Why has his brother’s body received an autopsy? How could he have slipped in the bathtub? And why was he drunk and his stomach filled with drugs in his own home? If Alberto is keeping a secret his parents seem to be hiding many.
He calls Nick saying that there is simply something queer going on, admitting to his lover that he hates his family and can’t wait to get away again. After the burial, he sits with his mother and aunt in a dark room, in a dark house where everything is in black and browns. Only his mother’s blouse and his shirt are white. The aunt (Flora López) pours out the guilt: “It would done Luis some good to have had his big brother around.”
Alberto enters his dead brother’s room to enter his computer to print out his tickets, but needs the password. And slowly the truth begins to leak out. The password, his mother tells him, is “wild bulrush,” his father having “got it out of him.” Yes, the mother admits, he beat Luis to get it, wanting to check his computer. The boy was doing badly at school.
When pushes the print button to the laptop, the boy’s final statement appears on a piece of paper: “Now I’m free. Hugs and kisses.” What he has discovered at the very moment his father returns is a suicide note.
By the time Alberto joins them in the other room for after-funeral sandwiches he is ready to accuse them of killing his brother. The father (Fernando De Juan), at first trying to deny things, finally admits “It wasn’t my fault he was gay. I was his father. I had to try and change him.” He continues to hint how they tortured and beat him to help him get better.
Finally, the father tells his son: “You don’t like gays either. You’ve cursed them many times.” And suddenly Alberto has to realize that in his closeted world, he too has helped to kill his brother. By not admitting him own sexuality, not being there even as a model for his brother, he has helped create the homophobic world in which his parents live and that helped to kill their son.
Alberto, breaking down can only now admit that is gay, that Nick is his boyfriend, that he, also as a child had contemplated suicide living with such a father and mother. When his mother attempts to hold him in his tearful breakdown, he pushes her away.
In a sense both of the films say the same thing each in their different ways. Openness, the truth about sexuality is always healing, while hiding and lying often destroy.
Coincidentally, Alberto like Sebastien in Filip (which I review below) is a cartoonist by trade. And the last few frames of this movie portray an animated short he has created to help young boys understand that there is another world outside of home-life horrors, a world which will accept and embrace them. It’s a much needed message, as always. But at the end of family tragedy such as My Brother it seems simplistic and simply pinned on like a gold star for good behavior. I might have preferred that the film go just a little further in exploring the ramifications of staying silent when speaking out might have saved not only his brother’s life but helped redeem his own past sufferings. And the animated work he made is not obviously for the same audience that the film was conceived. Perhaps the last frame of this family’s devastation might have served as a greater solution to the problem than a simple nod to the notion of “Things get better.” Too often, for some I fear as Pedro and his father in The Son, they simply get worse. For suffering from a sense of being outside of the world in which you live creates wounds sometimes creates such painful wounds that they never can be healed. For those lonely beings life can never offer the truth that Filip learned at such an early age, that—to steal Leonard Bernstein’s repeated phrase from several of his works—“There is a place for us.”
Los Angeles, June 21, 2021
a comfortable place
Nathalie Álvarez Mesén (screenwriter and director) Filip / 2015 [11 minutes]
The gentlest and truly most innocent of all of these films is Filip by Costa Rican-Swedish director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén starring the charming Josef Waldfogel as the boy who shares the title’s name. Like many younger brothers, particularly in homes such as his in which the father appears to be missing, Filip clearly idolizes his older brother Sebastien (Simon Reithner) to the point that he listens responds more to him than to his otherwise clearly loving and patient mother who teases him to discover if he has a girlfriend.
The bond between the boy and Sebastien however is so strong that in its focus on sports (the older plays soccer) and the elder’s interest in cartooning that there seems to be little room in the life of 7-year-old for girls. But then many boys of that age have no time for girls.
Yet we do sense that Filip, particularly when Sebastien’s friend Stor comes over to the spend the day with him, the boy becomes so physically engaged with both of them, leaping between them jumping over their seated bodies, and jabbing and punching them—often a boy’s way of demonstrating his love—that we sense his desire to keep in male physical contact. The two of them, seeming to sense his needs, allow him to interrupt their adult communication until, literally worn out he falls to sleep and is put to bed.
But when he awakens in his own bed alone he peeks through the doorway into the other room where the light is still shining to catch another glimpse, perhaps, of his beloved friends only to observe his bother and Stor gently kissing one another.
The sight almost seems to awe him, while obviously creating a deep sense of confusion. Nothing is said about the incident, but he seems removed the next morning, a bit uncommunicative, and proceeds throughout the day to be walking almost in a kind of dream, obviously trapped in his own thoughts as he struggles to makes sense of what he has seen.
Surely he senses its significance and as the young boy walks away passing near him he follows his motions with an intense stare as if he is almost identifying, as Álvarez Mesén’s camera already has, his relationship to the other.
That night we watch him rise from his sleep and walk down the hall, peering for a moment into his mother’s room before turning and carefully opening the door of his brother’s bedroom, entering, and attempting to awaken him to announce that he can’t sleep. Sebastian turns back the covers, and Filip crawl into the warm bed to cuddle up to the warmth of his brother’s body. It is as if, even if he has not resolved the riddle of the male kiss, he has resolved where he feels most comfortable and safe. He has found a place where he feel at home.
To describe this, as one commentator has, as evidence of his being gay, is I think an unnecessary conclusion. But surely if he does find himself more attracted to males as he comes of age he will not fear it and feel far comfortable to enact such a kiss which as he has now witnessed.
Los Angeles, June 21, 2021
Ray Yeung (screenwriter and director) Paper Wrap Fire / 2015 [13 minutes]
Hong Kong filmmaker Ray Yeung chose the title of his sixth film Paper Wrap Fire (2015) from a Chinese proverb, which calls up not only the obvious logic but suggests all the attempts usually made to control such calamitous events which are illogical, doomed, and often tragic if also, at times, necessary.
The central figure of this New York-based film is Vincent (Alestair Shu) a Chinese-American teenager who is has reached one of his most unhappy moments of his life. The film begins with several young bullies attempting to beat him up in a concrete playground, calling him “fag” and scuffing up his face before his mother, Lisa (Rachel Lu), who’s been out shopping, chances upon the encounter and shouts them away. As she embraces her son and checks out his wounds, she also chastises him for allowing the boys to abuse him, arguing that he should stand up to them. Anyone who as a child has suffered such peer abuse can sympathize with Vincent’s feeling that he is being attacked by his mother for his inescapable torture; there is no way that one child might possibly protect himself from two or three boys at once. She demands that he stay home for the day from school, he only too ready to take advantage of the restriction except that when they near their derelict apartment, they see men pounding at their door, demanding immediate payment of rent, Lisa pulling Vincent with her down into the floor below so that she will not have to confront the debt collectors personally.
has a new job, however, and can’t miss it; despite a few telephone calls no one
is able or
He stands by the window, staring out onto the street with the blank eyes of a child bored to death but also suffering the deep despair of having no one who really cares about his existence except a busy and uncomprehending mother.
It’s clear from the instant that Chen has walked into the room that the boy is riveted by the older man, who might be an older brother or a caring uncle. But Chen almost immediately tells the woman that he’s off from work, but that her daughter will soon be there to pick her up. As he leaves he drops his ID card, Vincent quickly retrieving it and running after the man, who has already made his way down the block.
Vincent follows, obviously looking for the opportunity of actually meeting him but—given the way Yeung’s camera shifts and cuts the scenes of the “chase”—also intrigued by Chen’s destination. When Chen ducks into a message parlor, we can almost sense Vincent’s disappointment and distress as through the window he observes the man talking to the manager before he disappears behind a curtain into the back rooms. Vincent returns to a stoop to wait out the visit.
There he gets an eye-full of the oiled body of Chen, who, under cover, is also now being masturbated by the masseur. We don’t see it, but we can only imagine the boy’s eyes growing larger, but just as suddenly he sees the masseur herself, his mother who suddenly becomes aware of her peeping son.
Back on the street, Lisa traipses home, Vincent angrily following. You can sense her horror in having been seen performing her job, her fear for how she has affected him. She cannot know that the man she was serving was also, in the boy’s imagination, a surrogate lover. We know this since immediately after his viewing he tore up Chen’s identification card and stomped on it; he is angrier because of the man’s behavior more than his mother’s.
As they slowly climb the paint-scarred stairway to their apartment they see the door has been graffitied in Chinese: PAY UP WHORE. Lisa lowers herself to the floor, overwhelmed by her life and the recent events, Vincent moving to sit beside her. Tears flow from her eyes as her son reaches out to hold her hand in consolation for her grief.
In the years since the wonderful films such as this one, Yellow Fever, Doggy...Doggy, Derek & Lucas, and Entwine, Leung has released several notable feature films, the most recent of which, Suk, Suk (2019) won numerous film awards.
I should add that Lucas Lechowski’s original score for this film is a notable contribution to the poignance of the work.
Los Angeles, September 20, 2021
Welby Ings (screenwriter and director) Sparrow / 2016 [15 minutes]
New Zealand director Welby Ings, trained as a designer, creates films with slightly eccentric characters dropped into landscapes that are stunningly beautiful and original despite the banality and blindness of most of those who walk the same turf, the films’ images themselves often overlaid with written sentences and fragments of language that attempt to make sense of the characters’ absurd acts. I previously reviewed his remarkable portrait of a small town outcast, Boy, in which the central character finds a way to bring those who have tortured him to justice.
The problem is that this determined child wears his homemade “wings” nearly everywhere—his father refusing to let him wear them to the dining table—even on his way back and forth to and from school. And when he isn’t wearing them, supposedly doing a writing assignment in class, he draws pictures of birds, infuriating the teacher, who rips his drawings up.
In his private time, the boy watches old films of his grandfather, a foot soldier in Egypt during World War II, in which the film glorifies his past, demonstrating frame by frame just what a hero his grandfather was, winning a prestigious medal. He was killed in war and buried a hero, so proclaims the old movie, even today his son, the boy’s father, wearing his war medal and marching in local parades in memory of him.
While trying to repair his broken wings Jim visits the work shed in back of the house, and looking in an old drawer for bits of parchment and string he discovers a box in which trinkets of a soldier (buttons, a ring, etc.) line a tray beneath which lays a trove of letters which the boy secrets back to his bedroom.
As Jim begins to read the letters and postcards
he discovers that, in fact, his grandfather,
The outraged commander orders the wounded friend to stand at attention, who, as he attempts to do so, is shot and killed by German gunfire. Outraged by the incident, the boy’s grandfather rises from the trench, strips naked, and refuses to any longer serve this country as he picks up his lover’s body in an attempt to walk away with him from the battle site. One of their own soldiers shoots him, he falling to the ground with the body.
Apparently he survived and was shipped back to New Zealand, where mentally and spiritually broken, he was institutionalized a psychiatric hospital. He grew old with no one showing up to see him, his son, wife and relatives obviously embarrassed and disapproving of the rouge deserter and secret queer. The letters the boy reads were sent by his grandfather to his father, never to be opened, the boy himself reading the truth for the first time in all these years.
Ings reveals these facts to us through recreated wartime images that play out in silence except for a musical accompaniment and sentences imposed upon the images—as in the earlier film—such as “They brought him home,” “broken,” “and “he died alone”—all of which provide narrative but force the reader to imaginatively fill in what the letters are revealing in far greater detail to the ten-year-old boy.
At school we again see our young “queer” boy being taunted by his fellow-students, male and female, who throw things at him, calling him “wing boy” and other names. When two boys throw the sandwich he is trying to eat, his lunch box, and finally the boy himself to the ground, he stands, strips open his shirt and tells them: “Hit me. Come on hit me.” They back away. “Come on, just hit me.” They move away almost in fear, unable to comprehend his seemingly masochistic demands.
He finds a small bird trapped in a room hugging a wall lined with leaves. He carefully picks up the sparrow, carries it to a window, and releases it into flight, just as his grandfather has done for him through the truth of his letters too long buried in that hidden box.
Once again, Ings’ film is not about the complexity of narrative or even the depth of its ideas. Rather it is the emotive power of this director’s images that make his movie into something profoundly moving and disturbing. Even the wide-open, always-in-motion eyes of his young hero help us to realize his wonderment of the world around him despite the general brutality of those who inhabit it.
I can’t wait to see the movie he is currently working on, Punch, in he takes his young hero Jim into adulthood.
Los Angeles, September 20, 2021
can we talk?
Mel Carvalho and Lucas Drummond (screenplay), Caio Scot (director) Depois Daquela Festa (After That Party) / 2019
Of the dozen films I discuss in this essay, Brazilian director Scot’s After that Party is the only truly comic presentation of family sexual secrets, reflecting as it does a far more contemporary viewpoint which we hope now dominates open societies.
The shock of the scene momentarily sends Leo reeling, having to leave the party immediately to contemplate the situation. His girlfriend pushes him quickly to try to express his true feeling about the incident, and it appears that he is not so upset because he has discovered that his widowed father is now gay, but that he hasn’t told him. The two, father and son, have long been close, and Leo still lives at home with his dad.
Unfortunately, his father serves stroganoff, not their usual Friday night meal, and their conversation interrupted by a telephone message before it can even begin.
A day or two later Leo finally confronts his father by recalling a childhood story about himself in which he was afraid of asking his teacher permission to go to the bathroom, as a consequence peeing in his pants and receiving the taunts of his fellow students, all resulting in his determination never to return to school. His father reassured him that he had done nothing wrong, and to prove that he needed to return to the classroom to assert his innocence of wrongdoing.
So too, he now suggests, he argues his father needn’t feel that he has done anything wrong in the fact that the son has witnessed at the very same party that Leo and his girlfriend attended, his father embrace and kiss a stranger.
So too, he now suggests, he argues his father needn’t feel that he has done anything wrong in the fact that the son has witnessed at the very same party that Leo and his girlfriend attended, his father embrace and kiss a stranger.
For a moment the father attempts to deny it, but quickly becomes speechless. When he regains his composure, he explains that he never cheated or lied to Leo’s mother and loved her dearly. But suddenly he has found an unexpected love with another human being who just happens to be a man. But there was simply no way he could explain it to Leo for fear that he would misunderstand the situation.
When it is now established that Leo has no problems with him now having a “boyfriend” the two hug, the elder realizing that there was no need for secrecy, that he was deeply loved and remains so. Leo insists that the three of them have dinner so that can, he jokes, “determine his intentions” regarding his dad.
Scot’s film feels a little too much like a liberal school-room advocation of open minds and free talk about sexuality. But the script, written by the two actors playing Leo and his girlfriend, at moments is delightfully manic in the son’s attempts to arrange for that open and free conversation between father and son, resulting in Scot’s work being a lot of fun, even if we know the final “feel-good” results. Surely there are a great many Leo’s and dads out there who have been shaped, post Stonewall, by the general acceptance of LGBTQ behavior in liberal societies worldwide. But, alas, I am afraid that they still do not represent the majority of households. On the very same day I am writing about this film, I have also just watched director/producer Aiman Hasani’s Dutch film Khata (2019) in which a couple of teenage brothers, trapped into male prostitution and with nowhere else to turn, are denied entry into the own home by their parents upon their discovery of their boy’s secret vocations, which only closes off their final possible route of escape. Indeed this film might also have been included in these pages except that I felt it was more centered on their involvement in gay prostitution which I will feature in an upcoming essay, “Working Boys.”
But it’s a delight to watch a work in which family secrets do not necessarily result in terrifying consequences.
Los Angeles, September 21, 2021
Rory Chiplin (screenplay), Maj Jukic (director) My Dad Marie / 2020 [14.34 minutes]
Charlie (Harry Pudwell) is having breakfast in a cafe with his father (Marc Baylis), who is babbling on about things they once shared, sports, Charlie’s college experiences, etc. But Charlie can’t bear with it anymore and jumps and leaves.
His mother Janine (Jennifer K. Preston) has heard about the meeting by the time he returns home and attempts to talk to him about it. It’s his father, she explains, and he has come to come to terms with the changes. It’s simply how things are. We didn’t plan this, she argues, it just happened. And you simply have to deal with it. You have no real choice.
He’s not my father, Charlie insists. But Janine tries to calm him insisting that, of course, he is and he will always be the boy’s father. “You simply have to come to terms with it.”
But Charlie, clearly, isn’t coming to terms with the fact that his father is now a female named Marie, and he insists that he doesn’t want to see him ever again.
Marie is clearly in the process of moving in, but encourages her son to sit on the couch. He does so begrudgingly, again refusing to answer any of the questions about college and getting right to the point, once more claiming that the woman named Marie is no longer his father.
“Of course you’re still my son. This isn’t about black and white.”
Charlie angrily counters: “If you wanted this in the first place maybe you didn’t want me. And you’re not my dad, then I’m not your son.”
Again Marie insists that their relationship
of father and son cannot simply be dismissed, and that it’s not a thing of the
past. But the boy is so hurt that he can barely stand to hear Marie’s
In the next frame we observe Charlie back on a street taking a long walk, presuming that once more he simply bolted from the conversation. But in fact Marie’s explanation of events continue, so we recognize that at least Charlie stayed on long enough to hear a partial explanation:
I’m sorry, I’m sorry because it took too long. It took too long to
make my mind up. I’ve had thoughts about this since I was young.
I’d try on my mom’s clothes when she was out. And her makeup....
It felt right. My dad caught me once. And he hit me around for it.
I was maybe 8, 9. And it was things like that that made me shut it
out, ignore it. I’ve only been ready to do this now. It’s the only time
that’s been right.
We don’t know whether Charlie posed any questions or whether Marie was able to proffer a fuller description of the feelings that pulled her into becoming a transgender woman. We only see the two of them meeting up for a lunch upon a later occasion.
This time they seem more comfortable with one another even if their conversation appears to be quite trivial. And surprisingly—even to Marie—Charlie announces he has a gift for her. The gift is a ticket to a major football game coming up at which Charlie will join her, a treasure Marie very much appreciates as the two settle into what appears to be an open conversation once again between son and father, even if the father is now a woman named Marie.
There is no doubt that this complex and, to most individuals, mystifying subject is treated in Slovenian-born, British director Jakic’s film far too simply and is resolved with a scene that doesn’t truly seem to follow from the previous encounter between his characters. We would have loved to have experienced a much longer discussion of the forces that led Marie to comprehend why she felt uncomfortable in a marriage with what appears to be a fairly loving wife and son. And it would have been helpful if the character simply got an opportunity to explain how her life has improved since her transition, or whether, in fact, her feelings about herself have given her a new sense of possibilities and emotional stability. Is she, in fact, happier now than living within the heterosexual family unit? And how and when did Charlie finally come round to perceive her difficulties and comprehend that his continued friendship with his former dad were crucial to Marie’s well-being?
And I, it should now be obvious through my writing, would be interested in learning how her gender change has effected—if it has—her sexual desires. Has she gone through a complete sex change or just a partial one? Is she now attracted to men or women, both or neither?
But you have to credit Jakic for simply taking on this subject, this being one of the very first short films I’ve seen that even comes near such LGBTQ territory. Moreover, Jakic has not made his transgender woman into a sort of drag queen personification of a female, nor even a woman who has focused her transition on stylish dresses, wigs, and makeup. Charlie’s Marie is quite frankly rather plain and ugly, with manly features draped by long, straight hair, dressed up in a loose beige pants suit, blouse and simple half-heels. If she’s wearing makeup, it hasn’t done much good to hide her facial blemishes. Marie clearly made the transition from within far more than in simple outward appearances. There are a great many cis-gender drag queens that look more convincing as a female than Marie does. And that fact helps to establish Marie as a true character, a still fragile being who perhaps cannot fully explain herself why she has needed to change her gender. All we know is that she has patiently waited and fought for her decision when she felt it was the right time.
Accordingly, even if this short film’s ending does not ring true, we are pleased that life for this fictional Marie does not end tragically. We still wait, however, for a film that might reveal the forces that lead to transgender desire and how that significant transformation effects the individual’s life and his or her family, particularly within a society that has yet to fully comprehend and accept such behavior. Surely, if nothing else, we know that transgender men and women are some of the bravest of beings on the planet.
Los Angeles, September 21, 2021