beginnings and endings
by Douglas Messerli
Assuredly, festival programmers do not generally select their list of short titles in order to curate them as representing a common theme or structural pattern, and I had no doubt, accordingly, that this years’ selection of the New Fest titles of The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Film Festival were randomly chosen based on the films’ qualities not on their thematic interconnections. Yet one grouping of the short titles for 2021, which include works from 2020 and 2021, represented to me a oddly coherent grouping of films in which to LGBTQ figures met up, most of them for the first time and either experienced a sense of new possibilities and beginnings or of closure which seemingly allowed for the needed resolution of the problems previously facing them. In almost every one of these encounters however, the end of the meeting is so vague in terms of these pairs’ possibilities of meeting up again or of continuing their relationship that the event could either represent a beginning or an ending, depending upon how the viewer perceived it.
Admittedly, I have a natural penchant for creating fairly coherent narratives even from fragmented or randomly collaged passages, so I couldn’t promise, I argued, that any of my readers would actually perceive the same patterns, but I simply could not resist such unlikely patterns when I discerned them; and, in any event, it permitted me a way to bring together some of the various short works presented in this year’s New Fest short selections.
What a surprise, accordingly, when I discovered a few days after writing this piece that these works were, in fact, placed in the “beginnings and endings” section of the festival, the selectors obviously curating them just as I had first suspected.
Jerry Carlsson (screenwriter and director) Nattåget (The Night Train) / 2020 [15 minutes]
The first of these short works, Swedish director Jerry Carlsson’s The Night Train is most notably the young traveler, Oskar’s (Erik Nilsson) beginning of a new experience as ensconced on the night train, heading home after an what appears to have been a school or job interview in Stockholm to his country family home. The ruddy faced Swedish boy is still obviously an innocent, who catches the eye of a lovely Muslim boy, Ahmad (Khalil Ben Gharbia), traveling with his mother and father.
Like any such innocent, his first reaction is to simply look away, to concentrate on the music he’s hearing through his headphones. But he can’t resist looking back at the beautiful young man, perhaps just a little older than he is and certainly more experienced which we recognize by his far more straight-forward and intense smile at Oskar.
Soon he begins a more forward approach, standing and bringing the orange to Oskar, inviting him to share another segment, again the nectar falling upon the boy’s blue jeans as he bites into it.
Instead of returning to his seat Ahmad moves on through the train car, Oskar attempting with all his inner powers to resist following, but finally taking the bait. When Oskar reaches the second car, he observes Ahmad moving into the next car, as if challenging him to a long adventure. In the that car, evidently filled with closed cabin segments, he finds an empty one and enters.
Oskar pauses, almost backing away, but finally moves forward and past the selected cabin entering the bathroom, breathing deeply, and locking the door. But when, as he might have expected, he hears a light tap at the door, he opens, slowly allowing his friend to enter the bathroom cabinet where he remains.
The boys pause for a moment, hardly knowing how to begin what they both desire, but finally when Ahmad takes the lead, falling into a frenzied kissing session, Oskar obviously cumming in his pants in the process, made evident by Carlsson’s somewhat heavy-handed return to the image of the nectar dripping from the orange. They almost laugh at their juvenile love-making.
At that very moment the female ticket conductor knocks on the door checking up, the boys refusing to answer or open until finally she threatens to break the lock, Ahmad opening it and moving out, followed by Oskar who dares never to look back.
Both make their way to their seats, Oskar eventually falling to sleep to be awakened by the cabin attendant to tell him that the next station is his destination.
He stands, grabs his backpack and makes his way past the now sleeping Ahmad, pausing a second in what we realize is a kind of regret of his inability to express his emotions for having, for the very first time, taken the steps to accept his sexuality that the sleeping beauty has shown him through his sharing of the same feelings Oskar has long felt for other boys.
His parents greet him with the usual chatter about sleep and breakfast, but as he moves forward in the cold snow we recognize what they cannot: he is no longer the same son who left them a few days earlier on a voyage to Stockholm. Whether or not he is accepted in the Stockholm school or company, he has now experienced an entirely different world with new possibilities for which he still has no words.
Los Angeles, October 21, 2021
a loose brick
Gabriel Motta (screenwriter and director) Dois Homens ao Mar (Two Men by the Sea) / 2020 [17 minutes]
Calling up the famous painting about the contemplation of the infinite by Caspar David Friedrich, Brazilian director Gabriel Motto’s Estonian-located Two Men by the Sea might be described as yet another “coming out” film in the manner of Carlsson’s film I describe above.
The men who meet up here are also from very difficult cultures but find themselves immediately attracted to one another. However, these men in their mid- 20s are not complete innocents, the local man Martin (Mauri Liiv) who works as a video game designer has already finished his required service in the Estonian military, and the man he meets one morning in a Tallinn coffee-shop, César (Gabriel Motta) is a street actor back in Brazil who has left his family and evidently a male lover behind as he goes in search of new experiences through travel. Why he has journeyed from Finland by ferry to Estonia is never quite explained, but his goal is apparently to take the train to St. Petersburg the next morning, and he is interested in exploring the Estonian capital in the meantime.
However, once to two have met and begin their conversation they have only the afternoon left to work—Martin having been asked to pitch a new game to possible supporters—or, in César’s case, tour the city beginning with the Telliskivi (“Brick”) area of the city and extending his visit to several of the city’s noted mural wall paintings.
The film focuses mostly on their morning
conversation, interspersing it the Brazilian’s later roaming of the city. We
don’t hear long segments of their conversation but the snippets we do overhear
tell us a great deal about the two, that Martin, who did not like the military,
did enjoy the company of so many males
For his part, the far more adventurous César loves his job as a street actor who is able to introduce theater to many who have never encountered it before, turning the very everyday world in which they live into something ritually performed and reconceived, making it special. As I mention above, Martin discovers in their conversation that the stranger is gay, and has felt able to leave his friend since it was only a sexual relationship, missing obviously something else that César is seeking.
Whatever other pieces of conversation that transpire between the two doesn’t to matter as much as the fact that they have thoroughly enjoyed one another’s company and are startled when they realize so much time has passed that they must part.
We have basically charted out César’s day with fragments women throughout their conversation. But for the latter half of the film we focus on Martin returning home to his girlfriend, obviously feeling somehow that something has changed or at least now feels uncomfortable about his life, his girlfriend even inquiring about his apparently unusual state of mind.
Early in the morning Martin awakens, quickly dresses, and surprisingly hurries to the train station to see the stranger of the previous day off on his trip to Russia. Film has, obviously, a very long tradition of lovers rushing to see one another off on trains, so many that it has almost become a cliché to be satirized as in Young Frankenstein (1974) and Airplane! (1980). But we have not expected this rush by Martin to see César off as if he were a about to be lost lover.
What we recognize in the act is not simply Martin’s feelings for the conversationalist of the previous day, but the possibilities of a different life that he represents. We recognize in this suddenly spontaneous act a sense of new possibilities for the previously normatively defined game designer, suggesting a new awakening if not of homosexual yearnings at least bisexual interests. The street actor has awakened a new possibility of behavior in his friend’s life, and the gesture of seeing him off is what precisely what was missing in the scene in which Oskar does not bother to awaken Ahmad to thank him in Carlsson’s Night Train. Clearly, Martin and César’s tentative relationship will now never be forgotten.
Los Angeles, October 22, 2021
picked up by an angel
Ruben Navarro (screenwriter and director) Of Hearts and Castles / 2020 [15 minutes]
Strangely if the two films I have just written about engage its sexually neophyte figures in ordinary language, Los Angeles director Ruben Navarro presents his two quite knowledgeable sexual characters speaking a language of romance, hearts and castles, love lost, and still producing deep psychological scars. Perhaps that characterizes the very reasons why these love-forlorn figures, Marcus (Philemon Chambers) and Angel (Luis Carazo) are still suffering beyond the time their friends believe that should, both fairly savvy and resilient but also still warry and hurt, feeling alien from the “fun” their own friends hope to engage them in at a local LA restaurant Akhbar, a gay nightclub in the Silverlake region of the city.
They meet up outside the restaurant to where they have both retreated from friends and the heated, sexy activities inside. Sensing a shared histories they feel comfortable with one another almost immediately and head off back to Angel’s apartment on their own.
In Navarro’s fragmented telling of their stories, we discover that Marcus is still recovering from a suddenly ended relationship—his former lover demanding no further contact—which still haunts him, particularly since he felt he was constructing a castle of his dreams but as with the children’s block into which he had inserted a wrong piece it was inexplicably brought it all down crashing around him. Angel attempts to minimize the romantic terms in which Marcus is couching his life by suggesting that that process of what life is all about, building up constantly collapsing structures that time and again must be reassessed and repaired.
At his apartment, the two begin their sexual encounter, Angel explaining that he has a rare condition where his heart was shifted in birth to his right side to his left upper chest, so that when he goes to hug Marcus the two him their hearts do truly beat as one against each other.
Angel’s pain goes back even further to the time when he first told his father of his sexual identity, which marked the moment that the man never again spoke to him. He claims to have been able to see that now as a reasonable response to someone who could never again hide his feelings about his sexual life, but obviously it still is a deep loss which makes him empathetic for all others.
If both of their past lives seem intentionally vague and abstract, what is clear is that whatever most ails them is healed by the other during that one night, and he leaves the next morning with no expectations of seeing his “angel” again, but with the sense of something ended and a new beginning made possible. If it might be nice to imagine the two of them getting back together, that is completely irrelevant to Navarro’s movie, through which an angel has swept in to mark a transition in both their lives when they can move on from their past hurts toward a new building up of significance. Even in the highly fragmented and isolated world in which we all live today, the same romantic metaphors of hearts and castles seems applicable to resolving life’s difficulties.
As critic Ana María Enciso noted in her review of this film in BeLatina:
Of Hearts and Castles speaks to the audience in a broader sense: It is not
a short film about a gay relationship or a film about interracial love –
despite being starred by a Black American and a Latino. The bottom
line is beyond that.
Regardless of your race or sex, you won’t be able to stop smiling, and
feeling that love is love and kindness knows nothing other than smiling
the end of beginning
Emily Ruhl (screenwriter and director) Blue Moon / 2021 [13 minutes]
another Los Angeles-based film, director Emily Ruhl explores the simple
dynamics of a budding lesbian relationship between her two engaging characters
Maya Davis (Olivia Berris) and Petra Lindvall (Audra Rae Thornton) who obviously
have met up with one another several times, but on this on this special day are
having their first serious date. Maya introduces her new friend to a very
special place—a view of the sprawling city from the far reaches of Sunset
Boulevard (almost at
From there they move on the house that has been left Maya by her divorced father. It’s a lovely rustic place, where the two get to know one another better, Petra describing her past life as being packed away in boxes in her parent’s residence far away, and Maya sympathizing with her unhappy youth by describing her own unhappy childhood, almost a requirement for LGBTQ films.
Petra, spotting a guitar set up against the wall, plays a short tune, while Maya begins to make love to her, the two joining each other in bed for a truly sensual sexual workout in which it appears Maya has an orgasm—the entire sexual scene representing something we simply don’t see often enough in LGBTQ movies.
It’s clear that any hesitancy these two might have had in the past, has been wiped away in this special afternoon and evening, and unless the film is somehow tricking us, we are assured that this couple will soon settle down to receive the gift of one another that one discovers only through a quirk of chance—a blue moon is the second full moon of a month that appears only by the chance of extra calendar days in certain months—a musical theme of this short.
The blue moon also symbolizes completion, fruition, and culmination, but here I am certain we are not meant to read that as an ending but rather as an end to the two women’s’ loneliness and a beginning of their full relationship.
This is not a profound or eventful work, but a gentle reading of the fulfillment of love, the kind of work that doesn’t show up too often in the busy, troublesome, messy world of LGBTQ lives.
Los Angeles, October 22, 2021
the beginning of the end
Jessica Benhamou (screenplay and director) Love Is a Hand Grenade / 2021 [13 minutes]
In British director Jessica Benhamou’s film Love Is a Hand Grenade we are introduced to two women performed by Genesis Lynea and Saffron Hocking, who arrive to “home” to Lynea’s character’s apartment drunk and severely drugged, particular Hocking’s figure.
It’s clear that the woman, who I shall describe as the younger one, is far less capable of controlling her behavior, which causes distress to the elder, who keeps asking her to be quieter and to literally control herself. These women are obviously longtime friends and apparently—despite the fact that they refer to one another as sisters—have had numerous lesbian encounters with one another and plan to sleep together yet again that night.
Yet both talk of their desires of the male sex, the younger wanting a dream image that will combine all she imagines, while the elder, more careful thinker has a loyal boyfriend or, more importantly, as she keeps reminding her younger friend, she has a financé.
She attempts to fall to sleep, but the other keeps insisting upon contact which evidently she cannot resist; the two have wonderful sex, the “best ever” the younger insists.
But the time has come, the clearer thinking woman realizes for her, despite her love, to fully break with such an incorrigible relationship that represents, as the title suggests, forever holding a hand grenade which any minute might go off in her face.
And indeed it does, as bored by her friend’s insistence that she drink a glass a water to sober her up, the younger grabs a bottle of wine, chugging it down like it were a large gallon of soda. Once again, the elder attempts to explain and negotiate with her younger friend that she has found someone who loves her and she has been working a good job; her life has returned to an orderly world which she desires more than the constant wreck she encounters with Hocking’s character.
When she reaches for the wine bottle to save her younger friend from a total stuporous inebriation, the girl pulls away dropping the bottle and sending glass fragments across the room, one lodging in the elder’s foot which is now heavily bleeding.
Attempting to bring herself back into semi-sobriety the younger immediately grabs wads of toilet paper, creating a makeshift bandage for her friend and calling a cab to take her to the emergency room. But by this time the elder can hardly move, either out of pain or utter exasperation for having had another explosion of what is always a ticking bomb in the presence of her lover-sister-intimate friend whatever you might call her.
As the younger attempts to take her down the stairs to the taxi, at the last moment the elder pushes her out the door along with her purse, bag and a coat she has been wearing, locking the door behind her. It has come time to break the relationship off.
One imagines that things will not end so
simply; that the younger will return, demand reentry
To many a lesbian and gay viewer surely that decision was merely perceived as a refusal of the work’s central figure to embrace her own sexuality. But in this case I think that would be a misreading. Lesbians and gays still have not fully recognized the reality of bisexuality, despite the fact that statistics have shown over and over that bisexuals make up a much large portion of the population that gays, lesbians, or transgender individuals. And it interesting just how few films are truly devoted to bisexual realities. The age old argument that bisexuals simply have not yet realized that they are gay or lesbian has not yet been put to rest, and perhaps never will be.
The director herself was startled, to say the least about the criticism she received for this film. As Benhamou commented:
“I think most women who consider themselves ‘mainly straight’ have had an intense, inter-dependent, female friendship that has almost become romantic. I didn’t want to label the sexualities of the two characters – I’m more interested in how sexuality is infinitely complex as a filmmaker, but it’s been interesting to observe how stigmatised bisexuality is. I didn’t anticipate finding myself on the receiving end of so much biphobia. The reality is that while I am keenly aware of what homophobia entails, the subtle nuances of biphobia were entirely new to me. And if a short film can spark that kind of response within my circles then I’m all the more convinced it’s an important story to tell. The world is changing though, particularly for the younger generations, so I remain an optimist. In terms of the mental health elements, I wanted to show the difficulties of loving someone with severe mental illness in a way that felt honest and true to me.”
Los Angeles, October 22, 2021
into the pool
Luke Willis (screenwriter and director) Pool Boy / 2021 [10 minutes]
Of the six short films I viewed from this year’s Newfest showings this past work by another Los Angeles-based director, Luke Willis, is perhaps the most interesting simply because it considers an issue that is very rare to date in the LGBTQ cinema catalogue.
It would appear that college boy Austin (Tim Torre), a former high school jock home for college for the summer and living his parent’s apartment, they perhaps away on vacation. The film begins with a cellphone call from his old friend, Jake (Justin Chien) anxious to get together for some old times, drugs and drinking and, the very next day, he soon finds out, a beach party where the knock-out high school beauty will be waiting for him.
Responding somewhat positively to all of these salutations, Austin is nonetheless strangely unresponsive even seeming disinterested. However when he hears the arrival and scape of the pool boy and his net, he immediately grabs his sketch book and speeds off to the family pool where he engages the “pool boy” formerly named Paul in conversation. Evidently he (played by American-Salvadorian actor River Gallo who prefers the pronoun “they”) has been helping Austin with his sketches, presumably also being artist outside his role as the pool cleaner. And apparently, the two have bonded, if not more, since Austin almost seems to quiver with pleasure around the individual who now has renamed theirselves “Star.” As Austin begins showing his art, some of the works sketches of Star, his friend Jake suddenly appears, intruding on the duo’s evident intimacy, forcing them to pull back from the sensuous touch of each other’s fingers.
Jake is the kind of self-assured, pushy jock with whom there is not real communication unless it concerns girls, drugs, drink, and old times—all obviously uninteresting any longer to Austin. Austin attempts to steer his friend away from the pool and pool boy as quickly as possible, but is unable to manage it before Jake, after referring to “him” as “Paul.” is corrected about the name change, and then begins to make jokes about Star now being even more than a queer.
When morning arrives, the doorbell rings, as Austin eagerly runs to the door, far too early in the day we suspect for a trip to the beach. There Star waits, their hair loosened from its previously ponytail, their wearing a sheik non-gender identifying outfit.
“So you’re not going to the beach,” they ask. “What are you going to tell them”
The two stand in the doorway in near adoration of each other as the film ends.
Born and raised by Salvadorian parents in New Jersey, River Gallo was classified as “intersex” at the age of 12 and was offered hormone therapy and surgery to insert prosthetic testicles. The result, so an article by Corina J Poore published on the on-line Latino Life reports: “The result was that they have become activists and outspoken critics of unnecessary cosmetic surgeries performed on children with atypical genitals, who are not old enough to given an informed consent.”
Gallo, who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Experimental Theatre Wing and received an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, starred in the short film Ponyboi (2019) before taking on the roll of the Pool Boy of Luke Willis’ film.
Los Angeles, October 22, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).