Out of the Celluloid Closet

NewFest Online offers fresh looks at queer culture from the inside

While queer characters and writer-directors are no longer rare in mainstream films and TV, I’ve found myself drawn back to queer film festivals this year to see the parts of the community that aren’t included in the latest hit show from Netflix or That Film Everyone Went To That Is a (Largely Unacknowledged) Metaphor for Transition. Queer film festivals also attract and appreciate queer audiences, something a lot of media companies and publicists have no idea how to do, even with the rare TV shows and movies that get queerness right. Work in Progress was canceled. So, more recently, was the new A League of Their Own. And don’t get me started on how great, queer films outside of festivals (even award-winners with stellar reviews) often get shitty distribution and publicity, so queer audiences barely know they exist. 

NewFest, New York’s LGBTQ+ festival has a substantial online component that is streaming right now. One of the standouts is Michèle Stephenson & Joe Brewster’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, a documentary about the legendary Black queer poet who got her start in the Black Arts Movement. When I first saw the film as part of Sundance (where it won Best US Documentary)  I was disappointed in some of the bland, boilerplate CGI visuals of space that accompany Giovanni’s distinctive ideas and language. The second time I saw this film, Giovannni’s words, still quite fresh, even though she is now 80, not the images stuck with me. 

The title of the film comes from Giovannni’s framing of Black women as being the people who should first go into space, since they were abducted (and raped) by “aliens” during slavery and somehow managed to make it through. As Giovanni makes her case in excerpts from lectures and poetry it becomes a new way of looking at both the history of Black women and what space exploration actually entails: hardship and a willingness to accept and adapt to what is completely unfamiliar. In her work, she declares “This is not a poem. This is an explosion. This is a rocket. Let’s ride.”

So much of what Giovanni says in both vintage video clips and more recent filmed readings, lectures, and interviews also seems current; it’s like the culture has finally caught up with her. When in her poetry and interviews she speaks of choosing to be happy, it’s not the glib “positive vibes only” bullsh*t we might first think of, but something more hard-won and tangible, as it would have to be for Giovanni, who left her parents’ home to live with her grandparents, after witnessing her father beat her mother (and knowing she would kill her father if she stayed). She refuses to answer a question that would make her relive the trauma of Martin Luther King’s death even as one of her poems lists all the people who were once part of the Civil Rights Movement and died before their time. She has never, as she states in one of her most well-known poems, wanted to frame her childhood as unhappy. 

In a televised interview with James Baldwin, she says, when he calls her a prophet,  “I would hate to think of myself as a prophet. Prophets die.” She lived! Through two cancer diagnoses and with her partner, now spouse of many years, reconciled with her once estranged son and delighting in her adolescent granddaughter, she sees love and happiness as necessities, not luxuries for herself and other Black women, much as Christina Sharpe in this year’s National Book Award finalist Ordinary Notes writes of the necessity of having beauty in her queer, Black life. Giovanni writes in her poem, “I Married My Mother” 

I should be happy I found

My mother in someone

Else who loves me

Disabled Brazilian director Daniel Gonçalves’s Acsexybility is a queer-inclusive documentary featuring other disabled people talking frankly about their sex lives and (less successfully) acting out their fantasies. The lone admission from the director is: his father arranged for a sex worker to be with him (which didn’t go well), apparently thinking Gonçalves wouldn’t have sex otherwise. But the shots of the director, nude and perfectly still, are stunning and a marked contrast from the earlier documentary he made about his life, My Name is Daniel.

This film takes a very long time to get to the queer stories, which, unsurprisingly, are a lot more interesting than the straight ones. One woman was flirting online with someone during the “no photos” era of the internet and typed, after the two had agreed to meet up, “I have to tell you: I use a wheelchair,” to which the person answered, “I have to tell you: I’m a woman,” which was the start of a three-year relationship. A gay man demonstrates just how much effort he has to put into taking a condom out of a wrapper and is amazed a hookup thinks said gay adult’s parents are waiting in a car outside the motel to take him home afterward. A transfeminine person states her hookups prefer she be on her crutches during sex, an echo of others in the film, who describe being an item on a sexual bucket list for some of their casual partners. A man describes going to an inaccessible, pitch-dark backroom of a gay bar, riding piggyback on the shoulders of his cousin and the other men in the room then feeling the two intertwined bodies with their hands, wondering what was up. I wish we had a film of just the queer folks: they make Acsexybility an essential watch.

Sandra Itäinen’s documentary Coming Around follows New York City-based queer Muslim woman, Eman, getting her PhD in Sociolgy. She’s from a close, deeply religious, immigrant family (originally from Palestine) trying to navigate through the very different communities she belongs to. In New York she has a role in a queer play and takes part in a PoC queer support group and, before the documentary started filming, had a girlfriend. Her widowed mother in Columbia, Missouri wears hijab, prays every day, and thinks it’s better to be married many times over than for a woman to, even once, live with a male partner who isn’t her husband.

When Eman starts seriously dating, Quentin, a handsome Black cis man whose easy smile reveals he has braces, her mother pressures Eman into marriage, which brings up a lot of feelings about how much of herself Eman wants to hide from her mother and everyone else. She reads the Quran, but doesn’t pray. She’s also well aware of the homophobia in the Muslim community at large, saying when she’s on a panel, “It’s that dilemma of how to be in the Muslim community and critique it when the whole world is waiting to judge it.” Itäinen followed Eman for years, as we see with her evolving hairstyles (curly and long when she’s at a club with another woman, short and straightened for the wedding)and later we see Eman and her family start to wear masks and socialize outdoors. The result feels more complete than most single-subject documentaries, like we’ve lived the years alongside Eman and not only witnessed her evolution, but changed ourselves. Even her mother is not the same. She says to Eman, as she tries to work out her own feelings about her queerness, “I raised you as a free spirit, but I never tried to break you.”♦

NewFest’s Virtual Programming is Streaming Through Oct. 24

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