Out of the Celluloid Closet

Queer histories shine at Third Horizon Film Festival

In the weeks since the latest edition of Third Horizon Film Festival, I’ve found myself lamenting the state of cinema in South Florida. The festival, which focuses on films from the Caribbean and its diaspora, was something of a balm for how things here largely function. As it stands, the entire state—and on a smaller scale the festival’s home Miami—is being led by conniving fascists, corrupt politicians, and arts organizations comfortable with censorship, many of which are hellbent on ensuring that the status quo is maintained. 

In an Instagram post by the festival’s Director of Programming Jonathan Ali, he notes that “THFF supports all oppressed people everywhere in their right to self-determination and in their various struggles for freedom” and questioned, “What meaningful gesture can we make in the face of the overwhelming worldwide catastrophes that appear to be never-ending?”

That question came with an answer that became clearer every day I spent at the festival: “Presenting moving-image work radical in form and aware in its politics, in an intimate setting that privileges joy, inclusiveness, and solidarity.” 

Our histories and the means of oppression have tied us together, and we need each other to break free.

Juan Barquin

For four days straight, largely spent at the Koubek Center in Miami, Third Horizon provided a space for real conversations and necessary cinema. It didn’t matter if it was casual chats being had while scarfing down jerk chicken or conversations with filmmakers whose work explicitly confront the politics of displacement and solidarity. But the chill vibe of the festival also came with a certain knowing weight: that of marginalized individuals of all kinds coming together in a safe space. The festival provided this space for the audience – many of which were artists themselves – to have frank conversations with those whose work was on screen, resulting in the kind of cultural exchange most places dream of. 

But as much as the environment we exist in sparks a number of conversations, films that were featured at Third Horizon prompted the most necessary ones. Many of the queer artists that the festival highlighted this year created the work that provoked the most discourse. Take the inimitable Richard Fung, whose video art and writing has always naturally intertwined the personal and the political (in pieces like Chinese Characters and Sea in the Blood), and who was featured years ago as the subject of Third Horizon’s first “artist-in-focus” programme. 

His new feature, The Enigma of Harold Sonny Ladoo, was having its world premiere at Third Horizon, and proved to be an engaging documentary that pieced together a loose history about a man who seemingly had too much and none at all. As opposed to the wealth of hagiographic biographies that exist out there, it’s particularly interesting to watch as Fung and those he interviews – particularly Christopher Laird, whose existing work populates much of the film – actively challenge the notion of an unquestionable “great writer”. Harold Sonny Ladoo’s words are brought to life through animation and live readings of the text, and archival footage is blended with contemporary reflection. The choice of “enigma” for the title isn’t simply about how limited the knowledge of his history is, but also how tough it is for these individuals to navigate this author’s behavior, which could turn from enthused to violent at any turn. Perhaps the most intriguing question it poses, though, is about how many histories (and, by extension, pieces of literature/art) have been lost over the decades? 

As engrossing as the feature was, the work of Fung’s screening at the festival (virtually) that was perhaps most timely and necessary was his two-screen documentary installation, Jehad in Motion. Put simply, it’s a film that pairs the daily life of a Palestinian man, Jehad Aliweiwi, in Toronto, with navigating a family visit in Hebron. That juxtaposition is precisely what makes this such a harrowing and compelling piece. There are moments of beauty to be found in the documentation of Jehad – particularly that of a wedding in Hebron and a Seder in Toronto – but most striking is the unflinching reminder of how Israel treats them like second-hand citizens, be it throwing trash at them, forcing them to take absurd routes for transit, and even decimating their homes and workplaces. That this piece is from the 2000s only emphasizes what many have only recently learned to be true: the genocide of Palestinian people is not something that began last year, but has been decades in the making. 

This very ongoing genocide—and the way that artists and organizations have to navigate talking about this within spaces that seek to keep them silent—was a point of conversation throughout Third Horizon. One well-attended panel featured Fung in conversation with fellow filmmakers Emilia Beatriz and Jason Fitzroy Jeffers about solidarity in the realm of cinema. The blunt discussions about how each one navigates the political in their work, as well as beyond that in organizing, protesting, and speaking up against institutions, were a reprieve for an arts community that has been faced with censorship and blacklisting over the past year. 

Beatriz’s feature debut barrunto also screened at the festival, a double premiere alongside New York’s Prismatic Ground that was unsurprising considering its radical politics and engaging experimentation. barrunto lies somewhere between speculative fiction and political dissertation, an endless mixing of formats and aesthetics, and a layering of sounds that enhances just how otherworldly it is. Beatriz knows that there need be no separation between the meaningful and the genuinely entertaining, and this is most notable in the music (especially Shanti Lalita’s stunning “Barrunto”) and the ever-present subtitles (courtesy of Collective Text, co-founded by Beatriz, whose uniquely involved textual work is a standout in every film it appears) that oscillates between languages and describes even the most inaudible and jarring of sounds with the same intent and precision that David Lynch did with Twin Peaks: The Return

Some might find barrunto‘s sprawling scope overwhelming, but the film is clear in what it presents; it’s an anti colonialist fantasy grounded in the histories of both Scotland and Puerto Rico. The citation of explicitly political writings by artists like Jean Genet, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Ursula K Le Guin compliments the queer future that the filmmaker imagines. That it ends with the text “our liberation is bound together” only emphasizes the interconnected nature of all that the film draws upon. Our histories and the means of oppression have tied us together, and we need each other to break free. 

The notion of escaping oppressive systems was a point of discussion around Luis Alejandro Yero’s Calls from Moscow (Llamadas desde Moscú), a smartly-staged documentary that fixates on four queer Cuban exiles living in Russia, just as the country mounts their attack on Ukraine. To call the film bleak isn’t a stretch, with its cast essentially doing nothing but sitting around, working remotely, watching and making TikToks, and simply waiting for things to get better. It’s about the mundanity and tragedy of existing in a world where merely to exist places you in danger. 

Even beyond its static formal structure, Yero’s film feels actively in conversation with that of the great Chantal Akerman, down to its interest in queer folks navigating their displacement and detachment from a world they thought they knew. In questioning these people about where they believe their homes are (the answer being “I don’t know to be honest”), Calls from Moscow gets into something all too real and familiar: queer people are forced between spaces that offer the guise of relative freedom, but that will never actually stop being dangerous to exist in. However much the “characters”, or the viewer, desire a sense of fulfillment in their lives and joy from the places they are forced to exist, the sad reality is that an absurd amount of life is wading through meaningless content as we hope for something to happen. 

Calls from Moscow gets into something all too real and familiar: queer people are forced between spaces that offer the guise of relative freedom, but that will never actually stop being dangerous to exist in.

Juan Barquin

The barrier between reality and fiction is constantly being blurred in cinema (and, hell, in the world itself), and this kind of melding of sensibilities can’t help but result in interesting new work. These films are certainly not all as much of a downer as Calls from Moscow and Victoria Linares Villegas’ feature Ramona is key to just how much beauty exists amidst a world that is frequently unfair. Rather than ever actually presenting the intended fiction feature that the crew at its core is making (about a young pregnant woman), or even being a traditional documentary about what it means to research and perform a role, Ramona unfolds as a story about how pregnant young women find joy and fulfillment when given the space and resources to do so. 

Villegas’ film is less a piece of meta-fiction and more something of an ideal dream, offering room for a number of young women to not just act, but to play. At one point in the feature, one of these young girls laments that she never had a chance to play house as a child because she was thrust into having to actually keep house, both through raising her own child and caring for a family seemingly incapable of doing that themselves. To watch these girls not only act in these scripted scenes, but direct each other and attain genuinely compelling results, serve as more than proof that there is talent to be found in anyone, but give voice to the reality that actors can never truly be a replacement for those with lived experience. 

That this piece can’t go on and on forever is a shame, as highlighting every work at this edition of Third Horizon Film Festival would be impossible, particularly with how many shorts were as compelling as the features they were programmed alongside. From works that came from around the world to creators that produced work under the festival’s Forward initiative, the festival offered a wealth of cinematic experiences that keeps us wondering what else they’ll bring in the coming years.♦

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