Monthly Archives: September 2016

Friends, Family and Folk Music | An Interview with Real Boy Director Shaleece Haas

This article was originally published online on Sept. 22nd on the HeadStuff website.

The GAZE Film Festival has come and gone, showcasing once more the best in LGBTQ+ cinema on both international and indigenous fronts. Audiences were entertained, educated, stunned and most importantly, enlightened by the frank and unflinching portrayals of a worldwide LGBTQ+ culture. Although there were many films of great merit – including Edmund Lynch’s A Different Country, a much-needed and greatly-appreciated portrait of gay Ireland prior to decriminalisation, Viva, Paddy Breathnach’s new film about a Cuban drag queen and his estranged father, and Holding The Man, an adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s seminal 1995 memoir – one film stood out to me among the rest.

Real Boy, Shaleece Haas’ documentary about a young trans musician, is sweet and occasionally hard-hitting, offering viewers a multifaceted coming-of-age narrative that never succumbs to sensationalism. Speaking to me after what must have been an exhausting post-screening question-and-answer session, Haas explains her aims in making such a film and how she hopes to reach audiences with its narrative.

A co-producer of 2013’s The Genius of Marian, producer of the short films like 2012’sAwardwinninggir and 2011’s City Fish, and director of the documentary short Old People Driving – which won best documentary at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2010 – Haas is no stranger to the small and silver screens. Filmed over a period of four years, her latest piece focuses on Bennett Wallace, whom Haas met at a small concert: “I was at a living room concert Joe [Stevens] was playing at […] and Bennett opened that show.”

Bennett Wallace and Joe Stevens. From the Film 'Real Boy.' Photo Credit: Shaleece Haas.

Bennett and Joe’s friendship is central to the film and takes the shape of something akin to a mentor-pupil dynamic; Joe is shown in one scene teaching Bennett how to trim a beard. The film endeavours to highlight how the pair are linked by similar life experiences, as Haas now reiterates to me: “[Bennett] had met Joe at a conference for sober young people. They just struck up a very immediate friendship because of very similar experiences of addiction, of being trans, of their love of music […] Joe very quickly saw Bennett as a younger version of himself that he could support […] and Bennett idolised Joe at that point and saw in him the hope that his voice was going to turn out okay.” She adds: “not everybody has a mentor like that, it’s so valuable.”

Indeed, the text is a multifaceted one, simultaneously dealing with issues of family, friendship and, most upsettingly, addiction. Although the film maintains a kindly tone for its duration, there are intermittent reminders of the struggles many LGBTQ+ people face worldwide, and they come fast and strong. Indeed, queer communities have higher rates of substance abuse and mental health problems than their straight, cisgender contemporaries – writer Matthew Todd claims this is the result of living in a ‘cultural straitjacket’ that forces us to adhere to heteronormative society. Although other films at the festival deal with such issues in more overt ways, their inclusion in Real Boy acts as a small sobering reminder of the societal pressures placed on LGBTQ+ people.

It must be stressed, however, that the ‘cultural straitjacket’ forced upon LGBTQ+ is not unrelenting, and can be loosened. Case in point: Bennett’s mother, a key figure in the narrative, is at first sceptical of her son’s transition. Eventually, over the course of the film’s events, we see her gradually move from a place of ignorance to one of acceptance. In one of the film’s more touching sequences, Bennett sings to his mother a song that encapsulates their journey titled ‘For My Family,’ which goes “Mama, I’m sorry / I didn’t mean to make your cry / I’ve been trying to say hello / You thought I was saying goodbye.”

Of this inspiring transformation, Haas notes: “This is not about Bennett’s gender journey. If anything, Bennett’s journey is one from adolescence to young adulthood. The person who makes the greatest transformation is his mother, who has a longer journey to take from shame and loss and confusion and ignorance, really, to a place where she can embrace and celebrate her son.”

Sharleece Haas - HeadStuff.org

The process of learning undertaken by Bennett’s mother is one that some viewers of the film seem to relate to, as Haas explains: “there was an older lesbian woman [at the GAZE Q&A]who said, ‘I have a lot of trouble with with trans issues, and it’s something that challenges me and I don’t feel that I really understand, and this film made me see something and think about something and feel something that shifted that.’ There’s nothing more gratifying to a filmmaker […] because we don’t move the needle on more equity, more justice or acceptance until we can identify with people who are different for us.”

Haas is quick to note there is more than one target audience for the film, explaining that in the very same screening a young trans man claimed the documentary very closely represented his experience of transitioning: “so to me that is extraordinarily gratifying to say that I’m able to speak to both of those audiences.” The questions of family and relationships addressed in the film will also strike a chord with a multitude of people. Often queer-identifying persons must find chosen families in cases where they are rejected by their family of origin. Did Haas find speaking to multiple audiences a daunting task? “I wanted the film to be accessible to a lot of audiences, to be something that is embraced by my community of queer and trans people. It wasn’t elementary, it wasn’t rudimentary, but it also reached broad audiences, not from a place of curiosity or interest in what ‘those’ lives are like, but from a place of identification. To tell a story about family and a desire to be loved by family, that was important to us.”

There is a lack of trans representation in media, and when trans people are featured in interview scenarios they are sometimes mocked and degraded: in a 2014 interview with Katie Couric, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox endured offensive questions relating to her transition, to which she gracefully responded, “the preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences.” This is a pitfall Haas was conscious to avoid. She says: “I did not want to make a film about gender transition per se, or certainly the physical aspects of transition Bennett is at a time in his life where he is transitioning […] but it wasn’t about that. It was about relationships and friendships, and what that moment meant for his relationship with his best friend. It’s what Joe says in the film, that there’s the ‘body’ part and then there’s the social and emotional part. And that’s what people on the outside don’t see as much.”

Haas, a filmmaker well-educated in the nuances of LGBTQ+ culture, is also conscious of her social circumstances and the circumstances of the subjects in the film. “[Bennett and Joe] are the best case scenario,” she says. “They’re white, they’re class-privileged, they live in California, and they have family who, even though they deal with strife and struggle, didn’t completely abandon them. They are binary, male-identified. There are many ways to them the path is much clearer and easier than for many of their fellow trans people – trans women, trans people of colour, people who live in rural places. The film is not meant to represent the trans community at all.”

Real Boy is set to be screened again in Ireland, on September 23rd at the Axis Art Centre in Ballymun. Organised in partnership with TENI, there will be workshops, conversations, and also specialised screenings for the trans community and parents of trans kids. “[There is the] opportunity to not only show the film and have people enjoy it as a piece of entertainment,” Haas states, “but [also]to really engage in conversation with each other about the issues in the film: addiction and recovery, self-harm and depression, [and]family acceptance.”

Real Boy will be screened in collaboration with TENI at the Axis Arts Centre in Ballymun tomorrow, September 23rd. Further information can be found here, and a trailer for the feature can be viewed below.

Featured Image Credit: Sarah Deragon.

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This article was originally published in the arts and culture supplement of the University Observer, Vol. XXIII, Issue I. It was later published online.

David Monaghan looks at how the GAZE Film Festival sets to help LGBTQ+ screen representation in the march towards equality.

CINEMA and TV are a funfair mirror: they reflect and magnify our biggest fears, force us to confront our insecurities, and make us aware of our obsessions. They take us into a world that is uncanny; a place that is at once similar and dissimilar to our own. For most people these modes of representation become a distorted reflection of their lives. This is true for all but a vocal few: up until recently accurate depictions of LGBTQ+ lives and stories have lacked in comparison to their straight, cis contemporaries.

A report compiled by GLAAD in October 2015 titled ‘Where We Are on TV’ concluded that, of the 881 regular characters on broadcast primetime programming set to appear in 2016, 35 (4%) were identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. They also summarised that there were an additional 35 recurring LGB characters set to appear, and that there were no transgender characters counted on primetime broadcast programming in the coming year. If cinema and TV mimic our reality, like a collective funfair mirror, then the prejudices LGBTQ+ people experience on a day-to-day basis are reflected, distorted and thrown back to us in a way that is not surprising.

Events like the GAZE Film Festival set to fill the gap presented by mainstream Film and Television broadcasting by highlighting the best in LGBTQ+ cinema both at home and abroad. This year’s festival ran from the 28th of July to the 1stof August 2016 in the Light House Cinema, and presented films that vary in tone, ideas, characters, themes, troubles, and issues. Thus offering a platform to the multiplicity of experience found within worldwide LGBTQ+ communities that might not have discovered an audience otherwise.

Joey Kuhn’s Those People, for example, distinguishes itself from other films at the festival by being entirely and unquestionably apolitical. The director says as much in a video address to the attentive GAZE crowd; he wants to draw from his personal experience as a gay man. Indeed, the protagonists of the piece, art student Charlie (Jonathan Gordon) and his best friend Sebastian (Jason Ralph), son of a corrupt New York financier, live economically privileged lives that are inaccessible to most LGBTQ+ people. Their friendship becomes strained when Charlie admits his love for Sebastian, and a love triangle ensues when concert pianist Tim (Haaz Sleiman) makes a bid for Charlie’s affections. Although the focus is on gay characters, their sexuality becomes secondary to the drama the film depicts.

“EVENTS LIKE THE GAZE FILM FESTIVAL SET TO FILL THE GAP PRESENTED BY MAINSTREAM FILM AND TELEVISION BROADCASTING BY HIGHLIGHTING THE BEST IN LGBTQ+ CINEMA BOTH AT HOME AND ABROAD.”

In contrast to this is Sara Jordenö’s Kiki, a quasi-sequel to 1990’s Paris Is Burning, which looks at where the LGBTQ+ community finds itself in the years following the latter’s release. Although framed through the transformative art of competitive voguing, a form of modern dance, the film’s focus lies in the dancers themselves who are not only LGB, but also trans.  The dancers use the artform while transitioning to help express their gender identity. Set in New York, we see house mothers and house fathers describe the impact that voguing has on LGBTQ+ youth, many of whom are disadvantaged, homeless, or addicted to drugs, and who use the art to transgress beyond the troubles of their lives. The film also emphasises the links between these LGBTQ+ communities and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and beyond. Many audience members were taken aback by this presentation for its frank and unflinching portrayal of disadvantaged LGBTQ+ lives.

One criticism levelled at LGBTQ+ film is for its strict adherence to one genre of cinema, drama. Very rarely are we treated to LGBTQ+ focused science fiction, fantasy, or horror films. Alexandra-Therese Keining seems keenly aware of this and offers a film that is almost a hotchpotch of styles, thankfully without seeming jarring or disparate; less Frankenstein’s Monster than Frankenstein’s Normal-Functioning-Person. Girls Lost tells the story of three friends, Kim (Tuva Jagell), Bella (Wilma Holmén), and Momo (Alexander Gustavsson), who happen upon a strange plant that allows them to change their gender from female to male. For Bella and Momo, this is a fun experiment to fit in with the guys, but for Kim this is something else: her male persona increasingly feels a lot more real than her female. A queer coming-of-age fantasy film, with elements of horror,Girls Lost is unlike anything else shown at the festival.

Irish LGBTQ+ cinema has been central to GAZE in the past, and this year was no exception. The festival’s strongest sell this year was a screening of Viva, Paddy Breathnach’s film about Cuban drag performer Jesus (Héctor Medina) and his relationship with his estranged father, in which the two clash over their opposing expectations for each other. However, the best case of Irish LGBTQ+ cinema showcased at the festival this year is Edmund Lynch’s A Different Country, a documentary that includes interviews with Tom Brace, Declan Buckley, Tonie Walsh, Sarah Philips, former President Mary Robinson and more about Ireland prior to the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the lives of LGBTQ+ people during this time – their pubs, support networks, newsletters and magazines, political movements. “It gives you some idea of what it was like,” says director Lynch. “It’s important that our history is always remembered.”

Film Review | The Beatles: Eight Days a Week Offers Valuable Insight into an Influential Band

This review was originally posted online on the HeadStuff Website on September 06th, 2016.

In the years following their break-up, John Lennon would say that the Beatles were in the crow’s nest of the ship that would discover the ‘New World.’ He was referring of course to the 1960s, a decade of discovery and experimentation. At this time support for the Civil Rights movement was proliferating, a nuclear threat would forever change the world’s geopolitical landscape, the Vietnam War was shaking America’s very confidence in itself, and ‘hippie’ counterculture encouraged youths to challenge the established order of their parents’ generation. It was a period of simultaneous excitement and unease, and this is the climate director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon) hopes to capture in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week. It is a film that looks at the band’s touring years of 1963 to 1966 and the ‘Beatlemania’ they inspired.

John Lennon’s quote is not without some merit: although Howard claims the Beatles’ touring years are his focus, it is apparent as the film unfolds that this is not entirely true. Yes, the film features live performances from the band and recounts their various backstage antics, but it also documents the social, political and cultural fallout from the Beatles’ introduction to the music scene. In order to emphasise their wide-ranging influence, Howard asks entertainers from every walk of celebrity life to describe how the band has influenced them: Richard Curtis, known for his work in comedy, describes their wit and charm; actor Sigourney Weaver describes the electric-energy of seeing them live (and even appears at a concert in archive footage); composer Howard Goodall emphasises the genius of their compositions.

The Beatles playing live at the height of 'Beatlemania.' Source

Most spectacularly, Whoopi Goldberg describes how the group transcended racial boundaries, stating “I never saw them as white guys!” This point returns later in the film: upon hearing that the audience at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida was to be racially segregated, the Beatles refused to play unless promoters desegregated the audience. Their wish was ultimately granted and on September 11th 1964, the Beatles performed to a mixed-race crowd of 23,000. The Beatles were also famously critical of the Vietnam War and were huge proponents of the hippie ‘free love’ movement. While watching the film it becomes increasingly apparent that the Beatles were important voices for the time – the 1960s needed the Beatles as much as the Beatles needed the 1960s.

The archival concert footage featured in the film is masterfully remastered, with the group sounding crisp and clear. This makes the Beatles live experience far more tangible than before. The film also does well to emphasise the importance of Brian Epstein and George Martin. The Beatles’ success did not occur in a vacuum: Epstein helped propel them to the top by honing their image, and Martin helped create their musical style in the recording studios of Abbey Road. The film ends just as, arguably, the most interesting period of the Beatles’ story is about to begin: tired of constant touring, social events, photoshoots and fan harassment, in 1966 the group retire to the studio to focus all their energy into making music, resulting in experimental albums like Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, andLet It Be. However, in not covering the band’s entire history, Howard utilises the shorter time span to create a focused, insightful piece into the most influential band in history.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week will be simulcast worldwide on September 15th with an exclusive showing at the Light House on that day. It will then be available to stream from Hulu. View the trailer below.

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Café Society: Review

This review was originally published in the University Observer’s Freshers’ Magazine in September 2016. It was later published online.

Directed by: Woody Allen

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Parker Posey, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll

Release Date: September 2nd

Café Society is Woody Allen’s forty-sixth film and by now his time spent in the spotlight is showing. The film is full to the brim with the tropes and archetypes of Allen’s cinema, and they are wheeled out and displayed at such momentum that it often plays like a self-defeating parody of itself.  A neurotic protagonist, jazz music, a period setting, Jewish stereotypes, and an awkward romance are all on parade in this nostalgia-fest.

The film is set in the 1930s, during Hollywood’s Golden Era, and begins as Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg, doing his best Woody Allen impression), a Jewish man from the Bronx, moves to Hollywood to start afresh. It is there that he encounters his uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), an overworked but completely adept talent agent, and his secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart).  The relationship between the two men becomes strained when Veronica falls in love with both of them, dredging another trope of Allen’s cinema – that of an older man forming a relationship with a woman significantly his junior. There is also a subplot involving Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), and the film jumps back and forth between the two at the cost of consistent tone and pace.

This is yet another period piece by the veteran director and by now he can slip in and out, change and adapt, to the recent past with a relevant ease. The lavish sets and gorgeous cinematography by Vitorrio Storaro combine to idealise a period when glamour and superficiality trumped substance; muted primary colours typify the Hollywood Allen wishes to depict.

Such attractive imagery leaves you with a feeling of wanting, however; Allen spends more time dealing with a plot that is predictable and paper-thin, and less exploring the world he has created. Although names like ‘Irene Dunne,’ and ‘Errol Flynn’ are dispersed throughout the dialogue, the film does not dedicate enough time to immersing itself fully in the period it sets to mimic. The beauty of Midnight in Paris, Allen’s 2012 offering, is that, while advancing the film’s central romance we are treated, often humorously, to caricatures of 1920s Modernist writers.  In Café Society, we are less tourists of history than bored patrons desperately trying to see everything before the museum closes.

In a Nutshell: Café Society is a gorgeous-looking wasted opportunity. Rent Midnight in Paris instead.