Zero Degrees of Separation

7–17 September 2006

QueerDOC, the world’s only film festival dedicated to documentary films by, for and about queers, celebrated its ninth year in existence earlier this year. Though described by festival manager Lex Lindsay as the smaller and often overlooked sibling of Queer Screen’s more renowned annual screen event, the Mardi Gras Film Festival, queerDOC06 managed to generate significant attention and interest in the press and amongst cinema goers alike.

Stretching over 11 days, the festival consisted of eight sessions in which six feature length and two short documentaries were screened. While admittedly there were fewer films in this year’s line-up than offered in previous years – perhaps due in part to the fact that past years have tended to include a much larger contingent of short works – despite their limited number the films were by no means limited in scope. The program managed to tackle quite diverse issues and to address an incredibly broad spectrum of experiences and individuals, resulting in sizeable crowds that changed considerably from session to session.

By far the most popular of the films screened was perhaps somewhat paradoxically (though perhaps not unpredictably) the only designatedly fictional work in the program. Despite their unequivocal dedication to non-fiction film, festival organisers made a concession this year, allowing the BBC’s adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s highly acclaimed and extremely popular gay novel The Line of Beauty into the queerDOC program. While queer cinephiles of a more pedantic disposition would possibly have been horrified at the inclusion of a narrative feature, the decision to incorporate the Australian premiere of the British mini-series evidently paid off. The adaptation proved such a success that it forced a last minute program revision to accommodate a second screening of the sold out work.

If The Line of Beauty figured as the exception within the festival on account of its “ontological status”, it also stood out from the rest of the program for the fact that it was the only work that didn’t hail from North America. All of the documentaries in this year’s line up were produced either in the United States or Canada, and this wholly foreign focus represented another departure for the festival, which has traditionally included a number of Australian works in its program. Despite the lack of domestically produced content, however, the films in this year’s selection certainly didn’t lack pertinence or significance for local audiences. If the post-screening conversations on opening night were any indication, neither did they fail to stimulate and entertain.

Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig

This year’s festivities kicked off in the recently revamped Chauvel Cinema with a screening of Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig, a documentary by established lesbian director, writer and producer Katherine Linton. The film follows the unfolding of a project conceived by record producer Chris Slusarenko: the production of a tribute album to John Cameron Mitchell’s cult queer stage and screen classic Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Opening with a tired looking Slusarenko firmly ensconced in pre-production mode, the film tracks the producer’s attempts to assemble some of the music world’s finest to re-record songs from the Hedwig production. To his credit Slusarenko manages to secure an impressive line-up for the project, attracting artists as diverse as Rufus Wainwright, Cyndi Lauper, The Breeders, Yoko Ono, Sleater Kinney, The Bens and The Polyphonic Spree. Linton and her camera crew then have the enviable privilege of following a number of these musicians into the recording studio and though at times somewhat peculiar, the performances captured in this behind the scenes footage are breathtaking none the less.

While these recording sessions form a framework for the film they don’t constitute its entire focus, for Slusarenko’s project encompasses a broader objective. The proceeds from the Wig in The Box album are to be passed on to a queer organisation, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, and Linton dedicates a large portion of the film’s run time to this establishment and the individuals it services. Situated in New York City, the Institute is home to the Harvey Milk High School, an educational facility for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth. As Lenette Dorman the spokesperson for Hetrick-Martin explains, the goal of both the school and the after-school program operated by the Institute is to provide a safe and supportive educational environment for queer teens and young adults. Though dismissed by conservative and religious opponents as utterly unnecessary, as the students’ stories of violence, hostility and harassment underscore, given the pervasively homophobic climate in secondary Institutions, Hetrick-Martin provides an invaluable, and for some indispensable, alternative.

If the Institute seems a worthy recipient of both the album’s proceeds and Linton’s attention, so too do the individuals that rely on its services. Four of the students enrolled in Hetrick-Martin’s school and after-school programs are given an opportunity to document and discuss both their experiences as gay youth and their lives more generally, and the resultant interviews and video diaries portray some remarkable individuals. The incredibly candid and personal stories that these students relate and the self-portraits they create traverse a spectrum of experiences, perspectives and emotions. In equal parts devastating, uproarious, charming and inspiring, they extend from a transgendered teen’s demoralising description of her stepfather ransacking her room, incinerating her “girl clothes” and forcibly cutting off her hair in an attempt to “rectify” her gender dis/identity, to the empowering account of a 17 year-old lesbian both defiantly questioning the reasoning of the Jehovah’s Witnesses panel gathered to excommunicate her, and assembling her own legal team in order to transfer custody of herself from her fundamentalist parents. When interlaced and overlaid with the luscious and incredibly emotive tracks laid down in the recording sessions, these sequences, and the classroom and graduation footage that Linton incorporates, create a moving portrait of an admirable group of individuals. Ultimately uplifting in the students’ concluding displays and assertions of determination and self-confidence, Follow My Voice is a spirited documentary that was warmly received by the near full house on queerDOC’s opening night.

Follow My Voice was followed in the program by another documentary with a musical bent, director Alex Hinton’s first feature work Pick Up The Mic. The product of a three-year stint spent documenting the queer hip hop scene in the U.S., Pick Up The Mic takes a look at the GLBT individuals trying to establish both themselves and a queer community in what is typically conceived of and represented as an aggressively homophobic environment. As queer artists Deadlee MC and Dutchboy suggest in the film’s opening sequence, in hip hop there tends to be a consensus both on and off the record that, to import their lyrics verbatim, “no fags allowed”. It is this assertion that Pick Up The Mic seeks to address and indeed redress, for while recognising the reality of this edict Hinton’s film simultaneously works to refute it, demonstrating that not only are there hip hop artists that are not homophobic, there are scores that are positively, and quite outspokenly, queer.

Evidently for many of the artists in Hinton’s film the fact that hip hop has tended to operate as a forum for forthright and explicit self-expression situates it as an ideal vehicle for communication. Its queer appeal, or at least its attraction for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered individuals featured in Pick Up The Mic, lies precisely in the frank and unapologetic tone adopted by and within the genre. As Dutchboy elaborates, hip hop culture has traditionally consisted of “people saying what’s on their mind whether it’s appropriate or not”, and while historically this expressive license has tended to service a stance that is fiercely homophobic, in the hands of the hip hop artists in Hinton’s film it gives rise to enunciations of a graphically homosexual and homophilic nature. Rather than operating as epithets or figuring as objects of derision in these musicians’ lyrics, queer acts and identities become the subjects of unequivocal affirmation and audacious celebration.

Pick Up The Mic

Hinton’s Pick Up The Mic can be seen to adopt a similarly celebratory posture towards its own queer subject matter for the film is in essence a tribute to the “homohop” movement, and to the many and varied GLBT individuals that comprise the queer hip hop community. In fact one of the most striking features of Hinton’s portrait of this subculture is the incredible diversity amongst its constituents and the pronounced sense of camaraderie that exists between these individuals despite their personal differences. Though the artists hail from various locations across the country, and though their ages, ethnicities, sexual identities, stage personas, performance styles and musical aspirations differ and at times conflict with each other, an incredible sense of solidarity and unity pervades Hinton’s depiction of this vibrant community. Through interviews and documentation of performances Hinton manages to capture the intimacy that exists between these musicians, stressing the emphasis on and importance of community within the queer hip hop scene. What is particularly inspiring is the fact that this cooperative atmosphere is something that these artists have actively sought to cultivate and consolidate, establishing record labels, studios, festivals and websites in order to encourage the production, distribution and promotion of queer content, and to promote a dialogue within and between hip hop’s GLBT musicians and fans.

What Hinton’s film also works to assert is that for many queer hip hop artists, picking up the mic is figured as a deliberate act of intervention into a radically heterosexist culture that, in Katastrophe’s words, largely insists on “talking shit about queers all the time.” For the majority of musicians interviewed, part of the impetus behind their involvement with the queer hip hop scene was that they weren’t hearing hip hop that spoke of or to queers except in a derogatory manner. If part of these artist’s motivation is to expand hip hop’s representational repertoire however, for artists like Timm’n T and Juba of the DDC, the objective is equally to intervene in and try to expand upon the queer representational vocabulary in circulation in mainstream culture. For Timm’n T the queer hip hop scene provides a visibility for a different queer “aesthetic” that isn’t found in glossy gay and lesbian shows like Will and Grace or Ellen. Dutchboy similarly suggests that the queer hip hop scene offers a platform from which to “put out” stories and points of view that are otherwise being shut out from mainstream culture, and in the words of one of queer hip hop’s founding fathers: “we’ve gotten these opportunities, we have to tell these stories while we’re here.”

If Hinton’s film can be seen to respond to this call to arms, picking up not only the mic but also the camera in an attempt to offer a greater voice and visibility to a group of individuals whose stories are largely absent from mainstream representations, this year’s queerDOC program more broadly can be seen to perform a similar function. Among the other works documenting, recounting and narrating queer stories in this year’s line-up was Howard Scott Warshaw’s kinky documentary Vice and Consent.

Vice and Consent takes a look at BDSM through the eyes of a number of established and renowned practitioners from San Francisco’s notorious BDSM scene. Evidently the aim of Warshaw’s film is to demystify and destigmatise BDSM practices and desires, and through interviews with these articulate and insightful “authorities”, the film dispels some of the myths, stereotypes and misrepresentations commonly attributed to BDSM culture. Emphasising the role of consent, trust, intimacy and responsibility in BDSM play, and drawing attention to the centrality of education and community within the culture, Vice and Consent challenges characterisations of BDSM acts, dynamics and participants as reckless, dangerous and devoid of affection. Serving an educational function for the more vanilla amongst us in its elaboration upon what is often considered a somewhat clandestine community, the film is also validatory for the more practiced individuals in its celebrated eroticisation of bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism.

If Vice and Consent intends to render an aspect of queer culture a little less forbidding, Todd Ahlberg’s Meth seeks to do precisely the opposite. Examining a subject that has of late received considerable attention in the queer press, Ahlberg’s documentary dives into the issue of crystal meth use within the gay community. Meth is structured around interviews with 11 men between the ages of 21 and 48 who discuss in an incredibly frank and forthright manner their personal experiences with the drug. Despite unequivocal agreement about the initial appeal of meth and the instant gratification offered by it, as the film progresses the debilitating consequences of prolonged meth abuse are made abundantly clear. The majority of interviewees admit to long-term methamphetamine addiction (whether current or past), and recounting similar stories of homelessness, joblessness, HIV infection, imprisonment and loss of family and friends, they address in at times agonising detail the impact the drug has had on their lives.

Meth

Evidently for Ahlberg the film is ultimately intended as a deterrent, but for some viewers the stance taken in Meth towards its titular subject was overly pessimistic and dramatically oversimplified. Heated discussion and debate both about inferences made in the film and issues raised within it raged in the post-screening forum and, following that, spilled down the steps of the Chauvel and out onto Oxford Street.

Addressing an equally if not infinitely more contentious issue was Zero Degrees of Separation, the first feature length documentary by Canadian lesbian Jewish filmmaker Elle Flanders. Featuring stunning visual design and an understated, yet nonetheless amazing soundtrack, this incredibly well constructed and provocative documentary was arguably the strongest entry in this year’s queerDOC line-up.

Zero Degrees opens with a fragment of home movie footage shot in the early 1950s by Flanders’ own grandparents in what, at that time, had only recently been declared the independent state of Israel. As the intertitles explain, Flanders’ grandparents had been active both in the lobby movement for the creation of a Jewish Homeland and in the settlement and establishment of the Jewish state, and it is to this state that Flanders returns with her own camera more than a half century later.

The purpose of Flanders’ transatlantic crossing is to track down two individuals that she has read about on the internet: Ezra, a 50 something plumber and Selim, a 27 year-old labourer. The two men are in fact partners but what becomes apparent in the course of the film is that it is not the couple’s sexuality that is of greatest interest to Flanders. What she evidently finds more remarkable about the couple is their differing ethnic backgrounds: Ezra is an Arab Israeli and Selim a Palestinian Muslim.

In the context of the current political climate in the region the couple’s mixed ethnicity is indeed somewhat astounding for the cultural histories and government policies and practices that shape, and to some extent dictate, the ways in which Palestinians and Israelis interact dramatically complicate Ezra and Selim’s relationship. What is undoubtedly most devastating for the pair is the military enforcement of Israel’s policy of segregation, for it prevents the couple from living together legally in Jerusalem. While the two refuse to observe this dictate, however, their relationship by no means escapes unscathed, for Selim’s illicit border crossings and unlawful cohabitation with his partner result in frequent arrests, imprisonment and deportation. As both he and Ezra relate, Israel’s policy regarding residency and its insistence on punitive action have an enormously taxing effect on their relationship, and when Selim is deported from Jerusalem after a hearing into his illegal residence, they prove entirely destructive.

The highly fraught nature of Ezra and Selim’s partnership is echoed in a second inter-ethnic relationship brought under the scrutiny of Flanders’ lens in Zero Degrees. Edit is a Jewish Israeli woman, and her partner Samira is a Muslim Palestinian woman, and though perhaps affected in a less concrete, or rather less physical way, their relationship is nevertheless also problematised and undermined by the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

The emotional toll of the conflict on both these women is brought into sharp relief in the one-on-one conversations that Flanders carries out with the pair. Each describes the difficulties they experience in trying to reconcile their own and each other’s personal and political identities, and whether explicitly addressed or simply alluded to in their discussions, it is readily apparent that the irreconcilable legacies of their conflicting cultural heritages are an undeniable point and source of friction in their relationship.

Zero Degrees of Separation

If Israel comes to figure as something akin to an idyllic oasis in the footage of Flanders’ grandparents, and if their home movies seems to be permeated by an atmosphere of enthusiastic idealism, what Flanders finds 50 years later is a much less romantic and sanguine reality, and accordingly her film adopts a much more sombre tone. The landscape that Flanders captures is not the lush and newly-cultivated terrain found in her grandparents’ home movies, but one bastardised by bulldozers and cleaved into territorialised pockets and tracts by enormous barricades, road blocks, embankments, trenches, tunnels, fences and military checkpoints. What Flanders documents in Zero Degrees is not a region brimming with seemingly unbridled optimism, but a region burdened with an incredibly troubled history. By way of intertitles Flanders outlines some of the major incidents in this history, describing some of the devastating policies and practices that have been implemented since Israel’s declaration of independence. Through statistics and appeals to the Geneva Convention she illuminates and underscores both the destructive effects that these events have had on the region, and the attacks on human rights and civil liberties that they have signaled for many of its residents.

What Flanders takes pains to emphasise in Zero Degrees is the human toll of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing attention to the fact that for some the domestic realm is as littered with markers and reminders of the ongoing hostilities as the physical landscape itself. Arguably it is precisely this “domestication” of the war that gives Zero Degrees its potency, for its relocation of this conflict to the domestic sphere offers Flanders’ examination of Israeli–Palestinian relations a distinctly human dimension. What is both tremendously powerful and beautiful about Flanders’ film is that though it takes as its object an inter-cultural conflict of “epic” proportions, it approaches this subject in a very intimate and immediate manner. Examining the ways in which this conflict plays out at the personal and interpersonal levels, Flanders tries to illuminate the very tangible and devastating impacts of government policies and military practices upon individuals in both Israel and the Occupied Territories.

While Zero Degrees may present a much more sobering image than that depicted in Flanders’ grandparents’ footage, it is not entirely without optimism. The four individuals that the film traces are strong, articulate and insightful individuals who refuse to comply with, and who insist on speaking out against, what they consider unjust and oppressive policies and practices. Ezra’s charming, subtle and continual contestation of what he sees as political persecution is both admirable and incredibly endearing in its demonstration of a seemingly boundless humanism that is as much concerned by the military’s harassment of and violence against civilians as with ensuring that individuals have adequate garbage disposal services, (“it’s a matter of the quality of life” he suggests.)

For both its refusal to focus more exclusively on the sexuality of the individuals concerned, and its attentiveness to broader political and socio-cultural issues however, Zero Degrees has been criticised at gay and lesbian film festivals for lacking a clear queer agenda. While evidently raising the question of what could or should be said to constitute a suitably “queer” agenda, this charge that Flanders’ film is simply not “queer enough” further begs the question of what exactly queer film is. Flanders’ response to criticism of this description has precisely been to re-pose this question in order to try to force a reconsideration and an expansion of definitions of queer cinema. Ultimately Flanders’ suggestion is that queer filmmakers need to start examining issues outside their sexuality, looking at “how it is to be” rather than simply “how it is to be gay”.

Whether queer cinema is defined as something that focuses on “queers being”, or alternately as something that more explicitly concentrates on “being queer”, it found both a home and an audience at this year’s queerDOC festival, and no doubt it will again next year when queerDOC hits the big One Zero.

About The Author

Maija Howe has a BA in Media and Communications at the University of New South Wales. Her father has recently expressed genuine concern about the increasingly disproportionate amount of space allocated to celluloid vs that allocated to “living” in her so-called living room.