By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
The Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival stands in a class of its own. One of only two LGBTQ documentary film festivals in the world, the 6th annual QDOC promises to continue its legacy of bringing ground-breaking nonfiction films about queer subjects to Portland audiences when it comes to McMenamin’s Kennedy School May 17-20.
Founded by filmmaker David Weissman (“The Cockettes,” “We Were Here”) and former San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival operations director Russ Gage, QDOC emerged initially as a counterpoint to trends in gay filmmaking.
“It was Russ’s idea, I believe, to do a festival of documentaries simply because there are so many features now,” Weissman explains, “and a lot of them are very light, funny comedies. We thought doing a documentary film festival was a great way to focus on films that dealt with meatier subject matter, and had a deeper sense of cultural resonance.”
The resulting festival has consistently highlighted some of the most intriguing, challenging filmic visions of queer life and identity.
“Every year is different, partially because of what’s available out there,” Weissman says. “It’s something we have no control over at all. Some years the pickings are very slim, and some years there’s an abundance. What the subject range will be, we never really know.”
However, Weissman and Gage consistently succeed in crafting a lineup that succeeds in being mind-blowingly diverse, yet curatorially cogent. Films featured in past festivals have examined such varied topics as gender reassignment in Iran (“Be Like Others”), religious influence upon the political process (“8: The Mormon Proposition”), homoerotic subtext within the extremes of the counterculture (“The Advocate for Fagdom”), and even country-singing queer activist sisters from New Zealand (“The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls”).
In addition to the roster of films, QDOC has consistently heightened the excitement and relevance of the event by including the filmmakers themselves as participants in the festival.
“We try to bring in as many of the filmmakers as possible to participate,” Weissman says. “QDOC has very quickly established a major reputation out there in the world, so filmmakers are always very excited to be invited to QDOC. They know they’re treated very well here, that the audience is very engaged, and that there’s a focus that you don’t get in other festivals. Documentaries are often sort of second-tier at other festivals, and we really honor the documentary form itself, which the filmmakers love.”
This year’s festival promises to build upon the reputation of past festivals with an exciting line-up of world-class films and events. The line-up is so high-caliber that, when queried as to which films he’d particularly recommend, Weissman suggests that viewers challenge themselves to think outside the box.
“One of the nice things about doing a relatively short festival is that we really get to program the cream of the crop,” he says. “One of the things I encourage people to do is to look at the stuff that they wouldn’t otherwise think of going to. … Everything’s good!”
While there’s no disagreeing with Weissman — all of the QDOC 2012 films do indeed look excellent, and the event list was still growing at the time this article went to press — the festival does offer a few particularly high-profile documentaries.
“VITO,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, tells the story of seminal LGBTQ movement pioneer Vito Russo. The film traces Russo’s life from his early years as a film student in Los Angeles to his involvement in Stonewell riots of 1969 and his creation of The Celluloid Closet, the first book to critique Hollywood’s portrayals of gays on screen. The film includes rarely-seen footage of Russo during his days as an activist with ACT UP and of his life leading up to his death in 1990.
Another film certain to thrill crowds is “Wish Me Away,” directed by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, which shares the story of country music star Chely Wright. After a lifetime of hiding in the conservative community of Nashville, Wright comes out as a lesbian. Along the way, she struggles with her own internalized homophobia, reconciles her Christian faith with her sexuality, shatters cultural stereotypes, and even has some fun figuring out how to live true to herself. Featuring exclusive video diaries and unprecedented access to the star’s life, “Wish Me Away” gives great insight into the experience of coming out under a spotlight.
As to why Weissman and Gage are excited every year about putting together QDOC, it comes down to one motivation: they want to hold a mirror up for queer people and queer society to see themselves.
“We’re still emerging as a community,” Weissman says, “and we’re still finding our identity. … One of the great things that both Russ and I experienced in our years of going to the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in San Francisco is the experience of seeing movies about queer culture, history, and politics in a group context instead of watching them at home alone on a TV. It’s a completely different experience. So, a lot of our emphasis with the film festival is going beyond the films themselves to provide the facilitate experience of queer community.”
Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival 2012 Schedule
All films shown at McMenamin’s Kennedy School (5537 NE 33rd Ave., Portland). Schedule subject to change; please be sure to check queerdocfest.org for up-to-date times, event information, and tickets. The PQ Monthly Blog will feature trailers, previews, interviews, giveaways, and more as the festival approaches. Keep up-to-date at PQMonthly.com.
Thursday, May 17
7pm — “Wish Me Away.” Country music star Chely Wright comes out, contending with the homophobia of Nashville and her own struggle to be herself. Directed by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf; USA, 2011. Chely Wright in attendance.
9:30pm — Opening Night Party, location TBA at time of publication.
Friday, May 18
6:45pm — “Girl or Boy, My Sex is Not My Gender.” Four people from around the world reinvent and question the border between “man” and “woman.” Directed by Valérie Mitteaux; France, 2011. Lynnee Breedlove, film subject, and former member of queer band Tribe 8, in attendance.
9pm — King of Comics. Ralf König, Germany’s most successful cartoonist, makes his mark upon generations of readers. Directed by Rosa von Praunheim; Germany, 2012.
Saturday, May 19
1:30pm — “The LuLu Sessions.” Dr. Louise Nutter, or LuLu, has just discovered a new anti-cancer drug when she finds out she is dying of breast cancer herself at 42. Directed by S. Casper Wong; USA, 2011.
4pm — “La Bocca del Lupo.” Genoan ex-inmate Enzo recollects his relationship with transgender heroin addict Mary as they try to find a balance between dreams and reality. Directed by Pierto Marcello; Italy, 2009.
6pm — “Question One.” An exploration of the battle for marriage equality in the state of Maine as a bellwether for the greater ideological battlefield of American politics. Directed by Joe Fox and James Nubile; USA, 2011. Directors Joe Fox and James Nubile in attendance, discussion of marriage equality in Pacific NW to follow.
9:30pm — “Jobriath A.D.” The rise and fall of Jobriath, a nearly-forgotten openly gay glam-rock star of the early 1970’s once called the “American Bowie.” Directed by Kieran Turner; USA, 2011.
Sunday, May 20
11:30am — “This Is What Love In Action Looks Like.” A Memphis teenager forced into a fundamentalist Christian ex-gay recovery program sparks an international news story when his heartfelt blog posts incite an activist response. Directed by Morgan John Fox; USA, 2011. Director Morgan John Fox in attendance.
1:30pm — “Difficult Love.” A highly personal take on the challenges facing black lesbians in South Africa today told through the life, work, friends, and associates of “visual activist” and internationally celebrated photographer Zanele Muholi. Directed by Zanele Muholi and Peter Goldsmid; South Africa, 2011.
Followed by “Not A Man In Sight.” Three generations of Norwegian lesbians consider the changing imperatives and priorities at different ages of queer life. Directed by Mette Aakerholm Gardell; Norway, 2011.
4pm — “Love Free Or Die.” A meditation on the divisiveness of homosexuality in organized religion told through the quiet crusade of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson. Directed by Macky Alston; USA, 2011. Director Macky Alston in attendance.
7pm — “VITO.” The story of Vito Russo, founding father of the gay liberation movement, author of The Celluloid Closet, and vociferous AIDS activist. Directed by Jeffrey Schwartz; USA, 2011. Director Jeffrey Schwartz in attendance.