The famously subversive film festival celebrates its 16th year with a mix of shorts and features spotlighting characters who seek recognition on their own terms.
Now in its sixteenth year, the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival (formerly known as Tranny Fest) offers a mix of short and long-form films that celebrate the myriad experiences of people who are treated, when they are acknowledged at all, with disdain or murderous hate by society at large. One of festival’s co-founders, filmmaker Christopher Lee, committed suicide in December 2012 after years of struggling with depression and untreated mental illness. It is in his honor, and all those who seek recognition on their own terms, that this exciting collection of cinematic moments is presented.
Opening the festival is a spate of short films, none of which surpass 20 minutes, but most certainly pack an emotional and intellectual punch. In The Fiction of the Fix (Friday, November 8, 8pm, Roxie Theater), we witness actress Therese Garcia as the character August as she takes stock of previous failed relationships. But rather than wallowing in self pity and gallons of ice cream, she methodically conjures, falls in love with, and then squanders each relationship as the “perfection” of each partner gives way to all-too-human imperfection. The cycle is ritualistic, where it appears that August seeks something with each new paramour that simply can’t be called forth from the ether. Director Cathy Sitzes reinforces what we already know — partnerships, particularly the romantic kind, are messy affairs. The insight isn’t revelatory, but it is delivered here with ample charm.
Making or discovering oneself is a prominent theme in many of the festival’s offerings. Just as Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” (1855) portrays “self” as both the seeking individual and an assembly of multitudes, so too do these films touch on the private and public experiences of forging an identity that fits. Performing Girl features multi-talented Sri Lankan-American artist D’Lo and the story of how he came of age while navigating gender and identity questions, deeply entrenched cultural expectations, and the death of his sibling. D’Lo’s story will be familiar to many: knowing early in life that he did not “fit,” yet not knowing how to act as either male or female; the simultaneous joy and burden of shouldering parental dreams, and then mustering the will to live on his own terms. The film deftly combines animation, D’Lo’s hilarious live performances, and interviews with the artist and his parents, and reinforces the power of humor to inform difficult conversations. In Change Over Time, Ewan Duarte recounts the experience of transitioning from a female to male identity, both physically and psychologically, though the introduction of testosterone, or “T”, to his body. Gorgeous imagery of natural settings is overlaid by Duarte’s narration, which is drawn from the audio journal he maintained as his transition took place. What’s fascinating is hearing Duarte’s voice deepen as the days and weeks progress after the introduction of testosterone. If you’re curious to know the intimate details, the thoughts and hopes of a person in transition, this is film is for you. (Friday, November 8, 8pm, Roxie Theater)
At age 51, Gabbi Ludwig returned to school in order to realize a long-held goal of playing collegiate basketball. According to NCAA rules, if an athlete’s gender changes, they are eligible to participate in a team sport for which their eligibility long ago expired. Gender Games follows Gabbi through practices, made all the more grueling by age and time spent away from the sport, and interactions with her teammates and family. Gabbi and her partner wholly acknowledge the challenges posed by juggling work and school, family obligations, and one partner’s process of transition. They also stress that realizing Gabbi’s dream was absolutely worth the effort. The most heartening moments of this film come in watching Gabbi interact with her teammates. Not only was her skill and advantage as a 6-foot 7-inch player welcomed, Gabbi was wholly embraced… as a woman, who was once a man. That fact floored me, particularly because it demonstrates that we are capable of welcoming what is unfamiliar. Against the backdrop of collegiate and professional sports, which may generously be described as tacitly supporting rape culture, it is deeply satisfying to watch women athletes at work in building community and kicking ass on the court. (Friday, November 8, 8pm, Roxie Theater)
The festival’s shorts program continues with two sessions, one nice and the other very naughty. In the first session, numerous notable films are offered. In But I’m a GenderQueer, the title a humorous riff on Jamie Babbit’s 1999 film But I’m a Cheerleader, we’re introduced to Lauren Soldano. (Editor’s note: in this description we use gender-neutral pronouns “zhe” and “hir”.) From the outset, it’s clear that zhe is having a rough day. Hir roommates in an intentional, women-focused household are all up in hir business about not participating in communal activities. To make matters worse, Lauren is visited by a ghost of gender identity past that harangues hir for thinking to abandon hir lesbian life in favor of masculinity and its patriarchal trappings. Ultimately, each of the figures (all are portrayed by Soldano) are silenced, or coalesced, as Lauren expresses what identity strategy works best for hir. Zhe is at ease in saying zhe doesn’t know where zhe falls along the gender spectrum, as though zhe is speaking to all the insensitive or uninformed people who presume to ask “what are you?” Also showing is a preview of the soon-to-be-released feature GRRL, which highlights the 1990s Riot Grrl movement, its famous and not-so-famous bands including Bikini Kill and L7, and the movement’s ties to third wave feminism. Then as now, the musicians and activists interviewed advocate for women’s empowerment in loud, unapologetic, and utterly vital terms. (Saturday, November 9, 7:30pm, Roxie Theater)
Rounding out Saturday’s programming, the adults-only movies include Courtney Trouble’s f***/talk and a commemorative screening of Christopher Lee’s Alley of the Trannyboys. Trouble interviews two trans-identified porn stars, Hayley Fingersmith and Jacques LaFemme, who answer the director’s questions about queerness and gender while a demonstration of how hot queer sex can be plays simultaneously. Trouble’s film may not have been possible without the groundbreaking work of Christopher Lee. When it debuted in 1998, Alley of the Trannyboys was the first full-length erotic film to feature an all-male cast. Lee effectively founded a genre of filmmaking, one that placed front and center bodies and identities that had never received any positive attention, least of which from the hetero-normative pornography industry. If this subject interests you, check out Lee’s work and see where it all began. (Saturday, November 9, 9:30pm, Roxie Theater. 18+ only, ID required)
The festival closes with a combination of short and full-length films affirming the variety of categories in which these films may or may not be comfortably situated and the positive effect their creation embodies. Trans Lives Matter! Justice for Islan Nettles, directed by Seyi Adebanjo, transports us to a vigil in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Islan Nettles, a trans woman, was savagely beaten in front of a NYPD police station in her neighborhood in mid-August 2013. She died in the hospital not long after. Nettles achieved fame not by her interests or passions, but by the senseless violence that claimed her life. A report by the New Civil Rights Movement, released shortly after Nettles died, indicates that trans people are murdered at a rate nearly 50% higher than gays and lesbians. It is with that profoundly disturbing statistic in mind that Adebanjo’s film tracks mourner responses at the vigil. When a speaker referred to Islan as “he,” a righteously angry Mariah Lopez corrected him, shouting that no one should be speaking on behalf of the deceased unless they know the challenges trans people live through everyday. On a lighter, restorative note, One Zero One is a full-length documentary/fairy tale portraying the lives of trans artists BabyBJane and Cybersissy. While I wasn’t able to preview the film, it is on the long list of films I will see when this year’s San Francisco Transgender Film Festival finally opens this week. In a town that values its storied cinematic history, these films and the talented people who create them fit right in. (Sunday, November 10, 2:30 and 4pm at the Roxie Theater)
The San Francisco Transgender Film Festival runs November 8-10, 2013 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sftff.org.