Range of quality films for Mardi Gras


The Mardi Gras Film Festival
February 16-26
Academy Twin Cinema, Paddington, Sydney
Previewed by Philippa Marsden

The month-long Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival, which culminates in a huge night-time parade and party, is now a well-known event on the alternative calendar. Its arts program is extremely diverse, including theatre, cabaret, exhibitions, a comedy festival and the film festival. The entire event is probably the most out and public gay and lesbian event of the year, and last year's ABC coverage of the parade drew record ratings.

This year's film festival brings us a startlingly varied array of quality pics, and includes some very political films. One of the best of these is Ballot Measure 9, which documents the campaign in 1992 in Oregon, USA, against a right-wing anti-gay campaign.

Conservatives put forward a ballot initiative to rescind laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. The vicious hate campaign propagated by the right wing led to an increase in street violence against lesbians and gay men, including harassment, vandalism, assault and murder. This film is a testament to the need for ongoing campaigns to defend lesbian and gay rights, and never to take for granted the rights we have won in the past.

Also in the political documentary vein is Coming Out Under Fire, about gays and lesbians in the US military during World War II. It's an interesting film, and the material it covers is given extra topical value by debates in the US related to Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Despite an election promise to lift the ban on lesbians and gays serving in the US military, Clinton caved in to right-wing pressure with a compromise deal that said lesbians and gays could serve — as long as nobody knew they were lesbian or gay. This documentary confirms that lesbians and gays have been serving in the US military for many years and throughout many wars, despite the ban. Clinton's so-called compromise is actually a total back-down, a return to the status quo.

For something completely different, Hammer & Sickle is a parody of Stalinism, made in post-Gorbachev Russia. It's sort of a cross between a transgender Frankenstein and a black family comedy. Doctors in a 1930s forced labour camp are told that if they can perform a successful female to male sex change operation, they will be released. The theory goes that this would be a great thing for the Soviet Union: male workers or soldiers could be created at will and as needed. The man who emerges embodies all the best attributes of a Soviet citizen — tireless and compassionate worker, devoted family man. It's a film of interesting twists — including the final scenes.

The theme of the collapse of Stalinism is continued, albeit in a less direct way, in Leaving Lenin, a film about a group of Welsh schoolchildren being escorted on a tour to Russia by their art teacher, who is nostalgic for a world in which the Soviet Union represented hope for the future. The students, however, exhibit a somewhat more cynical attitude to life as they discover themselves, their art and their sexuality on their holiday jaunt. The film is beautifully shot and worth seeing even if only for the superb scenery in and around St Petersburg.

Other themes are taken up in the festival. Some of the more controversial films deal with the darker side of the human character as it has developed and become distorted within a cold, cruel and alienated world. Well-known French director Claire Denis' I Can't Sleep [J'ai pas sommeil] has used the true story of Thierry Paulin and his lover Jean-Thierry Mathurin, who in the late '80s murdered a series of old women in Paris, as the springboard for her journey through marginal existences. Her cast are the outcasts of "gay Paris", yet they represent a real aspect of life in contemporary urban inanity.

Other films include The Last Supper, which covers the last hours of a man's life before euthanasia. Dying of AIDS, he chooses to choreograph his own death. Midnight Dancers tells the story of three Filipino brothers who work in Manila's gay bars.

Totally F***d Up, a new Greg Arraki film, deals in a humorous way with a group of alienated, angst-ridden teenagers trying to cope with life, dates and sex. And Mad About the Boy tells of the frustration faced by short-haired girls who always get mistaken for boys. We all know what that's like.

So, take your pick; there's plenty to choose from. Despite the success of films like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a festival like this doesn't come around very often, and it presents an opportunity to see films that have not had a mainstream release.

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