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Real world haunting

Film & video:
The hottest five queer titles at Hot Docs explore the hidden histories, the subterranean motivations
and the covert politics of LGBT existence

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this month, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival has long risen out of the shadow of its mammoth fall counterpart TIFF. With its own cinema at the Bloor more than a year old (now with a license to drink beer and wine in your seat during screenings!) and a designation as the largest documentary-specific film festival in North America, Hot Docs is certainly a major event for both Torontonians and visiting industry folks (last year broke an attendance record with 165,000 admissions). And like any good major film festival, the programming is always a diverse slate of voices, with this year proving no exception when it comes to the many LGBT options.

The following five recommendations are by no means the only quality docs with a queer bent at Hot Docs this year, but a sort of “greatest hits” from Sundance and SXSW festivals that this writer had the privilege of already seeing. It’s definitely advisable to browse through Hot Docs’ near 200 offerings for real-world adventures, both beautiful and horrifying.

Fresh off its world premiere at SXSW, Toronto native Malcolm Ingram (best known for his 2006 film Small Town Gay Bar) is having the hometown debut of his latest film Continental at Hot Docs. And no, it’s not about the airline or a certain hotel breakfast. It’s basically about the social opposite of a small town gay bar — New York City’s revolutionary Continental Baths, which ran from 1968 to 1975. The Continental was basically the Ritz Carlton of bathhouses, from its “Olympia blue” swimming pool to its disco featuring some of the best performers the early ’70s had to offer. Infamously, one of them was Bette Midler, who got her break singing in the baths (with Barry Manilow — often in just a towel — accompanying her on piano). Though Midler is not one of the many talking heads featured in the film (unsurprising given how quick she was to distance herself from the baths once she got more famous), Ingram’s documentary is not simply about the many celebrities who either performed at the baths (LaBelle, The Pointer Sisters, Peter Allen, Lesley Gore and The New York Dolls among them) or passed through them at their peak (allegedly Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, Johnny Carson and Alfred Hitchcock all did — seriously). It’s about a fascinating institution that that offered much more than a really good time — the Continental pushed forward gay visibility and fostered a powerful sense of community.
9:15pm, Apr 28. Bloor. 4pm, Apr 30 & 8pm, May 5. Scotiabank.

One of the most substantial aspects of the documentary experience is the ability to bring you to another part of the world to see how, in many cases, truly horrifying things are for a lot of people out there. Making the issues facing most LGBT Canadians seem relatively non-existent, Roger Ross Williams’ doc takes us to Uganda, where LGBT people are facing a terrifying situation. A group of US evangelical Christians have chosen Uganda — which has Africa’s youngest population — as a main focus for their mission to fight “sexual immorality,” joining forces with Ugandan religious leaders. And by fight, they mean help pass a so-called “kill the gays” bill — which is exactly as disgusting as it sounds. Williams gains remarkable access to both the religious leaders and their communities, in addition to a few incredibly brave individuals (one of whom, David Kato, was suspiciously murdered during filming) who are fighting back against both the Americans trying to export their extreme beliefs to a vulnerable nation and the Ugandans who are supporting them. It’s a maddening and at times shocking experience, but a wholly worthwhile one that should send you out of the theatre ready to research whatever you can do to help this situation.
6pm, May 2 & 4:30pm, May 5. Lightbox. 1:30pm, May 3. Bader.

One of the few films at Hot Docs that blends documentary with fiction (and probably contains more of the latter — but hard to say), also features one of the most high-profile names with a film at the festival: James Franco. The actor-director-playwright-academic has collaborated with up-and-coming queer filmmaker Travis Mathews for this film exploring the idea that the two of them are remaking the 40 minutes of explicit SM material cut from William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film Cruising, allegedly to avoid an R-rating. While that in itself is a worthwhile concept for a film (and a part of Interior.Leather Bar is indeed a hardcore recreation of those scenes), the film extends well beyond to offer footage — perhaps real, perhaps not — of Franco, Mathews and their cast and crew as they attempt to pull off this cinematic coup. The result is a discussion of representations of queer sex in both Hollywood and society in general that won raves when it debuted at Sundance in January. Say what you want about Mr Franco and his current bomb of a film, Oz, it’s impossible not to admire his attempt to use his celebrity to push boundaries in this film (and others).
Midnight, Apr 26. Bloor. 1:30pm, Apr 28. Lightbox.

Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary portrays the horrifyingly unjust and unbelievably epic narrative that evolved as three women in activist Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot — whose lyrical themes includes LGBT liberation, feminism and opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin, who they view as a clear dictator — were arrested for hooliganism last March. Remarkable in its timeliness, A Punk Prayer is an extensive and thoughtful look at the arrest and subsequent trial; it was made less than six months after the trio were sentenced to two years in prison last July, prompting outcries of support from around the world (most famously Madonna, who screamed “Free Pussy Riot” at her Moscow show last year). If you think you already know this story, Lerner and Pozdorovkin’s doc proves that there is a lot more to it. Moreover, the story continues beyond the doc’s final moments. While one of the three — Yekaterina Samutsevich — was released on appeal, the other two remain in prison.
2pm, Apr 26. Bloor. 4:30pm, Apr 28. Bader. 7pm, May 4. Scotiabank.

Eighth-grade student Brandon McInerney shot his openly queer classmate Larry King during first period at a school in Oxnard, California on Feb 12, 2008, after King sent him a Valentine card. On Valentine’s Day King died in the hospital and his story became a topic of considerable discussion across the US and beyond. Filmmaker Marta Cunningham takes us beyond what we saw then and into an extensive and heartbreaking investigation of that terrible incident. And she doesn’t simply look at King’s side of the story.  She provocatively also looks at the ideas of McInerney — who was sentenced to 21 years in prison back in 2011 — portraying the then 14-year-old as an additional victim in the narrative. Both King and McInerney rose damaged from physically and emotionally abusive childhoods, and Valentine Road, though certainly respectful of the undeniable tragedy that came from murderous and horrifying behavior, also asks why McInerney’s behaviour came to be in the first place. Both a tribute to King and a discussion of the state of society in America, Valentine Road is as haunting a film as you’ll find at Hot Docs this year.
4pm, Apr 27 & 9pm, Apr 28. Lightbox. 8pm, May 4. Hart House.


HOT DOCS Thu, Apr 25-May 5. Most screenings: $15; $6.50 late night; various passes avail. Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
506 Bloor St W. (416) 637-5150. hotdocs.ca.