Life's more than drag

Kirsten Krauth

My Queer Career

My Queer Career

The Mardi Gras Film Festival has grown into a massive event examining existing trends in queer cinema. One of the highlights this year was My Queer Career, a short film competition open to gay and lesbian short films from Australia and New Zealand. What’s best about the screenings is the option of seeing either all 42 of the shorts submitted or the judge’s shortlist of 8 films. I go for the latter—and it’s one of the strongest lineups of shorts I’ve seen in recent years. Themes have moved beyond coming out stories or tales of teenage whimsy, to stories of generations (father/son relationships highlighted in particular) and drag queens after the lights have dimmed; no Priscilla triumphs here. Surprisingly there’s no stories about women—the lesbian component is entirely absent—and no finalists from New Zealand. This is a real shame and hopefully will be turned around next year.

Everyone’s born naked and, after that,
everything is drag

Tales From the Powder Room is the tragic tale of a drag queen who’s hit rock bottom. Directed by Darren Burgess and shot on 35mm, its animated hero/ine starts off high-camp bitch and spirals into a drug-induced self-delusional monologist, remembering glorious bygone days of stardom, juxtaposed with the POV of witnesses who were ‘really there’. Witty, nasty repartee flashes back into animated home movie footage of inauspicious beginnings—mother moans: “he’s just about sucked my tits off”—and a small boy’s smiling face as he dons a floral hat. And then his father gives him the boot. As Lola Lick stares, glazed, into her past, there’s a great musical segue from Twinkle Twinkle to Kylie’s Confide in Me, and you almost feel sorry for this tough bird with a heart of steel. But not quite. Darren Burgess’ animation is imaginative and his writing at perfect pitch.

VCA filmmaker Mark Robinson takes a similar theme but moulds it with a gentler touch. Sweet Thing starts in a caravan park: children abused by a drunken mother heading off to their school to talk about her non-existent career; bullies behind the sky-high fence taunt a young boy. We enter the caverns of a drag queen, Tom Candy (Iain Murton), living in this trailer city surrounded by masks and wigs, dresses, mannequins and feathers. The bullied Jacob (Brock Jays) finds family here, someone who can play the roles of both mum and dad, cooking him a well-balanced meal, then belting out Marcia Hines’ I Got the Music in Me. In a whimsical ending he masquerades as Trent’s mother, dressed in Dorothy-checked-pinafore, escorting him to school. The placement of this fantasy makes the film disappointingly anti-climactic, as if the funding suddenly ran out.

It’s good to see our tertiary students well represented in these screenings: Dale Burke’s (UNSW College of Fine Arts) Pillion was my favourite on the night. A strange, melancholy, at times erotic, meditation on male energy and aggression it reminded me most of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail: actors-as-soldiers camouflaged and choreographed, their lovemaking and fighting ritualistic and almost beautiful. Technically, it’s the most innovative of the films, with clever use of splitscreen, highly stylised performance and a great sound design by Debra Petrovich. A scene of men skulling huge stubbies of beer while shaving each other’s heads under glowing neon signs and graffiti is unnerving: sensual, moody, affecting, getting to the heart of men’s intimate spaces, what they share, but not with the world. This film puts you off balance, crossing that no-man’s land between pain and pleasure; a kick in the guts.

You don’t have to clean up after him any more…

Saturn’s Return and Tanaka explore similar themes of death and reconciliation. SBS’s Hybrid Life series has been significant in demanding that families be shown in all their illuminating complexities. These shorts don’t just tackle gay issues but inter-cultural and generational ones as well. There’s so much going on here. From the opening moment of Saturn’s Return—a hand floating on air currents out the window of a moving car—the late-twentie-something viewers know where they are. Isn’t this the archetypal image of a filmmaker on a road trip? If you’ve had a camera in your hand, on the open road, you’ve probably done it. The title too carefully targets a certain viewer. I once worked with an astrologer who talked endlessly of Saturn’s Return, a moment that occurs around the ages 28-29, which she blamed for life-changing yearnings and being unsettled in those few years approaching 30. As Barney (Joel Edgerton) and Dimitri (Damian Walshe-Howling) hit the road from Melbourne to Sydney, there’s clever dialogue about intercity rivalry, and the chance to drop in at Bonegilla (a migrant camp where Dim’s Greek parents met and where my own grandparents experienced harsh conditions). As we reach Sydney we meet the parents, ageing products of the hippie generation. It’s not all rosy: Barney’s father is dying of AIDS, both parents have been heroin addicts, and Barney was given LSD as a birthday present when he was 13. Like many of his generation, Barney grew up feeling responsible for the welfare of his parents rather than the other way round. But there’s no moral judgment here. Writer Christos Tsolkias’ usual fine touch adds a dash of sympathy to every character and highlights similarities as well as differences. In a pivotal scene, Sheila (Barney’s mother) says that she would like a grandchild and her expectations aren’t so different from Dim’s Greek parents. The combination of superb acting by Edgerton, Walshe-Howling, Harold Hopkins and Tina Bursill with excellent direction by Wenona Byrne shows just how much can be achieved in a short film.

Tanaka, directed by Clayton Jacobson, also has an interesting premise: a Japanese man, Hiroshi, dies in Australia after living with his male lover, Ron, for 30 years. Ron writes to the brother in Japan inviting him to the funeral and Hiroshi’s nephew Mori arrives in his place (the transition from back of a cab in Japan to back of a cab in Australia is particularly effective) armed with the firm belief that his uncle is heterosexual and married. Struggles are played out between traditions and cultures in subtle ways: Hiroshi wants his ashes to be scattered in Australia while his nephew is expected to take them home; Ron has a previous family including daughters and sons (making it even harder for Mori to understand the homosexual relationship). As in other festival films, the importance of home videos within the short is fundamental, contextualising Hiroshi’s love and life, changing him from phantom to family man. What I particularly like about this film are its compromises: little deceptions, things done for the sake of obligation, with evasive action often a necessity; and a winning ending as Mori smiles in the backseat of a cab on his way back home.

Other strong contenders among the finalists were: Into The Night, director Tony Krawitz, somewhat topical in its depiction of a rich older man cruising the streets for a rentboy, or maybe a son; and Turn Me On, director Catherine Chauchat, an exhilarating documentary on the history of the vibrator (did you know it was the 5th electrical appliance invented, well before the vacuum cleaner?). High Street Love Story, director Rob Leggo, about unrequited love on the streets of Penrith, seemed somewhat anachronous and needed a lot of work. Overall, the My Queer Career selection was excellent, revealing a maturation of short films as a genre of their own. Keep an eye out for them on the festival circuit, and hopefully at the Dendy Awards and Flickerfest this year.

My Queer Career, Australian and New Zealand Queer Shorts, Mardi Gras Film Festival, Palace Academy Twin, Sydney, Feb 19 & 22, www.queerscreen.com.au

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 18

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002