The Williamstown Queer Film Festival kick-started last Friday night with two films, Outrage and Travel Queeries.
Outrage, directed by Kirby Dick, is a scintillating film centered around the work of the alternative gay press that seeks to stop the hypocrisy of closeted gay politicians who vote against gay rights bills by “outing” them. It is critical of the media’s complicit collusion in the hypocrisy, citing their aversion to reporting allegations of politicians’ closeted sexualities. The director provides the example of a CNN interview with Bill Maher conducted by Larry King. In the original clip, Maher “outs” Ken Melham as a closeted gay man but this remark is censored in subsequent broadcasts.
Outrage proceeds from a clear agenda that is neatly encapsulated in the words of Barney Frank, an openly gay congressman. “There is a right to privacy, not hypocrisy,” he says. Since closeted gay politicians are usually the harshest denigrators of the gay community and vote against gay rights bills to deflect speculations on their sexuality–or so the film contends–it is incumbent for the press to mobilize the “truth” of these politicians’ sexuality as a strategy to expose their hypocrisy and advance the gay rights struggle.
The film also provides a compelling indictment of how politicians remain in the closet in a bid to consolidate right wing power, which comes at the expense of significant advances in the gay community’s struggle for equal rights. Relentlessly bombarding its viewers with devastating statistics that chronicle the long history of said politicians’ nonexistent support for many facets of gay experience (gay marriage, gays in the military, gay anti-discrimination laws), Outrage stresses the urgency of improving the dismal state of gay-affirmative policy making.
One of my favorite moments in the film occurred when it demonstrated how language is deployed to “closet” (obfuscate) or “out” (expose) a politician’s sexuality. For example, when David Dreider lost his bid to join the GOP congressional leadership, many insiders believed that he was passed over because the GOP did not want to provoke political disaster by giving the job to a closeted gay man. Yet the mainstream media euphemistically suggested that his defeat came about because he was viewed as being too “moderate.” Frank responded to the media report with a satirical flourish reminiscent of a metaphysical conceit: “Yes, in the sense that I marched in the moderate pride parade last summer and went to a moderate bar.”
Travel Queeries, directed by Elliat Graney-Sauck, explores how the individuals interviewed in the film interrogate and negotiate their modes of identification as well as how these modes of representation inform and affect their work as radical queer activists in a pan-European context. The film begins with its subjects attempting to define their identification, sometimes with reluctance. A few redirect the question at the camera: Why do we need labels? Thus the tone is set for a film deeply invested in a form of queer coalitional politics that brings together gays, lesbians, trans-individuals and other individuals who elude the aforementioned taxonomies.
One of the film’s achievements is providing a comparative lens to that state of queer activism across various European states and articulating the specificity of the problems that still remain to be overcome in each country. For example, in Serbia, the term “queer” has no equivalent in the national vocabulary, and activists struggle with the difficulty of rendering their community legible and making the larger national population come to terms with something it is not interested in acknowledging.
I was particularly struck by an interviewee named Sally, a queer activist residing in London, and the ways in which she navigates different modes of identification. To her father, she is his biological daughter, a female, even though “[she has] as much beard as he [does].” To the approaching waiter poised to take her order, she could be a man or a woman and she enjoys the feeling of keeping him guessing. I was also intrigued by the sentiments of a Latino male who identified himself as transgender. He professes to be taking hormones, while interrogating his motivations behind the deliberate modification of his body. Both anecdotes usher in a new way of thinking about queer identities as not simply non-normative but also unstable and characterized by continual reevaluations of the self.
Though these were only two of the many screened, Outrage, a provocative and pertinent film, coupled with the eclectic Travel Queeries, made for a rewarding cinematic experience.