Exploring Queer Culture

in 17th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

by Annette Willis

IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, has a long tradition of presenting documentaries which explore a variety of cultural, political and social interpretations of reality. This year, 230 films were programmed in the Festival and many of the major themes explored conflict, religion and the search for meaning. This year three feature length documentaries and two short documentaries made for a younger audience had significant queer content.

“Garden” had its World Premiere at IDFA and was selected in the Joris Ivens main competition sector of the Festival. The Garden is a block of streets in Tel Aviv where boys and transsexuals live and make a living as prostitutes or by selling drugs. “Garden” is a window on the world of 17 year-old Nino, an illegal Palestinian and his 18 year-old friend Dudu, an Arab-Israeli.

Directors Shatz and Barash paint a strong, dispassionate and candid portrait of boys who have run away from home, some as young as 9, who have been raped on the streets and who have turned to prostitution to survive. The relationship between the filmmakers and the boys and between the boys themselves is palpable. The film succeeds in drawing you into this dark world and successfully transcends a simple study of the friendship between two boys to explore far bigger themes of Arab culture, homosexuality, the impact of the political situation on all levels of society, illegals, resident status and the omnipresence of God.

“Garden” is one of a small strem of films coming out of Israel that tells stories beyond the confines of the conflict and the struggle for territory. In the end, you feel the pain of teenagers coming to grips with their own sexuality who have to risk their lives having sex with unknown men on a daily basis, just to survive.

“American Eunuchs” had its International Premiere at IDFA and was selected in the First Appearance section of the Festival.

Male castration is not a new topic but the revelation of how common it is in America is a new twist on an old theme so to speak. Italian first-time directors Guiducci and Sacchi go on a journey of discovery in Philadelphia. The film doesn’t probe too deeply or revealingly into the motives of all the characters. It is significant though that one of the characters, the self-styled guru of the eunuch community is ‘Gelding’, a gay man and a bear without balls. One of the other characters has his genitals removed to be sexless but also chooses to dress as a woman.

Although the film is not completely satisfying and relies too heavily on the showing of actual operations rather than revealing a more intimate portrait of the motives behind castration, it still succeeds in opening a window on an established sub-culture within the Queer community.

“Venus of Mars” had its World Premiere at IDFA and was selected in the Reflecting Images section of the Festival.

“Venus of Mars” tracks the life of Steven Grandell of Duluth, Minnesota who, despite marrying his high school sweetheart, decides to transgender into a he/she, not a man, nor a woman, but a ‘something in between’ called Venus.

This is Goldberg’s first feature length documentary, she has previously directed three one hour features for PBS. “Venus of Mars” uses extensive archival footage as well as the artwork and animated films shot by Venus to document his/her own non-conformist life style. Venus is also lead guitarist in a glamrock transgender band called “All the Pretty Horses” who regularly perform in Minnesota and in the UK.

“Venus of Mars” is another film about transgender, there always seems to be one in every festival, that successfully transcends the story of one person to examine the struggle that transgendered people face in being true to themselves.

In addition, Monika Treut’s 1998 film, “Gendernauts”, which explores female to male transgenders, screened in the Reflecting Images section of the Festival.

Queer culture ebbs and flows in its popularity outside Gay and Lesbian film festivals. IDFA has at least programmed feature length documentaries dealing with Queer themes in two out of three competitions in the Festival. Albeit, none of the films, apart from “Venus of Mars”, dealt with Queer themes per se and all of them were fairly conventional and conservative.