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State of the Arts: Queer Film Fest focuses on diversity

Russian teens, married New Yorkers, East Van hip-hop cabaret screen at annual event

What’s it like to be a queer teen in Russia? That’s the premise of the documentary film Children 404.

“The camera is attached to the main subject of the film as he spends his morning in school,” said the Vancouver Queer Film Festival’s programmer, Shana Myara. “And for those moments where we’re physically connected with him through the camera we see what it’s like to face the derision, harassment, bullying, all that is now state-sanctioned in Russia.”

This centerpiece gala film is one of more than 80 selections from 11 countries appearing at the festival that runs Aug. 14 to 24.

Activist Elena Klimova created the online forum Children 404 for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer teens after Russian leader Vladimir Putin outlawed “gay propaganda” in 2013. The film focuses on an 18-year-old forum user who’s faced harassment and intimidation.

“It’s such a small and gentle act, in its own way, creating an online forum,” Myara said. “But it’s been a lifeline for many teenagers who’ve been driven to suicidal ideation.”

Russia’s suicide rates last year ranked the highest in Europe.

The film’s director will attend the centerpiece gala at the Vancouver Playhouse, Aug. 21.

Another film Myara is keen to screen features not oppressed Russian teens but Hollywood stars.

John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun, Footloose) and Alfred Molina (Spiderman 2, Frida) star in Love is Strange, the story of a couple of 39 years who marry, honeymoon and then see the life they’ve created in New York City crumble.

“It’s kind of a love note to a disappearing New York City,” Myara said. “It’s a really rare film in that it looks to a long-term, settled gay couple’s relationship, and that’s rare to see in film anyway, just what does endurance look like in a relationship as opposed to just those early moments or the moments where they crack.”

Another of her top picks is a fictional film, Drunktown’s Finest, that director Sydney Freeland wrote to more accurately represent her New Mexico hometown after ABC’s 20/20 aired a piece about it called “Drunktown, USA.” The film, which premiered at Sundance and was executive produced by Robert Redford, takes a nuanced look at life in a Navajo community. It follows a character who begins to question what her adoptive Christian parents have told her about the reservation, a guy who’s trying to avoid trouble with the law before his army deployment and a two-spirit, or gender variant, woman who dreams of becoming a model and also yearns to be respected by her community, played by transgender actress Carmen Moore.  

“It’s [Freeland’s] own take on her own Navajo community,” Myara said. “Warts and all, but from an insiders’ perspective.”

When it comes to locally made films, “POWER’s pretty amazing,” Myara said.

POWER is an edgy hip-hop cabaret show that follows refugee, immigrant and indigenous youth from East Vancouver as they work to craft their intimate stories of awaiting deportation, dealing with bad boyfriends and living with Asperger’s Syndrome into slam poetry, song and theatre.
Another event for youth and adults is the new and free family-friendly Sunday FUNday, Aug. 17 on Granville Island. Festivities include age-appropriate film screenings, a picnic, teen slam poetry workshop and performances by workshop participants.

“We wanted to have something really celebratory, outdoor fun, light, especially following many of the discussions and hard work that have gone into the Vancouver School Board [gender identities and sexual orientation] policy this year,” Myara said. “We wanted to acknowledge that there are many families in our midst and create a celebratory day for them.”

Also better represented at the festival this year are women. More than 50 per cent of the directors, writers and producers of the festival’s films are female, a marked departure from Hollywood where the most encouraging studies say women constitute up to six per cent of directors.

“The numbers haven’t really changed significantly since the 1940s,” Myara said.

Many of the women helming this year’s selections are aboriginal, women of colour, transgender or live with disabilities.

Three women filmmakers will talk on a panel Aug. 18 entitled New Frontiers in Film: The Gender Equality Revolution, including Freeland, director-producer Carolyn Combs and Desiree Akhavan, writer, director and star of Appropriate Behaviour, a film about a queer Persian-American woman messily trying to figure her life out. Akhavan will also appear on the upcoming season of the TV show Girls.

Whether it’s workshops or parties such as the one featuring local band Queer as Funk at the Imperial, Aug. 16, there’s much to choose from at the largest queer arts festival in Western Canada.

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