Good anthology films are a rare little breed that, almost always, has a dud hiding somewhere in the middle. But, with Stories of Our Lives, director Jim Chuchu delivers five beautiful shorts, and there's no weak entry.
Premiering for one night only at O Cinema Miami Beach as a free event, the Miami Jewish Film Festival will be presenting the film on Thursday, June 25th at 7pm. “It is a great honor for us to present Stories of Our Lives, a film which defies a climate of discrimination by creating an astounding visual poem that boldly stands up for hope and love in the face of cruelty,” said MJFF director Igor Shteyrenberg.
Adding to why a Jewish Film Fest would be showing a queer Kenyan film of all things - midway through the year no less - MJFF committee chair Mark Kravitz says, "The Miami Jewish Film Festival is guided by the values statements of Keshet, a national organization that works towards equality and inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in Jewish life. MJFF believes the values that Keshet has identified within the Jewish tradition, such as respect, communal responsibility, and solidarity, can and should guide the way in which LGBTQ individuals are treated throughout our society and our world.”
Gorgeously shot in black and white, Stories of Our Lives is connected by a simple thread: the stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and intersex individuals from Kenya. As an exploration of queerness, it offers a variety of situations that anyone can relate to while contrasting that with narratives that are exclusive to Kenya.
Ask Me Nicely is the short that kicks off the series. It focuses on two young women who fall for each other and the consequences that come with spending too much time together in school. Of all the shorts, it’s arguably the weakest in terms of utilizing the camera to its fullest extent, but it makes up for that with incredibly compelling characters. One of the two young women, after being confronted with the fact that her masculine traits and her interest in girls could deal serious damage to her life, contemplates sex with a man. It’s not the first time that a situation like this has been explored before in queer cinema, but it places the narrative within Kenyan context, which is an important way to start the series off.
Following that is Run, which amps up the tension by placing a hustler into an uncomfortable situation with his partner when he finds himself curious to explore a queer sector of a neighborhood. It’s here where Chuchu comes off as more confident with the camera; embracing slow-motion, occasionally slipping into the gaze of his characters, and allowing longing glances to speak for themselves. It’s the most confrontational of the shorts when it comes to the homophobia inherent in the country, with scenes that promise to turn some viewers off, but its gritty realism works and ends on a more optimistic tone than one might expect.
And then there is Athman, a typical tale of unrequited romance between a gay man and his straight best friend, who happens to be interested in a man close to them. What’s interesting about this trio though is the way that this woman comes across as entirely understanding of the situation between the two men, and encourages the protagonist to engage him.
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Chuchu allows many of the scenes to unfold in simple, but effective manner; scenes that consist of just conversations between characters. One moment between the two men where they’re forced to confront their relationship practically screams Bergman — the way they lean into each other and practically become one with each other, even though their romance can never be and their bodies are far apart.
Athman is followed by a gorgeous little short titled Duet. This short, drenched in naturalism, tells the story of two men meeting for the first time. It’s weirdly sweet to watch the story of a Kenyan intellectual attending a conference outside of his country and the male prostitute he hires at his hotel, mostly populated by conversation at first, and then dwindling into an exploration of the way a simple touch can lead to more. If any within the bunch could warrant an interesting feature, it’d likely be Duet.
Almost as if in contrast of the naturalistic relationship between these two men, Chuchu closes the film with a story that embraces dreams to contrast the harsh reality of homophobia within Kenya. It’s as heartbreaking as it is fascinating to hear this woman simply describe the things she imagines will happen when they finally come to take her and her girlfriend down. And more engaging are the moments when she fantasizes about what the world could be like, as the film comfortably slips into magical realism and closes the film on a potent note by embracing visual poetry in the best of ways.
Stories of Our Lives will be playing at O Cinema Miami Beach on Thursday, June 25th, at 7 p.m. Tickets are free to O Cinema, Miami Jewish Film Festival & MiFo LGBT Film Festival members.
Follow Juan Barquin on Twitter @woahitsjuanito