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Women on the Verge of a Breakthrough

From Germany to Uzbekistan, Nina Petri and Jeanette Hain discover more than landscapes

American entries to the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in short supply this year? Fine. Let's see how lesbians in Slovenia do it. That's right, Slovenia. And judging from Maja Weiss's excellent feature Guardian of the Frontier (Varuh Meje), they do it damn well. It being filmmaking, of course.

Weiss's debut feature follows three lovely Slovenes on an allegorical trek into places that are off limits, territories wild and unfamiliar, and situations alternately terrifying and intoxicating (both literally and figuratively). All are university students in the progressive capital of Ljubljana: Alja (Tanja Potocnik), an aspiring writer who doesn't know what she wants to write about yet (though chances are, after their experience together she'll have some pretty good material); Alja's "nice girl" roommate, Simona (Iva Krajnc); and Alja's unconventional best friend, Zana (Pia Zemljic). When Simona and Zana meet up with Alja at her parents' upscale suburban home, they all plan to break summer's monotony with a pleasant float down the River Kolpa. Ambivalent about her ever-present, ever-ready hometown boyfriend, Medo, Alja is visibly eager to ditch him for a weekend of female freedom. "Full speed ahead!" shouts the newly nose-ringed Zana, thrusting her arm and head out the window of Medo's reliable economy-size car as it putters further from civilization, loaded down with the canoes and camping gear he is loaning them. Medo drops the women off at river's edge with a parting joke about "bears, wolves, and serial killers," alluding to recent reports of a girl's disappearance from the area.

But rather than veer down the gruesome and mind-numbing psycho-killer/sex-slasher trail, Guardian blazes its own, and what ensues is a challenging, twisted, and ultimately fascinating adventure propelled by fear, love, discovery, and the power of the imagination. Nestled in "God's country" and straddling the blood-soaked border that separates Slovenia from neighboring Croatia -- or as Zana calls it, "a country of killers and perverts" -- the carefree women lounge, swim, liberate themselves from restrictive bikini tops, and belt out American tunes, including the popular Slavic version of a Tina Turner hit: "Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the Kolpa."

But this idyll is undercut by ominous music, and societal constraints prove tougher to wriggle out of than a two-piece. The ubiquitous, leering Guardian of the Frontier, played to eerie perfection by popular Slovene personality Jonas Znidarsic, serves as the girls' relentless reminder. While fleeing an unseen threat in the woods, the three companions are tripped up, not by a pesky branch, but by a consuming argument about their identities as women. As they tumble along in the dark trying to decide where they can go next to escape a potentially horrendous fate, a parallel debate about women's roles and restrictions unfolds. "Why is being a nice girl such a bad thing?" asks the bashfully flirty Simona. Meanwhile Zana's and Alja's relationship intensifies and the former grows increasingly bold about her desire.

From marriage and morality to patriotism and xenophobia (and of course homophobia), Guardian delves deep, mingling the unexpected, and most important, crossing borders, with a powerful mix of unsentimental gallows humor, surreal imagery, and fairy-tale whimsy. Think of a feminist Deliverance as envisioned by Campion, Kusturica, and the Brothers Grimm. "It's as if everything yesterday was a dream," says Simona in one scene. In another the trio tromps lost and passportless through a sleepy Croatian hamlet, their bright bikinis and vital skin shining against crumbling stone walls like flags of recognition. In this way Guardian of the Frontier itself unspools like a dream: beautiful, inevitable, and disconcerting. With Weiss's able direction the challenging project blooms.

Born in 1965, Weiss has been an active force in promoting women's voices in film in her country. Financed by the Slovenian Film Fund, Guardian of the Frontier is her country's landmark first female-helmed feature. This past February Guardian garnered the Berlin Film Festival's Manfred Salzgeber Film Prize for an innovative European film, and in April won the distinction of best student film at the Slovenian Film Festival Awards. Its Miami screening marks the film's North American debut. -- Robin Shear

Restless Hearts on the Road

In Journey To Kafiristan, a German-language feature here in its East Coast debut, two Swiss women journey across Europe and Asia by car just before the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Explorer Ella Maillart is intent on visiting the remote, semimythical land of Kafiristan, a wild, unexplored terrain somewhere north of Afghanistan. She takes along a traveling companion, the restless Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a stunning, cross-dressing lesbian writer with a penchant for drugs and sexual adventure. The pair face an array of obstacles along their journey through the Balkans, Turkey, and Persia. As they proceed, Ella begins to realize the truth of what Annemarie has known all along: that exploration "has to be inside, not on a map."

 

Based on the real lives of these two women, the script traces an actual journey they made and draws extensively from Schwarzenbach's writings.

Both women are trousered outcasts from typical, straight European society. But while their predicament is the same, their personalities are decidedly unalike. Ella is practical, sturdy, and industrious, emotionally reined in, in denial that her journey may be motivated by something other than scientific curiosity. Annemarie, meanwhile, is a provocateur. With her tailored jackets and ties, she defies the Muslim edicts against women's dress and behavior. At a diplomatic party in Teheran, she aggressively woos the wife of the Turkish ambassador, then beds her, causing Ella no small trouble.

Kafiristan centers, naturally, on Ella's odd-couple relationship with Annemarie, and in this the film is blessed with its tiny acting company. Jeanette Hain gives a beguiling performance as the dashing, Byronic Annemarie while Nina Petri's work as Ella is as stalwart as her character. Too bad they don't have more to do. Much of the film, which was shot in Jordan and Uzbekistan, is frittered away in long landscape shots, leaving the women's relationship to idle, without much surprise or suspense, for most of the story. And while the characters' sexuality is decidedly at the heart of the story, the directors seem to shy away from exploring the sensuous, physical aspects of their journey together. The film has a languorous pace that might quickly bore those expecting more narrative complexity. The best tactic is to give in to the rhythms of the journey itself.

Journey To Kafiristan is the second feature from co-directors Fosco and Donatello Dubini, Swiss-born, Germany-based brothers who are former documentarians with a refined visual sense. Aided in great part by some stunning scenery and the elegant camerawork from cinematographer Matthias Kaelin, the Dubinis have created a seductive, stylish road picture that bears some resemblance in look, setting, and mood to Anthony Minghella's The English Patient and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky. All three films involve troubled Western women facing personal transformations in long treks through wild, desert environments.

Road pictures usually are long on mood and short on narrative, but Journey To Kafiristan is especially the latter. Ella's goal, to visit Kafiristan, is only barely explained, while Annemarie seems to have no expectations at all except to tag along with Ella. The story ends in a similarly vague way, with an exceptionally long-winded written epilogue that suggests the directors never really arrived at a narrative point to their visual wanderings. Nevertheless, Kafiristan is a lovely meditation on distance -- both geographic and emotional -- and an intriguing dance of two restless hearts. -- Ronald Mangravite

Love's Bait

Treading Water is another lesbian film with an aquatic theme, this one by emerging American director Lauren Himmel (co-written and produced by Julia Hollinger), who will appear at the screening. In it Alex (Nina Landey) is a social worker whose most challenging case turns out to be her own girlfriend, Casey (Angela Redman). Casey has enveloped Alex in her fantasy of living on a modest houseboat (grounded, mind you) and being a longshorewoman in the small New England town where she grew up. "She had this grand idea it was going to be so romantic," Alex tells a friend. But their apparently simple bliss (the initial chemistry between the leads is believable and engaging) has more holes in it than one of Casey's lobster traps. Despite the fact that the boat is quaintly named "Home," Casey can't seem to make the break from her own, a towering mansion across the lake where her well-to-do parents and two younger brothers live.

Will she or won't she? It's the gristle we chew on for 100 minutes. Will Casey choose to spend Christmas with her (half?) Jewish girlfriend Alex and her friend Carmen, or with her own Irish Catholic family, ruled with an iron oven mitt by mother Maggie (an effectively conflicted Annette Miller)? "Jesus, she looks like an executioner ..." comment Maggie's brooding brood, but, hey, she can bake a mean chocolate-chip cookie. Here's another drama about an uncomfortable and decidedly ungay holiday season with multiple secrets, explosions, and silences. It's no coincidence Casey has chosen lobstering as her vocation. The traps make an apt if obvious metaphor for love's briny entanglements.

Maggie, who has never met Alex, isn't "ready" to let her daughter's lover in her perfect house, the one realm in which she retains absolute control (perhaps when Hell freezes over). Casey meantime is trying to remain part of her birth family without completely alienating Alex (though she comes pretty close -- stuffing your maw with shrimp while leaving your too-patient lover cooling in the car does not a sympathetic protagonist make). Even more annoying is Casey's moping and sputtering; she consistently casts herself as the victim. "Have you ever seen my mother in a state?" she actually whines to Alex in response to Alex's suggestion that the two of them just walk in and let the shit hit Maggie's perfectly dusted fan. To which the obvious response is: Actually, no, Casey, she's banned me from her house, remember?

 

Treading Water, shot on location in austerely beautiful Marblehead, Massachusetts, on a shoestring budget ($200,000 raised through private sponsors), is not amateurish, nor is it by any means poorly made. On the contrary, though it can be gimmicky and hokey in places and the dialogue has some groaners, familiar characters, subtle developments, and an obvious emotional investment in the subject matter make this a commendable effort. That said, Himmel's debut feature is neither deeply entertaining nor deeply affecting. But perhaps what adds a level of frustration to an otherwise fine film is that it actually could be. Within the confines of a short, Treading Water might have been more powerful and complete. As a feature, it's a bit unplumbed and safe. But then again, as its title promises, it does manage to stay afloat. -- Robin Shear

Long Strange Trip

The festival concludes with an ambitious romance, The Trip, a U.S. premiere that leaves no doubt about its gay-cinema pedigree. Writer/director Miles Swain's feature debut not only offers a central gay relationship, its narrative sweep also takes in the history of the gay-rights movement and a pointed political struggle between out-and-proud gay righters and closeted conservatives. Though this Trip suffers from an erratic script and directorial inexperience, it is a bold, inventive film that's an excellent choice to close this year's program.

Swain's tale begins in the early 1970s when a young conservative journalist, Alan Oakley (Larry Sullivan), plans on writing an exposé of homosexuality in America. Earnest, awkward Alan attends a party at the home of wealthy, closeted lawyer Peter (Ray Baker), who is intent on seducing him. Instead Alan meets handsome, wisecracking Tommy Ballenger (Steve Braun), a gay activist who takes an immediate shine to him. But Alan refuses to admit that his interest in Tommy may be anything more than research. Pretty soon, though, romance starts to bloom, driving Tommy crazy since Alan's both on the fence and in the closet. Eventually love triumphs and the pair start a passionate romance.

Cut ahead to the late Seventies and the Anita Bryant/Miami gay-ordinance conflict. Alan and Tommy are living in bliss, but it's soon destroyed when Peter orchestrates a publishing deal for Alan's old anti-gay book. As Peter had hoped, this crisis drives Tommy away, and Alan, unaware of Peter's perfidy, turns to him for solace. Seven years later Alan chafes as Peter's live-in boy toy. After another disastrous dinner party, he discovers Peter's betrayal and decides to go find Tommy, now living in Mexico and suffering from AIDS. When Alan reaches him, the pair head out for an extended road trip, trying to recover their past love before Tommy's health fails.

Though its central romance is essentially dramatic, even tragic, Swain injects plenty of humor into the proceedings. Tommy's a wit, tossing off droll one-liners every which way. His requisite man-hungry roommate Michael (Alexis Arquette) is never at a loss for a sexual innuendo. Several gay-comedy set pieces pepper the plot, as when Tommy and Alan loll in bed after their first night together and whoops! Alan's conservative parents pop over for a surprise visit. A jog through Griffith Park in L.A. ends with Michael chasing a hunky prospect into the nearby bushes. Swain plays with these conventions effectively and shows an assured hand at appropriating classic cinema archetypes for his own uses. Alan and Tommy's final journey echoes several classic road-trip films, including Five Easy Pieces and Thelma & Louise. And Swain sets up Tommy as a saintly seriocomic gay icon, deliberately associated with an array of cinematic heroes from Wayne's World's Garth (check out his goofy hippie wig) to James Dean from Giant.

The novelistic narrative is mostly about Alan and Tommy's tempestuous relationship, but it's also about the historical context of modern gay life. Using extensive video news footage, director Swain paints a broad canvas, using gay history from the 1970s and 1980s -- the gay-pride movement, the Miami ordinance furor, the assassination of Harvey Milk in San Francisco -- as a backdrop for his central tale. It's a welcome context, adding both a sense of pride and importance and, equally, a lighter-hearted tongue-in-cheek style as the story careens through the wacky fashions of several decades.

It's this alternation between emotional honesty and camp that ultimately upends The Trip. Several characters and scenes are played for cheap laughs, and the cartoonish portrayal of several straight characters throws the film toward satire. Swain lands some punches with this approach but pays for it dearly when the narrative then reverts to the romantic throughline. A similar hit-and-miss effect is apparent in the script itself, which achieves a certain poetry in one moment only to crash and burn with histrionic dialogue the next. Like many a writer/director before him, Swain has sabotaged his own talents by failing to put more effort into his script before he shot.

 

Nevertheless Swain makes an impressive directorial debut here, combining a strong visual sense with effective narrative clarity and pacing. His production support is outstanding, notably some lovely cinematography from Charles Barbee and Scott Kevan, who achieve a real Seventies look using vintage filmstock and a dark, richer feel for the Eighties scenes; Seventies and Eighties pop music standards give an authenticity to the story, well supported by Steven Chesne's evocative musical score. In closing, it's a good way to go. -- Ronald Mangravite


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