The documentaries Out in the Cold and La Tropical, screened by IMAGE Film & Video Center this month, have comparable goals. Each provides a window into the lives of a disenfranchised populace that most Americans cannot see, either by choice or circumstance. Though they have similar ends, the two nonfiction films tell their stories in diametrically different ways.
Out in the Cold approximates a piece of telejournalism to illuminate the plight of homeless gay and lesbian teens. La Tropical emphasizes atmosphere in its spirited slate to a legendary Havana dance hall and its largely black clientele. Each film has narrative shortcomings, but they succeed in broadening the perceptions of the viewer.
Directed by Eric Criswell and Martin Bedogne, Out in the Cold won Best Documentary at the 2002 New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and it seizes attention with its opening line: "When I was staying in Jerry's dog house, he had two Labradors, so it was pretty warm." Stylistically, it's on par with a network magazine show like "Dateline," presenting sound bite-sized interviews, self-important narration and maudlin music.
Judy Shepard, mother of the murdered Matthew Shepard, serves as executive producer for the film, which aims to encourage social change. At the outset, it points out some shocking statistics -- that of America's 1.3 million homeless teens, an estimated 500,000 are gay. If Out in the Cold lacks finesse, it still honestly depicts a grim, compelling subject.
The film charts a depressingly typical pattern for gay teens who face rejection at school, church and home: One young man recalls his father saying, "I hope you get AIDS and die." Running away and then prostituting themselves become inevitable, and Out in the Cold even offers depressing how-to tips, like wrapping oneself in plastic on cold nights. One girl talks about the bohemian "glamour" of living on the streets -- and how that excitement runs out almost immediately.
One of the 50-minute film's most interesting stories involves a rural mother who supports her gay son and begins helping out other gay teens, only to be shunned by her local church.
While Out in the Cold can feel all too much like TV journalism, La Tropical proves more self-consciously artistic. It profiles the patrons and musicians of the Salon Rosado, nicknamed "La Tropical," an open-air dance hall called "the cathedral and conservatory of Cuban music." In contrast to the languid melodies of Buena Vista Social Club, La Tropical is Cuba's proving ground for dance music, and the film includes lively performances by such groups as Los Van Van and La Caro Band.
La Tropical is the first film in IMAGE's "Montage," a screening series devoted to filmmaking diversity, and the documentary frequently focuses on Cuba's racial distinctions. A brewery founded the club in the 1940s, explicitly seeking a pretext to sell beer to black Cubanos.
Not all of the interviews focus explicitly on race. We get to know a chanteuse raising a 15-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy; a macho, self-absorbed singer whose girlfriend becomes unexpectedly pregnant; and "Tikitiki," a 77-year-old fixture at La Tropical who won't stop dancing even when caught in a sudden downpour.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Turnley directed and filmed La Tropical in rich, sharply focused black-and-white. The individual shots have superbly balanced compositions, each image ripe with local details, and the film includes a couple of montages that resemble actual slide shows. But Turnley seems to be the kind of filmmaker who's so inspired by the songs of his subject that he strives to give his film a non-narrative, "musical" structure. La Tropical's storyline rambles and at times peters out completely.
You can't help but wonder if a gallery exhibit of Turnley's La Tropical photographs would be more effective than the film itself. But like Out in the Cold, it unquestionably provides memorable snapshots of individuals otherwise invisible to us.