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Style vies with substance in Out on Film docs 

Social issues will engage audiences for the 2009 Out on Film Festival

All documentary filmmakers must feel, on some level, as though their movies have the potential to change the world. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine them devoting so many unglamorous hours to trailing after subjects and hunching over editing equipment. Given that most nonfiction films seldom find audiences outside the festival circuit, the majority of documentarians have to settle for altering the thinking of viewers on a grassroots level.

Atlanta’s 2009 Out on Film Festival, playing May 28-31 at the Plaza Theatre, includes three documentaries. Two of them overtly address contemporary social ills, while the third offers a positive role model. Each uses a different means to reach the viewer on a personal level.

With Out on Film’s opening night entry Fagbug (2 stars, Thurs., May 28, 7:30 p.m.), Erin Davies portrays herself as both victim and crusader. On April 18, 2007, as a graduate student in Albany, N.Y., Davies discovered the crudely spray-painted words “fAg” on the driver’s-side window and “u r gay” on the hood of her Volkswagen New Beetle. Rather than just paint over the epithets, she left them in place and kept driving the car. It was a way to turn abuse into a point of defiance, similarly to the gay rights movement reclaiming the word “queer.” In a provocative, arguably reckless act, Davies resolved to drive alone cross-country on a hate crime awareness tour and record the experience.

Davies comes across as a personable young woman who’s very much a member of the MySpace generation, the kind to whom blogging and video diaries aren’t narcissistic but a reflexive form of social interaction. Fagbug’s stated cause is above reproach as Davies looks at American hate crimes, from vandalism to murder. Stops along the way include Laramie, Wyo., where Matthew Shepard was killed, as well as the hometowns of the late Ryan Skipper, Sean Kennedy and Aaron “Shorty” Hall, all murder victims. Davies points out that the latter three were all killed by white, straight males under 21, so when she gets the chance to interview young men who claim to be both Christian and anti-gay, it’s hard for the viewer to dismiss the guys as harmless doofuses.

Fagbug leaves plenty of room for deeper examination, including the efficacy of hate crime legislation. Instead, the focus shifts back to Davies and her not-very-eventful road trip, which includes gay pride parades and minor automotive headaches. At the end, Davies says she documented 50 other hate crimes, but refers to only a handful of them in the film. In one telling moment, she’s about to interview a young woman named Margo Smith, identified as a “hate crime victim,” but the camera shifts to a passer-by who wants to congratulate Davies. We never actually hear Smith speak or find out what happened to her.

Davies’ experience serves as a reminder that college towns, even in the Northeastern blue states, aren’t necessarily bastions of tolerance. Filmmaker Dee Mosbacher reinforces that point to a shocking degree in Training Rules (3 stars, Sat., May 30, 5:30 p.m.), which explores the pervasive nature of homophobia in women’s college athletics. Mosbacher presents an exposé of the Penn State University women’s basketball team, where coach Rene Portland enforced a policy that amounted to “No Drinking, No Drugs, No Lesbians” for nearly 30 years.

Training Rules features devastating interviews of former athletes and university employees testifying about abusive treatment that went unchecked for decades. Twin players discuss their dispiriting treatment in 1980, which one describes as “an emotional rape.” A generation later, a lesbian student files an anti-discrimination lawsuit after being kicked off the team, and the player’s father remarks, “I’ve never seen her smile or laugh” since the day she was cut.

At just under an hour, Training Rules proves rather bland stylistically, like a local TV news special, complete with tinkly piano music. In terms of delivering powerful, personal stories and eye-opening information, however, it’s a revelation. Portland was caught on record refusing to allow lesbians in the mid-1980s, but Penn State tolerated her for years in a sign that big money athletics programs become their own fiefdoms. Homophobia in women’s sports has odd repercussions, like the feminization of athletic images. One interviewee points out how ponytails have become ubiquitous on teams, implicitly because the players don’t want to look like stereotypical lesbians.

Compared to the social advocacy of Fagbug and Training Rules, The Universe of Keith Haring (3 stars, Sat., May 30, 3:30 p.m.) sets a sunnier, more nostalgic tone. One would expect little else from a tribute to Haring, a signature visual artist of the 1980s who found global fame for his rounded, bogeying stick figures that practically radiate good vibes. Director Christina Clausen hits the highlights of Haring’s life, from his precocious interest in art as child in Kutztown, Pa., to his meteoric success in New York, to his death from AIDS in 1990.

Perhaps Clausen puts Universe in the title because the film pays so much attention to the people and social trends in Haring’s orbit. Subway graffiti artists and hip-hop musicians influenced him, and he became pals with the likes of Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono. Clausen digs up animation of the artist’s dancing figures, clips of flamboyantly costumed stage shows, and experimental films from his contemporaries that show Haring, for instance, repeating lines of Morse code via a fish-eye lens. Some of these prove about as annoying as you’d imagine, but they unquestionably convey the decade's energy and aesthetic.

The only real downside of The Universe of Keith Haring is that, for all its flash, it’s sort of boring. As a gregarious subject in archival interviews and a man still beloved by his contemporaries, the film hardly finds conflict until Haring faces his tragic, untimely death. Nevertheless, one would have a hard time identifying a visual artist who serves as such an inspiration figure. Not only does a childlike sense of play infuse Haring’s work, but the film includes fascinating footage of Haring’s industriousness as he paints massive murals at sites such as the Berlin Wall. The Universe of Keith Haring suggests that, for documentary films, celebrating the good can be as important as challenging the evil.

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