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A Master Filmmaker’s Gay Life in Mexico

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COVER DESIGN BY MICHAEL SHIREY
COVER DESIGN BY MICHAEL SHIREY

NewFest, the New York LGBT Film Festival, which runs October 22-27, is bigger, better, and more diverse than ever. This year’s film program is supplemented by an array of special features, including a screening of Cheryl Furjanic’s “Back on Board” (Oct. 25, 10:15 a.m.), a documentary about Greg Louganis, with the Olympian in attendance; a “Masterclass” conversation (Oct. 26, 3 p.m.) with filmmaker Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”); and a SAG-AFTRA Trans Hollywood Panel (Oct. 26, 7:30 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center, 208 W. 13th St.) with Harmony Santana (“Gun Hill Road”), focusing on the representation of trans actors. In film today.

Here is a rundown of some notable features, docs, and shorts playing at NewFest.

The festival opens with the New York premiere of “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” (Oct. 22, 7 p.m.), Peter Greenaway’s visually breathtaking and extravagantly sexy film about the famous gay Russian director (Elmer Bäck, fantastic) in 1931 Mexico. His guide is Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti, irresistible), who initiates him into gay sex. Greenaway shoots the film, which includes many dazzling bedroom scenes and considerable nudity, in his trademark eye-popping style. He artfully plays with shadows and projected images, split screens, camera pans, and distorted lenses, photographs, and film clips. The film is impressive, especially for bringing Eisenstein’s emotional catharsis — in the heat of a professional crisis — to life.

Elmer Bäck in the title role in “Eisenstein in Guanajuato.” |  NEWFEST
Elmer Bäck in the title role in “Eisenstein in Guanajuato.” |NEWFEST

“Eisenstein in Guanajuato” a highlight in exuberantly diverse NewFest

Elmer Bäck and co-star Luis Alberti. |  NEWFEST
Elmer Bäck and co-star Luis Alberti. |NEWFEST

The closing night feature is the US premiere of the Swedish drama “Girls Lost” (Oct. 27, 8 p.m.) about a trio of outcast teen females who magically become boys overnight.

Other highlights of the festival include writer/ director Stephen Cone’s modest, incisive gem “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” (Oct. 24, 3:45 p.m.). Taking place entirely during the 17th birthday of the title character (Cole Doman, in a sly, winning performance), the film has 20 characters come together to celebrate. Dramatic tension ensues as the characters reveal secrets and lies, both large and small, over the course of the day. Cone’s film unfolds organically, with characters defined through snippets of dialogue or even an unspoken moment. This narrative strategy provides many subtle, heartbreaking moments. When one boy looks with desire at his straight best friend, he is unaware of another boy looking with desire at him. Cone’s film addresses issues of faith and sexuality — Henry is the son of a preacher — but it always feels graceful, never heavy-handed.

Another American indie, “Those People” (Oct. 24, 6:15 p.m.), is an absorbing film about Charlie (the adorable Jonathan Gordon), a gay, Jewish artist whose queer best friend, Sebastian (Jason Ralph), is wracked with feelings of inadequacy after his businessman father is imprisoned for financial crimes. Charlie’s codependent relationship with Sebastian is tested, however, when he meets Tim (Haaz Sleiman, all confidence and sexiness), a Lebanese pianist. The romantic spark between Tim and Charlie forms the soft, gooey center of “Those People,” and viewers will be seduced by the flirtations and affections these two characters share.

In handling the dramatic love triangle — the diffident Charlie is afraid to fully commit to Tim because he has unresolved feelings for Sebastian — writer/ director Joey Kuhn at moments exhibits less than finesse, but overall his film captures the shifting dynamics among the characters as Charlie comes of age.

Some of the worthwhile internationals titles include the teen lesbian romance “The Summer of Sangaile” (Oct. 24, 8:30 p.m.), a visually stunning Lithuanian drama depicting the coming of age of the vivacious Auste (Aiste Dirziute) and the shy, self-harming 17-year-old Sangaile (Julija Steponatyte). The girls meet at a local air show and quickly develop an intense friendship. Sangaile models dresses Auste designs, then poses for photographs. Things soon turn erotic. Writer/ director Alanté Kavaïté creates some gorgeous ethereal moments of the young women in water, on the beach, in the fields, and, in one mesmerizing sequence, of Sangaile trying to conquer her vertigo. Gorgeously filmed and well-acted, “The Summer of Sangaile” is a beguiling romance.

On a darker note, “Everlasting Love” (Oct. 25, 10:30 p.m.), a sinister thriller from Spain, opens with a group of students talking about hooking up, the idea of love at first sight, and eternal love. Then the plot kicks in. Carlos (Joan Bentallé), a Chinese teacher, goes cruising in the local forest where he spies on couples having sex. When he catches the eye of Toni (Aimar Vega), one of his students, they have an assignation in the back on Carlos’ car. The affair — which should never have begun — does not end there. Director/ co-writer Marçal Forés uses incredible sound design to heighten the film’s tension, and his tracking shots in the forest are hypnotic. The film’s morality about sex and death is obvious, but that doesn’t keep “Everlasting Love” from building to an intense climax.

A scene from Catherine Stewart’s “While You Weren’t Looking.” | NEWFEST
A scene from Catherine Stewart’s “While You Weren’t Looking.” | NEWFEST

An ambitious, though less than successful film, Catherine Stewart’s “While You Weren’t Looking” (Oct. 24, 3:15 p.m.) packs too many issues into its 72 minutes. Wealthy South African housewife Terri (Camilla Lilly Waldman, in an affecting performance) feels distanced from her wife Dez (Sandi Schultz) after she discovers a sexy dress meant for someone else. Meanwhile, their adopted daughter Asanda (Petronella Tshuma) is turning 18 and pulling away from them. Asanda unexpectedly becomes attracted to Shado (Thishiwe Ziqubu), a streetwise “tommy boy” (butch female) from the Khayelitsha township.

“While You Weren’t Looking” makes valid and important points about gender identity and homophobia and transphobia, as well as keen observations on differences of race and class, but they are often applied with a shovel. A series of scenes set in Asanda’s queer theory class are particularly didactic. The film’s themes are compelling, but they could have been more delivered far more subtly.

A scene from Michael Stabile’s “Seed Money.” | NEWFEST
A scene from Michael Stabile’s “Seed Money.” | NEWFEST

From the non-fiction side, NewFest presents “Seed Money” (Oct. 23, 10:30 p.m.), Michael Stabile’s nostalgic portrait of Falcon Studios’ Chuck Holmes. This thin but lovingly made documentary chronicles the Indiana native’s move to San Francisco and career in the gay porn industry. Making his products visible to gay consumers in an era when it was risky to do so, Holmes’ impact was legendary. He created a type — masculine, athletic, and “squeaky clean piggy” — that generated millions of fans and many millions of dollars. “Seed Money” depicts, through assiduously chosen clips, interviews, and photographs, Holmes’ success in the early age of home video –– success that was curtailed by the AIDS epidemic. If the last act, where Holmes works to create a legacy — becoming politically active, donating to the Human Rights Campaign as well as presidential campaigns, only to continue to face backlash for being a pornographer — is the weakest, “Seed Money” still manages to flesh out the life of a man who is fondly remembered for contributing to gay men’s pleasure.

The Shorts programs also feature several terrific films. Here are six titles not to be missed:

From the “Cruising” program (Oct. 24, 11:30 p.m.; Oct. 27, 12:30 p.m.), “Limanakia,” is Antonio Da Silva’s hypnotic, erotic, ecstatic short chronicling the sexcapades of a group of faceless, nude men at a cliffs-and-water cruising area. Da Silva’s other entry, “Pix,” also presents a dizzying kaleidoscope of sexy screen images.

Actor/ writer/ director Robert Aquino’s “Catharsis,” set in Brooklyn, is a fabulous short about a 20-something gay man (Aquino) getting into bed with someone (sexy Gabe Gonzalez) to get over his ex. Aquino shows a real perspicacity in creating characters able to discuss their impulses and desires, and Gonzalez is extremely ingratiating. This is a strong short that deserves to be a feature.

Other worthwhile shorts include the darkly funny “Actresses” by Jeremy Hersh, from the “Wild Hearts” program (Oct. 25, 10 a.m.), about two young women who perform on stage getting into a relationship. Danielle (Rebecca Henderson) has to constantly validate her girlfriend Sara (Taylor Hess), a burden that eventually causes a rift between them.

“Trémulo,” from the “In Youth is Pleasure” program (Oct. 24, 10 a.m.; Oct. 26, noon), is a sensitive romantic drama set entirely in a Mexican barbershop. The elegant, eloquent short by writer/ director Roberto Fiesco, depicts a one-night stand between a young man and a soldier shipping out the next day. It is as sweet as it is heartrending.

From the “Trans” shorts program (Oct. 22, 4 p.m.; Oct. 26, 9:15 p.m., the latter screening at the LGBT Community Center, 208 W. 13th St.), Cheryl Dunye’s fantastic “Black Is Blue” is an intimate, engaging, and insightful mini-drama about a female-to-male apartment security guard named Black (trans actor Kingston Farady) who poignantly discusses his worldview for the camera in direct address. Shot in her trademark “Dunye-mentary” style, this short is extremely captivating as Black describes dating, past relationships, and the prejudice he faces.

NEWFEST | Oct. 22-27 | Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas (except where noted, 260 W. 23rd St. | Information at newfest.org

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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