James Lyons in Todd Haynes’ 1991 “Poison.” | BAMCINÉMATEK/ PHOTOFEST
It’s been 20 years-plus since New Queer Cinema burst on the independent film scene and provided a voice for LGBT filmmakers. Many of the writer and directors were activists responding passionately to the anger and anxiety they felt in the age of AIDS. They often shot personal, semi-autobiographical stories on shoestring budgets to represent rarely seen queer identities.
These films — including Tom Kalin’s “Swoon,” Rose Troche’s “Go Fish,” and Todd Verow’s “Frisk” — were innovative, sometimes raw, and generally experimental. And they were enthusiastically embraced by audiences hungering for something different, something dangerous, something political, something personal, something joyous — and something queer.
“There was a real sense of possibility,” said filmmaker Ira Sachs about that heady time, in a recent phone interview. “You were making work that was important to you — not part of an industry. There were small aspirations, and we were inspiring each other. I knew Rose’s work and Todd Haynes’ work, and [out producer] Christine Vachon.”
Sachs likened his participation in this film world to “being a sophomore, where Todd and Christine were the seniors.” One only has to look at Sachs’ remarkable “Keep the Lights On” to see how far these New Queer Cinema filmmakers have come in the past two decades.
While much has changed — in both the queer and filmmaking communities since the early 1990s — there is something special about the films from this period. They have a gritty, DIY aesthetic that is ingratiating. They are heartfelt low-budget gems that speak to viewers thirsting for queer stories and characters. These were films audiences could appreciate, relate to, fantasize about, and even fall in love with.
The 25 shorts, features, and documentaries showcased at BAMcinématek’s October 9-16 “Born in Flames” series include many classic films from this incredibly vibrant period. Haynes’ influential film “Poison,” a triptych that investigates stories about outsiders, is paired with a stunning, erotic short “Sodom,” on Friday October 12 at 6:50 p.m.
Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 “The Watermelon Woman.” |BAMCINÉMATEK/ FIRST RUN FEATURES
The series presents the first feature film by an African American lesbian, Cheryl Dunye’s “The Watermelon Woman” on Tuesday, October 9 at 6:50 p.m. This funny, sexy, and very clever mix of fiction, documentary, and direct address — the filmmaker calls her work “Dunye-mentaries” — considers identity politics, past, present, and future. Dunye directs herself as a young lesbian who makes a journey of self-discovery when she researches the life of Fae Richards, a fictional African-American actress who intrigues her.
Dunye spoke enthusiastically about her involvement in New Queer Cinema in a recent phone interview.
“It was about community,” she said. “It was a way of entering what it meant to be lesbian or gay. A multitude of voices were being heard for the first time. We had success — and we became visible. We were trying to express ourselves as artists in a medium that represented who we were sexually as well as who we were creatively.”
Isaac Julien’s 1989 “Looking for Langston.” | BAMCINÉMATEK/ PHOTOFEST
Telling stories of queer African-American life was a critical component of New Queer Cinema, and two extremely important films depicting African-American gay male identity are paired at BAMcinématek –– Isaac Julien’s “Looking for Langston” and Marlon Riggs’ “Tongues Untied” on Monday, October 15 at 4:30 and 9:30 p.m.
Marlon Riggs' 1989 “Tongues Untied.” | BAMCINÉMATEK/ PHOTOFEST
Julien’s film is a luminously shot black and white tribute to Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. A vibrant, ecstatic, erotic love poem, “Looking for Langston” features archival footage and voiceover readings by the author along with atmospheric romantic scenes of breathless sexuality. Riggs’ remarkable “Tongues Untitled” astutely mixes spoken word, personal testimonies, and music to celebrate gay black male identity, acknowledge racism, and even teach snap lessons, as it presents empowering voices of activism.
Empowered African-American queer men are also the subjects of “Paris Is Burning,” showing Friday, October 12 at 4:30 and 9:30 p.m. Jennie Livingston’s breakthrough documentary chronicles the men who participated in the fabulous drag balls in 1990 New York. The film deftly shows how issues of race, class, and sexuality influence the lives of these men of color who compete for “legendary” status by emulating the life and look of rich white people in America in underground ballroom circuit contests.
Issues of race, class, and sexuality are also at the core of Sachs’ impressive debut, “The Delta,” which screens Tuesday, October 16 at 9:30 p.m. This stylish mix of naturalism and realism is a sensitive portrait of a closeted white teenager, Lincoln (Shayne Gray), who befriends Minh (Thang Chan), the mixed-race son of African-American and Vietnamese parents. The boys’ clandestine relationship is provocative drama, and Sachs’ distinctive and effective approach to telling his semi-autobiographical story is to eavesdrop on the characters. It is a seductive technique that pulls viewers in and asks them to identify with — or confront — the unspoken issues the characters face.
Another notable film in the series is Gregg Araki’s totally enjoyable “Totally F****d Up,” which plays Saturday, October 13 at 6:50 p.m. Araki addresses the topic of queer teens and suicide rates by documenting the lives of a handful of friends. The characters speak candidly — to each other and directly to the camera — about sex. They take drugs and listen to punk rock, their teen angst and nihilism both effectively conveyed. Seen today, the film is surprisingly fresh and funky, despite some dated elements.
In an email exchange, Araki admitted his films from the New Queer Cinema era — which includes the classic HIV-positive lovers on the run flick, “The Living End” — were “totally a product of that time and that sensibility — very queer and very new wave. Like all Queer New Wave films, I think ‘Totally F****ed Up’ is an amazing artifact of a really important and significant time in our culture.”
Another enfant terrible, Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, is represented here by “No Skin off My Ass,” which depicts the relationship between a hairdresser and a skinhead. It plays Saturday, October 13 at 9:15 p.m.
LaBruce also expressed his thoughts about “New Queer Cinema” via email, observing, “The New Queer Cinema outbreak was kind of short-lived, which makes sense because at the time it was new. If it continued, it would have had to be called Old Queer Cinema. All the filmmakers lumped together in that group went in pretty different directions… but the audience continues to expand.”
These films had tremendous influence on the medium and on their creators themselves. This is why these shorts, features, and documentaries deserve to be reconsidered two decades later. It is critical that audiences see these films — again or for the first time — so they can understand and appreciate the achievement and lasting impact these filmmakers and their work contributed.
BORN IN FLAMES | BAM Rose Cinemas | Brooklyn Academy of Music | 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Pl. | Oct. 9-16 | Screenings are $12 | bam.org