Movie Reviews: Inside Out and Hot Docs Film Festivals

I wrote the following reviews for Shameless Magazine. They originally appeared here: Hot Docs reviews, Inside Out reviews

Still from The Legacy of Frida Kahlo, courtesy of Hot Docs
Still from The Legacy of Frida Kahlo, courtesy of Hot Docs


This hypnotic film captures the convergence of two unique women, Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist famous for her searing and allegorical self-portraits, and Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako, whose previous work includes Things Left Behind, a series of images taken of the belongings of people who died in the bombing of Hiroshima. InThe Legacy of Frida Kahlo, the filmmakers follow Ishiuchi as she photographs many of Kahlo’s belongings, which were found, untouched for decades, in a sealed off bathroom belonging to her husband and fellow artist, Diego Rivera. However, the film is less about the legacy of Frida Kahlo, as much as it is about the influences that shaped Kahlo, and how she in turn became a symbol of those things to her country and to the world. The movie ventures to the ancient Mesoamerican pyramids at Teotihuacan and to the homes of the women of Istmo. It is these women who, to this day, painstakingly embroider the traditional Oaxacan dresses that Frida made famous. The filmmakers ask the visitors to Kahlo’s museum what Kahlo means to them, and the answers show them engaging not just with her art, but with her struggles with chronic pain and injury, with her pride in her heritage, and with her desire to be seen on her own terms. Ishiuchi’s touching and personal photos of mended stockings, handmade shoes, and painted plaster corsets are able to bring Kahlo, in all her facets, back to life.

2016, USA, 91 MINUTES

Check It chronicles a few months in the life of members of the Check It, a gang made up of Black gay and trans youth in Washington D.C. The capitol of the United States is a study in contrasts – townhouses owned by some of the richest and most powerful people in the world are mere kilometres from neglected neighbourhoods experiencing cycles of poverty, drugs and violence. The Check It was formed out of self-defense, a grassroots response to one of the highest levels LGBTQ hate crimes in the country. The portrait of the gang is unflinching—to build a reputation, the Check It had to become as violent and impulsive as any other gang. Many of the members eke out a living as sex workers, facing the daily threat of rape and assault. Still, the Check It is inspiring for being able to carve for itself a place of relative safety and community in a viciously hostile world. Another thing that sets the gang apart is its love of fashion—members delight in owning the streets with their unique style. The film follows a few members as a local gang counselor tries to give them opportunities to get off the streets. Skittles goes the route of movie cliché—a reckless street fighter training for the boxing ring in a rough-and-tumble gym—though the cliché is upended by the homophobia he faces there. Tray, Day Day, and Alton end up in a fashion camp tasked with putting on a runway show at the end of the summer. Watching, you want desperately to believe that they will be able to pull it off, and also that this small success will have a lasting impact on their lives, despite how many cards are stacked against them in the deck.


Strike a Pose reunites some of the original dancers from Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, which was chronicled in her controversial tour documentary, Truth or Dare, released in 1991. Blond Ambition gained notoriety for its provocative dance routines and revealing Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes. Truth or Dare broke boundaries with its frank talk about sex and by featuring a passionate kiss between two of the male dancers. Twenty-five years later, the world is a different place, and the dancers, all but one of whom is gay, still receive touching letters from admirers, telling them how much it meant to see openly gay men starring on stage and screen. Still, watching Strike a Pose can be frustrating. It never transcends the level of reality TV, and many difficult questions go unasked. The dancers describe Madonna as a mother and a friend, but several sued her and none have seen her in decades. The mother of one dancer who died of AIDS is still filled with rage at the treatment her son received, but this is never satisfactorily explored. Questions about Madonna’s cultural appropriation of the dance and style of gay men of colour are never addressed. Two of the dancers, Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez, members of the Harlem ballroom scene’s House of Xtravaganza, choreographed Madonna’s video for “Vogue,” which helped launch her to super stardom. None of the dancers featured in Strike a Pose have managed to achieve a similar socioeconomic status. Despite these flaws, the dancers are charming, and clearly relish the opportunity to tell their own stories and show off their still fabulous moves, which makes watching Strike a Pose a bittersweet experience.

Director: Deborah S. Esquenazi
2016, USA, 91 minutes

In 1994 in San Antonio Texas, four young Latina lesbians were charged with aggravated sexual assault on a child. The group of friends was accused of sexually assaulting two young girls, the nieces of one of the four women. Convicted and sentenced to between 15 and 37 years in prison, the women, known as the San Antonio Four, have steadfastly maintained their innocence. This documentary reviews the details of the case, the virulent homophobia in the Texas justice system that led police and prosecutors to use their sexual orientation against the women, and the strange and disturbing currents that ran through the collective consciousness of the United States in the Nineties. The title of the film, Southwest of Salem, is a reference to a finding by the doctor who examined the little girls of evidence of “satanic-related sexual abuse.” Indeed, there were more than a few similarities between the case against the San Antonio Four and the Salem witch trials, including misogyny, male jealousy, and societal panic over the shifting of women’s roles. The film spends a bit too much time dwelling on this sordid aspect of the case when it could have explored the much greater problem of how lesbian, queer, and trans women of colour are so often the victims of persecution by the law. Despite this, the film serves as a painful reminder of what it was like to be gay in North America in the Nineties, and is a perfect showcase for why we must continue to fight against the injustices being perpetrated against LGBTQ people of colour to this day.

Director: Jake Witzenfeld
2015, UK/Israel, 86 minutes

Oriented profiles three young, gay Palestinian friends living in Tel Aviv during the lead-up to the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. The film works to unseat every possible stereotype, the first and foremost being that gay Palestinians don’t exist, or that they need to be “rescued” by the Israelis. The camera follows the young men, Khader, Fadi, and Naim, as they go to parties, visit their families, argue about politics, and discuss the difficulties of dating Israeli Jews. They describe the conflicts they feel in their own identities—as Arabs they face discrimination in Israel, but they also feel disconnected from fellow Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza. Their frustration at the marginalization, injustice, and state violence they see on so many levels in Israel leads them to create Qambuta, a group dedicated to promoting gender and national equality through the creation of videos they share on social media. While the film is structured more like reality TV than a documentary—the dinner party where they decide to form Qambuta, for instance, seems almost staged—there is no doubt to the truth of the experiences of these three men in the world. Oriented is an excellent antidote to the mainstream portrayal of Palestinians in the media as well as a window into the lives of three friends trying to do some good in the world.



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