7 Mar 2008

fridae's SIFF must-see guide

Which to see? What to skip? The Singapore International Film Festival is screening more than 200 films... Fridae sifts through the lot and presents our top picks!

The 21st Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) will showcase some 200 films from 40 countries from March 23 to April 4 this year. As always, there are several films that would interest the LGBT community.

Notably, this year's festival sees a strong showing from lesbian films and filmmakers. Lesbian directors Lim Mayling and Sun Koh lead the Singaporean contingent with Women Who Love Women and Lucky 7 respectively, while an American biopic on photographer Annie Leibovitz tops our list of must-sees.

Fridae's Zee spent all week watching various gay and lesbian related films and tells you which to see and which to skip:

Must See 1

Top of page: a still from Lucky 7; above (top to bottom): Annie Leibovitz: Life Through A Lens, A Jihad For Love, Women Who Love Women: Conversations In Singapore; and Singaporean filmmaker Boo Junfeng of Keluar Baris and Lucky 7.
Annie Leibovitz: Life Through A Lens (USA)
Director: Barbara Leibovitz
In English

You may or may not have heard the name of photographer Annie Leibovitz. But you've certainly seen her extraordinary, unforgettable pictures. They include the controversial image of Demi Moore heavily pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the legendary snapshot of a naked John Lennon curling up to his wife Yoko Ono. The famous 3-page cover photo foldouts of Vanity Fair are usually shot by her.

Annie, who lived with intellectual Susan Sontag for many years, is the subject of Annie Leibovitz: Life Through A Lens, a lucid, intelligent and entertaining documentary that's easily our favorite LGBT film of the festival. Directed by her sister Barbara, it covers her career from her heady drug-addled days in Rolling Stone magazine to her present status as a superstar photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue.

With interviewees such as Bette Midler, Yoko Ono, Whoopi Goldberg, Hillary Clinton and Mikhail Baryshnikov, you'll be quite starstruck.

Must-See 2
A Jihad For Love (USA/UK/France/Germany/Australia)
Director: Parvez Sharma
In English, Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Hindi and French

The topic of religion and homosexuality never fails to ignite debate. And when that religion is Islam, the subject couldn't be more explosive. Not surprisingly, this year's most highly anticipated LGBT film is A Jihad for Love, a groundbreaking documentary about gay and lesbian Muslims in repressive countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Egypt.

Parvez Sharma, the openly gay Indian director, spent six years traveling the globe and befriending gay Muslims before they trusted him enough to be filmed. (In some cases, their societies are still very repressive so the interviewees have to mask their faces.) What emerges is a compassionate though somewhat monotonous portrait of pious men and women struggling to reconcile their faith and their homosexuality.

One Egytian man was arrested, jailed, beaten, and raped in his country for being "debauched." But he still holds the Koran close to his heart and believes that "God has a reason" for making him gay. He has since moved to the West where he is free to be gay - an escape route that not a few of us have chosen.

In another touching scene, three Iranian men lie close to each other on a hillside, away from the rest of the world. One says: "Why don't they understand (gay love)? Why do they think the sky has to be the same color for everyone?"

Must-See 3
Women Who Love Women: Conversations In Singapore (Singapore)
Director: Lim Mayling
In English

Also among our favorites is the full-length Singapore lesbian documentary Women Who Love Women: Conversations In Singapore produced by Ngiam Su-Lin and directed by Lim Mayling. The reason why we love it is simple: Although there have been other films (mostly short ones) about gays in Singapore, none of them has been as graceful, upbeat and charming as this documentary.

The three women interviewed - Amanda Lee, Sabrina Chong and Gea Swee Jean - are wonderfully articulate, optimistic and centered people. It's no wonder that their straight friends, who are also interviewed in the film, continue to love and support them. And it's a refreshing change from the usually depressing treatment of the subject.

As they chat about their lives, loves and relationships with God, you never quite cease to be surprised and amazed by their boldness and candor. Decades from now, when the space for gays and lesbians in Singapore has truly opened up, Women Who Love Women: Conversations In Singapore will be shown on TV and be remembered for being the first local film to portray happy, well-balanced, "uncloseted" lesbians.

Notable gay (related) efforts

Shelter (Italy)
Director: Marco S. Puccioni
In Italian

A sexy lesbian couple (played by Maria de Medeiros and Antonia Liskova) take in an illegal immigrant from Morocco out of sympathy. But the young hot-blooded Moroccan man unintentionally disrupts their Sapphic idyll and tests their relationship…

An intimate drama about sexual power, Shelter is the sort of film that requires very patient and attentive viewing. The plot turns on the smallest nuance and the subtlest emotion. There's no denying, however, the talent and attractiveness of actress Antonia Liskova, who was named Best Actress at two film festivals.

The one-on-one semi-nude girl action is also quite a turn-on. We recommend this film to lesbian viewers.

Keluar Baris (Singapore)
Director: Boo Junfeng
In English, Mandarin, Malay and Hokkien

Boo Junfeng - the talented filmmaker and curator of Short Circuit, an LGBT film festival - returns with another short film that's been nominated for Best Short at the Silver Screen Awards (the festival's version of the Oscars). His new film Keluar Baris (which means "Fall Out" in Malay) doesn't deal with gay issues per se.

But gay men might still want to watch it for its gorgeous star Daryl Pan, who was named one of Cleo's 50 Most Eligible Bachelors of 2007. Daryl plays an 18-year-old boy who returns home from his studies in Europe two days before he has to enlist in the army. He finds it hard to adjust to his changing circumstances…

Subtle, poignant and gracefully shot; with a lovely score by Darren Ng.

Lucky 7 (Singapore)
Director: Sun Koh, K. Rajagopal, Boo Junfeng, Brian Gothong Tan, Chew Tze Chuan, Ho Tzu Nyen, Tania Sng
In English, Mandarin, Tamil, Singhalese and various Chinese dialects

Conceived by lesbian filmmaker Sun Koh, Lucky 7 is a collaborative effort involving seven Singaporean filmmakers in making a full-length feature. Each filmmaker has been tasked to write and direct a 10-minute story. But each story (except for the first story) must begin with the last minute of the previous story.

Though the concept is intriguing, the results are somewhat patchy. The seven stories range from the marvelous to the mediocre to the mundane. Still, Lucky 7 is an interesting film experiment that should have cineastes and film students flocking to it.

Besides Sun Koh, three of the other filmmakers are also gay.

The Princess of Nebraska (USA)
Director: Wayne Wang
In English and Mandarin

The festival's opening film is The Princess of Nebraska, directed by Wayne Wang (of The Joy Luck Club fame) who will be present at the screening. It features sexy Singaporean actress Pamelyn Chee, a number of queer characters, and a full-on lesbian sex scene.

About the lack of direction and purpose in post-Tiananmen Square Chinese teenagers, it tells a meandering tale of a Chinese girl Sasha (Ling Li) studying in Nebraska who is impregnated by bisexual boyfriend Yang. She goes to San Francisco to get an abortion but meets a bar hostess (Pamelyn Chee) whom she ends up having sex with...

A low-budget drama shot in a handheld style, the story at times feels just as aimless as the characters.

Other films Of gay interest

Veil of Dreams (Singapore)
Director: Zaihirat Banu Codelli
In Persian and Mandarin

Singaporean director Zaihirat Banu Codelli went to Iran to shoot an interesting documentary on the women's soccer team in this patriarchal Islamic country. Some of the players are obviously lesbians. Though the docu is well-shot, it is largely let down by the narrator's bad diction.

When Timawa Meet Delgado (Philippines)
Director: Ray Gibraltar
In Tagalog

Confusing and very badly shot, this mix-genre film follows a gay farmer Timawa and a straight videographer Delgado as they both decide to apply for a male nursing programme. Perhaps one of the worst films in the whole festival.

I'm Not There (USA)
Director: Todd Haynes
In English

Gay director Todd Hayne's acclaimed biopic about musical legend Bob Dylan has racked up one festival prize after another. Though it doesn't deal with gay issues, it is certainly fun watching Cate Blanchett cross-dressing and playing the scruffy, chain-smoking musician. And she's not the only one. There are five other actors playing Bob Dylan, including the late Heath Ledger.

Be warned: This experimental film can be very, very hard to follow and understand.

Fridae is proud to be supporter of the Singapore International Film Festival. For schedules and updates, visit www.filmfest.org.sg. Pre-sale tickets begin Mar 1 for Citibank cardholders; and open to the public from Mar 11 on Sistic.