As more states legalize gay marriage and uphold the rights of same-sex couples to act as foster parents or adopt unwanted children, long-cherished concepts of the nuclear family (as well as what constitutes "traditional" family values) are experiencing change. Earth-shaking change. The kind of change that challenges people to put their best feet forward in ways they may have once considered repulsive, unacceptable, or even unfathomable.
Back in the days of the Stonewall Revolution, the concept of gay families seemed equally bizarre. Those were the heady days of sexual liberation when people were guided by the saying "If it feels good, do it." People were experimenting with psychedlics like LSD, PCP, and mescaline, living in communes, turning on, tuning in and dropping out. The last thing on anyone's mind was gay marriage or same-sex couples adopting children.
Then reality started to set in. As gay people headed toward the Emergency Room with an overdose, a broken leg, or early signs of AIDS, the need for documentation started to raise questions about who to contact, next of kin, power of attorney, and living wills. Couples who had lived together for many years suddenly found their lives shattered by one partner's death and the other's unexpected challenges when relatives of the decedent would swoop in, empty a household, or change the locks on the survivor's apartment. Gay men and lesbians who had inherited custody of a child following a divorce or the death of an ex-spouse had to find new ways to protect their children as well as their legal status as a family.
These new responsiblities were nowhere to be found in the handbooks of social revolution. As the AIDS epidemic proceeded to wipe out huge numbers of people, new alliances were formed involving healthcare, legal rights, and the need for some people to acknowledge and act on their increasingly strong parenting urges.
This month, Frameline 33 (the 2009 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival) examines the many ways in which our societal norms are being redefined by gay families. Whether in shorts or full-length feature films, audiences have a chance to examine a wide range of family issues that were once unspoken, untested, or simply unmentionable.
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Three of the shorts featured on Frameline's Worldly Affairs program (which will be shown at the Castro Theater on Friday afternoon, June 26) deal with the painful issue of letting go. In Raw Love (Amor Crudo), we meet an Argentinian family with two teenage brothers. The older brother and his circle of friends are getting ready to graduate from high school and head out into the world. The younger brother, beloved by all, has pretty much been the group's mascot (the butt of many pranks) and been looked on as "the kid" who everyone delights in hazing, humiliating, and eventually hugging.
The two brothers have obviously shared the same bed for many years, sleeping head to toe (in one scene the younger brother jerks off as the older brother feigns disinterest). From the adoring looks in the younger brother's eyes, it's obvious that he idolizes his sibling. Finally, he asks "Do you have feelings for me?" (a loaded question whose meaning continues to elude his big brother).
This 16-minute Argentinian short by Juan Chappa and Martin Deus captures the moment when years of good-natured horsing around start to reveal a hidden layer of curiosity and erotic attraction. It's a film blessed with great boisterousness, bravado, and the sweetness of youth.
In one of her few moments of introspection during "Rose's Turn," Gypsy Rose Lee's mother blurts out four critical words: "Mama's gotta let go." While many consider Rose Hovick to be the ultimate in maternal monsters, they should not discount the antics of the single mother who is the head of the household in Bardi Gudmundsson's 21-minute short from Iceland.
Mother Knows Best focuses on a desperately lonely single mother who demands to be the center of attention. Totally unaware of how her selfishness is sabotaging her son's social life, she keeps competing for his attention with any woman who comes to visit him. There's just one problem: The women Gudini is bringing home are friends, not girlfriends.
One night, while sitting at home in Reykjavik watching a documentary about the indigenous cultures of Latin America, Gudini's mother learns a shocking but potentially useful fact. The reason gay men are embraced and cherished in these cultures is that they continue to live at home and will frequently stick around to take care of their aging parents. When Gudini finally comes out to his mother, she couldn't be more thrilled to hear the news and quickly embraces her son's new boyfriend.
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Things are a bit more complicated for Tony (Brian Moore) who, at the invitation of his ex-lover, travels 10,000 miles from London to visit Neil (Chris Tempest) in rural New Zealand. In Teddy (a 13-minute film by Christopher Banks), we witness Tony's disappointment as he realizes that there is absolutely no hope of reuniting with Neil, whose life is now firmly built around Phil (Alan Granville). As Banks explains:
"A couple of years ago, one of the larger Anglican churches in Auckland, St. Matthew's in the City, held a "Blessing of the teddy bears Sunday" and, although neither of us are religious, my partner and I both went along. It was so life-affirming that I ended up writing about it in a column for a local gay newspaper. I was surprised to find the atmosphere of inclusion and unconditional love that came through in that service as people shared their memories and life experiences. It was something I had never experienced when growing up as a Catholic.I'm quite sentimental about teddy bears. My partner and I have several, one of which -- his childhood bear -- is actually the Teddy in the film. The idea of blessing teddy bears seemed frivolous initially, but when I heard Reverend Glynn Cardy's rationale behind the event, it seemed very appropriate: "Bears are an important part of many people's childhood. They come to us furry and clean and after seemingly only a little time start to lose both. As they're cuddled, carried, sucked, and cherished, they lose their pristine appearance and gain love, instead. Then, smothered in love, toast crumbs, and honey, they become real."Once something becomes real it can be lost. I liked the idea of a teddy representing a relationship and all the emotion that two people invest into it. It seemed beautiful and sad all at the same time. I also liked the irony of Neil having replaced the teddy bear in his life with a real bear. It really plays to Tony's insecurities, both as a man and as a partner."
While Teddy offers a genuine treat for the eyes, this film also has a lovely surprise ending which will touch the audience's heart. Here's the trailer:
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Often, when gay couples make plans to adopt a child, one partner is far more enthusiastic about parenting than the other. For some gay men, raising a child means an end to their freedom and the onset of a huge number of responsibilities. Two feature films that will be shown at this month's festival focus on middle-aged male physicians who desperately want to raise a child.
In Ella Lemhagen's beautiful and extremely poignant new feature film, Patrik, Age 1.5, two gay men have been approved by Sweden's social services to adopt a child. Although Goran (Gustaf Skarsgard) and Sven (Torkel Petersson) have bought a crib, installed a babycam, and laid plans to furnish a nursery for their infant's impending arrival, foreign nations will not allow an orphan to be sent to a same-sex household. At the moment there seem to be no Swedish children available for the Skooghs to adopt.
Just when the couple has given up hope, they receive word that a young boy named Patrik will be soon light up their lives. There's just one problem, and it's probably one of the worst typographical errors in the history of cinema. Instead of listing Patrik's age as 15, a careless government clerk has accidentally typed a decimal point instead of a comma so that, according to the official documentation, Patrik should be a sweet little infant of 1.5 years.
But there is absolutely nothing sweet about Patrick (Thomas Ljungman). He's a sullen, homophobic juvenile delinquent, a teenaged thug with a criminal past who watched his mother die, spent years in group foster homes, and whose last remaining relative wants absolutely nothing to do with him. When Patrik shows up on Goran and Sven's doorstep, they have no idea who he is or why he is at their house. Prone to violence and less than thrilled at having to spend the weekend with two middle-aged queers, Patrik's brooding presence instantly triggers the angry and paranoid Sven's old drinking habits.
What follows is a gay melodrama/comedy of errors in which the more paternal Goran (who is, after all, a physician) quietly assesses Patrik's assets and risk factors and tries to make the best of the situation -- even if it means kicking Sven out of their new home in an idyllic suburban community. While Patrik may be a hostile little bastard, he soon demonstrates some remarkable gardening skills which have the neighbors eager to pay Patrik for his landscaping services. As the teenager starts to earn respect from Goran, his neighbors, and the local kids (to whom he has taught some skateboarding tricks), he starts to form a precarious bond with Goran.
Sven's ex-wife Eva (Annika Hallin) is quick to commiserate with Goran over Sven's boorish behavior. To everyone's surprise, her punked-out daughter Isabell (Amanda Davin) seems to hit it off with Patrik, who might just offer a new way of getting back at her father. Meanwhile, the streetwise Patrik senses that Goran and Sven will soon make up and he will once more be without a home. When the adoption agency finds another family for him, Patrik heads off with a potential new father, hoping for a stable roof over his head.
Alas, his new family can't meet one of Patrik's wishes (he has always wanted a pet dog) so, after much thought, Patrik decides that living with two upper middle class queers might not be so bad after all. Lemhagen's movie is filled with humor, pathos, and real challenges for gay families and their neighbors. Here's the trailer:
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Adoption is not the only way to get a child. For some gay couples, finding a surrogate offers the perfect solution. In Ron Satlof's new film, Misconceptions, everything that could possibly go wrong does in a movie that tries to make the best out of America's cultural wars over the concept of gay families.
Sandy Price-Owens (David Moscow) is a middle-aged Jewish physician at a Boston hospital who has made some breakthroughs in the treatment of a rare childhood disease. His husband, Terry (Orlando Jones), is a dancer/choreographer who shares Sandy's dream of raising a family. At the end of the made-for-television documentary about Sandy's medical breakthrough, he makes a fervent plea to viewers asking if anyone would consider becoming a surrogate mom for the embryo created by one of the couple's sperm and a friend's donated egg.
Meanwhile, in a determinedly Christian community in the heart of the deep South, a married woman (A. J. Cook) whose young son succumbed to the disease which has become Sandy's life's work, watches the documentary on late night television and is so moved by his plea that she prays to God for guidance. Faster than Miranda can fall on the floor and mutter "Hallelujah" while her dimwitted husband Parker (David Sutcliffe) lies sleeping, she gets an astonishing answer. Because her husband has been unwilling to have sex with her following their son's death (they have been sleeping in separate beds ever since), Miranda believes it to be God's will that she contact the two gay men in Boston and offer her womb to bear fruit for the fruits.
Miranda's sister Lucy (Sarah Carter), who is her business partner in their Loaves & Fishes catering company, has also been having problems getting pregnant. When she and her husband Tom (Samuel Ball) finally decide to make use of a Christian fertility counselor's services, it's obvious that Debbie Sue (Aerica D'Amaro) has caught Tom's eye. Complications quickly ensue.
Once Sandy and Terry have shipped off a vial of their sperm to Miranda -- and she has managed to get pregnant with Debbie Sue's help -- someone has to explain to Miranda's rabidly homophobic idiot of a husband that the child in her womb is not his (Parker is the kind of superbutch Christian who keeps a picture of Jesus holding a hammer in his tool shed). When Terry arrives unexpectedly to help Miranda through her pregnancy, Parker can barely comprehend what his wife has done.
Meanwhile, Tom has run off with Debbie Sue, leaving Lucy convinced that the twins to which she is about to give birth are truly the devil's spawn. It doesn't take much to figure out who is going to end up with the twins but, in Misconceptions, the path traveled by well-meaning individuals with diametrically opposed worldviews is a new and interesting one.
Satlof asks audiences to consider what happens when a surrogate's husband tries to sue for custody of the unborn child. In the long run, he does a good job of showing that getting to know gay people on a one-to-one basis can usually help to bring some desperately-needed sanity to a complicated situation.