Monday, July 14, 2014

No Child Deserves To Be Left Behind

When one examines the hypocrisy inherent in so many heated discussions about birth control, it quickly becomes apparent that conservatives will do everything possible to proclaim and protect the legal rights of a zygote while ignoring the need of a child to be nourished and protected through the arduous and often frightening journey to adulthood.

Although Christian conservatives may delight in singing What Child Is This? at Christmastime, their willingness to protect a living, breathing child is questionable.
In many cases, homeless teens end up on the streets of America after coming out to their not-so-tolerant Christian parents. In other cultures, however, the deadly combination of poverty and illiteracy can undermine a child's emotional and spiritual development.

Two new films making the festival circuit offer dark, yet refreshingly blunt insights into teens who rise above their situations in order to redefine their lives. Each offers a candid perspective on reality that would easily scare off studio executives hungry for a commercial success.

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Seen at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival, Abdellah Taïa's largely autobiographical film, Salvation Army, takes its time gathering momentum. The story follows a 15-year-old boy named Abdellah (Said Mrini) who is first seen living with his five sisters in Casablanca.

Abdellah may look innocent and rarely say much, but he's keenly observant. Though he has an unrequited crush on his older brother, Slimane (Ammine Ennaji), he understands that Slimane is only interested in women.

Abdellah (Said Mrini) with his older brother, Slimane
(Ammine Ennaji) in a scene from Salvation Army

On those nights when his parents have sex, Abdellah sometimes tries to prevent his father (Abdelhak Swilah) from beating up his mother (Malika El Hamaoui) following intercourse. At other times he recognizes the subtle signals from a local fruit vendor (Hamid Elouajdi Mouladi) who uses Abdellah for a quick fuck before rewarding him with a watermelon to take home to his family.

Only when Slimane encourages Abdellah to learn how to read in French (so that he can escape from a life of poverty, patriarchy, and cultural oppression) do Abdellah's horizons begin to broaden. As the filmmaker explains:
"Salvation Army is actually a story of a solitude. Fragments from this solitude. The narration is not a classical one. The images seem slow and silent, but they are not. The hero is a gay Moroccan but he is not a cliché victim. Like so many Moroccans, he deals with reality with some perversity. He is totally alone. I had to find the right distance, the right images to say the hard reality of my country, Morocco (and not only for gay people). To show the silence imposed on everyone there. To show a world that I know very well. No one could write the adaptation in my place. I did it alone. I hope that they will get the rhythm, the hidden secrets."
Poster art for Salvation Army

Midway through the film, an older Abdellah (Karim Ait M'Hand) is seen with Jean (Frédéric Landenberg), an older European man who is a professor. Although Abdellah has managed to get a scholarship to study in Geneva, he remains poor. When he and Jean hire a man to row them around in a boat while in Morocco, the man compliments Abdellah in Arabic on having found himself a rich boyfriend.

However, in a repressed culture like Morocco's, their relationship is pretty much a quid pro quo. Jean gets a sexy (if somewhat sullen) young boyfriend while Abdellah snags a visa that allows him to live in Switzerland. After he breaks off his relationship with Jean, Abdellah's options become increasingly limited. Eventually, the lonely young man finds himself knocking on the door of the local Salvation Army, hungry for food, shelter, love, and a better future.

Abdellah (Karim Ait M'Hand) calls his mother in Casablanca while
studying in Geneva in a scene from Salvation Army

Taïa's brooding film, which is extremely short on dialogue, benefits immensely from Agnès Godard's cinematography while capturing the quite desperation and loneliness of a stranger in a strange land. Here's the trailer:

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In the past few years LGBT film festivals have featured numerous entries depicting the challenges faced by straight parents of a gay child or gay couples who have adopted children (or conceived children with the help of a sexual surrogate). Few have shown gay men being confronted by the angry child they created with their best friend in college on that hopelessly drunken night when they were still trying to prove to themselves that they were straight.

Ignacio Montes is Armando in My Straight Son

Venezuelan filmmaker Miguel Ferrari has done a spectacular job of filling that gap with a provocative new film entitled My Straight Son (which was recently screened at the 2014 Frameline Film Festival). The film's original Spanish title translates as Blue and Not So Pink, meaning that life isn't always as pretty or happy as one might wish.

Set in Caracas, My Straight Son revolves around the closeted Diego (Guillermo García), a handsome, charismatic, and successful photographer who specializes in the fashion and arts scene. For the past few years, Diego has been in a stable relationship with Fabrizio (Sócrates Serrano), a successful OBGYN doctor who wants marry Diego, move in together, and settle down.

Diego (Guillermo García) and Fabrizio (Sócrates Serrano) talk
about getting married and settling down in My Straight Son

Because Diego is often so wrapped up in his work that he ignores phone calls from his family, he learns (on extremely short notice) that his ex-girlfriend is putting their son on a plane to spend the summer with him while she participates in a special project in Paris. From the moment Diego picks Armando (Ignacio Montes) up at Simon Bolivar International Airport, it becomes obvious that the handsome teenager has arrived with a big chip on his shoulder.

Diego (Guillermo García) is visited by his son,
Armando (Ignacio Montes). in My Straight Son

Armando's attitude ("I'm not your pal, I'm your son!") has nothing to do with the fact that Diego is gay but everything to do with his anger that, as  a father, Diego has failed to remember his birthdays and shown little interest in his life. If meeting Diego's overly dramatic friends delivers a stiff dose of culture shock, Armando's reunion with his father is further tested when Fabrizio becomes the target of a vicious gay bashing and dies in the hospital's intensive care unit.

Diego asks friends to look after his son while he tries to deal with Fabrizio's homophobic parents, attempts to track down the thug who murdered his lover, copes with his loud-mouthed and perpetually inappropriate female friend, Perla Marina (Carolina Torres) and seeks help from a popular transsexual cabaret performer named Delirio del Rio (Hilda Abrahamz) while struggling to handle his grief over Fabrizio's death.

Armando (Ignacio Montes) confronts his father, Diego
(Guillermo García) in a scene from My Straight Son

Meanwhile, Armando (who is shy with girls) has been chatting online with a young woman and trying to get up the courage to meet her in real time. Armando hasn't helped matters by sending her a picture of one of the fashion models his father has photographed instead of a picture of himself.

Primarily known to Venezuelan audiences as an actor, Ferrari's debut as the director of a full-length feature film is most impressive. Not only does My Straight Son look at Diego's crises from the perspective of a man trying to cope with his biological family, his extended gay family, and his former lover's homophobic family, it does a triumphant job of depicting the emotional strength of family values that transcend religion or ideology. As Ferrari explains:
“What I value most in an actor is the simplicity of his actions and the ability to empathize with the character, to stand in their shoes and make me believe that he is the character -- unadorned and without fanfare. This film is not about a gay issue. It is a film with a great variety of characters, each with their particular sexual preferences. I wanted to talk about them from their human dimension, separating them completely from stereotypes. I wanted to talk about people who never talk; people who are discriminated against by prejudices of all kinds. This is a story about love, friendship, and about family in its broadest sense.”
Poster art for Azul Y No Tan Rosa (My Straight Son)

My Straight Son is also a story with some hairpin dramatic turns, emotional challenges, and joyous surprises that is beautifully framed by Alexandra Henao's cinematography and enhanced by Sergio de la Puente's music. Its cast turns in rock solid performances (including the horrific gay bashing scene that costs Fabrizio his life) which allow viewers to witness a large coterie of complex characters forced to undergo substantial emotional growth. Here's the trailer:

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