Monday, June 18, 2012

Raiders of the Lost Archives

Whenever news reports surface about an archaeological dig (or construction site) that has revealed previously-hidden parts of a buried civilization, people start to fantasize about what life must have been like back in the day. Whether they dream about daily life in ancient Sumeria or what things might have been like in Atlantis (before it slid into the ocean), the ghosts of civilizations past hold a special place in our collective imagination.

From Sir James George Frazer's epic research for The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion to Margaret Mead's work as a cultural anthropologist investigating attitudes toward sex in Oceanian, Australasian, and South Asian cultures, curiosity about tribal life and urban subcultures is occasionally met by a frightening lack of documentation.

Perhaps that's why a well-intentioned but clumsy documentary being screened at the Frameline 36 Film Festival is such a frustrating exercise in exploring local LGBT history. To understand the cultural significance of Submerged Queer Spaces, one must first examine what gay life in San Francisco is like today in order to comprehend what has been lost.
  • Founded in 1971, the Bay Area Reporter is one of the oldest and largest continually published LGBT newspapers in the United States.
  • Many LGBT people own businesses and real estate within the Bay area.
  • Most local politicians go out of their way to gain support from the LGBT community.
  • Now more than 35 years old, the Golden Gate Business Association offers support and networking opportunities for LGBT-owned businesses.
  • LGBT tourism has become an important force in the local economy (after more than 40 years, San Francisco's annual LGBT Pride celebration is billed as "the largest gathering of LGBT people and allies in the nation).
  • Although gay men have always sought each other out in parks and gay bars, gay websites and applications like Grindr, Blendr, and Mister have proven to be much more efficient for purposes of hooking up.
  • Strong evidence of corporate support for the LGBT community can be seen at street fairs and community events.
  • Whether one attends the Dyke March, the Folsom Street Fair, or encounters naked men walking around the Castro, visibility is no longer an issue.

As filmmaker Jack Curtis Dubowsky explains:
"Submerged Queer Spaces examines queer history through an approach of urban archaeology. As San Francisco grew and gentrified, communities changed significantly post-World War II, shifted, and were displaced. Bars, restaurants, parks, alleys, bathhouses, and other gathering spots of the queer community were remodeled, repurposed, rebuilt, or destroyed. Many of the spaces examined in the early part of the film are bars (which were the primary places where queer people were able to socialize and build community). In the 1950s and 1960s, gay watering holes abound in North Beach and the Tenderloin. Soon after, Polk Street is lined with some cleverly named gay bars and eateries. The film whisks us to the former sites of these queer spaces with archival images placed over the current location and then slowly fades away, revealing its present day exterior."

In his attempt to mix the oral histories taken from older members of San Francisco's LGBT community with the city's architectural history, Dubowsky has tried to capture a vanishing past. Sometimes (when discussing the importance of places like Fe-Be's to the leather community or listening to a lesbian reminisce about having dated Janis Joplin years before she became famous) Submerged Urban Spaces has a certain kind of charm.

Too often, however, Dubowsky's shaky camera technique and poor attention to acoustics during his interviews are counterproductive. Titles float on and off the screen with the kind of instability one associates with trying to read a message from an old-fashioned Magic 8-Ball.

Dubowsky's fascination with a building's original fixtures (a fire alarm, vent, drain pipe,  or evidence of an attachment for a commercial sign) proved baffling to me. His godawful original musical score invoked painful memories of the soundtracks from early porn movies.

* * * * * * * * *
Infinitely more satisfying is a quiet little independent film that was screened at the San Francisco International Film FestivalJulia Murat’s first full-length feature film, Found Memories, is set in the tiny Brazilian village of Jotuomba where a small group of senior citizens remain isolated from the world at large. As the filmmaker recalls:
"The original idea of the film did come from an image, but not a photo. In 1999 I was shooting, as an assistant director on my mother’s film, Brave New Land, when I came across a cemetery that had been closed out, in the small village of Forte Coimbra (Mato Grosso do Sul, in Brazil). Its inhabitants, when they died, had to be buried in another city, a seven-hour boat ride away. This image fascinated me since then I wanted to write a story about an old woman who wanted to die, but could not since her village’s cemetery had been closed down."

A film whose beauty often lies in unspoken communications and softly lit spaces, Found Memories explores a tiny jungle enclave free of the technology that dominates our modern world. When a young, inquisitive photographer named Rita (Lisa E. Favero) arrives and asks if she can photograph the 11 remaining residents of the village, she soon finds herself bonding with Madalena (Sonia Guedes), the old woman who bakes bread every morning, and Antonio (Luiz Serra), who runs the local coffee shop.

Part of Rita's technique is to use a primitive camera to create long-exposure portraits, which she develops in the darkroom she has set up. Whatever one's level of skill as a photographer or filmmaker, one will want to see Found Memories just to bask in the sensual luxury of its natural light and watch as Rita meticulously sets up her interior shots.

"We worked in extreme conditions: exterior day sequences or night sequences that should look lit by a gas lamp. The total lack of artificial light in the scenes was a defining factor on the final aesthetics of the film. One or two vibrant yet weak light spots coming from the open flame. A light that was very contrasted with almost no details in the dark areas," recalls Murat. "Lucio Bonelli, the film cinematographer who has worked on Lisandro Alonso’s films, said that we started the research for the film with Rembrandt and, by the time we were in post-production, we had ended up with Caravaggio."

The script of Found Memories offers audiences a strange combination of documentary and magical realism. Beautiful performances come from the small ensemble cast, especially Sonia Guedes as the grumpy old baker. As Murat explains:
"Sônia Guedes (Maddalena) and Luiz Serra (Antônio) are award-winning actors from São Paulo’s theater scene who studied a classical style of interpretation at the EAD (Dramatic Arts School) in the 1950s and 1960s. During rehearsals, Sônia would always tell stories about her classes in EAD when her interpretation teacher would demand that each syllable of each word be understood by the person sitting on the last chair of the theater. During the process Sônia and Serra had a lot of doubts on the type of acting we were searching for in the film. Most of the time they felt as if they were not acting at all and were surprised when we told them that this was exactly what we were looking for."
Although Found Memories demands a lot of patience from its audience, Murat's film proves to be a work of exquisite beauty. Here's the trailer:

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