Monday, June 9, 2014

Bikes Without Dykes

Some types of love are strictly for the young at heart. I'm not talking about full-blown infatuations that escalate toward stalking or impassioned double suicides (as in Romeo and Juliet). Instead, I'm talking about young adults whose sexuality is unformed and uninformed; whose social skills have yet to mature and whose talent for introspection awaits development.

Many of these people are at a point in their lives where they struggle to articulate internal thoughts and emotions. In some cases, the clumsiness of their innocence can seem quite precious; in others frustrating. How members of an audience react to cinematic depictions of these young adults tentatively exploring their sexual orientation can depend on several factors:
  • How difficult a viewer's own coming out process was (and whether or not s/he wants to relive it).
  • How successful a viewer's subsequent personal love life has been.
  • How secure in his/her own identity the viewer is.
  • How much patience a jaded viewer can muster while waiting for young love to blossom.
  • Whether or not long hours of watching porn have conditioned a viewer to want to skip all the emotional foreplay and "get down to business."
  • How cynical a viewer has become after seeing too many well-intentioned filmmakers fumble all over the place as they try to capture puberty blossoming into sexual maturity.

One way to approach such films is to ask whether the cup of love is half full or half empty. But with Frameline (the world's oldest ongoing LGBT film festival) nearing its 40th anniversary, a viewer often finds himself wishing for stronger (and perhaps more explicit) coming-of-age stories. Herman Hupfeld's lyrics for "As Time Goes By" include the following sentiments:
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

And when two lovers woo
They still say, "I love you."
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.

Moonlight and love songs, never out of date.
Hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate.

It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
Two films screened during the Frameline 38 Film Festival go a long way toward demonstrating this dilemma. In each film, the young man questioning his desires seems to be hungering for affection, tenderness, and companionship  more than sex. Swimming and water play a natural and ritualistic role in washing away old dogma and embracing new sensations. However, in a bizarre way, motorcycles and bicycles come to symbolize the protagonist's escape vehicle from a heteronormative lifestyle in both films.

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Diego Araujo's new film entitled Feriado (Holiday) takes place in 1999, just before the collapse of Ecuador's banking system. Its protagonist is 16-year-old Juan Pablo (Juan Manuel Arregui), known by his nickname "Juampi." The film begins as Juampi and his mother travel from their family's apartment in Quito to visit some relatives in the Andes.

Juan Manuel Arregui is Juampi in Feriado (Holiday)

Juampi's uncle Jorge (Peki Andino) has been involved in a corruption scandal which will soon cause him to lose everything. Because Juampi's father does not get along with his brother-in-law, Juampi's mother has used the trip as an excuse to drop her son off with her relatives and, feigning illness, head back to the city.

That leaves the sensitive, long-haired, and soft-spoken Juampi at the mercy of cousin Jorgito (Irwin Ortiz), a spoiled and obnoxious bully, while being forced to cover for his cousin Maribel's (Canela Samaniego) disappearing act whenever her boyfriend, La Chava (Said L√≥pez), shows up. Juampi's love of poetry is in sharp contrast to the interests of his spoiled cousins.

When Juampi leaves a party and heads out for a nighttime walk, he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. First, he witnesses a young man stealing hubcaps from parked cars. But when the police arrive, one of their dogs can't decide whether to follow Juampi's scent or the scent of the hubcap thief.

Once the police leave, Juano (Diego Andres Paredes) leads Juampi to the motorcycle repair shop where he works for El Pichi (Pepe Alvear). After Juano informs El Pichi that someone they know has been badly beaten by Jorgito and his crew, the three men pile into El Pichi's truck and head out to rescue Juano's friend.

Juan Manuel Arregui is Juampi in Feriado (Holiday)

Juampi's chance encounter with Juano stirs a new and confusing kind of desire in the aspiring poet. In his director’s note, Diego Araujo explains that:
“The story of Feriado originated in a childhood memory. At a party, I witnessed a group of grown men attacking a teen caught stealing parts from the fancy cars parked outside. Being a kid, I felt powerless, unable to intervene, and the images stayed with me. In Feriado, Juan Pablo, an introverted 16-year-old of upper middle class background, witnesses a similar episode of violent oppression while on holiday at a hacienda in the Andes. The reaction it triggers in him propels Juan Pablo into a journey of self-discovery. It gives him the courage to silently rebel and pursue a relationship with Juano, a black metal fan from the nearby pueblo.

I want the audience to discover Juano’s world through Juan Pablo’s eyes and accompany him emotionally on his journey. The changing landscapes echo his state of mind: The story opens in a cold climate, in the monochromatic Andean landscape surrounding the family hacienda. The world of the hacienda presents itself as threatening compared to the ideal, innocent and fragile universe that Juan Pablo creates with Juano. With Juano, Juan Pablo’s universe expands and his senses open up. When Juano takes Juan Pablo to a waterfall in a warmer climate zone, the dry, Andean landscape gives way to exuberant sub-tropic vegetation; everything is greener, lusher, full of life. The light is yellowish, the sun intense. Juan Pablo experiences a symbolic rebirth when he lets himself go, physically and emotionally, and finds the courage to jump into the river. When he reemerges from the water, something in him has changed.”
Juampi (Juan Manuel Arregui) and Juano (Diego Andres Paredes)
sunbathe in a scene from Feriado (Holiday)

Obviously from a lower class of society than Juampi, Juano (another nickname for Juan Pablo) is unlike anyone Juampi has met at his uncle's hacienda. A member of the indigenous Quechua people, the leather-clad Juano loves to listen to black metal, rides a motorcycle, and has a strong sense of belonging to the local pueblo's community. Although his mother (who is living in the United States without documentation) has urged him to come join her, he is very much his own man in this small town.

Juano (Diego Andres Paredes) and Juampi (Juan Manuel Arregui)
take an upside-down look at life in a scene from Feriado (Holiday)

At one point, the two men end up drinking on the rooftop of Juampi's apartment building in Quito, where the young poet demonstrates how he likes to look at life through an upside-down perspective. With the alcohol lowering his inhibitions, Juampi gets up the courage to give Juano a tentative kiss. If the lean, dark-skinned, leather-clad man's reaction is less than what he had hoped for, at least Juampi has taken a giant step toward greater self-awareness. That first kiss is always one of the most important steps in coming out. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
A year younger than Juampi, 15-year-old Sieger (Gijs Blom) is the conflicted protagonist of Mischa Kamp's sensitively framed, made-for-television sports film entitled Boys (Jongens). A student at a Dutch high school, Sieger and his best friend, Stef (Stijn Taverne), are among a handful of amateur athletes chosen to compete in a national track relay championship.

While Stef is the more sociable of the two (and eager to make friends with the girls from their school), Sieger is quieter and more introspective. Following his mother's death, Sieger's father, Theo (Ton Kas), has had his hands full trying to raise two young boys. Sieger's rebellious older brother, Eddy (Jonas Smulders), is an obnoxious handful of trouble.
Sieger (Gijs Blom) and Marc (Ko Zandvliet) are two members of a
track team developing feelings for each other in Boys (Jongens)

When Sieger meets Marc (Ko Zandvliet) during training, there is an obvious attraction. While Sieger may be confused about what this means, Marc isn't. A young man who has already figured out what he wants, Marc (who is much more confident and focused than Sieger) can understand Sieger's inner conflict but will not tolerate dishonesty.

An innocent kiss while swimming near a local raft leaves Marc happy and Sieger's head spinning with questions. While Sieger initially tells Marc that he's "not a homo," there are no signs of self-hatred. Just internal confusion.

It's also pretty clear that Sieger is the good son while Eddy is the black sheep of the family. As a result, Sieger's inner torment comes under increased pressure from Eddy's knack for getting into trouble.

Poster art for Boys (Jongens)

Kamp's film does a superb job of capturing the early stages of a same-sex crush when a naive teenager starts to wonder if he might be attracted to someone of his own gender. While there is plenty of eye candy, the mutual attraction between Sieger and Marc is handled with a surprising amount of subtlety and warmth. As the filmmaker explains:
“I wanted to make love to something about love, but this film is also for children in grades 7 and 8 of primary school.  It is essentially a very universal love story. Certain films and television programs have been made about the coming out of gay people (and also about love between men), but never about normal teenage boys who fall in love. This film looks at what those two guys go through together. Every human being has had a first love, has known butterflies in their stomach, and all the uncertainty that comes with it. I wanted to make this film for young people who will hopefully recognize that whole process. The first love (and the decision that you really want to go for someone) is no different here than it is for heterosexuals.”
Sieger (Gijs Blom) and Marc (Ko Zandvliet) are two members of a
track team developing feelings for each other in Boys (Jongens)

Because she was working with a severely limited budget, Kamp was careful to have the boys competing in a sport that would be cost-effective for a filmmaker. "I think running is a very beautiful sport to watch,” she notes. “And it was cheaper to have the boys run than to fill a football field with dozens of players."  Here's the trailer:

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