The Outflix Film Festival, Memphis' annual showcase of LGBT cinema, will screen more than 20 films over the course of a week at Malco's Ridgeway Four theater. This year's festival continues the increase in quality that made last year's Outflix probably the best ever. Of the six features I selectively screened — I wish I had time for more — all are very much worth seeing, and a few — the Uganda exposé Call Me Kuchu, the Iranian Facing Mirrors, and the Los Angeles-set Mosquita y Mari — are easily deserving of more widespread theatrical attention.
Documentary Highlights: A multiple prize winner at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, Call Me Kuchu (Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.) is an on-the-ground report on violent homosexual repression in Uganda, where government and media have targeted individuals for ostracism, arrest, and worse. The film follows several gay activists in the country while also getting unnerving on-camera commentary from an anti-gay newspaper editor and capturing the disgusting work of American would-be missionaries who stoke anti-gay fear and violence. If you don't know the details of the gay rights movement in Uganda — and it's gotten enough American media attention that you might — there's a twist late in the film that may shock you.
Love Free or Die (Saturday, 5 p.m.) — a profile of Gene Robinson, who became the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, eventually forcing a dramatic change in church policy — won a Special Jury Prize earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and made its local debut this spring at the On Location: Memphis festival. The film follows the engaging Robinson from his exclusion at a 2008 church conference in England to the breakthrough he inspired at a church convention the following years, including his invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration and a triumphant appearance on The Daily Show. The debate over church policy on sexual orientation — in which a retired bishop steps to the microphone to come out and an exiled lesbian couple show they love the church more than it's loved them — is profoundly moving.
United in Anger: A History of Act Up (Monday, 6:30 p.m.) tells the story of the activist group that rose up in the '80s "united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis." This formation was provoked, in part, to push back against the malign neglect of the government and other official bodies. If you weren't there firsthand, you might think an interview subject who talks of fearing internment camps for AIDS patients is being a little too dramatic, but then the film shows an NBC Nightly News report on a poll that suggests 15 percent of the country once supported the idea of AIDS patients being identified with tattoos. As a work of cinema, United in Anger relies too much on merely printing information across the screen, in pamphlet form, but the story it tells is a compelling one. Particularly memorable is a passage on a dramatic protest at a Catholic church to protest one church leader's opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Another Doc of Note: Of specifically regional interest is deepsouth (Sunday, 3:30 p.m.), a "poetic" look at those affected by HIV in the South, including the story of one young, gay, black man in the Mississippi Delta.
Feature Highlights: After a strong Iranian entry at last year's Outflix, Circumstance, the fertile Iranian film scene produces another highlight this year with Facing Mirrors (Thursday, 6:30 p.m.), which tracks the meeting and burgeoning friendship between two troubled women: Rana (Qazal Shakeri), a young wife and mother secretly driving her imprisoned husband's cab to make money, and Adineh (Shayesteh Irani), aka "Eddie," an upper-class woman who yearns for a gender change and who is trying to escape an arranged marriage to a male cousin. There are stretches with the two women alone, driving in Rana's car, that might remind viewers of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, who uses a similar set-up in his Taste of Cherry and Certified Copy. And the film's feel for the tension and physical entrapment of a repressive society echoes another contemporary Iranian great, Jafar Panahi. Facing Mirrors isn't quite at the level of those filmmakers, but it's strong, and it builds to an extremely effective and emotional climax.
An intimate, naturalistic, strongly acted story of two teen girls whose budding friendship begins to evolve into something more, Mosquita y Mari (Monday, 8:30 p.m.) deserves an audience beyond the festival circuit. Set in the Latino community of Huntington Park, Los Angeles, the film has an acute sense of place and a compelling sensitivity toward the actual lives of teenagers. If it hews a little too strongly to the familiar good girl/bad girl dynamic, these young actresses (Venecia Troncoso and especially a radiant Fenessa Pineda) turn the stereotypes into fully formed people. Highly recommended.
An engaging, high-concept sex comedy, Gayby (Saturday, 8 p.m.) tracks single best friends in their 30s — gay Matt (Matthew Wilkas), mourning the recent breakup of a long-term relationship, and straight Jenn (Jenn Harris), who seems to have little luck in the love department — who decide to have a baby together but to do so, at Jenn's insistence, the old-fashioned way. The story, execution, and production values here are close to wide-release-worthy, but the film's comic sensibility is, to its credit, more rooted in a specifically gay perspective that's stronger than even most progressive Hollywood comedies are yet comfortable with. This is manifest in a lot of ways (including a sidekick whose weight gain and reluctance to shave inspires him to reinvent himself as a "bear" — lemons, lemonade, etc.) but perhaps most memorably in a straight coupling that satirically mocks the athletic exploits of many movie sex scenes.
Other Notable Features: The opening-night film, Cloudburst (Friday, 7 p.m.), stars Oscar-winning actresses Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as a couple of 30 years who embark on a Thelma & Louise-style road trip to Canada when Fricker's granddaughter tries to put her in a nursing home ... In The Men Next Door (Saturday, 3 p.m.), veteran director Rob Williams presents a romantic comedy about a 40-year-old man who finds himself in relationships with two men — one older, one younger — whom he later discovers are father and son ... Nate & Margaret (Sunday, 7:30 p.m.), which tracks the friendship between the 19-year-old Nate and 52-year-old Margaret, sounds sort of like a platonic, gay take on Harold & Maude. It's been getting strong reviews on its festival run.
Outflix Film Festival
Friday, September 7th-Thursday, September 13th
Tickets range from $9 for individual screenings to $75 for a full festival pass. See outflixfestival.org for a full schedule and other info.