A week after the city's biggest film festival closes shop, another is taking a step into the limelight. The Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center has been sponsoring a film festival for half a decade now, but this year, it comes with a new name and a broader schedule. Until this year, the festival had been called "The Twinkie Museum," named in reference to the since-banned legal defense used to obtain an outrageously light sentence for the assassin of landmark gay activist and politician Harvey Milk.
While the name had plenty of resonance in the gay and lesbian community, it also led to a bit of confusion. "I was involved with the festival in previous years, and I remember people asking me if Hostess was a sponsor," says Mark Jones, a local filmmaker and member of the festival's programming committee.
As a sign of its increasing profile, the festival has been rechristened "OutFlix" and will take place Thursday, October 10th, through Sunday, October 13th, with screenings at Malco's Studio on the Square and at the First Congo Theater in Cooper-Young's First Congregational Church. The festival kicks off Thursday night with a double screening (to be repeated the next day, in reverse order) of the Sundance-screened documentary Trembling Before G-d and the local production Eli Parker Is Getting Married?, the latter produced and written by Jones. The filmmaker is hopeful that this pairing will make OutFlix 2002 the organization's highest-profile festival yet. "Trembling Before G-d has gotten a lot of attention [in other markets], and a lot of people here know about Eli Parker, mostly because I can't shut up about it," Jones says.
Directed by Conservative Jew Sandi Simcha Dubowski and set in Jerusalem, London, and several U.S. cities, Trembling Before G-d explores the hidden lives of gays and lesbians in Orthodox and Hasidic communities. It is a serious, thoughtful film that expresses anger over religious oppression and exclusion of homosexuality while exhibiting a deep respect for Judaism itself and for the faith of its subjects. The piety of Dubowski's film lies only in its title.
Early on, Dubowski presents a Jewish psychotherapist who recounts the story of a patient, a Yeshiva teacher who has taken a vacation because he feels himself falling in love with one of his male students. This man, the psychotherapist explains, has lived with his "condition" for 40 years, marrying and fathering 12 children, without ever acting on his homosexuality. But this portrait of repression is given an unexpected twist when the viewer learns what the psychotherapist thinks of his patient: He's "a saint," and his ability to "struggle with his desire and not let it beat him" is the proper manner in which a gay or lesbian Jew should confront his or her homosexuality.
Trembling Before G-d opens with a line of scripture that condemns to death those who practice homosexuality. But it's this seemingly kinder and gentler form of religiously based homophobia --compassionate in a way but utterly devoid of sympathy or understanding --that is the true obstacle. For seemingly every character seen or heard from in the film, gay identity and religious faith are absolute. For some, these traits are necessarily linked, and for others they are mutually exclusive.
Dubowski presents an incredibly moving tableau of gays and lesbians attempting to negotiate their sexuality and faith -- some who have left the world of Orthodox Judaism behind; others who live within it, married and closeted; and still others who are actively trying to reconcile the rift between these aspects of their identity.
One interview subject, Steve Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, seems to offer a way out of the conflict: "There are other ways of reading the Torah. Let's learn." And even if the film's lone flaw is that it neglects to spell out these alternative interpretations, it offers plenty of evidence why they must be sought.
By contrast, Eli Parker Is Getting Married? is a lighter portrait of the coming-out process. The film, which screened as a rough cut at Studio on the Square last summer and is getting its first public screening since at OutFlix, is one of the most entertaining local films made in the last few years: a well-written, well-acted, and coherently plotted tale that would have quite a bit of mainstream appeal if it could find the audience it deserves.
Jones and director Ryan Parker shot the film on digital video, in 21 days, utilizing locations and resources Jones had at his disposal -- his family farm in DeSoto County and many friends and co-workers at WKNO -- drawing partly on his own experience of coming out in 1994. The result is a screwball social comedy as Southern coming-out story in which a bachelor-party prank intersects with a road-gang-escapee subplot and best man Ronnie comes out to groom/college roommate Eli Parker in the most awkward of circumstances.
Other films screening at OutFlix include the thriller/mystery M.O. of M.I. (The Modus Operandi of Male Intimacy), cable-TV pilot Sex, Politics, and Cocktails, documentary Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay, and local films Star Queen: A Star Is Bored and Three Minutes Based Upon the Revolution of the Sun. For a complete schedule, see the festival's Web site at OutFlix.org.
Trembling Before G-d
7 p.m. Thursday, October 10th, and 1 p.m. Friday, October 11th
Eli Parker Is Getting Married?
9 p.m. Thursday, October 10th, and 11 a.m. Friday, October 11th
Both at Studio on the Square