Jessica Hoffmann

Fig Trees, Transliminal Criminals, and Other Plural Nouns: Dispatch from Outfest 2009

Filed By Jessica Hoffmann | July 12, 2009 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: AIDS Conference, Bonfire Madigan Shive, Hilary Goldberg, John Greyson, Outfest, Rewind, Still Black, The Leather Daddy and the Unicorn

So, you know, there's a bo-ring school of thought about how political art is didactic, great art can't be explicitly political, and bla bla bla silliness that shores up existing power structures and of course anyone who's outside or critical of those structures knows better.

Still, of course, there's a ton of mediocre political art, just like there's a ton of mediocre every other kind of art, and already I'm bored of this limiting-loaded vocabulary ("politics," "art," etc.) and have little desire to type about any of the less-than-ripe things I've seen so far at Outfest. After the jump, notes on some of the very exciting things I've seen in the first few days of the festival -- films that are passionately political and gorgeous, complicatedly layered and insistently in social contexts ... and, often, for those reasons and more, very hot.

Fig Trees, by Canadian artist John Grayson, is a fascinating, virtuosic, playful, and rigorously critical experimental documentary/opera about AIDS activists Tim McCaskell (of AIDS Action Now! in Canada) and Zackie Achmat (a South African activist most known for his lengthy drug strike). And/or about philanthropy, racism, the medical-industrial complex, and capitalism. And/or about the triangulation between governments, social movements, and pharmaceutical corporations around AIDS. And/or about ...

It mixes the fantastically absurd and the "real," humor and tragedy, camp and journalism in a transnational, trans-genre bundle of threads that push and push against easy narratives or analyses. Unrelenting critiques of bullsh*t celebrity/corporate "responses" to AIDS come flying from the screen in campy-critical revisions of pop songs, fiery rants by activists and UN leaders, and graphic sequences dropping pills with cell-phone prices/critiques of consumerism. Bono and Bills Clinton and Gates get some much-deserved dressing down, refreshingly contextualized in a larger critique of philanthropy and global neoliberalism that makes clear the ways these individuals are part of systems. Meanwhile, Gertrude Stein appears as both a historical figure and a fictional character, a pervy queer aesthete who's first appealing then maddening (an American in Paris playing absurdly with words while fascism's on its way) -- she's both an integral source (parts of the film draw from and formally invert one of her compositions) and a foil (her fetishization of the Black other is key to what's inverted in Fig Trees, which focuses on the racial aspects of AIDS globally). Curiously, in a film in which saints are taken down and down and down from multiple directions -- the film's own analyses and narratives, once presented, pushed against and challenged -- Nelson Mandela remains canonized, untouched by critique. (Everyone I talked to afterward felt curiouser and curiouser about why; meant to ask Greyson ... )

There's so much in Fig Trees, I need to see it again (and, probably, again) to properly write about it. Meanwhile, I'll simply point you toward it. See it if you possibly can. This film, which started as an installation, shifts quickly between forms, voices, moods -- startlingly gorgeous then funny then devastating then playful, and always shot through with a clarity and anger that's more than appropriate to the subject matter -- a kind of anger and clarity that has little patience (and it shouldn't) for privileged, truth-obscuring play about what resource-sharing means, or could, or should. These games about medicine and money and charity and AIDS are atrocious. "I hope," one of the voices in Fig Trees says, "to break the system."

I hope/to break

(I break/to hope?)


Much of Outfest -- which is, yes, a big, corporate-sponsored festival (the fact that it has more corporate sponsors than any other LGBTQ film festival was proudly noted on opening night) -- contains homonormative, assimilated narratives that, well, are not what I want to spend my time writing about. It's the ruptures that are exciting -- the moments when more interesting narrative structures, and relationship structures, and identity possibilities, and just general queer complexities break through.

For instance: Hilary Goldberg and Bonfire Madigan Shive's short, Transliminal Criminal, a beautiful meditation/dance around gender fluidity and multiplicity, outsider trajectories, and transgressive states of consciousness. It was especially lovely to see in the midst of a shorts program containing several stories about homonormative lesbian relationships (monogamy + cohabitation + putting-everything-on-an-ideal-of-complementarity-with-one-partner and the frustrated sadness and resentment that too often spew forth from that structure), offering instead a vision of love and life that incorporates and makes space for fluidity, complexity, movement, shifts.

Also exciting for its complexity around gender, relationship, discourse, sex, and more is You Will Never Be a Woman. You Must Live the Rest of Your Days Entirely as a Man and You Will Only Grow More Masculine with Each Passing Year. There Is No Way Out by Van Barnes, Zachary Drucker, Mariah Garnett, and A.L. Steiner.

And it is always a pleasure to laugh out loud at radical-queer critique of assimilationist politics with a Falling in Love ... with Chris and Greg movie.

And yay for AIDS Conference Cocksuckers, and leather daddies + unicorns, and the beautiful images and narrative mysteries in Rewind ...

Tonight, Still Black: A Portrait of Black Transmen.

And I'm very sad to have missed Against a Trans Narrative (scheduling conflict). I need to track down a review copy ...

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I caught Fig Trees at Frameline in SF. Fantastic. John Greyson must be the world's most intellectual filmmaker. Interesting point you make about Mandela. I thought the image of him wearing the HIV Positive t-shirt was really powerful, though - imagine if a U.S. President did the same.


Thanks for letting us know of these exceptions to the usual boring festival fare. And if "Bono and Bills Clinton and Gates get some much-deserved dressing down, refreshingly contextualized in a larger critique of philanthropy and global neoliberalism that makes clear the ways these individuals are part of systems," Fig Trees is definitely on my list. And I'd love to know Greyson's response, if you should ever elicit one, to the query about Mandela - he does seem to remain untouched, like an unearthly saint...

Larry-bob - The image of Mandela in the HIV Positive shirt was definitely very striking; it's just curious how "sainted" he remains in a film where all other saints are questioned ...

Yasmin - I would love to know what you think of Fig Trees; let me know if you manage to see it somewhere!