Life becomes so much easier if you factor out everything you can’t see or consume on the spot. Jonathan Rosenbaum
Since the pandemic began, I estimate that I’ve watched at least a hundred gay-themed shorts, many of them culled from online gay and lesbian film festivals, such as the ones from Boston and Santa Fe, and all of them torrented.
I’ve watched films about young love, coming out, suicide, break-ups, hook-ups, and more. In general, none of the subject matter has surprised me.
What did surprise me was the paltry showing of English-language shorts, particularly ones from the United States.
Bad news for jingoists, but the best gay shorts I’ve seen haven’t been from the Land of Nothing’s Free. In fact, there are only five native English-language films represented, one by an American black male director and one from Canada, although a couple of others feature English as a bridge language between characters, one of whom is often an immigrant.
Tales of gay love, gay friendships, and sex between natives and foreigners have become something of a mini genre recently. See: A Moment in the Reeds, God’s Own Country, Bruce La Bruce’s Refugee’s Welcome, On My Way (see below), just to name a handful. A few others also deal with restive stasis, as well as social, personal, or political instability, sometimes using travel or geographic displacement as a suggestion or metaphor.
While the rest of the world, or at least its filmmakers, seems to be thinking about the changes in identity happening everywhere and instantiated by diverse polities in racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and geographic flux, the characters in monolingual estadounidense [gay] films still seem unable to look away from their gay male navels (or dicks and buttholes) or to leave their Brooklyn brownstones long enough to engage different perspectives or talk to their neighbors, an attitude exemplified in but not limited to accomplished but self-absorbed offerings from Matthew Puccini (Dirty and Lavender). Puccini operates out of, where else, NYC.
Not surprisingly, Sundance is all over that shit.
Keep in mind, also, that filmmakers in the States skew left ideologically, and yet where are the shorts about this subject? And what are the reasons for this imbalance and blindness in a nation full of immigrants and multilingual speakers?
Part of it is simply good old-fashioned gringo parochialism. Considering that both centers of film production in the US — Los Angeles/Hollywood and New York City — exemplify this state of being, this way of not looking at the world, you might say this particular gringo trait is overdetermined exponentially.
In addition, as gay Brazilian director Fábio Leal pointed out to me in an interview, short films in the States are often not produced for their own sakes, for their own rewards. The real reward they’re after is acceptance into the Hollywood mainstream, which has historically been even less interested in the world at large than film students or amateurs. These shorts are produced as calling cards or additions to one’s reel. If a filmmaker gets his foot in the door by making a forgettable but promising short, what’s the loss? Not for that filmmaker’s career, but it’s a loss for film culture, in general.
As a corrective to this oversight by mainstream critics, gay or not, I spent hours and hours watching and rewatching every gay-themed short I could, but obviously, I haven’t seen everything (and nobody else has either), and my tastes and affinities may well be different than yours, as they obviously are from the tastes of the Stateside gatekeepers and programmers of gay film festivals. Nevertheless, I saw only a handful of films that I would consider must-sees and a few more that I consider worth your time.
Nothing I saw from anywhere turned out to be better than Julián Hernández’s modest masterpiece, El día comenzó ayer, which, as far as I know, has only been in one festival — the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico, although it’s available through Amazon Prime US. MUBI featured it at one point, and it had been available through Dekko, but it’s not at the moment.
Every time I watch it, despite the ostensibly gloomy subject matter (living with HIV), I’m amazed most by the sense of joy that pervades it — the joy of simple introductory human conversations that are also flirty sorties, just one reason why Hernández directs his actors to pause between lines longer than is perhaps the dramatic norm; the joy of watching other humans dance, practice gymnastics, work, skate, or fuck; the joy of discovering that another gay human cares about you, and is willing to do something about it. I didn’t find that joy expressed with such simple artistry in any other film, short or not, all year.
Why haven’t you heard of El día comenzó ayer? Why aren’t English-speaking critics telling you about it? Good questions. Is it because it’s in Spanish and from Mexico? Maybe, just maybe.
I’ve mentioned many times both here and on Twitter that there seem to be clear cultural and institutional biases against Latin American cinema in general and gay Latin American films in particular, or at least ones that speak in their own voices rather than aping whatever Euro-gringo stylings the mostly white cinephile establishment sees fit to laud at the moment — just one reason why I don’t call myself a cinephile. Despite what certain overly culturally confident film critics proclaim, from the outside, where I am, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of aesthetic variation in the tastes of critics who get noticed and published.
Other than the Mexican directors who’ve made it to Hollywood (Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alejandro G. Inarritu), the only arthouse MX director who is recognized by the usual suspects seems to be Carlos Reygadas, whose formal and stylistic concerns make him recognizable and comprehensible within a European aesthetic context.
Prolific and passionate Mexican auteurs like Hernández, as well as up-and-coming young queer directors like Chucho E. Quintero, are ignored. Quintero in particular understands and translates how real people actually talk to one another better than any queer director I can think of other than Andrew Haigh. I’ve already written what I think about Quintero’s super sex-positive short, Panquecito, and his long-form sci-fi experiment, Velociraptor. His most recent feature, Los días particulares [affiliate link] demonstrates again his commitment to showing the core solidarities and contradictions revealed in conversations between friends and lovers.
Given these institutional biases and any single person’s limited ability to identify and locate them, never mind escape them, as a lover of movies, what to do? What to watch?
See as much as you can and recognize that you have biases — we all do and not just political ones — that prevent you from enjoying, or even understanding movies differently. Some of these biases arise because of… wait for it… where you live and what language you speak.
A lot of these are hard to even recognize as biases. They seem like part of the air. But trust me — a Midwest-born American who’s lived outside the States for almost twenty years — you shed the biases; the world changes you, unless your heart is hardened already. You no longer feel like your country and its perspectives are at the center of the universe. There’s no way that change can’t affect everything you value and why.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and [movies] cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.Mark Twain
This post is an attempt to grapple with and demonstrate my changed values and perspectives and how those changes have played out in my viewing habits. I list and feature the notable films I saw, all of which I’ve watched more than once.
It’s also an expression of gratitude to the filmmakers — all of them — and to the unsung volunteer curators on torrent forums, without whom I would otherwise be far more ignorant of gay film culture worldwide. If you want to escape the myopia of mainstream film criticism which is often hard to distinguish from the marketing departments of studios, torrent forums are a good place to start. You’re certainly not going to get much help from mainstream gay media.
Sometimes it takes years for shorts to get distribution or exposure, so I’ve included everything here that I first noticed during the pandemic, from as early as my somewhat arbitrary cut-off point of 2016.
Some of these shorts are available on streaming platforms or for free. I’ll link to those sources if I know them. All of them are available in my collection.