We Are the Radical Monarchs was just one of the gay-interest films that screened earlier this year at the South by Southwest Festival and Conference. Some, like Booksmart, have already been released, while others are just making the rounds with plans to air or get theatrically released by year’s end. Here are some of the documentaries that highlighted SXSW, and that you still have to look forward to.
State of Pride. For those who have asked themselves — or been asked in the last 20 years — whether Pride is actually necessary anymore, this documentary from Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (the Oscar-winning team behind The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads) does as good a job as anyone could in answering that question. Although anyone of a certain age may feel complacent about parades and waving rainbow flags, the process of coming out and feeling part of a community remains as vibrant and necessary to young people as it ever has been — possibly more so. Increasingly different sub groups from trans to genderfluid continue to explore the boundaries of sexual identity. On a number of occasions, the point is even made that Pride as it was originally practiced was as much protest as party and that such a distinction remains essential for many younger people. You’ll be constantly amazed at how frequently you choke up listening to the stories.
Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story. Kathy Griffin’s precipitous downfall from one of the most popular touring comedians in America to virtual social and Hollywood pariah overnight (after she jokingly held up what appeared to be a severed head of the president of the United States) has been covered extensively in the press already, and she discussed it herself in last year‘s 25-city tour, which included Dallas. In the live show, she spent over three hours recounting her ordeal with the Secret Service, the FBI, online haters and the first family of the United States. But this concert video prunes that marathon to a sprint and crystallizes not only her experience and her humor but also her resilience. Following the screening at SXSW, I overheard someone say, “I’ve never been much of a fan of Kathy Griffin’s comedy, but it’s hard not to walk away from that movie feeling she’s a feminist icon.” Damn right.
Running with Beto. One of the ineffable and unpredictable joys of SXSW is attending a screening or a session or a concert thinking you know what you’re going to get only to get something much better instead. I’m sure a lot of people at the world premiere of this documentary (which just debuted on HBO) had their fingers crossed that Congressman Beto O’Rourke — who mounted an insurgent and exhilarating though failed bid for U.S. Senate in Texas — would make an appearance. And he did. But so did many others in the cast of a real-life Texas voters, who campaigned tirelessly and were transformed by Beto as he transformed politics in the state. If there’s a star of the movie it’s not Beto, but proud liberal Shannon Gay, whose unbridled enthusiasm for turning Texas blue was almost as exciting as watching Beto go from single-digit VFW halls to a convention center full of riled-up Dems. The ending isn’t all we had hoped — we know that already — but this is just a chapter; the book is still to be written.
Well Groomed. You probably expect a documentary about dog groomers who turn standard poodles into candy-colored pieces of art — clipped, colored shaved and coiffed to a fare-the-well — to be as campy as a Cher impersonator contest at Dollywood, but in fact, there’s almost nothing queer about this extremely straight (ahem) look at the world of dog grooming. There is a long-standing genre of documentaries about weird people doing goofy things which dates back to Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven in 1978, and I’m not sure Well Groomed offers anything new. (You might wonder if it is a sequel to Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s mockumentary about dog shows. It’s not.) All of the contestants are straight women with a passion for turning dogs into gaudy works of fur sculpture (some are even deeply Christian). And at least one of the women lives the meme “oh no! I forgot to have children!” with pooches replacing offspring as her source of pride. But while the queer quotient is appallingly low, there is heartfelt interest in this competition and the lengths people will go to inject a little bit of interest into their lives (especially when it cost some filmmakers more money to do it that they make for doing it).
— Arnold Wayne Jones