In “Far From The Tree,” his nonfiction book about how families deal with intergenerational differences, the writer Andrew Solomon puts forth his theory of where we get our identities.
It goes like this: we are all made up of both vertical identities (the ethnic and national identities passed to us by our parents, like having dark skin, speaking French or being from Vermont) and horizontal identities (the identities that are unique to us and that we’ll never share with our parents, like a deaf person being born in a hearing family). Being a sexual or gender minority is a sterling example of a horizontal identity; queer people are born into every country, culture, religion and race on earth. Once they figure out who they might be, they must devise ways to find others like them and create a shared culture.
Thanks to horizontal identities, QDoc is a documentary festival without borders. Wherever there are people, there are queer people figuring out how to live and thrive. This year’s fest scans the corners of Cuba, New York, Puerto Rico, Texas and Tel Aviv. Here are some highlights from its 10th annual program, which runs from Thursday, May 19, through Sunday, May 22, at the Hollywood Theatre:
Nneka Onuorah’s brisk, incisive documentary identifies and then rips apart the reductive “rules” that shape conduct between black lesbian woman: everyone is either a masculine stud/AG (for aggressive) or a girly femme. Stud-on-stud couples are not allowed. Bisexuals aren’t ok, and neither are studs who get pregnant.
What follows is a labyrinthine system of perception policing where the standards of the straight world (for example, the expectation of masculine/feminine duality in a romance) are often replicated. The subtleties of these systems are explored in interviews with a passel of black models, musicians, poets, writers, teachers, party promoters and actors – including Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, a famous face from HBO’s “The Wire,” and King Kellz, an exotic dancer and drag king who refuses to change her hair to satisfy her critics.
The film’s several staged confrontations feel overly contrived, but the sting of being reduced to a label comes through loud and clear. “The Same Difference”’s strength lies in its interrogation of the internalized homophobia of black communities and a decisive call for tolerance. As writer Blu Semper notes in an interview, “If you’re already leading an ‘unacceptable’ life, why are you so worried about being unacceptable?” (Saturday, 1 pm)
Under pulsing purple lights, three best friends dance the night away at a club called Anna Loulou. Khader, Fadi and Naeem are young gay men of Palestinian heritage, living a metropolitan life in Tel Aviv, Israel. The likable trio is at the emotional center of Jake Witzenfeld’s Oriented, about Israeli/Palestinian tensions and how they color the queer scene in Tel Aviv.
Khader has come to peace with his relationship with Jewish David, noting “we are both outsiders, after all.” Meanwhile, Fadi frets about the political implications of “falling for a Zionist.” Naeem confidently describes himself as “Palestinian, vegetarian, atheist and feminist,” but his family still doesn’t know he’s gay. His parents want him to move closer to home, and they can’t understand why the village where he grew up feels so suffocating to him now.
For those uninitiated in the turbulent history of Palestine and Israel, it works as a bantamweight history lesson, but it’s mostly concerned with more universal themes: demanding respect, remaining loyal to your causes, plucking up the courage to come out. At a concert in Amman, Jordan, Khader marvels at the spectacle of openly gay kids feeling so free in the Arab world, and wonders what else is possible in the next few decades. (Friday, 9 pm)
You can’t get into “Kiki” without talking about “Paris is Burning.” Jennie Livingstone’s 1990 documentary on the Harlem ballroom scene looms large in queer culture. Without it, would we even have RuPaul’s Drag Race?
Twenty-five years later, Sara Jordenö’s “Kiki” is a de facto sequel. The ballroom scene has evolved into a youth-oriented subset known as the kiki scene (“kiki” is slang for a gathering of friends that’s somewhere between a party, a kaffeeklatsch and a support group). Houses with names like Unbothered Cartier, Juicy, Pink Lady and P.U.C.C.I. serve as makeshift families for kids who have often been sorely disappointed by the realities of their biological families.
The two films are in constant dialogue; when Zaryia Mizrahi explains how dangerous, lawless sex work is still a fact of life for so many trans women, what’s implicitly evoked is the wrenching death of Venus Xtravaganza in the 1990 film, murdered by one of her johns. As sad and celebratory as “Paris is Burning,” “Kiki” is a love letter to the continued survival of the ballroom legacy in a still inhospitable world. “Someone who walks,” says performer Twiggy Pucci Garçon, “is telling you, ‘I am beautiful.’ ” They’re not asking – they’re telling. (Saturday, 8:30 pm)
Speaking of “Paris is Burning,” the other lasting legacy of the Harlem ballroom scene is one word: vogue. The unapologetically stylized pose-dancing was ripped from the pages of you-know-what by the black ballroomers, then imported to the mainstream by Madonna. “Strike a Pose” takes a pop culture footnote – Madonna’s comely troupe of gay dancers from the 1990 Blonde Ambition tour – and dives deep into a where-are-they-now with surprising richness and revelations.
The dancers are: Jose and Luis (also the main choreographers), Kevin, Salim, Carlton, Oliver (the straight one), and Gabriel, no longer with us. At the tender ages of 18, 19, and 20, they became Madonna’s faithful cadre, bounding across the planet with insouciant glee in a world tour that was immortalized in the documentary “Truth or Dare.” What begins as endearingly nostalgic (old Polaroids and misty stories about home phone calls from Madonna) turns dark in the second act, with drug addiction, lawsuits and the emotional fallout of many silent battles with AIDS.
And Madonna? She’s depicted as a force of celebrity so intense that it warped and magnetized everyone who got too close. Beneath the flirty pillow talk and stylish veneer of “Truth or Dare” are the burdens of real life, and the film dwells on the lingering resentments and moody interpretive dances that are left after the blonde ambition fades away. A final “class reunion” scene is touching, showing the three-dimensional adult men who emerged from a one-of-a-kind experience. (Thursday, 7:30 pm)
(QDoc runs from May 19-22 at the Hollywood Theatre. Other highlights include the Lena Dunham-produced “Suited,” about a Brooklyn tailor that specializes in bespoke designs for clients outside binary gender categories; “Southwest of Salem,” which chronicles a miscarriage of justice combining homophobia and the moral panic surrounding Satanic ritual abuse in the 1990s; and a sneak preview of the latest project from festival organizer David Weissman (“The Cockettes”), entitled “Conversations with Gay Elders.” For a full schedule, visit www.queerdocfest.org)