Inside Out 2011 is Big, Broad, but Never Bashful
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Inside Out 2011 is Big, Broad, but Never Bashful

Still from The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister.

The key to a good festival preview is a unifying thread. One that brings the disparate films together, making them a cohesive group with an underlying shared message. This won’t be one of those previews. But that’s through no fault of Inside Out (or, might I add, of this reviewer). Rather, it’s an indication of just how big Toronto’s LGBT festival has grown in its 21 years.

Flipping through this year’s catalog, it’s easy to get lost: there are series, highlights, galas, special presentations, family screenings, and the list goes on. Inside Out has reached a level of success that allows it to try to program a festival that is as broad and diverse as the community it represents.

Still from A Few Days of Respite.

While some festival shy away from the politics, Inside Out gets (pardon the pun) right in there with the Festival Highlight “24 Hours in the Middle East.” Seeking to answer the question of what it means to be queer in the Middle East this series features films from the region’s queer diaspora as well as master class with author Samar Habib. Of this series, Amar Hakkar’s A Few Days of Respite (2010TIFF-star-small-4andahalf.gif) stands out as a perfect work of naturalistic cinema that is quietly paced but utterly heartbreaking.
Not preoccupied with back story, A Few Days of Respite plays on the cinematic tropes of love (train stations, Paris) while subverting them to represent the complicated position of two Iranian lovers fleeing persecution in their country. Written, directed by, and starring Hakkar, his performance as Moshen (a dignified man forced into an undignified position) captures the loneliness of denial, failed connections, and ultimately the meaning of love.
Also merging the personal and political is Renée (2010TIFF-star-small-4.gif), a documentary on the first transsexual icon, Renée Richards. By any standards, Richards’ life can be considered extraordinary: establishing a career as a successful optometrist who pioneered corrective surgery for patients with cross eyes, she also was a world-ranked tennis star. On top of this, Renée was born Richard Raskin. An extremely compelling look into our definitions of gender (Richards won the right to forgo a chromosome test to play in the women’s tennis U.S. Open in 1976), Renée reminds us that life rarely turns out as we envision it—for better and sometimes worse.
Living up to its standard for making excellent TV documentaries, the BBC’s The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister (2010TIFF-star-small-4.gif) is erotic, hilarious, and a joyful celebration of regency literature…and lesbians. Narrated and “hosted” by Sue Perkins (who brings a frankness to the subject matter matched only by her excellent comedic timing), Diaries explores the coded secret journals of one Anne Lister, a landed lady of money in late 1700s. Perkins takes us on a tour of Lister’s life, while humorously reading out sections of the journals which document Lister’s rakish conquests as well as her “auto-erotic practices.” Most interesting is the examination of how Lister worked within the system of accepted gender codes of the era, managing to secure a wife. (Yes, the first same sex marriage was in 1834.) While Lister’s diaries are the focus, Perkins is truly the star, honestly reflecting on the “Rosetta stone of lesbian history” and doing so with a cheeky smile.
If Jane Austen–era lesbians aren’t of interest, there’s The Sons of Tennessee Williams (2010TIFF-star-small-3.gif), a documentary on the gay community in New Orleans which in the 1950s started to co-opt mainstream Mardi Gras culture, creating elaborate balls to name their own King and Queen. Switching from present-day preparations for the 40th anniversary ball in post-Katrina New Orleans to archival footage, Sons illustrates the struggles of the gay community in New Orleans. As a documentary it is fairly standard, but the drag is world class.
So there we have it: from the Middle East to the tennis courts to bodice ripping literature to New Orleans drag. And that’s just the beginning of the ten day festival. It may not be cohesive but it’s certainly not dull.
Inside Out, Toronto’s LGBT film and video festival, runs from May 19 to 29 at venues across the city.
Stills courtesy of Ingrid Hamilton/GAT.