• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (25/3/2022)

Updated: Mar 27

(An overview of the features showing at BFI Flare, the 36th London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival)


The BFI Flare London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival returns for a 36th edition between 16-27 March. Among the gems on offer is Terence Davies's Siegfried Sassoon biopic, Benediction (which will be reviewed on its release on 20 May). With gratitude to the BFI for extending access to the festival's video library, here are some thoughts on a few of the features included in a programme that is also available via the BFI Player.


BOULEVARD! A HOLLYWOOD STORY.


Since debuting with Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007), Jeffrey Schwartz has directed such memorably documentaries as Vito (2011), I Am Divine (2013) and Tab Hunter Confidential (2015). However, he outdoes himself with Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, which harks back to the 1950s to uncover a tale that had been lost in the mists of time.


It's impossible to think of anyone other than Gloria Swanson and William Holden playing ageing film star Norma Desmond and hack writer Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950). But director Billy Wilder had wanted Mae West and Marlon Brando for the leads and had contacted Greta Garbo, Pola Negri, Clara Bow, Norma Shearer and Mary Pickford before George Cukor had suggested Swanson. During the silent era, she had been one of Hollywood's biggest stars, thanks to her collaborations with Cecil B. DeMille on such raunchy comedies as Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921).


Despite having started out making two-reel comedies for Mack Sennett at Keystone, Swanson developed into a fine silent actress and had co-starred with Rudolph Valentino in Sam Wood's Beyond the Rocks (1922) before dazzling in Allan Dwan's Zaza (1923) and Léonce Perret's Madame Sans-Gêne (1925). Having landed a nomination for Best Actress at the inaugural Academy Awards for Raoul Walsh's Sadie Thompson (1928), she had coped well with the coming of sound in Edmund Goulding's The Trespasser (1929), which brought her another Oscar nod. However, the failure of Erich von Stroheim to complete Queen Kelly (1929) - footage of which appears in Sunset Boulevard - proved ruinous for her production company and she struggled to find worthwhile roles.


The same problem had hamstrung the acting ambitions of Richard Stapley, an RAF veteran from Westcliff-on-Sea who had been signed by MGM and given his debut alongside Gene Kelly in George Sidney's The Three Musketeers (1948). He had held his own in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Women (1949), but hopes that he could be groomed for matinee stardom were soon dashed and he was loaned out to make such neglected offerings as Joseph Pevney's The Strange Door (1951), Henry King's King of the Khyber Rifles (1953), William Castle's King of the Lancers and The Iron Glove (both 1954) and Harmon Jones's Target Zero (1955).


When his contract was not renewed, Stapley decided to reinvent himself as a writer and that was when he met Dickson Hughes, who was playing the piano in a hotel lounge. Born William Hucks, Jr. in Akron, Ohio, Hughes had earned a bachelor's degree from Redlands University in California before pursuing a musical career. He suggested forming a writing partnership and started working with Stapley on a musical based on the daily routine at Time magazine.


In seeking a star for About Time, Hughes and Stapley approached Swanson in December 1953, who insisted that she would only return to the stage in a musical version of Sunset Boulevard. By the end of the week, the duo had dashed off three songs, which so enchanted Swanson that she used her contact with D.A. Doran at Paramount to secure what she believed was an option on the rights to the material.


Despite being aware that Stapley and Hughes were an item, Swanson was bowled over by the former's good looks and seems to have plotted a seduction. However, Stapley resisted her entreaties before deciding that it would be better for everyone if he made himself scarce. Upset at losing a lover, but recognising that he could now take sole credit for the project, Hughes returned to Swanson's shooting script to piece together a scenario.


Despite seeing little of his star over the next two years, he continued working on the songs and agreed to be musical director and play director-turned-butler Max von Mayerling off camera when Swanson appeared on The Steve Allen Show in November 1957 to perform `Those Wonderful People Out There in the Dark'. Several more months passed, with Hughes playing piano bar in New York while Swanson awaited confirmation from Doran. Sadly, in February 1959, she had to call Hughes and break the news that Boulevard was dead.


While Hughes went off to contribute a song to Roy Del Ruth's thriller, Why Must I Die? (1960), Stapley reappeared in Britain under the name Richard Wyler. Having relaunched himself on television as Anthony Smith in Man From Interpol, Wyler headlined Frank Marshall's Identity Unknown (1961) before heading to Europe to star in such genre fare as Rudolph Maté's The Barbarians (1960), Riccado Freda's The Exterminators (1965), Eugenio Martín's The Bounty Killer (1966), Francesco Prosperi's Dick Smart 2.007 (1967) and Jesús Franco's The Girl From Rio (1969).


Now married to Elizabeth Emerson, Wyler also forged a reputation as a champion motorcycle rider. However, he continued to act and reverted to the surname Stapley for his roles opposite Michael Redgrave and Bette Davis in Franklin Gollings's Connecting Rooms (1970) and Barry Foster in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). But he realised his acting options were narrowing and, having divorced Elizabeth, he became an American citizen and devoted himself to writing.


Hughes had no idea what had happened to his old friend and was surprised when he showed up in New York in 1994 to protest that he had not given his permission for Hughes to write, score and star in a play entitled Swanson on Sunset. Over clips from the production, Laurie Franks (who took the title role) recalls her excitement at the project. However, Richard Leibell (who played Stapley) reflects that his age difference with Hughes undermined the credibility of a project that Variety described as `promising' during its workshop run at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill shortly after Andrew Lloyd Webber had premiered Sunset Boulevard in the West End.


Sadly, Hughes's play never got to transfer to the Big White Way. But he enjoyed his moment in the spotlight and continued to play music until his death in June 2005. Stapley followed in March 2010, after he had published a couple of novels and toiled over a screenplay called Tomorrow Will Be Cancelled.


In the interview he recorded with music publisher Stephen Bock, Stapley appears to have come to peace with his extraordinary story. As does Hughes in taped conversations that author Sam Staggs made while researching Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream (2003). This was the launch pad for Schwarz's film and it makes for fascinating reading.


In addition to mining these precious resources and the abundant archive of Swanson's chat show appearances, Schwarz also spoke to Swanson's granddaughter, Brooke Anderson, film historians Cari Beauchamp and Robert Osborne, and veteran publicist Alan Eichler, who had known both Stapley and Hughes. Ingeniously, he also commissioned animations from Maurice Vellekoop, which add a little knowing kitsch to proceedings that will delight cineastes and leave them pondering what other untold tales are waiting to be discovered on the shelves of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. And, by the way, Norma was spot on about the pictures getting small.


CAMILA COMES OUT TONIGHT.


Following on from Atlántida (2014) and Las Motitos (2020), Argentinian director Inés Barrionuevo makes her boldest feminist statement to date with Camila Comes Out Tonight. Yet, for all the trenchancy of its denunciation of the patriarchal church and the lingering legacy of junta fascism, this sophisticated teenpic exhibits a certain political naiveté in opting to criticise a retrogressive society from within the cloistered confines of an exclusive school.


While on a school trip to the museum in Mar del Plata, Camila (Nina Dziembrowski) learns about Niña Ache, an indigenous Paraguayan girl who was captured by colonialists and forced to work as a servant before being institutionalised because of her sexuality. Shortly afterwards, when her grandmother is taken to hospital, Camila moves into her austere Buenos Aires apartment with her mother, Victoria (Adriana Ferrer), and her younger sister, Martina (Carolina Rojas).


Dismayed when the principal (Guillermo Pfening) of her new school ass her to remove from her bag a green ribbon denoting her support for the pro-abortion Marea Verde (Green Tide) movement, Camila is relieved to find like-minded classmates in the bespectacled Lourdes (Laura Daniela Visconti) and Bruno (Diego Sanchez), a strapping, tattoo-covered science geek. However, the rules are strict and she is warned by Pablo (Federico Sack) about flirting with Clara (Maite Valero), as her ex-boyfriend, Franco (David Lucarino), is a vengeful bully who won't take kindly to the humiliation implied by Clara's bisexuality.


Undaunted by the threat, Camila continues to flirt with Clara. Moreover, she also sleeps with Bruno, although she doesn't want to talk about him (there's a song there, somewhere). However, Victoria is concerned about her daughter's behaviour and ticks her off about going on street marches because the political climate is still dangerous.


When Franco lures Camila into the basement to punish her, she stabs him with a compass and is brought before the principal. She is appalled when he refuses to suspend Franco, as he is so close to leaving. So, she plots with her friends to accuse him of abusing girls when he enters the graduation ceremony carrying a cross in a monk's cowl.


Although Barrionuevo makes a number of insightful points about the status of women in Argentine society and the extent to which differing moral standards are imposed upon the genders, they ring slightly hollow because each character in her film feels as privileged as they are photogenic. Nina Dziembrowski bristles with subversive resentment at being plucked from a familiar setting, but we don't get much sense of the drastic contrast, as we spend so little time in Mar del Plata and see so little of Buenos Aires outside the school and the apartment building.


Subplots involving an abandoned black kitten and an elderly female neighbour who may have been the grandmother's lover are given short shrift, as are Camila's relationships with her sister and mother, a liberal who regrets having to curb her daughter's spirit. Moreover, we get little sense of how Camila's clique fits into the wider school and how they compare academically with their peers.


Eugenia Sueiro's production design is oppressively atmospheric, while Constanza Sandoval's camerawork is as measured as Sebastian Schjaer. Barrionuevo shares the latter credit, while she also co-wrote the screenplay with Andrés Aloi. It's a polished piece that shrewdly eschews the coming out clichés. But it tends to brandish its convictions rather than debate them.


COP SECRET.


It felt a little odd seeing Cop Secret just 10 days after its director, Hannes Þór Halldórsson, had announced his retirement from football. Iceland's goalkeeper at Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup had always led a double life as a film-maker. But he has now given up the day job and it will be intriguing to see where he goes after this slickly amusing, if somewhat blatant and dated feature bow.


Bússi (Auðunn Blöndal) is the toughest cop in Reykjavik. But boss Þorgerður (Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir) is under pressure from her superiors to rein him in and has paired him with Klemenz (Sverrir Þór Sverrisson), a scaredy cat who is always complaining about his poor pay. When the duo pursue a motorcyclist after a bank heist, Klemenz is appalled when Bussi speeds through the city limits into the neighbouring town of Gardabaer, where deadly rival Hördur (Egill Einarsson) has jurisdiction.


Following an expensive debacle at a shopping centre, Bússi is warned about his future conduct by Mayor Jón Gnarr (playing himself). However, Bússi is determined to outsmart Hördur and crack the case. However, it all turns personal for the latter when criminal mastermind, Rikki Ferrari (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), abducts his younger brother, who has Down Syndrome.


Rikki (who only speaks in American-accented English) used to model with Hördur and he has devised the fiendish plan to steak the country's gold supply by infesting every bank in the city with a computer virus that will be activated during a crucial Women's World Cup qualifier against England. Motorcycling cyber expert Stefania (Vivian Ólafsdóttir) completes the series of break-ins that leave the cops baffled as to why nothing has been stolen. But one henchman (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) isn't convinced by the plan and Rikki promises to kill him once it's been enacted.


Adding to Bússi's problems in rising to the challenge is the fact that he can't commit to his relationship with Lilja (Júlíana Sara Gunnarsdóttir). Much to his annoyance, the pansexual Hördur declares that he keeps stalling Lilja because he's gay and, the more they work together, the more Bússi has to face up to the fact that he is falling for his new partner. However, even though he winds up responsible for an orphaned girl following a shootout in Chinatown, his private life will have to wait, as there's a bomb ticking at the packed national stadium and Rikki is heading towards the docks for a speedboat getaway.


Consciously parodying cop bromances like Andrei Konchalovsky's Tango and Cash (1989), this is stuffed with in-jokes and throwaway lines that will mean more to Icelanders than outsiders. But there's still plenty to knockabout tomfoolery to go with the breakneck stunts, while Björn Hlynur Haraldsson hams it up gloriously as the smarmy villain with a penchant for long-winded animal aphorisms. Moreover, Auðunn Blöndal (who is forever in a John McClane vest) and Egill Einarsson throw themselves into the gay clenches.


Yet, for all its boisterousness, this is never as sharply parodic as it might be and only raises a couple of belly laughs. Thanks to cinematographer Eli Cassata, co-editor Guðni Hilmar Halldórsson and composer Kristján Sturla Bjarnason, Halldórsson keeps the action punchy and propulsive. But, while the bullishness of the performances sweeps the audience along, there's no escaping the fact that he and co-writers Nína Petersen and Sverrir Thór Sverrisson have compiled a cartoonish checklist of clichés and caricatures rather than attempting a more insightfully subversive satire into Iceland's financial problems, its attitude to homosexuality and its thunderclapping obsession with football.



THE END OF WONDERLAND.


The name Tara Emory comes with the warning, `Some results may be explicit', when you Google it. In addition to her official website and various social media pages, the search also brings up plenty of porn hubs. But biographical detail is in short supply and that's where debuting Canadian documentarist Laurence Turcotte-Fraser comes in.


There's not much Emory can't do. Comic-book artist, designer, costumier, set builder, car mechanic and film-maker. You name it, she's done it. She's also a trans porn star, who is actively seeking online funding for further feminsation procedures. Yet, she doesn't mind too much when her elderly mother uses male pronouns.


Emory is also a hoarder, a trait she picked up from her father, who used to recondition Volkswagens and left a yard full of unrealised projects. Finishing stuff is also a problem for Emory, whose need to monetise her various activities means her attention is always being deflected away from her pet project, a sci-fi romp entitled Up Uranus, in which her intergalactic trans heroine, Asstra Galasstica, and her sidekick, Dildroid (Mandy Mitchell), are terrorised by Queen Xxxandixxxia (Tiffany Starr) and her army of testostrobots, whose jutting metal appendages ejaculate a sticky mix of Mentos and 7-Up.


Apart from having surgery to restore a fading hairline, Emory seems to enjoy everything being a `micro-celebrity' entails, whether it's inflating a giant plastic flamingo for a photo shoot, signing photos and posing for selfies at conventions or showing off her Citroën 2CV at a rally where she's very much part of the in-crowd. However, her activities cost money and Turcotte-Fraser records Emory reaching the conclusion that she needs to downsize and dispose of the objects she has stored in the barn-studio abutting her home that she has never been able to buy outright.


The process of sorting and shifting this `baggage' clearly takes a physical and an emotional toll, as Emory comes to terms with admitting that she is not getting any younger and that the majority of her stalled schemes will never be realised. This will strike a chord with anyone with clutter, let alone unfulfilled dreams, and there's genuine poignancy in the scenes of Emory sorting through what she must keep and what she will have to live without. The fact that she tackles this unenviable task alone reveals a vulnerability that makes this empathetic profile (which wisely eschews porn politics to focus on the human interest angle) all the more astute and affecting.


A DISTANT PLACE.


Eager to escape city life, Jin-woo relocates to Hwacheon in Gangwon-do province with his four year-old niece, Seol (Kim Shi-ha) to work on a sheep farm. Boss Joong Man (Ki Joo-bong) welcomes the pair into his home and has hopes that Jin-woo will marry his daughter, Moon-kyeong (Ki Do-young), who keeps house now that his mother (Choi Geum-soon) is too old.


Everything seems tranquil until Jin-woo gets a visit from poet Hyun-min (Hong Kyung), whom he has not seen since he left home after their gay romance caused a scandal. Hyun-min is keen to make up for lost time, but Jin-woo is anxious not to rock the boat, as the locals are highly conservative and he has worked too hard at finding his niche to risk it all for desires he has long learned to control.


Further complicating matters is the arrival of Jin-woo's twin sister, Eun-young (Lee Sang-hee), who is also Seol's mother and feels that she is old enough to go to school and mix with other children. Jin-woo is furious with Hyun-min for telling Eun-young where he was, but their squabble is put into perspective when Seol and grandma go missing in the woods. After an anxious night, they return home and the old woman appears to be in good spirits. But she has promised her late husband that she will join him on the other side and the family goes into mourning.


Hyun-min has been invited by the nearby church to lecture on poetry and he reads the class some verses inspired by grandma's passing. By then, however, a furious Eun-young has outed the lovers at grandma's funeral and the shepherd blames the poet for ruining his life twice over. Following a blazing argument, Hyun-min leaves without another word. But his absence is barely noticed when Seol (who calls her uncle `mummy') follows grandma's ghost into the woods and Jin-woo is so relieved to find her sleeping against a rock that he decides the time has come to move on and give Seol a proper education.


Coming two years after he debuted with To My River (2018), Park Kun-young's graceful second feature examines Korean attitudes towards family, homosexuality and community. Sensitively enacted by a fine ensemble, the drama plays out against the hills, lakes, woodlands and pastures of a landscape that is gloriously captured against the changing seasons by Yang Jung-hoon. In a story filled with significant silences, Kim Ki-nam's sound mix also catches the rustic rhythms and enhances the sense of space, tranquility and harmony that offers Jin-woo sanctuary and Seol a chance to learn about the cycle of life after being separated from her mother.


THE DIVIDE.


Nearly three decades have passed since Catherine Corsini debuted with Lovers (1994). She has reached British audiences with such dramas as The New Eve (1999), La Répétition (2001), Leaving (2009), Summertime (2015) and An Impossible Love (2018). Her latest, The Divide, is also due to go on general release later this year. But, for all its good intentions and committed performances, this is too loaded and pointed to count among Corsini's best.


Having spent the night hate-texting the partner sleeping beside her, Raphaëlle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) pretends to have no idea why Julie (Marina Foïs) would want to end their decade-long relationship. Worried about teenage son Eliott (Ferdinand Perez) heading to the Champs-Elysées to join the gilet jaune protests, Julie tries to leave for the publishing house where she works. But Raphaëlle trips in following her and winds up in casualty at one of Paris's busiest free hospitals.


She's eventually joined by Yann (Pio Marmaï), a trucker from Nîmes who has taken a detour to join the demonstration and has to have his lorry back in the depot before nightfall to avoid being fired. However, by taunting gendarmes on the front line, Yann finds himself coming under attack and he is rushed to hospital with shrapnel in his leg from an exploding tear gas canister.


There are several other patients waiting to be seen by duty staff already under strain because of shortages and strikes. Nursing assistant Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna) would much rather be at home tending to her sickly baby. However, she can't afford to turn down shifts, even though she has already exceeded her weekly quota. She is more concerned by a frail old lady (Françoise Remont) and a heart attack victim than she is by Raphaëlle and Yann. But they make the most fuss, as they await triage assessment and not even Julie's arrival and an accidental mix of painkillers can calm Raphaëlle down.


Yann is far from impressed by Raphaëlle's sense of entitlement and is busy arguing with her about the inequality that is threatening to tear the country apart under Emmanuel Macron when she falls off a gurney and further damages her already severely crooked arm.


As Julie seeks to get away from her partner's chuntering, she bumps into old school friend Laurent (Jean-Lous Coulloc'h), who has been protesting in the city centre and has accompanied the injured Elodie (Camille Sansterre) to the ER. Julie realises how far their paths have diverged over the past decades and she not only feels guilty about her own privilege, but also embarrassed by the racket that Raphaëlle is creating after returning from an x-ray.


While Kim keeps dipping out to check on her baby, desk attendant Hamza (Ramzi Choukair) warns his colleagues that the police have asked them to register everyone who has been hurt during the street fighting. Oblivious to the significance of the question, an added Raphaëlle responds in the affirmative when being quizzed by a jobsworthy intern. But Yann remains on his guard, as Kim picks metal from his shins, because he needs to return to his vehicle as soon as possible to drive home.


Meanwhile, Julie is growing increasingly concerned about Elliot and she is both relieved and angry when he opts to call Raphaëlle to reassure them that he is safe. She bumps into Laurent when she goes for a cigarette and they see police clashing with protesters inside the hospital grounds. A car is overturned and set alight and panic breaks out when tear gas is unleashed. Desperate to get back inside, Julie and Laurent get caught up with retreating demonstrators seeking sanctuary and the authorities order the doors to be closed to prevent the ER from being overrun.


Among the last to squeeze through is Kim's husband, Jalil (Norman Lasker), who is worried by the baby's fever. While she sits with the dying old lady, Yann and Raphaëlle call a truce and try to find common ground as people rush around them. However, with tear gas seeping under the doors, Hamza takes it upon himself to let those trapped in the hallway into the department and the psychologically disturbed Loic (Yannick Landrein) seizes the opportunity to hold Km hostage with some scissors to her throat for having neglected him.


Raphaëlle and Yann try to reason with Loic and promise him that Kim has not betrayed him, but done her duty to others in greater need. He allows himself to be led away, while Raphaëlle is reunited with Julie, who realises that now is not the best time to be moving out. Determined to find his truck, Yann disguises himself as a doctor to get through the police cordon. However, as Kim is leaving for home, she sees him being re-admitted after having crashed his vehicle.


Credit to Corsini and co-writers Agnès Feuvre and Laurette Polmanss for trying to cram so many hot button issues into this breathlessly ambitious blend of social critique and character comedy. Adding to the sense of relentless momentum is the fact that Frédéric Baillehaiche's editing is as restless as Jeanne Lapoirie's camera, as it scuttles around Toma Baqueni's adroitly designed set.


But the points about over-stretched hospital staff having extra work created for them by the gilets jaunes who are advocating their cause (among many others) get slightly lost in the mélée, as new cases constantly arrive in a department with waiting times already exceeding eight hours. Moreover, some of the commentary lacks finesse, even though moments such as Kim's bedside pause with the dying old lady and her relieved cuddle with her child are unbearably poignant.


The same can't be said for any aspect of Raphaëlle's self-pitying plight. But she is played with amusing spirit (if not always with restraint) by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, whose bickering with the equally excellent Marina Foïs is as entertaining as it is exhausting. That said, Bruni Tedeschi gets to fall off a gurney once too often, while Pio Marmaï having part of a ceiling collapse on him while sitting in a wheelchair also comes close to overkill. Yet the ER's state of disrepair is worth highlighting, as is the perceived division between the moral-political attitudes of the doctors and the nursing and ancillary staff.


Ultimately, Corsini manages to tie up her loose ends. But the fragments left by the rupturing of France cannot be swept away so easily and this was before the pandemic made the situation a whole lot worse for the likes of Aïssatou Diallo Sagna, who (like several members of the cast) is a full-time health professional rather than a regular performer.


INVISIBLE: GAY WOMEN IN SOUTHERN MUSIC.


Made in the same spirit as Morgan Neville's Oscar-winning documentary about backing singers, 20 Feet From Stardom (2013), TJ Parsell's Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music exposes the achy breaky misogynist heart of Nashville.


It's not just the city's legendary venues and record labels that are soused in toxic masculinity, however. The nation's Country radio networks are controlled by DJs and executives who operate a brand of sexual payola that limits the opportunities of female artists who refuse to play along. Filled with sad stories and beautiful music, this deeply moving study seeks to redress the balance by giving a voice to the exploited, the marginalised and the supremely talented.


Take Kye Fleming. In 2009, she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame after penning such hits as `Sleeping Single in a Double Bed'. Yet, she settled into a writing partnership with Dennis Morgan (with whom she wrote Ronnie Milsap's `Smokey Mountain Rain') because she knew being gay would prevent her from having a singing career. Jess Leary came to the same realisation that she would need to hand songs like `Where the Green Grass Grows' and `Mi Vida Loca' to established stars like Tim McGraw and Pam Tillis because her sexuality would count against her with the Nashville hierarchy.


Dianne Davidson caught the ear of Linda Ronstadt, who hired her as a backing vocalist for her touring band before recording several of her songs. But Davidson has only recently returned to recording her own work and Ronstadt (who has lost her voice to Parkinson's Disease) listens with evident delight when they have a poignant reunion. Cidny Bullens also has a heart-rending tale to tell, as it was only after he transitioned and switched a few letters in his first name that he was able to enjoy the success that had been so elusive, even when he was backing Elton John and performing three numbers on the Grease soundtrack album.


Bullen's loss of his young daughter hit him as hard as the death of her mother impacted upon Mary Ann Kennedy, She is shown tending her horses and performing with longtime associate Pam Rose, with whom she worked in both Calamity Jane and Kennedy Rose. A confessional meeting with the pair and Nashville art director Virginia Team and Cheryl Wheeler culminates in them harmonising on the latter's biggest hit, `Driving Home'. And to think director Ken Burns and writer Dayton Duncan didn't touch on this aspect of the business once in their epic eight-part documentary series, Country Music (2019).


This means they also overlooked the experience of Chely Wright, who was flying with chart-toppers like `Shut Up and Drive' and `Single White Female' when she came out on live television and became a pariah overnight. She recalls one Nashville DJ berating her during an interview and came close to committing suicide before producer Rodney Crowell helped her follow k.d. lang's example by branching out into the pop mainstream.


One of the few lesbians to take the stage at the Grand Old Opry, Mary Gauthier has made no bones about her sexuality. Indeed, as a recovering alcoholic and addict, she is so attuned to pain that she collaborated with war veterans on the 2018 album, Rifles & Rosary Beads. After three decades in Nashville, Bonnie J. Baker is finally on a roll and her recording of `Dry County', a song about her childhood tribulations, is one of the highlights of a film studded with them. With Ruthie Foster, Emmylou Harris, Mary Bufwack, Jessie Scott and Gretchen Peters among the other talking heads, Parsell is to be congratulated for having touched base with so many people with important things to say and songs to sing. Given the insularity and homophobia within their industry, their decision to shed their invisibility and appear on camera is as courageous as it is essential.


THE NOVICE.


Having spent a decade forging a reputation as a sound editor on pictures like Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2014) and Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight (2015), Lauren Hadaway makes a highly impressive directorial debut with The Novice. As with her 2017 short, Row, the key action takes place on the water and taps into the obsessive energy of both Whiplash and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) in drawing on Hadaway's own experiences as an oarswoman at Southern Methodist University, Texas.


Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) likes doing things the hard way. Majoring in Physics at Wellington University because it's her weakest subject, she drives teaching assistant Dani (Dilone) to distraction by constantly retaking tests until she gets the required grades. Despite having no interest in or aptitude for the sport, she also joins the Ravens rowing squad in order to land a scholarship by making the varsity boat as a fresher.


Classmate Jamie Brill (Amy Forsyth) has the same ambition and, despite the fierce competition, they manage to remain on friendly terms and carpool to the boathouse for the early morning starts on the ergometers lined up in the dark basement gym. Coach Pete (Jonathan Cherry) barely notices Alex, even though she scribbles everything he says into her notebook (including the technique mantra `legs, body, arms, arms, body, legs'), as she strives to master the physical demands of rowing like an academic discipline.


Delighted when he gives her a shot in a varsity four at a mid-term regatta, Alex is crushed when she catches a crab and costs her crew the race. Pete urges her to stay positive and she is selected to train with the elite crew under Coach Edwards (Kate Drummond). Much to her annoyance, Jamie also makes the step up and their rivalry intensifies, even though Alex has started sleeping with Dani after losing her virginity to a drunken preppy after a party.


She is intrigued by Alex's readiness to push herself intellectually and corporally. But they break up and, despite roomie Winona (Jeni Ross) trying to protect her, Alex throws herself even more intensively into securing a bursary she doesn't actually need, as she already has a presidential scholarship. Nettled when her crewmates conspire against her in a decisive seat race, Alex attempts to break Coach Edwards's record for skulling around the lake and ignores the fact that a storm is brewing.


A tempest actually rages inside Alex's head throughout this compelling character study, as she works late and rises early to achieve her academic and athletic goals. Played with

ferocious focus by Isabelle Fuhrman, she thrives on underdog pressure and even resorts to self-harm with scissors when the pain from her exertions and the blisters on her palms proves insufficient impetus.


The supporting performances are admirable. But Todd Martin's disorientating imagery, Hadaway and Nathan Nugent's ruthless montages, Scott Bell's immersive sound mix and Alex Weston's propulsive score are all designed to allow the audience to appreciate Alex's psychological and physiological agony. You'll never listen to Brenda Lee's `I'm Sorry' or `Some Day You'll Want Me to Want You' in quite the same way again.


PRIVATE DESERT.


It took six years for Aly Muritiba and Henrique Dos Santos to hone the screenplay for the former's sixth feature. Revealing how calcified notions of masculinity unite Brazil's sharply contrasting northern and southern cultures, Private Desert is very consciously a film of two halves that take a little concerted coercion to come together.


Daniel Moreira (Antonio Saboia) is a policeman in Curitiba in the southern state of Paraná. However, he has been suspended from duty while awaiting trial for beating up a rookie colleague and is forced to work as a nightclub bouncer in order to care for his ageing father (Luthero de Almeida), who needs constant care. Sister Debora (Cynthia Sanek) is reluctant to get herself roped into the situation and annoys Daniel when she announces that she is dating another woman.


Too emotionally detached to form a relationship of his own, Daniel has been sexting Sara, a chat room hook-up who lives in Sobradinho in the north-eastern state of Bahia. When she suddenly ghosts him, Daniel decides to drive 1500 miles to see her. What he doesn't know, however, is that Sara is the alter ego of Robson (Pedro Fasanaro), a teenager who has been sent to live with his grandmother, Tereza (Zezita Matos), by a violent father who is deeply ashamed of his son's sexuality.


Despite being protective, Tereza is under pressure from the local pastor to have Robson undergo aversion therapy and he is offered sanctuary by his hairdresser friend, Fernando (Thomas Aquino). When Daniel arrives unannounced and plasters wanted posters across town, the reluctant Robson dons Sara's best dress and flowing blonde wig to meet him. But, while the cop is disgusted by the truth when the pair make out in his car, he can't quite bring himself to head back south.


During a rather pointed scene at the Sobradinho Dam, Robson explains how a number of towns were submerged in order to create the new landscape and reveals that his adored grandfather had played a part in channelling the might of the São Francisco River. This prompts Daniel to divulge that he has never got over the loss of his mother at the age of 17 and the pair enjoy a moment of passion in the bus station washroom before Robson leaves for a new life in Rio de Janeiro.


Yet, despite the clumsiness of this symbolism and the decision to insert the opening credits over Daniel's long drive, Muritiba does a solid job of exposing the hoarily oppressive concepts of masculinity in Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil and the role that religion, the uniformed sector and the older generation play in reinforcing them. He's less successful, however, with a half-hearted attempt at eco sermonising. although he does end cannily on an ambiguous note about Daniel's future when he returns home to face the music.


As the macho cop who thinks saying sorry is enough to excuse his boorish and often brutal behaviour, Antonio Saboia is suitably stolid and taciturn. By contrast, Pedro Fasanaro is more nuanced in striving to reconcile Robson's fragility and Sara's flamboyance. Reliant on Bonnie Tyler's `Total Eclipse of the Heart' to underscore its emotional themes, the action is filmed with intimate simplicity by Luis Armando Arteaga. It's not always subtle and the slow burn can feel a self-conscious as the themes. But this is a thoughtful treatise on personal freedom and the extent to which we restrict ourselves as much as those who don't understand us.


WALK WITH ME.


Throughout its auspicious history, the London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival has always had a soft spot for what could be called Hallmark movies. Many of them have recycled the Lianna plot from John Sayles's 1983 study of a respectable middle-class wife developing a crush on another woman. But few have presented the familiar elements of the coming-out saga with more melodramatic burnish than Isabel del Rosal's Walk With Me.


New Yorker Amber Evans (Devin Dunne Cannon) feels stifled by workaholic husband, Ethan (Daniel Fox). So, she decides to move out with daughter, Emily (Grant E. Ginsberg), only to fall for flame-haired estate agent, Logan Pierce (Bridget Barkan). Needing time to adjust to her new feelings, Amber opts to keep the relationship from supportive boss, Sol (Catrina Ganey), as well as her conservative parents, Grace (Nikki James) and Michael (Malachy Cleary).


Logan has aspirations to become a singer-songwriter, while Amber is a promising artist. But neither seems to do anything but gaze into the other's eyes during idyllic days out and nights spent kissing chastely in front of roaring fires until Amber finally gives in to her desires. This step serves to complicate matters, however, as Logan wants open commitment, while Amber seeks to keep things on the down-low to avoid confrontations with her ex-husband and her folks.


Inevitably, Logan walks away to protect herself and goes on a lengthy tour after suddenly acquiring a recording contract. Amber also gets a gallery show and teaches Emily how to deal with difficult emotions by throwing stones into the sea. Then, while riding in a taxi, Amber hears Logan singing the song she wrote for her on a local Toronto radio station (very popular with New York cabbies, clearly) and hops a plane to patch things up with her beloved.


Cynical sixtysomethings might snipe, but this sincerely made picture will strike chords with its target audience and provide reassurance through the tears. And kudos to it for that, even though there's little tangible spark between the buttoned-up Devin Dunne Cannon and the impassive Bridget Barkan, who otherwise does a fine job with five of the 16 Amanda Walther songs that comment on the psychological state of the characters.


Rather than have Amber feud with Ethan over her romance, Isabel del Rosal focusses on her clash with her mother. But her effort to give Logan her own maternal crisis via a chance meeting on a subway platform proves a dead end, as does Amber's relationship with her young daughter, who is trotted out periodically to say something winsome before being packed off with whoever's turn it is to do the child-minding.


The haziness of Yura Makarov's soft-focus photography tells you everything you need to know about a love story set in a world in which a divorcing woman can afford a large house without needing to work extra hours at whatever job she professes to love so much that she can't go on the road with her overnight success lover. The earnestness is admirable, but it can't compensate for the sluggish pacing and a narrative hollowness that can be summed up by the arch gesture of Amber dropping her wedding ring into a cup of café coffee.


WET SAND.


Having impressed hugely with her monochrome debut, I Am Truly a Drop of Sun on Earth (2017), Elene Naveriani reinforces her reputation with Wet Sand. Whereas the former focussed on the friendship between a Tbilisi prostitute and a Nigerian migrant, this sophomore drama centres on the pernicious bigotry that saw the state collude with the Orthodox church in the launching of Family Day on 17 May to counteract the introduction of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biophobia.


The residents of a coastal Georgian village spend their days snooping on their neighbours and teasing Amnon (Gia Agumava) about the beer he serves at the beachside Wet Sands bar. Fleshka (Megi Kobaladze) urges her boss to ignore the taunts, as does Spero (Kakha Kobaladze), an ageing fisherman who goes out in his boat each day in order to feed himself.


Unbeknown to his customers, Amnon is the longtime lover of Eliko, a loner who is regarded as `the strange one' by the homophobic locals who have actively tried to drive him away. They gather with a sense of satisfaction when cop Alex (Giorgi Tsereteli) breaks the news that Eliko has hanged himself. However, they refuse to allow him to be buried in the nearby cemetery and sneer at Amnon when he offers to organise the funeral himself and calls Eliko's granddaughter in Tbilisi.


Arriving by taxi with short white-flecked hair, Moe (Bebe Sesitashvili) causes quite a stir among the villagers. Neli (Eka Chavleishvili) attempts to welcome her, as she had been friends with her mother. However, her husband, Dato (Zaal Goguadze), orders her to leave because he wants nothing to do with a family that has always sought to undermine traditional values.


Alex is instantly smitten with Moe, but she keeps him at arm's length, as she has no intention of being away from the capital for any longer than it takes to bury her grandfather. She learns from Amnon that Eliko had hanged himself to avoid the pain of encroaching cancer and she thanks him for risking the ire of his clientele in order to help her.


As Spero fixes the holes in the bottom of his boat, Moe purchases a coffin and learns about local prejudices from Fleshka. She also tries to console Amnon, when he learns from the autopsy that Eliko had been healthy when he died. Moe is touched by Amnon's affectionate farewell to her grandfather and guesses that they were more than just friends. But her plan to take the train home is dashed when Eliko's body is exhumed and thrown into the swamp. Moreover, Amnon is poisoned by the bottle of wine that Eliko had left wrapped in a note explaining his actions.


Fleshka and Spero help Moe recover Eliko's corpse from the marshes. She also seeks Alex's assistance to give the lovers a decent send off and he intervenes when Dato and his pals try to intimidate Moe at the bar. Unfazed by their threats, she kisses Fleshka in front of them and makes plans to torch Wet Sands with Eliko and Amnon lying beside each other.


Closing on a scene of Neli watching Moe and Fleshka smooching as they open a new bar on the outskirts of the village, this defiant statement rings with more trenchancy than the asides about climate change inserted into the scenario by Naveriani and her co-writer brother, Sandro. Moreover, it lays down a challenge to the village's womenfolk to rebel against the antediluvian attitudes of the men who strive to keep them in their place.


Bebe Sesitashvili and Megi Kobaladze may seem an odd fit, as the city girl used to doing things her own way and the provincial trapped by her own timidity. Yet their romance feels more plausible than the one between the Oscar-nominated Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit in Pedro Almodóvar's Parallel Mothers (which is showing in the festival, along with Jonas Poher Rasmussen's previously reviewed, Flee). But Sesitashvili also gels well with Gia Agumava, as the dignified outsider whose world falls apart when he learns that his clandestine lover of 22 years has lied to him about the terminal illness that had persuaded him to assist with his suicide.


In collaboration with cinematographer Agnesh Pakozdi, editor Aurora Franco Vögeli and soundscape mixer Philippe Ciompi, Naveriani captures the sights and sounds of what should be a homely haven on the Black Sea. Production designer Ketevan Nadibaize's interiors reinforce the notion that the village has allowed itself to become rundown and insular by keeping the wider world at bay. Making affecting use of space, stillness and silence, Naveriani hopes that her measured drama will serve as `an act of empowerment for the new generations who are wrestling with identity-related issues'. One can only hope that it causes a chink in the barriers being erected across Eastern Europe to slow the inevitable march of tolerance and progress and encourages those caught behind them to heed the message on the back of Fleshka's jacket: `Follow your fucking dreams.'


WILDHOOD.


Nothing out of the ordinary happens to Two-Spirit teenager Lincoln (Phillip Lewitski) after he goes in search of the mother he had long presumed dead before finding a withheld birthday card. But that's no bad thing, as it allows sophomore director Bretten Hannam (expanding the 2019 short, Wildfire) to explore the situation of Canada's Treaty People. Fresh from a scrape with the police, Lincoln and younger half-brother, Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony), flee from their brutish father Arvin (Joel Thomas Hynes) - who implausibly gives up the chase after a bottle of wee hits his windscreen - in the company of Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a ceremonial Mi'kmaw dancer who has a truck and a crush on Lincoln.


Predictably, the vehicle breaks down shortly after the trio learn from a holier-than-thou rehab counsellor (Mary-Colin Chisholm) that Sarah (Savonna Spracklin) was a troubled soul with a wanderlust. Fortunately, they are picked up by pastry chef Smokey (Michael Greyeyes), who introduces them to Mother Mary (John R. Sylliboy) at the Tiger Lily bar, who sends them to the remote Nova Scotian community where Lincoln is not only reunited with Sarah, but also Elsapet (Becky Julian), the old woman who had tended to his wounds in jail.


With the blonde-dyed Lincoln also learning en route to accept his sexuality, this all makes for box-tickingly edifying viewing. Yet, while this may be a rather conventional and unhurried road movie, Hannam and cinematographer Guy Godfree capture the sights of Eastern Canada and the conditions in which its Indigenous population is forced to live. Befitting this anthropological emphasis, the dialogue flits between English and Mi'kmaq, as Lincoln discovers himself and his heritage. But his relationships with his parents, eye-patched half-sibling and genial uncle (Steve Lund) are as sketchily limned as Pasmay's background and the fate of his mysteriously ditched guitar case.

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