All my sisters and me: Frameline was full of films that recentered their gaze on the nuclear family, including Debra Chasnoff's 'It's Still Elementary.' (Photo courtesy Frameline)

Frameline's New Lesson Plan

Lynn Rapoport July 1, 2008

Marriage changes everything. At least, this is what the disgruntled often say in movies and sitcoms regarding the ball-and-chain effect. Whether this ominous notion entered the heads of the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival programmers back in the planning stages of early 2008, same-sex marriage’s recent change of status in California has certainly provoked far-ranging discussions about queer folks’ own change of status in the world at large, a transformation in which the right to wed has, for better and for worse, taken center stage. As was only fitting, there was ample opportunity for filmgoers flipping through the Frameline 32 catalog to seek out glimpses of where the LGBT community is at today as well as how it got there.

Of course, the festival is large enough now to serve many constituencies within that community, whether they’re clamoring for insight into LGBT civil rights issues or more Bruce LaBruce films about the marginalized community of gay zombies (Otto; or Up with Dead People), porn star documentaries (Jeffrey Schwarz’s Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon), and stories about young women traversing the dotted line between friendship and amour. (There were no less than three of these this year, depicting explorations both pleasurable and painful: Dolls, Karin Babinská's road movie about four teenagers with no impulse control wandering the byways of the Czech Republic; Kirsi Marie Liimatainen’s Finland-set tale of two friends, Sonja; and Sergio Candel’s Two Looks, whose unsympathetic heroines suggest, in their nearly preverbal inability to work through the fallout of a drunken night, that the lesbian urge to process is not inborn.)

But some sort of shift has occurred, enough so that the festival’s closing night film — generally selected for its ability to please a crowd coming down off a week of filling the streets and parks and bars with marches, dancing, sequins, rainbow feathers, club flyers, and drunken misbehavior — this year veered away from the steamy satisfactions delivered in 1996 by Bound and in 2004 by the pop comic delights of teen lesbian spy flick D.E.B.S. and into the terrain of the family circle. And not the tense family circle of the classic young adult coming-out tale, but the (sometimes equally tense) one constructed in queer adulthood. Of course, in the case of Breakfast with Scot’s Eric (Thomas Cavanagh of Ed), we’re still dealing with a closet case, but he in turn is dealing with a newly adopted young son quite comfortable with letting his gender-bent freak flag fly (clearly a kindred spirit to Ready? OK!‘s cheertastic 10-year-old, who loves pompoms and pyramids and comes to school for Halloween dressed as a spot-on Maria Von Trapp).

The festival was full of films that recentered their gaze on the nuclear family, whether that constituted French lesbians struggling to start one in the face of legal and personal challenges or parents faced with the weighty responsibility of raising a child to believe implicitly that he or she is respected, approved of, and adored. The most startlingly moving of these was Argentine director Lucia Puenzo’s XXY, a first feature whose tale of Alex, an intersex 15-year-old, achieved that hard-won tribute, a packed house so silent that at times it seemed the viewers amassed there had collectively grown afraid to breathe. In a sense, all of these pictures were informed by decades of struggle and debate over how to nurture and nourish identity that doesn’t follow the straight and narrow path.

Which brings us back to then and now. Two Frameline programs in particular took the long view — one in examining the realm of education; the other, queer experience generally. A pair of films by Oscar-winning documentarian Debra Chasnoff, It’s Elementary, and It’s Still Elementary, tackle the subject of the love that dares not speak its name—in the lesson plans of the United States’ public school districts, that is. Originally released in 1996 and shown here in an abridged form, It’s Elementary seeks out fledgling attempts by a handful of U.S. schools to introduce LGBT issues into their curricula. Putting elementary and middle school teachers, and students on camera in the classroom, the film ended up serving as a modeling resource for educators across the country and around the world. More than a decade later, It’s Still Elementary’s statistics on changes wrought in the interim manage to impress and depress—when you’re starting with numbers like "less than 1 percent," anything higher starts to look good—but the nearly 3,000 educational facilities that have acquired It’s Elementary attest to the mark it has made. Depicting the impetus for it, the making-of process, and the virulent conservative assault that accompanied every step, the new film also reintroduces viewers to a handful of the original student participants, attempting to gauge the effects of both the film and this aspect of their education by examining their lives today.

Another handful of original participants, both subjects, and makers of the 1977 documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, climbed the steps of the Castro stage last Thursday evening after a screening of a newly restored print of the film. Twenty-six lesbians and gay men had sat in front of the camera some 30 years earlier and opened up to the members of the Mariposa Film Group on matters familiar, such as first love and coming out, and almost unfathomable, like having one’s children taken away or being confined to a psychiatric facility and prescribed shock treatments for the illness of being gay.

The film’s survival and presence in the festival mirrors a larger survival and presence, something Michael Jacoby’s compelling full-length documentary Ten More Good Years, in depicting the lives of a handful of LGBT elders in their 70s and 80s, takes pains to point out. We must hear these stories, the film insists, and not only experience them as archived memories but see the people, in essence our heroes, who lived through them and survived — long enough to encounter, hopefully, old age’s rewards but also its fresh hardships. We see the recent and current civil rights battles in a new light when introduced to LGBT elders living, often frugally and solitarily, in a society whose institutions and services largely lead them back toward the closet. In this way Ten More Good Years reminds a constantly shifting LGBT community—and, one hopes, the world outside—that its shape and health and visibility have been informed by these people standing in front of the camera, and that how we take care of them now will inform the shape and health and visibility of LGBT communities to come.