Documenting the rainbow

The non-fiction highlights of this year's NewFest

by Jennie Kermode

Billie And Emma, one of the fiction highlights of the festival
Billie And Emma, one of the fiction highlights of the festival Photo: Newfest

There are some fantastic features screening at this year's NewFest in New York but what really stands out about this LGBT festival is its selection of documentaries. Exploring historical, cultural and personal stories from around the world, they're educational and entertaining and they broaden the discussion about LGBT lives. These are five of the best.

The Archivettes

The Archivettes
The Archivettes Photo: Newfest

An expansion on her 2017 short Love Letter rescue Squad, Megan Rossman's documentary about the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York tells the story of how a small group of friends identified history in the making and worked to preserve it, building a resource that is prized by scholars all around the world. it's a story about the emerging understanding of how women's stories have been undervalued by historians more widely and how vital they are to making sense of the past, whilst it also reflects on the special relationship with the preservation of history that falls to those who, by and large, do not have children to carry their personal stories forwards after their deaths. It's a small-scale, personal film built around interviews and time spent in the archive itself with nevertheless captures a broad arc of history.

Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life

Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life
Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life

A behind-the-scenes look at the personal life of one of the most famous men in gay porn over eight years of his career, this is one of those rare documentaries that succeed in capturing something ineffably human, a kind of magic out of all proportion to their immediate subject. Director Tomer Heymann seems to have unlimited access to his subject's life and touches on his work only as a side issue, as one might reflect on the working life of a bricklayer, whilst keeping his primary focus on day to day life and the importance of family. Jonathan (Agassi is a stage name) is incredibly open in front of the camera, sharing his most private thoughts, and has a sweetness about him that confounds the clichés. It's painful to watch his life slide towards tragedy, but there's more to this story than you might expect. It's an unforgettable film.

Queer Japan

Queer Japan
Queer Japan Photo: Newfest

The sheer depth of information and experience that Graham Kolbeins packs into this film creates a portrait of sexual and gender diversity in modern Japan that will wow even those who thought they were familiar with the subject. From the day to day issues faced by a lesbian couple and a trans politician to the exotic world of Department H where art and erotica merge and kaiju walk the runway, there's always more to discover. Threads about historical attitudes in the archipelago are interwoven with reflections on the impact of Christianity and the AIDS crisis and a consideration of the ways that different sexual and gender minorities - hentai communities - have variously been at odds when they might have benefited from working together. Artists, performers and more contribute to a work that is always fascinating to watch, colourful and authentic.

Queen Of Lapa

Queen Of Lapa
Queen Of Lapa Photo: Newfest

Around the world, social rejection and the financial pressure created by a need for medication push many trans people into sex work. In Rio de Janeiro, cabaret star Luana Muniz has opened up a hostel which has helped some of them to get off the streets, take control of their lives and start planning for the future. They're still turning tricks, many are still doing drugs, but they've found community and self respect. Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat's film takes us inside the hostel and provides intimate access to the lives of its residents, which quickly acclimatise to the presence of the camera but also provide interviews, sharing stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, sometimes tragic. What emerges is a potent depiction of life on the margins and an insight into how the marginalised can create their own societies and their own ways of thriving.

Queering The Script

Queering The Script
Queering The Script Photo: Newfest

Today films about LGBT people are relatively easy to find, at least if one has access to the internet - but it wasn't always that way. Gabrielle Zilkha's documentary explores the struggle for representation on the small screen, the difference made to people's lives when they can see depictions of people like themselves, and the way that viewers changed the narrative. It look at the way that those without role models imagined popular characters as secretly queer, the way some scriptwriters deliberately loaded their work with queer undertones (Renée O'Connor's declaration that she and Lucy Lawless filmed a whole series of Xena: Warrior Princess completely oblivious to its lesbian subtext is priceless), and the rise of slash fiction as a means of claiming narrative space. It's a thorough, insightful and uplifting film.

NewFest runs from 23 to 29 October.

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