Three nights of conversation starters: Queer Takes at the Walker

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From athletics to AIDS drugs to culinary comedy, there are some great conversation-starters in this year’s Queer Takes film series at the Walker Art Center.

Chef’s Special (June 23, 7:30 p.m.) is a light appetizer of twists on screwball comedy—Spanish-style. Maxie (Juavier Camara) is a perfectionist gay restauranteur obsessed with getting a starred review in the Michelin travel guide. What he doesn’t plan on is sudden fatherhood, which he gets when his ex-wife dies, or the cute soccer star Horacio (Benjamin Vercuna) moving in next door. Goofy employees include the restaurant’s hostess, who is also Maxi’s hysterically man-crazy best friend, Alex (Lola Duenas). Add a dash of Maxi’s humorously clueless parents. Chef’s Special is a variation on the “who gets the girl/guy” theme made fresh with the closeted athlete pursued by both Maxi and Alex.

This is director-screenwriter Nacho Garcia Velilla’s cinematic debut, and his TV sitcom resume flavors this concoction. But for all the froth, Chef’s Special has some surprising substance in Maxi trying to re-connect with his angry teenage son Edu (Junio Valuerde) and his precocious six-year-old daughter Alba (Alejandra Lorenzo). The kids are totally believable and almost steal the show whenever they’re onscreen. Complications between Maxi and Horacio have moments of real truth, too, making what could have been junk food into a satisfying snack. Bon appetit!

Sports fans shouldn’t miss the free double feature Training Rules (Wed. June 24, 7 p.m.) and Football Under Cover (8:45 p.m.), two remarkable documentaries about female athletes. Here’s a chance to cheer courage on and off the field of play.

Training Rules, co-directed by Academy Award nominee Dee Moshbacker (founder of WomenVison, which produces and distributes films made by and about women) and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Fawn Yacker, exposes the virulent homophobia in college women’s athletics. The film focuses on Penn State and women’s basketball coach Rene Portland, who had three “training rules” for her team: no drinking, no drugs, and no lesbians. For over 25 years, Portland destroyed dreams and lives by kicking women off the team (and also taking away their athletic scholarships) because they were or might be lesbian or simply refused to shun lesbian women.

In 1972, Title IX broke open possibilities for women and girls to develop themselves as athletes. Now, one in three college women participate in sports. Training Rules tells the stories of 20-something women in the 21st century who hoped to play in the WNBA or coach college sports and 40-something women who still bear scars from Portland’s bigotry in the 1980s. The NCAA long refused to address homophobia in women’s sports, but this film shows how a campus movement of students, community activists, and Sue Rankin—an openly lesbian softball coach—refused to accept defeat while one student-athlete Jen Harris filed a lawsuit. The sexist roots of homophobia are exposed in conformity to a rigid “femininity” imposed on all female athletes—including those in professional sports—in order to ‘prove’ one is not lesbian. Training Rules champions justice in a gripping one-hour drama. There’s a post-show discussion with Mary Jo Kane, director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.

Football Under Cover continues the Walker’s wonderful series of films focusing on Iran. The documentary depicts a 2006 soccer match between women’s teams in Germany and Iran; the match was held in Tehran, the capitol of Iran. Part Valentine to “the love of the game” through a cross-cultural lens, part suspenseful challenge to the repressive Iranian government, the film reveals that the young women have far more in common than they ever imagined. Brother-sister filmmakers David and Marlene Assmann team up with Ayat Najafi in an unusual way: Marlene is on the German team and Najafi takes on the logistics with the Iranian government to make the game happen. The German athletes must wear the hijab (headscarf) and are challenged to find modest uniforms just before the match, yet the film makes clear that Iranian women’s spirits are not nearly as supressed as Westerners assume. On and off the field, Football Under Cover is a celebratory tribute to girl power in sports.

Queer Takes closes with a film of international and political importance. Fig Trees (June 25, 7:30 p.m.) looks at the fight to get access to AIDS drugs, especially in under-developed countries. The heart of the film is two activists with AIDS: Tim McCaskell (Toronto) and Zackie Achmat (South Africa), who went on a “medication strike”—that is, they refuse to take AIDS drugs—until the drugs are available to all South Africans. Archival footage from the last decade and interviews with these two men are a connective thread, but writer-director John Greyson goes beyond conventional reporting to make what he calls a “documentary opera” that comes out of his own 20 years as an AIDS activist and depicts the roles of “heroes and martyrs” in that struggle.

With a strange mythic beauty, Grayson and composer David Wall re-create elements of the 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts by two gay artists: avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein and composer Virgil Thompson. St. Theresa of Avila also appears, and there are definite echoes of gay playwright Tony Kushner’s sensibility. Satire vies with sorrow and outrage. Political figures come in for plenty of mocking—from “the Dollar Bills” (Gates and Clinton) to pop celebrity philanthropist Bono. We hear from Stephen Lewis, former United Nations Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, who is scathing about the limits of “celebrity leadership” when American and South African presidents’ bigotry and ignorance allow thousands of people to die of AIDS. Brilliantly biting short music videos underscore points—and add humor—with sendups of what the filmmakers call a Billboard chart of “top AIDS songs.”

Fig Trees is, in some moments, an odd film—especially if one isn’t an opera fan. Yet overall I found myself moved by the film’s demonstration of how fighting this deadly disease has been a huge part of building an international GLBT rights movement. The need for access to AIDS drugs versus Big Pharma’s insatiable greed for profits is yet more glaring evidence of the failures of corporate globalization—exposed in Fig Trees with an often witty anger. Greyson has taken a big risk to follow his own eclectic vision to deal with some tough issues in a completely original way.

Preceding Fig Trees, San Francisco filmmaker (formerly Twin Cities Flaming Film Festival curator) Jenni Olson presents her new short film 575 Castro Street. The seven-minute film is a meditative study of the Castro Camera Store set from the film Milk, set to a statement recorded by Harvey Milk to be played “in the event of [my] assassination.” Olson’s previous film, Joy of Life, is breathtaking in its ability to quietly evoke strong emotion. Converging the recreation of Milk’s business with his actual voice almost guarantees that this new short will be similarly moving.

Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis journalist, winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She hosts Catalyst: Politics & Culture on KFAI. Hear a conversation with Dee Mosbacher archived on the Catalyst page at kfai.org.

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