“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live. It is asking other people to live as one wishes to live.” ― Oscar Wilde
Moving away from a selfish society is clearly one of the prime motivations of the International Queer Film Festival Merlinka, both government and non-government funded, and now in its tenth incarnation – in spite of everything (its motto this year). Founded in Belgrade, as annual December cinematic candy, with a five day span, variety rich and growing, it started rocking it around the Balkans (Sarajevo and Podgorica), also shifting north to Novi Sad, second largest city in Serbia, for a condensed 31 May – 2 June outing at the Museum Of Contemporary Art Vojvodina (MSUV) – for the fifth time. And special kudos for that, as the only way to get around is to get around.
Festival director and programmer Predrag Azdejković greeted the smallish crowd last Friday, one which made its way to the gates through a thunderstorm, and then joyfully grew during the weekend to full house. In a country that, simultaneously, has an openly gay Prime Minister (still a global rarity), yet an almost casually aggressive public discourse towards the LGBTQ+ community, the act of bridging divides art hopefully conjures is not only welcome, but crucial. As in all forms of prejudice, especially ones so deeply rooted in prevalent tradition, and always with potential for escalating into violence, open communication and getting to know people is key to a compassionate, inclusive, and fair society – in conjunction with state laws.
First in the carefully selected abridged line-up was Želimir Žilnik‘s documentary Among the People: Life & Acting featuring memorabilia and clips of the multi-talented and lively non-professional actors in Žilnik’s iconic oeuvre. Most notably one Vjeran Miladinović – Merlinka, whose extraordinary life and tragic destiny the festival honours by its name. Merlinka, the first publicly prominent transvestite in the Balkans, with a certain celebrity status in the notoriously difficult 1990s, was the protagonist of Žilnik’s ground-breaking Marble Ass (1995), and lived her life as a sex worker on the streets of Belgrade. She was killed in 2003, at the age of 44, and her murder remains unsolved. Merlinka comes across as courageous, sweet, and haunted, and along with her troupe of equally charming misfits exudes camaraderie and style. Its a curious trip down memory lane, as the decade of wars and anarchy seemed strangely open to non-conformist lifestyles compared to the (supposedly) advanced society of today’s neoconservative Serbia. Žilnik’s wild, unruly, incredibly humane narratives always emphasise the element of social in/justice and the bare bone emotions of being in survival mode for long periods of time – for some this state of being goes on forever. Merlinka was one of those unlucky many, yet a beautiful example of owning what’s one’s own, despite every conceivable obstacle there is.
Clara Stern‘s short film Mathias is a low-key high-impact moving miniature on the emotional, social, and physical toll of transitioning as well as establishing an identity that is at the same time intimately authentic, yet adaptable to life that grinds on, regardless. We meet Mathias (Gregor Kohlhoferin) at a storage facility in a suburb of an Austrian town, he’s just got a new job, and his boss promises discretion over his identity. There seems to be nothing out of the ordinary about him, but his quietness and slightly edgy demeanour suggest that Mathias is processing more than new-job anxiety. After an old school mate on the same job recognises him, and bullishly confronts him, Mathias’s new carefully forged life and his strained relationship with his loyal girlfriend are pushed towards breaking-point.
Katharina Mückstein‘s second Austrian entry, L’animale, is a steady, clear-eyed view on the poetics of passion while growing up different in a conservative, rural environment, where anything or anyone that sticks out might be cut down on a whim of a passing tantrum. The escalation of conflict would depend on inner turmoil i.e. investment of emotion, so the range of put-downs comes in various shapes and sizes – from snide comments to full-blown violence. Sophie Stockinger is Mati, a girl about to graduate from high-school, a sulky but obedient daughter of an ambitious country veterinarian (Kathrin Resetarits), assisting her in the surgery by day, hanging out with boys on motorbikes at night, riding everything rougher than the rest of them. Somewhere between proving her loyalty to the bros and placating her tightly-wound mother, she falls in love with a girl that has a cat (Julia Franz Richter), and a delicate gold necklace which Mati mirrors by buying one for herself. Once she understands who she is, and becomes dedicated to her own truth, there is a shift, and a fierce protectiveness of her own authenticity. Her way plays out in contrast to her own father (Dominik Warta), a closeted gay man, forever in pursuit of a quick fix, never brave enough to admit to his nature. Everyone in L’animale is suffocating and in need of true connection. Only the ones who embrace the beauty and the pain of it get to feel how it is to fully breathe.
Saturday kicked off with a happy synchronicity, a curated tour of an exhibition that was on MSUV’s programme at the same time Merlinka dropped by, a fab duet, as Róbert Szabó Benke‘s Gentle Strategies of Resistance plays with self-constructed identities, creating a soft, meditative view on subjective realities, surpassing dominant narratives, celebrating life always larger than art, and the power of love to transform life, as a form of resistance.
Matt Tyrnauer‘s Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood, an exuberant documentary on the equally exuberant, wildly raunchy, and surprisingly heart-breaking path of Scotty Bowers, is based on his bestselling memoir on a lifetime as escort and sexual go-between to closeted Hollywood and non-Hollywood royalty. We meet Scotty, a good-hearted man in his mid-nineties, still sprightly and super focused on life, living in hoarder heaven with his loving but much more down-to-earth second wife, a road-side chanteuse, slightly younger Lois, who sadly passed at the age of 85 shortly after the doc’s release. Lois did not know a thing about Scotty before they got hitched, but felt it was much too late to do anything about it post factum. She loved him, you see. Which is really a blessed conclusion to a life of extreme hedonism and internal mayham that never was processed, as Scotty insists that whatever he went through – childhood abuse, poverty, war, exploitation – does not make him a victim. He is, at the same time, entirely inspiring for his enormous zest for living, sweetness, and lack of any sort of conceivable prejudice (he was Kinsey’s sexual magic bullet – he tried everything at least once) – and profoundly tragic, as he never stopped long enough to consider who he might be damaging along the way, most of all – himself. He was a workaholic in the sex industry, and the day his only daughter died from a botched abortion, he pulled himself from grief by going to his next gig. Never miss an appointment, work ethic, and a gap in emotional availability one Grand Canyon wide. However, Scotty was also a sexual revolutionary, a guy who brought real joy and some kind of relief to people that lived their love and desires as if at gun-point, never knowing if the next relationship or casual sexual encounter will bring their entire life structure crashing down.
Probably my fest favourite is Faraz Arif Ansari‘s short film Sisak, India’s entry, and an ode to forbidden love executed with such poetic minimalism and emotional ripeness that it took my breath away. Commuters on a train hold a secret passion for each other almost too intense to contain on screen, depicted by the smallest of movements, a stolen shiny glance, and that painful inability to voice your feelings to the other, known to all people, but specifically ones whose mutual desires are still taboo in their place of life. India decriminalised homosexuality last year, a remnant of colonial law, not tradition, and a process that took decades of tireless campaigning to accomplish.
Second Saturday short was Branislav Kostić‘s Wall, a visual essay on the inability to communicate openly, cleverly mixing and remixing various couples, gay and straight, the dialogue flowing as if spoken by only one.
Yen Tan‘s eerie, moving, understated B/W masterpiece 1985, follows one man’s Christmas visit to his Texan family – Christian conservative, truly loving, and in silent denial, all in equal measure – at the height of the AIDS crisis, and with a devastating secret to tell. The emotional pantomime and all that is not said, and remains unsaid, reminds us of a not so removed time when a diagnosis was not only a death sentence, but a cross of shame in a society enveloped by panic and prejudice.
Tranny Fag, a Brazilian doc, directed by Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla, spotlighting the life of Linn da Quebrada and her lively crew of friends and family, is a brutally honest, yet at times graceful portrait of the São Paulo transgender artist and performer. From dizzy duet charm of her radio shows tackling marginalisation and identity, to sweet chats in the kitchen with her mum and sister (and appeals to stop romanticising poverty), to the times when she conceptualised her chemotherapy process through a video act (with a little help from a friend), all the way up on stage to her most hardcore trio cabaret act (and political theatre) – all of it rings a perfect pitch, and is unapologetic in its raw sincerity.
My second fest fave is Slava Doycheva‘s short Whole, a perfectly formed vignette depicting a life of drowning in small-town mores, family constraints, tedious ritual, and overall insistence at enjoyment of all above-mentioned. It’s a wedding reception in a family restaurant in Bulgaria, and Yana (played by Doycheva) is closeted and under pressure to perform heteronormativity, when she glimpses a way out of her predicament in the shape of a waitress (Martina Apostolova) with a knowing smile…
Two more Sunday shorts were Efrat Chen and Naor Zana‘s lovely animated Two of Every Kind, following a pair of gay peacocks attempting to board Noah’s ark as a couple, and Raúl Navarro‘s hilarious The Best Moment which finds a young man coming out to his good friend, confessing to an affair with the said friend’s father. However, this precious moment of truth seems to have been all in vain.
Finally we have the enigmatic, brooding Hard Paint, directed by Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon, with a powerhouse central performance by Shico Menegat as Pedro, a socially awkward college drop-out from Brazil’s Porto Alegre, with a past crime we do not hear much of at first, but for which he is facing trial. He lives his life online in chat rooms as Neon Boy, smearing his body with paint for anonymous monies, and exuding a loneliness that is a silent scream, throughout. When his viewing numbers drop, his sister, leaving for a job abroad, mentions a copycat neon boy out there as the possible culprit. Pedro finds him, and falls in love, hard. Leo (Bruno Fernandes) is a professional dancer, the warmth to Pedro’s aloofness, melting boundaries (and paint), teaching him not only love, but also the price we pay when we sacrifice our heart, through the humble simplicity of true connection.
Short and sweet weekend ride through a cinematic landscape that is very slowly moving from niche to broader in the Balkans, yet with quality that never drops a beat. Merlinka is a bold and bright festival of good humour and defiance, with a sophisticated programme, a growing audience, and enough maverick charm to face both friend and foe in society with the sage knowledge that, in the end, love conquers all.