Five Films You Have to See at Tel Aviv's International LGBT Film Festival

Documentaries on Montgomery Clift, drag queens and transgender teens are as thrilling as features exploring the lives of members of the community

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Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts
Trixie Mattel: Moving PartsCredit: Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival

The Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival, which opened Wednesday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, has survived despite obstacles imposed by the Culture Ministry, the city and the Cinematheque. As it has every year, TLVFest offers parties, panel discussions and meetings with artists. The main attraction, of course, is the wide variety of films that address LGBT issues, with LGBT actors in lead roles. Some of the movies are better than others; some engage with the local community, while others communicate stories of the LGBT experience in different places of the world. Following are five films that we recommend from this year’s schedule.

''Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts''

Few people recognize the name Brian Firkus, but Trixie Mattel is one of the biggest drag queens in the United States and around the world. This documentary, which follows her and Firkus, the man under Trixie’s heavy makeup, wigs, corsets and bras, for a year, providing a fascinating glimpse into the world of drag in general and of Firkus-Trixie in particular.

Even in relation to other drag queens, it seems that Trixie manages to be more exaggerated, more vocal and above all more funny. Her typical makeup, a work of art in itself, is the first external sign showing that this is someone who takes herself totally seriously, despite, and maybe because of the image the drag world often has (mainly among people who don’t know much about it). The movie’s opening scene is a dazzling exhibition of her glamor: her grandiose performances in the TV series RuPaul’s drag race, her taking first place in the all-star season of this successful reality show, her wonderful collaboration with another drag queen, with the impossible name Katya Zamolodchikova and their joint TV show. Some clips from this show are included in the film, posing a clear and present danger of making you choke with laughter.

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The impact of this documentary, which was first screened at the last Tribeca Festival, is that it doesn’t just make do with parties, amazing eyelashes and kicking and biting humor, but in its occasional tearing off the glamorous mask from the face of Trixie and the drag world in general, exposing what goes on behind the scenes. It portrays the emotional breakdown of Katya, collapsing under the weight of her success, the unexpected dismantling of the fiery TV partnership between the two, the discussion of the depression that creeps under the skin of many drag queens, often not managing to raise its head due to the layers of sequins. It includes a confession by Firkus that his stepfather abused him when he was a child, hitting him whenever he dared show any sign of femininity. This documentary excels in showering viewers with a cloud of confetti and laughing gas, followed immediately by a carefully placed gut punch.

''The Garden Left Behind''

A movie like this rightly won the Audience Award at this year’s SXSW (South by Southwest Music and Media Conference), in Austin, Texas. Tina is a 30-year-old transgender woman who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child. An undocumented immigrant, she shares a small New York apartment with her grandmother.

Tina is the breadwinner; her grandmother, Eliana, takes care of their home. The only thing marring their great love for each other is Eliana’s difficulty accepting that her beloved grandson has for a long time been her granddaughter. Tina’s personality carries the movie. Director and screenwriter Flavio Alves belongs to the contemporary generation of filmmakers who are making the Brazilian movie scene particularly interesting. He sketches Tina’s character with impressive sensitivity: her longing for love and for changing her body, her yearning for acceptance by her surroundings and her refusal to break despite the difficulties cropping up at every turn.

Tina is sent to an elderly therapist (played by Ed Asner), who must confirm her need for surgery. Without a work permit, she struggles to support herself and her grandmother. Tina falls in love with a man, who gives her hope before breaking her heart. She draws strength from a group of transgender friends who are fed up with keeping silent, becoming activists after one of their number is beaten up by the police. By showing a gentle yet complex character, Alves creates several touching scenes that remain etched in viewers’ minds, showing how life piles up obstacles for those who against their will are marginalized by society, finding that survival under these conditions is a challenge that is difficult to overcome.

“Making Montgomery Clift”

Montgomery Clift was a prominent Hollywood star in the 1950s and ‘60s. His beauty was mesmerizing. He redefined the model of male beauty on the big screen, says the present documentary, and contributed to the shaping of the new masculinity, more sensitive and vulnerable. The inclusion of this documentary in the 14th TLVFest is a giveaway that he was not a rank-and-file straight actor.

Being gay in the period in which Clift was burning up the screen, from the 1940s to the ‘60s, was neither simple nor fun. This movie, however, one of whose co-directors was the actor’s nephew, Robert Anderson Clift, argues that Clift felt quite comfortable with the matter and that his close family did not make a big deal of his sexual identity. He had relationships with women but didn’t try to hide his attraction to men, even during the “Lavender scare” of the 1950s, when homosexuality was considered a mental illness and the U.S. government, not sufficing with McCarthyism and the persecution of communists, took pains to persecute LGBT individuals.

Making Montgomery CliftCredit: Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival

Clift’s story is interesting also because he helped changed the balance of power between Hollywood stars and the big studios. At the outset of his career he refused to sign a contract with a studio that would dictate which films he could do, insisting on maintaining his independence. He nevertheless developed an addiction to painkillers and alcohol, and his image never grew old or wrinkled since he died early of a heart attack, in 1966, at the age of only 45.

The documentary benefited from direct access to the actor’s archive and to audio recordings of conversations he held with his family. The movie portrays a courageous and impressive character of a gay man, who, unlike other contemporary actors, refused to bend before the demands of the Hollywood establishment and of social norms.

The films of Thom Fitzgerald

This year’s festival pays tribute to the American-Canadian director and screenwriter Thom Fitzgerald who, at age 29, directed and wrote “The Hanging Garden” (1997). It became one of the most important LGBT-related movies of the period.

Four of his films will be screened at TLVFest: “The Hanging Garden,” a bildungsroman about an obese teenage boy from a dysfunctional family; “The Event” (2003), in which a lawyer investigates the circumstances surrounding the death of a man with AIDS: She suspects that his friends and members of his family helped him to kill himself. In “Cloudburst” (2011), a lesbian couple (Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker), now in their 70s after being together 31 years, decide to take a road trip to Canada to get married. “Splinters” (2018), Fitzgerald’s most recent film, follows a young woman who returns after many years to her hometown, where she grew up and came out as lesbian, to her mother’s dismay. A meeting with a former lover collides with a surprise visit by her current partner, forcing her to choose her preference and her passion.

“Transkids – the Movie”

For anyone who didn’t see Hilla Medalia’s documentary series “Transkids” the festival provides an opportunity to close the gap quickly with a new movie version. This is worthwhile, allowing a glimpse into the world of four youths who have to face puberty, with its own challenges, along with the unnerving path of changing their bodies in the hope that they can finally feel, for the first time in their lives, a concordance between their gender and the body they occupy as they move through the world.

The Tel Aviv CinemathequeCredit: Moti Milrod

Medallia follows with sensitivity the process undergone by three trans men and one trans woman, exploring not only their physical and emotional anguish, the moments of joy they experience, but their families as well. They too must undergo an exhausting journey of change, acceptance and support, seeing before them the changes taking place in the children they knew, as they struggle and suffer while remaining resolved, focused and full of hope.