Tales of Brooklyn, Surgery, Suicide, Country Music: What to See at Tel Aviv Gay Film Fest

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Tel Aviv LGBT International Film Festival opens Friday at Cinematheque with indie hit ‘Appropriate Behavior’ and lots more.

Pierre et Gilles / Festival

TLVFest, the Tel Aviv LGBT International Film Festival held at the Cinematheque starting this Friday, is marking its 10th anniversary and that is truly a reason to celebrate. This year, when its budget was cut to only 148,000 shekels (about $37,000) from 244,000 shekels in 2014 because of reduced sponsorship by the Israel Film Council, buying tickets is a sign of support for the festival, which runs from June 6 to June 15.

In addition, the assumption that this is just a “niche” festival whose films speak only to members of the LGBT community is a joke. Good cinema is cinema that allows us to imagine other possibilities of existence and broaden our life experience. You don’t need to be gay, lesbian or transgender to enjoy a well made film on gay couples, just as you don’t need to be a sex-crazed man to enjoy “Mad Max.”

Naturally, you will find some excellent films, alongside some that are not ripe. I have not seen all the films presented this year, but here are five I recommend from those I managed to sample.

1. “Appropriate Behavior” (Desiree Akhavan, director)

Akhavan, an American whose parents left Iran after the Islamic revolution, has been called the “bisexual version of Woody Allen.” She is a comedian in her own right and made her first film on a ridiculously low budget. The screenwriter and director of “Appropriate Behavior,” she also plays the leading role: a young bisexual named Shirin who tries to heal her broken heart with wild nights of drugs, alcohol and sexual escapades with men and women in Brooklyn. The result is hilarious, sharp and witty, and sometimes even heart-warming. It is also a rare opportunity to see the first film of a star in creation: After acting in the fourth season of Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” Akhavan has been marked as a successor to Dunham, and is now working on a number of new projects simultaneously.

A still image from “Appropriate Behavior.” (Photo by Gravitas Ventures)

2. “The Material Boy” (Luizo Vega, director)

Luizo Vega’s film is a hypnotizing mixture of fiction and reality. At first is seems to be Vega’s unbelievable story, an Argentine child who was put up for adoption and discovered in his teens that his biological mother was the pop star Madonna. But is Madonna really his biological mother? Or maybe she is actually his spiritual mother – a source of inspiration who helped him come out and become the bad boy of Argentine art? Instead of seeking answers, it is preferable to sit back in your chair and enjoy the aesthetic and rhythmic montage that Vega supplies. The film is built out of archival clips, shots of Madonna, an interview with Vega and 15 years of documentation of his performance art, which includes nude portraits at holy sites worldwide, including the Vatican and cemeteries. “The Material Boy” raises interesting questions about the connection between art and the desperate search for recognition and love. And of course, it is always possible to read it as a song of praise for Madonna.

A still from “The Material Boy.” (Pierre et Gilles / Festival)

3. “Third Person” (Sharon Luzon, director)

Alongside the light comedy of “Appropriate Behavior” and the stirring roller coaster ride of “The Material Boy,” the Israeli program at the festival also includes documentary films, which provide a much more complicated viewing experience. “Third Person” is a shocking film that follows Susan, who discovers at age 35 that she was born intersex – having both male and female sex organs and unable to be classified as either male or female. When she was five months old, her parents decided she would be a female. It was only at age 35 that she found out. Through Susan’s story, and that of Ofer, another intersex person, and a third such person who wanted to remain anonymous, Luzon reveals the enormous pain involved in the denial and lies surrounding the hybrid gender identity of such babies. Without turning into a political manifesto, the film succeeds in showing why the automatic decision to operate on such babies and to totally deny their rare medical condition is at the very least problematic, and not necessarily something to be taken for granted. Because of the courage and openness of Susan and Ofer, the discussion of intersex people receives its proper due.

4. Three short films by directed by Netalie Braun

Another event in the Israeli collection, a special, free evening (actually one shekel for a ticket), is dedicated to three short films by Netalie Braun, including her new one, “Vow.” The three movies – “The Last Supper” (2004), “Gevald” (2008) and “Vow” (2014) – are original, surprising and defiant of convention. The main characters are always anti-heroes: a woman who commits suicide and leaves a will in which she asks 12 of her dearest ones to eat her after her death (in “The Last Supper”); they are shocked, but carry out her wishes. Or a shy 11-year-old girl with social problems who tries to find comfort from a furry pet (“Vow”). Even if there is no Hollywood happy ending here, these short stories will stay with you for a long time.

5. “My Prairie Home” (Chelsea McMullen, director)

Documentary films about the gay community tend to be rather depressing, but “My Prairie Home” – a mixture of a musical and a coming out of the closet – is a relatively light movie. There is a good chance you will fall in love with folk and country singer Rae Spoon as he journeys through isolated towns in the middle of the Canadian prairie – performing in the most God-forsaken holes in Canada. Facing a conservative Evangelical audience, the transgender singer performs songs that reveal his abused childhood at the hands of his alcoholic father. The music is great, Spoon’s character is captivating, and director Chelsea McMullen tells the touching story with patience and gentleness.