Given the sheer numbers involved in this year’s North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (94 films, including shorts), it’s inevitable that the quality of the programming will be erratic. Still, the volume and breadth of the films on display will provide something for everyone. There are shorts and features, fictions and docs, domestic films and foreign, good films and bad. There’s even what could be the world’s first dyke slasher film (Make a Wish). Then there’s D.E.B.S., the one major studio film on the program. Festival-goers from last year may remember this as the Best Short Film award-winning story of ass-kicking female secret agents. Well, director Angela Robinson has turned her film into a full-blown feature, and the NCGLFF has an exclusive screening of it opening night, Thursday, Aug. 12 at 7:20 p.m.

Surveying this year’s program, it’s noteworthy the degree to which AIDS has receded from the consciousness of filmmakers. None of the films I viewed broached this topic, but my colleague Neil Morris discovered one exceptional example, a new American film called Nine Lives. Relatively few of the films deal with traditional political preoccupations like the coming out narrative or battling homophobia. However, two exceptions include very nicely executed shorts about adolescent lesbians: the Best Women’s Short winner You’re Still Young by Barbara Green and Carrie Schrader’s Mine (which was produced in Durham).

For me, the most fascinating–if ultimately frustrating–film on view is Eloy de la Iglesia’s Bulgarian Lovers, a Spanish comedy/thriller/romance. The setting is Madrid, where Daniel, a gay businessman, has a habit of falling in love with immigrant studs. His rent boy this time is a Bulgarian named Kyril, a strapping slab of phallic power who proceeds to exploit Daniel for all that his money and government connections can provide.

The foreground story is one of amour fou as the hapless Daniel compromises his dignity and good name to help Kyril out of his increasingly dangerous predicaments. But in its larger context, Bulgarian Lovers paints a disturbing picture of a complex global economy in which wealthy, middle-aged gay men have their pick of impoverished studs in need of sugar daddies.

For all of its provocations, however, Bulgarian Lovers ultimately disappoints, mostly because of its reluctance to engage the ethical complexities of its scenario. Instead, the prevailing tone is comic, as the story is narrated by its rueful but hardly wiser protagonist.

Note: Most of the shorts and the following features were not available for review: April’s Shower, The Bridge Game, D.E.B.S., Intentions and The Other Side of AIDS.

Narrative Features
The French drama Grande Ecole from director Robert Salis fascinates at the outset with its story of an earnest, working-class man who’s intimidated by his peers at a prestigious business school. Although he has a lovely and extremely ambitious girlfriend, he’s drawn to his wealthy, politically connected roommate at the same time as he takes up with a young Arab man. But what starts out as a promising inquiry into class and gender relationships soon becomes burdened by oppressive philosophizing and increasingly selfish, repellent characters.

Elizabeth Gill’s Goldfish Memory, an agreeable but lightweight Irish ensemble comedy, is a little reminiscent of the recent release Intermission in its evocation of young, hip and gay Dubliners. This film’s high production values and mainstream aspirations may have compromised the characters a bit: All of the attractive actors are safely hetero in their appearance.

Make a Wish could be the world’s first dyke slasher pic, and as such, the best. Crudely produced and amateurishly acted, Sharon Ferranti’s film is nonetheless an anticipated crowd-pleaser as it is the Women’s Centerpiece film.

This year’s deservedly named Best Women’s Feature is Sascha Rice’s Mango Kiss, a high-gloss romp through San Francisco’s lively and diverse lesbian scene. Two friends move to The Bay and find their relationship sorely tested by the community’s freewheeling sexual culture in which women are encouraged to try on newer and bolder identities. Not everything works, but the writing is smart and the cast is attractive and competent.

Not to be outdone in the tropical fruit department, the Indian feature Mango Souffle is interesting mostly as a window into the world of privileged, English-speaking Mumbai gays in the fashion industry. Still, the stakes in Sanjeev Shah and Mahesh Dattani’s comedy are very slight, and the flamboyant acting veers toward caricature much too readily.

Juan Carlos Zald’var’s documentary feature 90 Miles, which played on PBS’s P.O.V. , is a “gay film” only in that Zald’var makes passing reference to his sexuality in his film that otherwise focuses on his family’s transition to American culture after arriving from Cuba via the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Zald’var describes his conflicting loyalties and makes some striking observations (recalling, for instance, that he and his family were required to relinquish their old commie clothes to the Salvation Army in exchange for new ones), but his material ultimately seems too thin to justify the 77-minute running time.

Although it’s roughly shot and edited, Jim de Seve’s Tying the Knot is a compelling and fervent brief for gay marriage. A mixture of talking heads, stock footage and field work, the film is most heartbreaking in its portrait of a recently widowed gay Oklahoma farmer.

Josh Aronson’s The Opposite Sex: Rene’s Story played at Full Frame last spring, and this documentary about a transgendered woman is well worth seeking out. In March, the Indy‘s Fiona Morgan wrote, “Possibly the best documentary made yet on transgender issues, this Showtime-produced film follows a year in the life of Rene, a female-to-male who lives not in an accepting urban enclave but in true middle America.”

A fascinating and sometimes lurid film, Tracy Flannigan’s Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary tells the story of a longtime lesbian punk band. Rise Above doesn’t stint on the band’s riotous stage antics (which include goading men into fellating lead singer Lynnee Breedlove’s strap-on dildo), but it also extracts revealing and occasionally disturbing interviews with the band members as they discuss their political ambitions and difficult personal lives.

Directed by Andy Wells, the short doc Drag Bingo is a straightforward, celebratory account of the volunteers who organize the highly successful Triangle AIDS benefit bingo games, in which drag divas like Mary K. Mart preside over the festivities. Although Drag Bingo is really just an extended public service announcement, it still provides a window into gay life in the midst of a prevailing conservative culture: openly gay, but unmistakably Southern.

Mary K. Mart has the unique distinction of being in two films in this year’s NCGLFF. In Adam Attarian’s short subject The Joy of Being Mary we get to meet the man behind the girl, a buttoned-down, clean-cut and unassuming lad named Randy Light.

Elsewhere on the local circuit, the Raleigh-based, John Waters-influenced Trailer Park Pictures will screen excerpts of their work-in-progress entitled Trash: The Movie. Lo-fi and low brow, the Trash excerpts will include shamelessly gross fake ads for products like “Re-Virginate” and “Anal Leak Stopper Kits.”

Finally, the clear standout of the local productions available for preview is Mine, Carrie Schrader’s brief but starkly eloquent account of a revelatory school afternoon for a young, emerging lesbian. Girls practicing a Madonna routine, boys on the make, an encounter with a new kid in the bathroom: It’s simple but it works, in six short minutes.

Ronde and ronde
In Nine Lives, first-time writer-director Dean Howell crafts an exquisite, engrossing drama based on a stage play by Michael Kearns (who also appears in the film). The movie tracks a chain of nine urbanites, linked by gay sexual encounters, over the span of one day. A series of vignettes focus on characters that span a wide spectrum of gay America–a conservative, Southern TV producer; a victim of priest molestation; an HIV-positive gigolo; a drug dealer; a closeted married man and his wife. Their stories range from humorous to poignant, even heartbreaking.

Howell, who also co-stars, became interested in the subject when he was involved in the theater production. “At first I thought these were interesting characters and that I had nothing in common with them,” says Howell. “But as I continued to do the play I realized that the interesting things about these people were not the extreme behavior or career choices but the similarities they had to each other and to me. They all had the same fears, dreams and desires that made them so human and so hard to judge.”

Howell self-financed his labor of love on a sub-$30,000 shoestring, supported by a cast of SAG actors who were so drawn to the material that they agreed to appear without compensation.

The project incorporates elements of Schnitzler’s La Ronde and Altman’s Short Cuts. While Kearns’ original play consisted of nine separate monologues, Howell tweaked the aesthetic to have the characters also interact with each other. Nevertheless, “I wanted to keep that confessional quality to the characters. Seeing them interact with each other is exciting and moves the story, but I also liked the idea of them talking to the camera … telling us what they are longing to say to each other.”

Nine Lives is a cautionary tale set in a world where the harnessing of HIV into a perceived benign entity has, ironically, made the disease more insidious than ever. At the same time, says Howell, “after 20 plus years of living in an atmosphere where sex equals death … this film is a reaction to that. Life includes sex–complicated … dysfunctional … loving … dangerous or not.”

Eating Out, winner of the Emerging Film Award for Best Men’s Feature, is a comedic love quadrangle about a gay man who convinces his hetero roommate Caleb to pretend he’s gay in order to get the attention of a girl named Gwen. Wackiness ensues when Gwen fixes Caleb up with her gay roommate, Marc. Although weakened by several illogical plot turns, the overall result is well made and entertaining. Gay and straight roommates appear again in Cowboys and Angels, an Irish-made film about an aspiring artist named Shane who moves in with Vincent, a gay fashion design student. Vincent gives Shane a Queer Eye makeover, while Shane gets involved in the drug trade, thereby threatening their safety and friendship. Although occasionally draggy, it’s a smartly written effort.

Written, directed and starring newcomer Marco Filiberti, Adored: Diary of a Male Porn Star tracks the fictional tale of an Italian porn superstar named Riki, whose glittering fame and fortune is offset by isolation and social stigma, much like the Roman gladiators of old. A terrific story with oodles of potential, Adored is hampered by rank narcissism and too many underdeveloped subplots.

Collision shares several similarities with Adored–a first-time director-writer-actor (Arsen Karougian), insight into the gay porn industry, and a life-altering friendship with a young boy who ran away from home. The production quality isn’t on a par with its counterpart, but the characterizations feel more real.

Last Ride is an ambitious yet perplexing take on the Matthew Shepard mythology. The film fluctuates between a drama, a one-man stage play, and a musical cursed with tedious lyrics set to lackluster melodies. Accompanying Matt is a random chauffeur named Doc, who is either the film’s Magical Negro or God. Matt’s murderers are cast as a self-described “Fag Patrol,” a cartoonish lot that belies the serious complexity of prejudice.

Three documentaries address several unique and well-timed perspectives. Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World, narrated by Janeane Garofalo, highlights the startling oppression suffered today by those with alternate sexual lifestyles, particularly in Muslim and Middle Eastern countries. Saints and Sinners tackles the timely subject of gay marriage, tracking the preparations of two Roman Catholic men to marry. Somewhat narrow in its scope, the film is nonetheless illuminating and endearing. Farm Family spotlights the world of gay rural America, as director Tom Murray, himself a native of a dairy farm in northern Illinois, hops Middle America in search of men who have chosen to live and work outside urban areas. The talking-head construct grows tiresome, but the topic remains fascinating.

Black Aura on an Angel is a lesbian, African-American version of Fatal Attraction. Writer/director Linda Trimel misses an opportunity to craft a daring thriller, instead opting for well-worn genre devices. Instead of the nebulous product of childhood abuse, why not write the manic lover as driven by self-loathing or stigma over her sexuality? On the up side, Trimel flashes some innate acting aptitude as the victimized “other half.”

Robin’s Hood updates the classic tale with a crusading social worker who, together with her French dyke lover, embarks on a crime spree so Robin can donate her plunder to the underprivileged. Setting aside the morality of protagonists who stick guns in people’s faces, the otherwise interesting plot is muddied by inconsistent characterizations.

Sirens of the 23rd Century and Surge of Power point out the difficulty gay film festivals face in selecting entries that span the spectrum of genres. Sirens is a confusing bit of alternative satire set in a futuristic universe where men have outlawed beauty, forcing the formation of an underground movement built upon the ironic foundation of skin-deep feminism. Erratic staging and a messy storyline overwhelm the story’s potential.

If festival organizers wanted to include an (un)intentionally comical, comic book movie infused with a homosexual subtext, they should have just borrowed a print of Catwoman. In lieu, we have Surge of Power, a slapdash spectacle about a (clearly gay) man blessed with super powers and an ugly costume (where’s Queer Eye when you need them?). There’s a golden opportunity available for a film that sardonically skewers the gay subtext underlying most superhero stories. Unfortunately, with its groan-worthy acting and dialogue, Surge feels like it was built around an inside joke the rest of us don’t get. –Neil Morris