Film & Video
2 min

Dancing in the gardenias

Hot Docs heats up

When Vanessa Van Durme had her sex-change operation, she was looked at as a monster. Credit: Axel Schneppat
North America’s biggest documentary film festival kicked off in Toronto on April 24. Charlotte Cook, director of programming at Hot Docs, talks to Daily Xtra about the LGBT highlights. Among the most anticipated films are To Be Takei, The Case Against 8 and the recently remastered classic A Portrait of Jason.

Now in its 19th year, the Hot Docs festival has grown to be a major international showcase for documentary film, featuring 197 entries from 43 countries. Here are a few of the highlights.

Though it was shot partially in Germany with a cast of Belgians, Thomas Wallner’s Before the Last Curtain Falls was born on a train somewhere between Toronto and Montreal, when Wallner struck up a conversation with a German broadcaster who urged him to catch a performance called Gardenia at Montreal’s Festival TransAmériques.

“The piece was so full of authenticity and very moving,” Wallner says. “It brought the house down. When they called to ask if I would consider directing a film based on it, the answer was an emphatic yes.”

First mounted in 2010, Gardenia was the creation of choreographer Alain Platel and director Frank Van Laecke. It brought together eight elderly gay and transsexual performers to tell their stories through movement. After 200 shows in 25 countries, it returned to Belgium for its final run, and Wallner arrived to document its last days.

“We felt like intruders,” Wallner recalls. “Lunging into the fray backstage amidst the cast dressing and undressing. You saw bodies of all shapes and sizes, ravaged by time. Scars from operations and places where gravity had done its work. But they had such dignity about them, a kind of naturalness.”

The film blends scenes from the final performances and interviews with the cast. We hear stories of coming out, of working as prostitutes and drag performers, of the men they’ve loved and hated, and how it is to live out their golden years. One is a political activist. Another mops floors in a brothel. Inspired by doing Gardenia, one is now touring with her own solo show.

Though Gardenia began as a reflection on the gay/trans experience, Before the Last Curtain Falls is ultimately more about aging, loneliness and the search for love. “I told a friend about the film, and he had a very strong reaction,” Wallner says. “He was deeply uncomfortable with perpetuating the cliché of the lonely old queen, which speaks to this fear of being alone at the end of your life. Though none of the characters have found love at the end of their lives, you get a strong sense they’ve found themselves.”

More queer picks

Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story After decades of fighting for his country, decorated American Navy SEAL Chris Beck explores liberty and personal freedom in a new way as he embarks on his most challenging mission ever: transitioning and beginning life as a woman.

To Be Takei Starship Enterprise helmsman George Takei discusses his various personas, from William Shatner’s nemesis to gay sex symbol, while preparing his dream project: a musical based on his childhood inside a Japanese-American internment camp.

Portrait of Jason Part of the Redux program, Shirley Clarke’s 1967 film tells the story of an African-American street hustler and aspiring cabaret singer in his own words. Shot over a single 12-hour day in the subject’s New York living room, this seminal piece of cinéma vérité explores race and class unlike any film before or after it.