Founded in 1993, Hot Docs has gradually grown from a small, industry film festival to one of Toronto’s largest. There’s a surprisingly large amount of LGBT content among the 200 films offered this year. Xtra has surveyed the program to find you the fest’s queer best.
You may never have heard of Chavela Vargas. But there’s a good chance you’ve heard her sing. Her unique voice has been featured in many of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, as well as in Julie Taymor’s Frida and in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel. Co-directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, Chavela follows the Costa Rican-born Mexican singer’s journey from tomboy childhood through stardom in the Acapulco club scene, a career hiatus, and her eventual return to the stage.
Starting from an interview Gund did with Vargas in 1992, the film is equal parts queer liberation tale and moving redemption story. An openly butch lesbian in highly conservative 1950s Mexico, Vargas dispensed with the trappings of femininity, sporting ponchos and pants in lieu of hoop skirts and heels. Despite her outward swagger, she also had an inner fragility, medicated by a steady stream of alcohol. Her addiction put her career on hold for 15 years, but it didn’t compromise her voice.
Deep and haunting, simultaneously powerful and drenched in pain, Vargas’s unique sound provides the perfect soundtrack for her own story; a woman who became a radical figure in Mexican queer history simply because she refused to conform.
Over the past 25 years, Maya Gallus has turned her lens to all manner of subjects, from Parisian waitresses and roller derby grrrls to erotic performance artists and acclaimed poets. It’s fitting that Hot Docs would select her for their “Focus On” program, which highlights a different Canadian filmmaker each year. Gallus has six films on offer as part of the program, including Girl Inside, which premiered at the festival in 2007.
Shot over a three-year period, the film follows Madison, a young trans woman as she navigates coming out, dating, and the health care system. As with all of her works, Gallus stays out of the way, letting Madison narrate her own story, which she does with incredible grace, wit and intelligence.
While her family plays a critical role in her journey, the most prominent figure is her octogenarian grandmother, a former party girl who’s happy to instruct Madison on all things feminine. Transition narratives often involve a lot of pain and Girl Inside has its share of both the emotional and physical wounds. But for all the challenges it shows, it also offers up a surprising amount of hope and joy.
Ballet is a highly gendered art form. Men and women perform different roles, wear different costumes and, most significantly, sport different shoes. It’s also been, historically at least, a highly homophobic field. As any boy with feminine tendencies who’s attended ballet school will tell you, the pressure to butch up in the studio can exceed that of the schoolyard.
All of that is precisely what makes Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo unique. The Trocks, as they’re known, are an all-male, all-gay company that’s been flaunting convention and pushing buttons since 1974, often with comedic effect.
Bobbi Jo Hart’s doc takes us behind the scenes to find the soul of the company; a group that is sometimes been marginalized by their families, ignored by the mainstream dance world and, during the height of the AIDS crisis, lost half of its members. Combining candid interviews, dressing room antics, and a healthy dose of romance, Rebels’ unlikely moral is that the sometimes the best remedy for pain is laughter.
Susanne Bartsch is, for all intents and purposes, straight. But the Swiss-born fashion-purveyor-turned-club-promoter, has been one of New York gay culture’s most important figures for more than three decades. Her legendary events gave space for budding stars like RuPaul and Klaus Nomi, along with queens from Harlem, gender queers from New Jersey and straight partygoers who just didn’t fit in anywhere else.
Directorial duo Anthony and Alex’s debut feature traces Bartsch’s life over a 30-year period, both in and out of the club. The film details her off and on relationship with personal trainer David Barton and her work as an HIV/AIDS activist at the height of the epidemic.
We see how she executes her uncompromising vision and why it’s all so important to her. Inventing uniquely queer spaces isn’t just about people meeting up to get wasted; her raison d’être is to provide a way for freaks to come together, be themselves and dance the night away — and there’s nothing more inherently queer than creating a place where everyone can belong.
The Lives of Thérèse (Les Vies de Thérèse )
French director Sébastien Lifshitz has a thing for rule breakers. The 2012 documentary Les Invisibles asked elderly gays and lesbians to share stories of their roles in queer liberation. Bambi (2013) looked at an Algerian-born trans woman who became a famous showgirl in 1950s Paris. His current offering aims to present the life of one very particular shit disturber — radical feminist and queer activist Thérèse Clerc.
But the impetus for the film isn’t simply Clerc’s remarkable life — it’s also her impending death. Diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2015, she reached out to Lifshitz (having met him when she was part of Les Invisibles) with a request: “Film me while I die.”
Composed of interviews with Clerc and her four adult children, along with archival footage and photographs, The Lives of Thérèse charts her journey from 1950s housewife to outspoken activist. A portrait of a remarkable individual who remains insistent to the end about how unremarkable she is, it’s a deeply moving film as rich in wisdom as it is devoid of sentimentality.