Film & Video
3 min

Sex, murder & more

A preview of this year's queer Hot Docs picks

Interior. Leather Bar is a behind-the-scenes documentary featuring straight men and gay sex. Credit: Xtra file photo

There’s nothing like a good documentary to shock, excite, inspire, sadden or thrill.

Toronto’s Hot Docs festival starts on Thurs, April 25 and Xtra has previewed three of this year’s queer-themed films.

Don’t forget to also check out our video interview below (it includes sexy trailers) with Hot Docs International Programmer Lynne Crocker. 

Interior. Leather Bar

A collaboration between Travis Mathews (In Their Room, I Want Your Love) and movie star/performance artist James Franco, Interior. Leather Bar attempts to reimagine the legendary lost 40 minutes of the 1980 gaysploitation thriller Cruising. Kinda. “We had different ideas about how much we would actually include from the 40 minutes that we were revisiting,” Mathews says, “but there was never a moment where we thought we were going to do a whole movie that was just that.”

While some of the film’s 60 minutes are devoted to the Cruising redo — complete with real, graphic sex — most follow Mathews, Franco and Franco’s friend Val Lauren, who plays the Al Pacino role, as they work on the shoot. “This whole story is about Val’s arc throughout the day,” Mathews says. “And his arc is something that, if you’ve seen the original Cruising, you can see the parallels.” Like Pacino’s character, Lauren is a straight guy plunged into a very gay world who is forced to push himself well out of his comfort zone. So, it’s a behind-the-scenes doc about straight men and gay sex? Sorta. “There were scenes that, technically, although they look like a behind-the-scenes documentary thing, were actually scenes that we had constructed, and there were probably an equal number that were just happening,” Mathews says.

Many will buy tickets to see if Franco experiments with gay sex — he doesn’t — but beyond titillation, Interior. Leather Bar is a complex puzzle of a movie that self-consciously flags its own fictional elements while earnestly committing to its story. Mathews claims that even before filming began, he knew the film would polarize audiences. “There have been people who love the movie and people who love to hate the movie,” he says. “I’m okay with that.”


First-time director Laura Checkoway had no idea she was going to make a documentary about Lucky Torres, a young, queer New York woman with a face covered in tattoos and a painful past she refuses to let victimize her. “I thought it was going to be more like a kind of 2000-and-something version of Paris Is Burning but with women,” says Checkoway, who began work on her doc by examining the women’s ballroom scene. “I followed four women, one of whom was Lucky, for the first couple of years really in-depth. And when I started editing, and I started getting some advice, I realized that the film could either be a complicated character portrait of this one young woman or it could be a survey of this scene and much more surface-level. So, I went with the complicated character portrait.”

A single mom who’s spent her life moving from shelter to shelter, Torres impressed Checkoway with her indomitable spirit, her unapologetic urgency and her intense connection with the women in her life. “I just felt like entering this world of women, and there’s not many men in the film, and when you do see them, they tend to be photographers or someone who happened to be passing by on the street. And I think that there’s something really special in that.”

Valentine Road

The story of Lawrence King — a 15-year-old boy who was shot dead by the male classmate he asked to be his Valentine in 2008 — was an impossible-to-miss news item. But do you know the whole story? Marta Cunningham turns her lens on Oxnard, California, the location of the tragedy, and sheds light not only on the lives of King and his killer, Brandon McInerney, but the entire community they lived in. “It was important to all of us as we were making this film that we looked at all the complexities of this story,” Cunningham says. “My role was to stay as objective as possible to bear witness and let everyone have a voice.”

Cunningham’s interviews are a testament to that objectivity. As well as King’s friends, family and the traumatized teacher who was in the classroom when the shooting happened, Cunningham captures several surprisingly candid interviews with such subjects as McInerney’s fiancée and several of the jurors from the original criminal trial who seem convinced that King was responsible for his own murder.

Valentine Road is a fascinating portrait of a small town and reveals Oxnard, California, just like The Laramie Project revealed Laramie, Wyoming. But Cunningham also hopes her film will inspire real change. “Larry was a very brave child, and we need to create educational programs in our schools to protect and educate the teachers and the students about LGBTQ children.”

Check out our Hot Docs video preview with Lynne Crocker, international programmer.