It’s no secret that movies feed the travel industry, inspiring people to book trips to faraway lands; Hollywood titles are even promoted by various tourism boards in their brochures. Take the 2001 Amélie, which sent travellers to Paris, seeking a romantic Montmartre. Or Skyfall and other James Bond films, which caused tourism to soar wherever any scenes have been filmed.
Gay films are a different animal, however. Operating in a smaller arena, they don’t drive mass tourism but certainly make people curious about places they might not know well. Australia’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with its wide commercial release, and Israel’s The Bubble, a hit in metropolitan regions and the film festival circuit, are two cases. Gay films can also teach viewers about the LGBT rights struggle, with a city, country or wider cultural milieu the backdrop.
Gary M Kramer, author of the 2006 book Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, says films can help you understand a city in a way no guidebook or website can. Speaking of Todd Verow’s Bad Boy Street, about an American who falls in love with a French man on Rue des Mauvais-Garçon, in Paris’s gay Marais neighbourhood, Kramer says, “What I recommend about this film is that it not only has scenes of Claude and Brad sightseeing, but also scenes of Claude’s daily life. You feel what life is like for these characters who live and work or visit in a city. I always feel visiting a city and spending a week there gives you a good sense of the rhythm of the place, but films are a unique way to get a taste of where to go, what to see and who you might meet.”
Here are a few great gay films to see before your next adventure.
1. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, for Sydney and Australia’s Outback
A rainbow twist on the age-old road trip, this 1994 movie was groundbreaking in its portrayal of queer characters; two drag queens and a transsexual, and starred Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce and Terence Stamp. The three head off in a camper nicknamed Priscilla through the Australian Outback and have various adventures along the way, from performing for aboriginal audiences to experiencing a gaybashing that leaves them wondering why they left Sydney. It uses Australian geography to wonderful effect, including the Kings Canyon drag hiking scene, along with Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighbourhood and its gay nightlife. The film seared Australia’s gay scene into world consciousness.
2. Milk, for San Francisco, California
Timed for the vote on California’s anti-same-sex-marriage Proposition 8, the 2008 release of this film was as political as the man it portrayed, the late gay activist and San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, assassinated in 1978 by Dan White, who also murdered Mayor George Moscone. Gus Van Sant directed the film based on Dustin Lance Black’s Academy Award–winning screenplay. Sean Penn did an Oscar-winning star turn as Milk; sexy and sexually nebulous James Franco played his lover, Scott Smith. The film uses real sites, especially the gay Castro Street district, including the actual storefront where Milk had his camera shop. It is a film that shows how far the gay movement has come and how dangerous gay political activism was in its earlier days. Currently, there is a campaign to rename SFO, San Francisco International Airport, after Milk, making seeing the film even more relevant before a visit.
3. BearCity 2, for Provincetown, Massachusetts
Provincetown-based BearCity 2 is the sequel to BearCity, which took place in New York. It follows the adventures of a group of gay friends of different ages and interests, linked by their hirsute nature. They head to the Cape Cod enclave during Bear Week for a marriage ceremony, provoking relationship second thoughts for all. Gorgeous cinematography highlights the beachfront buildings at sunset, and scenes are shot at such mainstays as the Crown & Anchor and even the notorious Dick Dock cruising site. Larry Ferber, co-developer of the BearCity franchise and the film’s associate producer, says, “We really wanted to incorporate real P’Town people in the movie. That shit is real. Varla Jean Merman really does tell people to turn over,” referring to a suntan scene. Ferber loves vacationing in Provincetown partly for its mix of straights and queers, which he says, “forces the gays to be sweet and kind and cuddly.”
4. The Bubble, for Tel Aviv, Israel
This 2006 movie is the work of gay Israeli filmmaking power couple Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky. It focuses on the doomed relationship between Noam (Ohad Knoller), an Israeli on reserve duty, and Ashraf (Yousef Sweid), a Palestinian living in the occupied territories whom he meets while guarding a checkpoint. Ashraf crosses the barrier wall to live with Noam in Tel Aviv, enjoying a life he could not back at home. The movie’s title is a take on Tel Aviv’s nickname as a secular, intensely partying, beachfront city, where violence and the ethnic strife associated with the occupation rarely confront residents. With its depiction of Tel Aviv, considered the best place in the Middle East for gays, The Bubble is a great movie to see before visiting Israel. Tel Aviv is a central character in itself, especially the 1930s UNESCO-protected Bauhaus White City, where gays have been a major force in gentrification.
5. East Palace West Palace, for Beijing, China
Directed by Zhang Yuan, this 1996 movie was the first mainland Chinese film to look openly at gay issues. The film was smuggled out of the country and edited in France. In spite of intense pressure by the Chinese government to have the film withdrawn, it was screened at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, with an empty chair for Zhang. The title refers to the nicknames for two public bathrooms near Beijing’s Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square where gay men cruise. The plot involves two men who meet there, Xiao Shi (Hu Jun) and A-Lan (Si Han), and their arrest. A-Lin, however, develops an infatuation with the arresting officer. Originally developed as a stage play by Zhang, the film should be seen by visitors to a newly opening China to show that gay life can exist even in the most oppressive totalitarian societies, though technically homosexuality is not illegal in China. The country has become more open, and increased wealth is changing the capital. The movie highlights Beijing’s important sites, making it a great way to get a feel for the city before a visit. And who knows what you’ll find in Tiananmen Square now.
6. Plata Quemada (Burnt Money), for Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay
Unusual for its subject matter, based on a true story, and its violent eroticism, this 2000 film by Argentine director Marcelo Piñeyro follows the 1960s gay gangster couple of Nene, played by Leonardo Sbaraglia, and Angel, played by Eduardo Noriega. The two plan a major robbery with other criminals, and we see the twisted patterns of their love in a time long before gay rights. Angel also suffers from hallucinations, adding to their troubles. Often, they are referred to as twins or brothers by other characters. The action moves from Buenos Aires to across the Rio de la Plata in Montevideo, ending with their violent death in a police shootout after a long siege of the apartment building where they hide and set fire to their stolen money — the plata quemada, or burnt money, of the title. Both Buenos Aires and Montevideo are cities that have remained in many ways frozen in time, as shown in the film and just as sensual. Individual buildings are also highlighted, including Constitucion train station in Buenos Aires, where the two meet at the film’s beginning, and Montevideo’s Palacio Salvo, where they meet their violent, bloody end.