Arts & Entertainment
4 min

What not to miss at Inside Out 2015

A rundown of must-see films at the festival

While most of Toronto’s 50-plus annual festivals require some scouring to find queer content, Inside Out is 100 percent gay. With over a hundred features, documentaries and shorts, there’s too much to mention here. But we’ve pored through the program to find a few must-see gems.

Drag Becomes Him
Wednesday, May 27

Jinkx Monsoon is probably the most famous winner to sashay away from RuPaul’s Drag Race. But the wheels for director Alex Berry’s film were already turning when the coveted crown was merely a glint in Monsoon’s heavily shadowed eye. Constructed with a combination of interviews, TV clips and footage from Monsoon’s earliest performances as a 15-year-old budding superstar, the film tells the story of a little gay boy from Portland with ambitions to rule the world.

Films about queens are often more glitter than substance. But Drag Becomes Him delves brazenly deep into Monsoon’s past. Berry chats with her recovering alcoholic mother, biker father and possessive aunt, as well as the friends, assistants, and lovers who’ve passed through her life. While it occasionally feels aimless, as the crew tumbles from one dressing room to the next, the pieces ultimately fall into place to paint a sensitive and honest portrait of the man behind the wigs.

A Sinner in Mecca
Saturday, May 30

A Sinner in Mecca takes Parvez Sharma (director of 2008 festival fave A Jihad For Love) to Saudi Arabia. Camera phone in hand, he sets out to capture pilgrims during the annual trek to Islam’s holiest site. Besides the obvious challenge of making the week-long trip, he faces two additional concerns — photography at sacred sites and homosexuality are both illegal in Saudi Arabia, and the latter can be punishable by death.

Both gay and Muslim, Sharma has no intention of presenting an objective work about occupying the uncomfortable, and occasionally terrifying, overlap in that Venn diagram. He touches occasionally on the experiences of others, including a friend who witnessed a public execution and another man who participated in an honour killing. But Sinner ends up being a trenchant autobiographical documentary about whether it’s possible to be simultaneously true to one’s identity and one’s god.

To Russia With Love
Sunday, May 31

Produced by and featuring American figure skater turned unlikely fashion icon Johnny Weir, To Russia With Love follows a collection of queer Olympic hopefuls during the 2014 Sochi games. Though publicity for the film plays him off as the star, Weir largely takes a backseat role to the athletes, including Canadians Anastasia Bucsis and Charline Labonté, and Australian Belle Brockhoff.

At the same time, Russia captures the largely ignored stories of on-the-ground activists in the battle for equality, like university student Kirill Kalugin, science teacher and amateur figure skater Konstantin Yablotskiy, and athlete Elvina Yuvakaeva (who, along with Yablotskiy, will run Russia’s first ever gay-friendly Open Games in Moscow shortly after the Sochi games.)

As the world gears up for the games, there’s speculation about whether any athletes will make a grand gay rights gesture (along the lines of sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s 1968 Black Power salute). But (spoiler alert!) activism during the games was limited to local protesters being dragged away in handcuffs while athletes and delegates filed into the opening ceremonies. Bemoaning their political efficacy while they discuss fearing arrest, foreign attendees head home, leaving local queers in a fight for their lives. Ultimately, To Russia becomes less of a portrait of queers in sport than a pointed analysis of the challenges and failures of gay activism.

Portrait of Serial Monogamist
Sunday, May 31

You’ve probably been hearing about Gladstone Hotel proprietor Christina Zeidler’s debut feature for a while now. The team behind the film has been churning out photos, updates and trailers for nearly three years. After a lengthy fundraising campaign, shooting began in May 2013. The film, they hoped, would not be simply a dykey rom-com, but a lesbian film classic.

Portrait follows Elsie (Diane Flacks), a middle-aged TV producer who’s never been single a day in her life, as she decides to dump her girlfriend Robyn (Carolyn Taylor). Though the new-found freedom is initially terrifying, Elsie decides to experiment with a period of prolonged singlehood. But when she meets Lolly (Vag Halen’s Vanessa Dunn), her quest for solitude begins to crack.

Though it’s both a semi-ironic look at lesbian courting and a who’s who of Hogtown queers (Fay Slift, Keith Cole, Regina and others turn up) Portrait’s true genius is how it parallels Elsie’s self-actualization with Toronto’s perpetual construction. As distant cranes and condo towers loom, characters share their love of the city’s quirks, from streetcar tracks to hydro wires to leafy back alleys. While aiming to make a lesbian film classic, the team has produced a delightful, if unexpected, mash note to Toronto.

For more top films at this year’s fest, check out our interview with Inside Out’s director of programming.

Inside Out LGBT Film Festival
Thursday, May 21–Sunday, May 31
All films are shown at Tiff Bell Lightbox, unless otherwise noted.
TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St W