By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
Buried in the avalanche of advance blurbage that clogged my fax machine for weeks before this year's Sundance Film Festival, lay an apparently guileless announcement by the ultracool fashion house Diesel—which co-sponsored the festival's meet-and-greet space for nonfiction filmmakers—to the effect that "Diesel strives to capture the essence and reality of global youth culture in fashion just as documentary cinema aims to record the authentic human experience with rare intimacy in film." Now there's a parallel not worth thinking about: I suppose this breezily cynical gobbledygook is the festival's cross to bear in return for the dough that enables it to showcase some terrific documentaries by recorders of the authentic human experience who have about as much in common with the Diesel credo on art and commerce as they do with the Harvey Weinsteins and camera-ready celebrities who crowd the pricey watering holes of Park City.
For sheer unmarketable esoterica, it would be hard to beat the subject matter of Southern Comfort, Kate Davis' study of a transgendered community that makes its home in a Georgian trailer backwater. Not that movies about gender-bending don't sell—John Cameron Mitchell's highly entertaining transvestite rock fantasy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was a New Line property long before it came to the festival and ended up winning the Audience and the Directing awards. Yet even had she wanted to, Davis could not have turned her prime subject—a friendly, whiskered female-to-male transsexual complete with hunting rifle—into anything resembling exotica. Wisely, she doesn't reduce him to "just folks" either, in the anxious way of liberal heterosexuals striving for inclusivity. In this tactful, unsensationalizing slice of vérité, Robert Ead speaks for himself, and what a voice he has—wise, tolerant, amused, forgiving of the 20 doctors who refused to treat the horribly ironic ovarian cancer that is killing him, and reveling in his cobbled-together family of a transsexual "son," the biological grandson whose father calls Robert "Mom," and his own new love, a diffident, sexy, male-to-female transsexual named Lola Cola. By the end of Southern Comfort(which carried off the festival's documentary prize), the strange has become not only familiar but very dear, and abstract questions of gender identity all but disappear into the lives—at once particular and universal—of a self-sustaining community whose end-of-story you're dying to know.
Much the same can be said of Sandi Simcha DuBowski's haunting Trembling Before G-d, which makes the case for gay Orthodox Jews marooned between their faith and the equally powerful need to be true to their sexual selves. Luckily for DuBowski they're a preternaturally chatty and witty bunch, whose isolation from their roots (it would take an open-minded rabbi indeed to embrace someone claiming membership in a group called the Orthodykes) is evoked by the director's astute visual composition. Surprisingly, the establishment they're up against includes some pockets of, if not acceptance, then certainly sympathy: one straight Orthodox youth, clearly at a loss after a tirade from a gay lapsed Jew who has lost contact with his censorious family, breaks his baffled silence to offer his fallen brother a slice of cake. In the end, given the uncompromising proscription of homosexuality in the Jewish texts, one has to agree with the voluble black sheep who, in sorrow and anger, concludes it may not be possible to be gay and Orthodox, and with the compassionate Israeli therapist who tells his gay religious clients that they will struggle with an intractable contradiction for the rest of their lives.
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