Monday, October 10, 2022

Reverend's Preview: Powerful LGBTQ Lives Celebrated at October Film Fests

If you’ve visited Chicago any time during the last 40 years, you may have put in an appearance at the city’s premiere gay bar, Sidetrack. I stopped by each summer between 1999 and 2003 while attending an annual conference. Until recently, however, I had no knowledge about the significant history behind Sidetrack and its two longtime owners/husbands.

Art Johnston and Pepe Peña, known locally as Art and Pep, are civil rights leaders whose life and love has fueled LGBTQ+ equality in the heart of the country. As founders and owners of the iconic Sidetrack, they have helped foster movements and create community for four decades in Chicago's queer enclave. Behind their business and historic activism exists a love unlike any other.

The Newport Beach Film Festival (NBFF) will be screening Art and Pep – Mercedes Kane’s terrific, enlightening and inspiring documentary about this dynamic duo – the afternoon of Wednesday, October 19th at the Big Newport 6 theater. Art and Pep themselves, who met 50 years ago and got married in 2011, are expected to attend. Advance tickets may be purchased here.

Founded in 1999, NBFF has emerged as the largest international cinema event in coastal Southern California. It annually attracts over 56,000 attendees to Orange County. This year’s fest will run October 13th-20th. Several new and acclaimed movies will be featured including Weird: The Al Yankovic Story starring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, and Glass Onion, a sequel to the hit murder-mystery Knives Out. Gay-themed films to be shown include My Policeman, with pop music sensation Harry Styles as the closeted title character; the great doc All Man: The International Male Story; and Make Me Famous, about radical painter Edward Brezinski. A number of LGBTQ short films will also be screened.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Art and Pep director Mercedes Kane in advance of NBFF. The longtime Chicago resident relocated one year ago to Atlanta, from where she Zoomed this writer.

CC: Thanks for your time! How or when did you first hear about Art and Pep?
MK: So, (Executive Producer) Kevin Hauswirth and I worked together sometimes. He owns a marketing agency and they do a lot of non-profit advocacy stuff. One day, we were having a meeting and he started talking about them because he’s known them for a really long time. He met Art because Kevin has five gay uncles, I think it is, and one of his uncles knew Art. Kevin started his early activism days in college recruiting fraternity brothers for some LGBTQ event, so his uncle was like “You really need to meet Art Johnston, you know he’s like the activist in Chicago.” So Kevin has been connected to him for 20-plus years. He was just telling me some stuff and I was like “This needs to be a film.” For one thing, the story of the LGBTQ movement is mostly told on the coasts and I didn’t really realize the rich history that Chicago has. I lived in Chicago almost my whole life but you sort of take it for granted a little that it is such a progressive state and city and all of the rights that are there, and not realizing the people who championed for them. And then it’s their love story too. As a filmmaker, I’ve never seen a story about a 50-year romance between two men. When I met them, I was just blown away by their love. They take such good care of each other and the way they look at each other still is something to aspire to. I fell in love with them in that moment. I fell in love with their love.

CC: You definitely see that in the film, especially in their wedding footage. It’s great that you can reveal that about them, it’s very touching. So what was the process, once you decided you were going to make this documentary? There’s so much vintage footage in the film. How much time did it take and how did you go about doing it?
MK: The first step was getting them to sign on. They trusted Kevin because they knew him and I think we connected when we first met, but they have never been the type of people to really like let their private life be public. Art’s very public when it comes to activism and everything he’s done and Pep is kind of the face at the bar, as you see in the film. But their relationship, their personal life, that was sort of like “uhhhh.” So I think it was just a matter of building their trust, that was the first step, and then we just kind of jumped into filming. 

We started shooting in November of 2019 and then COVID hit, and it was like “all right, we’ll just pack away our cameras and take a breath.” No one knew how long it would last. And then we realized very quickly that Sidetrack was this gay small business that was going through COVID and shutting down for the first time in their history, and they have 65 people on staff and people who come to the bar every single week. This shuttering of this community space that holds a lot of importance for a lot of people, so we started covering that. And then we started to see these parallels between the AIDS crisis and the COVID pandemic from this group of people who had gone through it, you know the similarities and the dissimilarities, and so we started exploring that as well. And then (as shown in the film), Art got really sick and that was totally unexpected and really scary. All of that was sort of a roller coaster that we didn’t really expect.

In terms of the archival footage, it was surprising that – for a video bar – Sidetrack didn’t have that much video of themselves and I think part of that is that back in the 80’s nobody was shooting photos or videos at gay bars. They had some stuff but then we started reaching out to a network and we got lucky because there’s a man, Rick Delaup, who made a film about Danny Sotomayor, who is the ACT UP activist who you see in the film. He had hundreds of hours of footage still from that, which was amazing. It was kind of like word of mouth, going through people’s personal archives and digging through what we could of Sidetrack. We also went through libraries and museum collections. It was quite intense but we got a lot.

CC: Oh my gosh, that is dedication on your part. So how long was the process in all? It sounds like a couple of years.
MK: It was a few years, and through a pandemic! But you know the interesting thing about the COVID thing was that it really brought us closer together with Art and Pep, because we basically bubbled up with them. And even going through that with Pep when Art was ill was a horrible experience but such a bonding experience. We would bring food over to Pep’s house or he would come over and eat dinner and just be emotional. It kind of forced us into that space in a really beautiful way. I consider them like family now, and I have two kids who consider them a third set of grandparents.

CC: Ah nice, that’s awesome! I assume Art and Pep have seen the finished film. What’s been their reaction? Were they happy with it?
MK: Yeah, they loved it. It’s always such a nerve-wracking moment but I think, especially because we got close, I really felt this responsibility to making a film that honored them and their story and was accurate. I think they were surprised at how far-reaching the story ended up going. They were so happy that other activists that they worked with are in it and that Danny was included. I think they were really pleasantly surprised about that. It’s funny because they were really hesitant to let us like in bed with them and I kept saying the importance of that. I was like “You know, if this was a film about a man and woman we would have these intimate moments with them. If we don’t have them in this film, that’s going to look purposeful in its own way and I don’t want to make that (potentially negative) statement. I want this to show who you really are as a couple and these moments are important to that.” And so they finally let us in, and then Art said “The best thing we ever did was let you in bed with us!” (laugh)

CC: That’s great! Now, is the Newport Beach screening going to be its premiere, or West Coast premiere?
MK: No, it actually premiered at Outfest in July, in LA. We were all there and it was pretty amazing. It got a really good response and we had actually two reviews. One gave it 3 ½ stars and the other listed Art and Pep as #2 among the 21 best films at Outfest. That was great.

CC: What led you to become a filmmaker or documentarian? What’s your story?
MK: What a great question. I got my undergrad in broadcast journalism and then played around in a few different communication fields, and then I ended up going back to get my MFA in independent filmmaking a decade ago now. I really love telling stories. I love real people’s stories, and not necessarily famous people but people who are doing their actual work in communities that matters and makes far-reaching change but don’t always get the spotlight for it. I have a passion for that and I really enjoy it. I’m actually getting another MFA right now in narrative non-fiction writing, so I’m also playing around with writing but it’s a really similar method of storytelling. The hope is to either have a publishable manuscript at the end of it or some long-form stories that will be published with articles.

CC: Wow, that’s cool. Is there anything else you want people to know?
MK: People ask me often what I want people to take away from (Art and Pep) and I think it’s a couple things, one of which is just to learn about the history of the fight (for equality) and who was leading the charge, and that the work is still not done. It will never be done, and I think that’s such an important part. And then also the importance and power of love, because it’s really Art and Pep’s love story that to me is the backbone that gave them the strength to do all the work that they did and build this community around them.

Another inspiring LGBTQ true life story will be celebrated during this month’s San Diego International Film Festival (SDIFF), to be held October 19th-23rd. The Inspection is based on writer-director Elegance Bratton’s experience as a young gay man who enlisted in the Marines during the tense “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. It stars out actor Jeremy Pope (Netflix’s Hollywood) in the lead role opposite Gabrielle Union as his homophobic mother Inez, with Bokeem Woodbine and Raúl Castillo (who played Richie on HBO’s Looking) as his drill sergeants.

Bratton made a splash a few years ago with his award-winning documentary Pier Kids. He said of The Inspection, his narrative feature debut: “This movie is completely authentic when it comes to the desires, fears and, ultimately, the primary goal of the main character.” The surrounding narratives are inspired by circumstances he witnessed while in training almost 20 years ago.

Bratton continued: “I made this movie first and foremost to heal myself from things I had been through. And I think the one thing that was most damaging to me is the idea that somehow by being gay and Black, I was basically a social pariah. The world had nothing to gain from me so, therefore, I didn't matter; I didn't exist. Then I joined the Marines and learned that I'm important because of my ability to protect the person to my left and right. And I felt like that lesson – that you're only as important as your ability to protect others – was really restorative for me. It gave me a purpose in life.”

The Inspection will have its gala West Coast premiere on Friday, October 21st. The acclaimed Belgian film Close, about two teenaged boys who have their friendship questioned, is another LGBTQ-interest feature that will be screened during the fest.

A number of LGBTQIA+ shorts films will also be shown during SDIFF. These include:

  • DIVR (USA, San Diego Premiere) The three founders of an exclusive lesbian sex app may be shattering the start-up world’s glass ceilings, but the pressures of success have begun to threaten the integrity of their friendship – and worse, their brand. A very funny short but with a serious edge.
  • Gender Outlaw, a bodysurfing story (USA, San Diego Premiere) A beautifully-shot documentary that navigates the tumultuous waters that Tyler Wilde, a transgender bodysurfer and teacher, has had to move through in his search for big surf, his true self, and his chosen family.
  • Queer Parivaar (UK, San Diego Premiere) Directed by Shiva Raichandani – a multidisciplinary, non-binary artist – this is a big, queer, colorful Bollywood mini-musical centered around a not-so-traditional wedding. A lovely and lovable short.
  • Roads Not Taken (Austria, World Premiere) Longtime friends Liz and Rachel run into each other in their hometown coffee shop. Having been out of touch for years, their unexpected meeting catches them both off guard and soon turns emotional as old wounds are ripped open and buried desires re-surface.
  • SWIM (UK, West Coast Premiere) A chance encounter at a swimming pool offers the possibility of a beautiful relationship between sexy guys Sid and Luke. But could it all be shattered when Sid decides to just be himself? This short should resonate with virtually all gay, bi or queer viewers.
  • Requiem (UK, North American Premiere) Set in 1605, against the backdrop of the witch trials. It's a coming of age story that follows Evelyn as she engages in a game of cat and mouse against her father, Minister Gilbert, in order to be with Mary, the woman she loves. Requiem will screen as part of the festival’s Student Showcase.
For tickets and full SDIFF information, visit their website.

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.