Seven great LGBTQ documentaries that examine the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender experience, from the late-1970s through to the modern day.
Before The Last Curtain Falls (dir. Thomas Wallner, 2014)
Before The Last Curtain Falls (or its original German title ‘Bevor der letzte Vorhang fällt’) looks at the exceptional stories of a group of transsexual and drag queen performers in their sixties and seventies who for two years have been touring the world as part of a spectacular show called ‘Gardenia’. We meet the performers as the celebrated show begins to wind down and the cast prepare to leave the limelight for what they know will very likely be the final time, and return to their quiet lives. The irony being that only when performing in the show based on their lives do the cast truly feel themselves, with the show’s looming end a ticking clock counting down to their return to heteronormative society. Before the Curtain Falls is a compelling and poignant exploration of the nature of performance – both on and off the stage – and finding one’s unique personal voice in the face of those who attempt to silence them.
The Royal Road (dir. Jenni Olson, 2015)
A handsome and poetic cinematic essay written and directed Jenni Olson that ponders over topics as seemingly unconnected yet so naturally affiliated to their curator (and by extension the audience) as the Mexican-American War, butch identity, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and the pursuit of unavailable women. Narrated by the hypnotic tones director Olson with a vocal appearance from playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America), this Kickstarter-funded visual delight consists almost entirely of narration over static camera shots of locations of and around the Royal Road (or El Camino Real) – the 600-mile highway that runs through Alta California – which at one point in Olson’s life separated her from one of those unavailable women. The Royal Road takes the pace right down to a dreamy stroll through its writer/director’s consciousness; Dennis Harvey of Variety summed it up perfectly writing, “the pic could hardly be smaller or quieter by conventional standards, assembly on all levels is serenely accomplished.”
The Times of Harvey Milk (dir. Robert Epstein, 1984)
The Times of Harvey Milk documents the life and death of the first openly gay elected official in the United States, from his days as a social crusader in San Francisco’s Castro District, to his assassination, along with that of city mayor George Moscone, by his homophobic predecessor Dan White. Milk’s story was popularised a few years ago by Gus Van Sant’s acclaimed biopic Milk, starring Sean Penn in an Oscar-winning turn as the man himself, but Rob Epstein’s doc is the real deal. Interviews with people who knew him and experienced first-hand the impact he had on not just gay rights but civil rights during and before his tragically cut-short political career, as well as extensive archive news footage build a nuanced picture of the man who has come to be known as “the most famous and most significantly open LGBT official ever elected in the United States.”
Paris is Burning (dir. Jennie Livingston, 1990)
As much a love letter to New York’s “Golden Age” as the vibrant cast of characters that populate its 71-minute run time, Paris Is Burning documents the city’s drag ball counterculture in the late 1980s and the participating African-American, Latino, gay and transgender communities. A predecessor of the popular modern television series Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the centrepiece of these highly theatrical drag balls was a competition in which contestants had to walk the floor runway-style while being judged against a criteria that included their “realness” and dancing ability. Alongside footage from these decadent affairs, the meat of the documentary is made up of interviews with key players from the drag ball world, building a detailed picture of the culture in context to homophobia, racism, AIDS epidemic and poverty during the period. Although far from a perfect representation (the film has been criticised for fetishising transgender people of colour), Paris Is Burning is a landmark documentary that paints a vivid picture of a marginalised community brought together at the fringe of society.
Call Me Marianna (dir. Karolina Bielawska, 2015)
A spiritual sibling of The Act of Killing, Karolina Bielawska’s Call Me Marianna (echoing the “Call me Caitlyn” headline that adorned the now-iconic Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover) explores the cathartic nature of performance and re-enactment as a means of coming to terms with the events of past. The subject of the documentary, Marianna, is a 40-year-old woman, who as we meet her has just sued her parents in order to attain sex reassignment. With her relationship with her parents all but non-existent, Marianna finds solace in a local theatre group, where she attempts to mentally process of her unique situation by rehearsing a play based on her experiences. Performance is a reoccurring trope in LGBTQ cinema, particularly transgender stories (see also Before The Last Curtain Falls above), as subjects often go through a period of hiding their true personal identity to fit in with society’s expectations before finding the courage to break the pretence, or “out “ themselves. But Call Me Marianna reappropriates this common aspect of LGBTQ existence and transforms it into a tool for empowerment in the quest for self-acceptance and happiness.
Word Is Out (dir. Mariposa Film Group, 1977)
A very simple concept but all the more effective for it, Word Is Out features 26 American men and women from all different backgrounds, ages and races talking candidly to the camera about their experiences identifying as gay. From childhood experiences and realisation of sexuality, through the coming out right of passage, falling in (and out) of love, and finding ways to be comfortable in their adult identities. Those interviewed range from a conservative businessman to a drag queen, from student to housewife, and include some who would go on to become well-known names such as Professor Sally Geerhart, writer Elsa Gidlow and filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. Intercut with archive news footage, it’s impossible not to be moved by their stories of losing a child custody battle, being dishonourably discharged from the army or being committed to a mental asylum – all because of their sexual orientation. As the first feature-length documentary to be made about gay and lesbian identity to be made by gay and lesbian filmmakers, Word Is Out was considered groundbreaking upon its release and is today seen as a cornerstone in LGBTQ cinema for putting a human face to a movement so dehumanised throughout history.
Freeheld (dir. Cynthia Wade, 2007)
Winner of the Best Documentary Short Subject award at the 2008 Oscars, Freeheld tells the story of veteran New Jersey police officer Lieutenant Laurel Hester, who after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, fights to be able to leave her pension benefits to her life partner Stacie – a request she was denied as the couple were not husband and wife. As the illness visibly takes away more and more of her freedoms in its ever-tightening hold, Laurel, with Stacie by her side, fights an increasingly uphill battle against the Ocean City Freeholders, who repeatedly refuse to grant their request despite a law being passed one year previous in New Jersey allowing gay and lesbian employees to pass their benefits on to domestic partners. If the story sounds familiar it may be because it was recently given the Hollywood treatment in a feature of the same name starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. Freeheld is an incredibly moving and personal story that exemplifies how far the LGBTQ movement has come in such a short amount of time due to the bravery of those fighting for equality, but also how far it has to go.