Kicking Against the Pricks: Two short documentaries from the Melbourne International Film Festival (for Ny Tid magazine)

Of all the world’s myriad prizes for short films, few can boast a roll of honour more impressive than the Grand Prix of the Melbourne International Film Festival, first awarded back in 1965—when MIFF (as it is acronymically known), founded in 1952, was already more than a decade old. Grand Prix recipients down the years have included Werner Herzog, Louis Malle, Norman McLaren, City of God duo Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles, Denis Villeneuve, B S Johnson and Su Friedrich. Commendably, the festival makes no category distinction in terms of eligibility: any short shown in any section, whether experimental, fiction or documentary is a contender for the top prize.

In the non-fiction selection this year the standouts included two economic miniatures which take a bold, empathetic and vivid approach to LGBTI subjects: Rati Tsiteladze’s Prisoner of Society, from Georgia, and House of JXN by American duo Rosie Haber and Lauren Cioffi. Running 16 and 9 minutes apiece, these films—like many of the best documentaries past or present—provide a small but illuminating window into hidden, under-chronicled corners of the world. The two films take a sympathetic approach to protagonists who, by sheer accident of birth, have had to deal with nightmarishly difficult circumstances that point up wider, prejudice-riddled patterns of severe social dysfunction.

Tsiteladze’s background is a decidedly unusual one for any film-maker, the 30-year-old from the Black Sea resort of Batumi having won a world champion kickboxing (WK1 class) title in Egypt a decade ago before later achieving considerable distinction in karate. The sometime male model, whose steamy beefcake photos enjoy considerable online popularity, quit martial arts in 2010 to pursue a new career in film as an actor and director (in 2014 he took time out to compete in the Georgian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing / Dancing With the Stars, finishing an eminently respectable fifth).

So far his new path has paid considerable dividends. His fictional 2016 short Mother won awards at film festivals all over the world, and his followup Prisoner of Society looks set for a similarly prize-garlanded career following its debut at the prestigious Tampere event in March. It was recognised by the jury as the festival’s nomination for the European Film Awards, to be decided at Berlin in December. The film is an intimate portrait of Adelina, a twentyish Georgian born male (as “George”) but identifying as female (the film does not specify if she has yet has transition surgery). It also examines and hears the perspective of her conventional, middle-aged parents who have, as the opening titles state, effectively kept her “locked up” at home for ten years. Divided into four sections, the film focuses on each of the family members separately before bringing them together in the frame for the final segment.

Tsiteladze deploys a range of strong stylistic touches, most of them effective ones, starting with his eyecatching decision to shoot the whole film in square 1:1 ratio—an obvious but apt way to emphasise Adelina’s claustrophobia, isolation and feelings of entrapment. But the maintenance of this very unusual ratio—its use perhaps a nod to Quebecois phenomenon Xavier Dolan’s similarly boxy family-chronicle Mommy (2014)—also indicates that Adelina’s parents are also to some degree closed in, their horizons limited by concerns about shame and social disgrace. The concerns of Adelina’s mother are of a decidedly practical nature: she speaks about two trans Georgians who had recently been killed, and she sequesters Adelina away from public eyes out of fear that her child will suffer the same fate.

While relatively “progressive” in comparison with other ex-USSR states—as in the Baltic nations and Ukraine, LGBTI rights are protected by legislation—Georgia nevertheless can often comprise a hostile environment for sexual/gender minorities, in no small part thanks to the fiercely traditionalist stance taken by the powerful Georgian Orthodox church. Prisoner of Society functions as a moving and often enraging example of how domestic dynamics can be formed and distorted by wider cultural pressures. The film’s stylistic verve—the digital imagery, with its palette of pinks and purples, often has the texture of 1970s 8mm home movies—feels as though it emerges organically from how the articulate, imaginative and aesthetically-attuned Adelina sees herself and her situation.

“Probably [the film] won’t be shown in Georgia,” Tsiteladze is heard commenting off-camera while interviewing Adelina’s worry-wracked mother. But, especially given the director’s celebrity and unimpeachably macho public image, exposure in the country—in tandem with its globetrotting travels—could perhaps prove a small but potent kick in a progressive direction.

As a reflection of the realities facing LGBTI people in Georgia today, Prisoner of Society necessarily ends on a downbeat, sobering note. House of JXN, by contrast, adopts a positive, celebratory and optimistic stance. First seen at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last year, it’s a short and sweet introduction to “rainbow families” on the urban streets of Jackson, Mississippi. These are self-formed and self-sustaining non-biological clans made up of LGBTI folk as an alternative to their more orthodox family units.

As Cioffi puts it, “The rest of the country sees queer life in the Deep South as being really tragic and utterly challenging and ultimately ending in suicide. So, what I wanted was to sort of elevate these stories and sort of celebrate them in the way that I saw them flourishing.” The result is New Deep South, an ongoing series originally made for television/online but, thanks to Cioffi’s strikingly impressive cinematography, certainly not out of place on the big screen at major film festivals.

The “rainbow family” phenomenon has been featured in several documentaries already, and it’s obviously a complex and rich subject which could easily fill a mini-series. Cioffi and Haber deploy the curt run-time of House of JXN to concentrate on cisgender women and transgender men. Speaking frankly and defiantly about finding their way through a society where hazards include “rednecks and blacknecks.” The protagonists sound almost beatific when discussing their “collective love” as a sustaining and protective force. The editing is a fast-paced and effervescent product of teamwork between a group of five headed by chief editor Rosalina Merrihue. In Hollywood feature films, a multiplicity of editors is invariably something of a red flag; here, it’s an apt reminder that a disparate group can come together and find their own kind of harmony.

Neil Young
10th August 2018
written for Ny Tid magazine, Oslo