'Retablo,' 'Making Montgomery Clift,' '1985' are NewFest 2018 highlights


For movieholics, October generally means two things: catching up on horror movies and getting a head start on the year’s Oscars hopefuls. But there’s more to life than spooks and scares and movies about Very Important White Men. Want to discover something new—potentially, something great—this week? Don’t sleep on NewFest.

Running from October 24 to October 30th, the 2018 edition of NewFest is celebrating its 30th year—three decades of bringing LGBT films both high-profile and under-the-radar to New York City. It’s a big anniversary, which is why it’s fitting that the fest’s opening and closing night films—1985 and Making Montgomery Clift, respectively—look back to the history of the LGBT community.

“It’s a really great full circle,” says Nick McCarthy, NewFest’s Programming & Operations Manager. Each film recenters and re-examines stories that are central to some element of LGBT history. In the case of 1985, by NewFest alum Yen Tan, the story is of the HIV crisis, with an excellent Cory Michael Smith playing Adrian, a young man with the disease who travels home to spend Christmas with his Bible Belt family. The film is resonant because of its restraint—HIV is never explicitly mentioned, and the story doesn’t attempt to wrap up all of Adrian’s issues with his family in a neat bow by the time the credits roll.

Closing night film Making Montgomery Clift, by directors Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon, is along with 1985 one of the festival’s highlights. Clift (the subject’s nephew) and Demmon here use primary resources—recordings, archival footage and personal anecdotes—to retell the story of actor Montgomery Clift. What we’re looking at here, however, is not a traditional biopic, but an adroit unraveling and reconstructing of Clift’s accepted legacy—which, nowadays, is as much about his reputation as a tragic gay figure than it is about his acting. Making Montgomery Clift challenges this narrative, painting Clift as a man who was comfortable with his sexuality.

It was “Hollywood and society,” posits McCarthy, who weren’t ready to accept someone who was open about being gay and didn’t hate themselves for it—not Clift himself. “It’s a really complex film that that I find very accessible. For closing night, I couldn’t think of a better way to say farewell after our 30th anniversary festival.”

NewFest also looks back at the past with their Documentary Centerpiece Dykes, Camera, Action!, a lively overview of the history of films by queer women. This one needs a warning, which is that unless you’re already a connoisseur you’re going to come out with a long list of movies you’ll want to see, so play cautious if your moviegoing days are already booked for the next month or so. Though done in a traditional talking-heads format that often gives docs a static, dull quality, Dykes, Camera, Action! feels almost like a joyous confab of queer women filmmakers. “I love that confluence of all these female filmmakers talking about how each other’s films inspired them to make new content,” explains McCarthy. One film that those interviewed in Dykes, Camera, Action! go absolutely nuts for is Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art, which was NewFest’s opening night film in 1998. Twenty years later, it’s having a grant homecoming, screening on 35mm on Sunday, October 28, with Cholodenko and star Patricia Clarkson in attendance.

Lest I put too much emphasis on the “looking back” element of the 30th annual NewFest, the fest is—as it always has been—also a forum for discovering new talent. McCarthy highlights a pair of films from first-time directors as particular favorites: Tristan Aitchison’s Sidney & Friends, a documentary about a group of trans and intersex individuals who have fled to the relative safety of an underground community in Nairobi, and Alvaro Delgado Aparicio’s Peru-set Retablo. That latter film stands out in my mind as one of the fest’s great discoveries. Segundo (Junior Bejar) wants to be a master craftsman just like his father, Noé (Amiel Cayo). Segundo’s discovery about his father’s sexuality, however, strains their relationship and makes Segundo question the beliefs held by his society. Nuanced and emotional without being sentimental, Retablo has already won the Best First Feature prize at Berlin and deserves a wider audience.

In speaking with McCarthy, he likens the LGBT experience to an “umbrella,” one under which a multitude of different experiences—not just gender and sexual identity, but also class, race, faith, cultural background and more—intersect. “That’s the positive thing about a film festival,” he explains, “is that you’re able to put all these stories next to each other. I often encourage our older white male audience members to go see Man Made, about Trans FitCon. The trans bodybuilders that are participating in the competition have so many different stories, all within one documentary”

LGBT youth take the spotlight in Matt Albert and Jon Garcia’s documentary Room to Grow, in which LGBT children and teenagers speak candidly about their challenges and triumphs alike. McCarthy is particularly proud of Hip to be Queer: Youth Shorts program, for which NewFest partnered with the Department of Education. Shades of last year’s magnificent God’s Own Country shine through in Mikko Makela’s A Moment in the Reeds, in which a Finnish student (Janne Puustinen) visiting his taciturn father’s summer house has a short-lived if intense relationship with the Syrian asylum seeker (Boodi Kabbani) hired to help with renovations. Romantic and very, very sexy, A Moment in the Reeds examines how people whose experiences at first seem very different can help each other see their lives in new ways.

The Heiresses, meanwhile, is a melancholy and affecting tale of a married lesbian who is forced to build independent connections for the first time in decades when her wife is put in jail. In the Nairobi-set Rafiki—colorful, romantic and sweet—the protagonists are just discovering their sexuality, and the blush of first love, for the first time. That film was initially banned in Kenya due to its lesbian themes; director Wanuri Kahlu fought the ban, which was subsequently temporarily lifted. The film’s NewFest screening represents its New York premiere.

Just as NewFest’s films represent a wide variety of life experiences, so too do they reflect a wide variety of genres. Screening as part of the fest’s HalloKween sidebar are Knife + Heart and Killer Unicorn, per McCarthy the fest’s “slasher queer campy films” contingent. In Killer Unicorn, Brooklyn drag queens suit up as fictional Brooklyn drag queens for a campy romp through a satirized, over-the-top club scene (“Brooklyn’s Annual Enema Party,” anyone?), where a man dressed in pink, glittery booty shorts and a unicorn mask is picking partiers off one by one. Is the acting good? No. Is the script good? No. Are the production values good? No. Does it matter? …. Also kinda no. There’s a pleasing homemade quality to Killer Unicorn, which for all its faults and all its jankiness is really fun. Look, it’s a ridiculous movie, but it fills the John Waters-meets-Halloween (but cheaper and stupider, which, yay!) hole you probably have in your life. If you’re going to see it, do it drunk and do it with a crowd. NewFest has you covered on the latter (NY premiere on Monday, October 29th), but you’ll have to handle the alcohol situation beforehand yourself.