Thursday, July 31, 2008
Making A Jihad for Love
By Andrea Warner
A Jihad for Love is a film over five years in the making, spanning 12 countries, and nine languages, but director Parvez Sharma feels all the hard work was worth it, if only to give a voice to the Muslim world's most unlikely storytellers: Queer people.
Sharma arrived in New York just as the city experienced the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre that sent shockwaves throughout the planet—ones that can still be felt today. Sharma's existence was fraught with duality and he began to experience a wholly different kind of intolerance: it was one thing to be gay in America in 2001, but to be Muslim? That was just asking for trouble.
"No one was speaking about the kind of Islam I knew when I was growing up and I felt that I needed to come out as a Muslim," Sharma says, over the phone from his home in New York. "[The film's] not just about being gay or lesbian. You are claiming your faith and that was the primary imperative for me--to take some of the discourse about Islam away from the violent fringe."
For starters, he named the film A Jihad for Love. In the Western world, the word jihad has come to be associated with terrorist attacks, CNN stories, and has fueled a tremendous amount of Christian fundamentalist propaganda. In actuality, Sharma says, the term means a deep, personal struggle, and this struggle for love is what he documents as the film's subjects reconcile sexuality with religious beliefs.
Sharma acknowledges that homosexuality is not a very visible part of current Islam, but insists that this is a relatively recent development (the last 30-40 years, documented in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis), and that there is still space for gays in the Muslim world, even if those spaces flout conventional ideals.
"Very often we adopt an arrogant Western perspective towards analyzing life in Muslim countries," Sharma says. "Islam has a tradition of homosexuality being celebrated in the arts and the culture for hundreds of years. And it has existed even as a part of the mainstream."
According to Sharma, it's sometimes even a rite of passage for people to have same-sex relationships before they enter into marriage, and that due to its patriarchal structure; this actually creates a uniquely double-edged sword regarding lesbianism in Muslim society.
"Women's sexuality is often denied, it's simply not discussed, and sometimes in that realm of invisibility, [lesbianism] can exist in a much more fluid way than male homosexuality, which would be seen as threatening," Sharma says.
The question of coming out takes on an entirely different scope when committing one's story to film for the entire world to see. Sharma spent many years carefully crafting relationships with his subjects, building friendships between people who had often struggled alone, insular in their religious and sexual identity. Though prepared for the obvious obstacles of secretly filming a gay documentary in Muslim countries, Sharma found some unexpected opposition from the gay Muslim community.
"Anytime when a community is repressed and silenced, and when someone steps out of that silence, dares to do something, then people react to that." Sharma says. "People didn't want to trust me. But, being a Muslim, I was filming with that Muslim lens; I was very critical of how much of myself I had to give. Many of the really remarkable people in this film were breaking a tremendous silence, sharing what is deeply personal."
Despite the initial wariness from the community, the film has resonated with audiences of all varieties: queer, straight, Muslim, Christian, even atheists have been fascinated at Love's intimate examination of faith and sexuality, but the real challenge is getting the film shown in Muslim countries.
"I showed the film in Turkey and the response was amazing, and in my home country, India," Sharma says. "But I really hope I can take the film to Arab countries one day, that I can show the film in Iran. A few people have been smuggling tapes into Pakistan, for example, where they've organized screenings already in the last few months, so I hope efforts like that will continue so that people who really need to see the film are able to."
This is where Love works on multiple levels: aspects of the movie are meant to lift the veil of silence on homosexuality for Muslims and people in Arab countries, while other parts of the film serve to expand the Western idea of what it really means to be gay and Muslim. Sharma, for one, is wary of the North American tendency to impose its Western ideals.
"The question really, is who gets to define freedom, and on whose terms?" Sharma says. "Are we going to dictate freedoms based on our concepts of what it means to be gay in the west to more traditional ancient cultures? Or, are we going to allow them to develop their own concepts of sexual freedom? I very much lean towards the latter."
Ultimately, Love is also meant to reach out to gays who feel an affinity for a higher power, but may have felt the need to sacrifice their religious beliefs when they claimed their sexual identity. Sharma himself comes from a relatively secular background (he did not attend religious school like many young Muslims) and had already dealt with coming out during his late teens, but he says he developed a great respect for Islam through his film's subjects. He hopes Love will assist other queer people to reconcile their spiritual beliefs.
"I realized through the most trying times, these people (the film subjects) drew sustenance from Islam and what they believed to be their Islam. And that, for me, was very empowering," Sharma says. "I think the film is expanding the consciousness of the audience who is watching it. Not just expanding the understanding of Islam, but faith, which many queer people abandon because they don't find spaces for themselves within faith."
The Last Continent
By Andrea Warner
Majestic glaciers crumble piece by mountainous piece in Jean Lemire’s documentary The Last Continent. Each chunk of ice that cracks free plunges into the water with such a thunderously cold splash, the chills that chase up your spine are as much from a sense of foreboding as brilliant cinematography. We are watching the earth, and quite possibly the future, melt.
Lemire is the lead adventurer/biologist/filmmaker who decided to lead a crew of 13 people and voluntarily strand themselves in the Antarctic ice pack to document the affects of climate change in one of the world’s least observed places. The concept is unique and undeniably cool: the crew will be veritable hostages aboard their boat, Sedna IV, for the nine months of Antarctic winter once the ice pack sets in.
Ultimately, the team become unknowing victims of the climate change they set out to document—rising temperatures delay the ice packs and put the crew’s lives and sanity at risk. But this is where the unpredictability of documentary filmmaking becomes a liability: there are too many scenes of crewmembers frolicking, floundering, and feeling frustrated as global warming stalls their progress and proves their point simultaneously. And, the strangely sudden ending may take the film full circle, but knowing what came of the crew’s observations would help the film resonate more profoundly.
The Last Continent may be as uneven as the choppy ocean waters it dwells in, but it’s impossible to deny the film takes us on an unforgettable journey.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Deerhunter w/ All the Saints
By Andrea Warner
Thursday, July 24, 2008
By Andrea Warner
TUTS 62nd season offers Jesus Christ Superstar and Annie Get Your Gun, two distinct choices for fans of musical theatre: a 70s-infused rock opera from Andrew Lloyd Webber versus the lovely old fashioned songs of Irving Berlin, with good ol’ day themes of sexism and racism.
Annie Get Your Gun, while certainly not flawless, makes a winner out of its star Meghan Anderssen. Though she’s been encouraged to dial up the “Gosh darn, har har” backwoods aspects to her Annie Oakley character (there are enough snorting laughs to think the character was directly influenced by Chrissy Snow from television’s Three’s Company), eventually she settles into a nice balance between fierce tomboy and charming young woman. It helps that Anderssen’s voice is powerful and that her solos captivate. The huge dance numbers are nicely choreographed and offer a charming reminder of great musicals past.
Jesus Christ Superstar makes martyrs out of its unsuspecting audience. From start to finish the young cast is certainly energetic, but under Gillian Barber’s direction her main male leads confuse crescendo with crash and burn. Adam Charles’ Judas screams and shrieks his way through almost every number, stripping away every ounce of sympathy the character is supposed to have. Mat Baker’s Jesus has all the charisma of a wooden Gap model. And, the choreography by Troy McLaughlin seems to have very little to do with the actual lyrics of the songs. The crucifixion couldn’t come fast enough.
Monday, July 21, 2008
By Andrea Warner
Considered one of the most structurally problematic of Shakespeare’s plays, and certainly his most violent and bloody, Titus Andronicus is often dismissed in favour of staging more straightforward tragedies such as Macbeth or Hamlet. Thank goodness Kim Collier (making her directorial debut with Bard on the Beach) possesses no such fears about grappling with such dark material.
Collier’s Titus Andronicus is relentlessly gripping and disturbingly modern as themes of revenge and evil reveal themselves in unthinkable and senselessly violent acts. Titus returns from war, victorious, with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her children as prisoners. Titus, mourning the loss of his sons in battle, sacrifices Tamora’s eldest child and she vows her revenge. Saturninus, the new Emperor, wishes to marry Lavinia, but Bassiana (a male character in the original Titus, but overtly lesbian here to complement Collier’s 21st century setting), his sister, has already claimed Lavinia as her own. Saturninus takes Tamora as his wife, who continues to dally with Aaron, her Moorish lover, the puppeteer who orchestrates the vile and contemptuous chain of events that follow.
This is the same cast that sparkles so brightly in the delightful Tempest. The material is strikingly different, and the cast nimbly and successfully delivers fantastic performances with characters that are polar opposites.
Omari Newton’s Aaron is a solid presence as the devil’s henchman, glowering and conniving, manipulating Tamora and her Euro-trash psycho sons into doing his bidding. Newton is a physically powerful actor, but the character doesn’t have much depth except that he loves to do bad things. It will be interesting to see what Newton does with a truly three-dimensional role in the future.
Jennifer Lines’ Tamora could not be more opposite than her Tempest character, Ariel. The physical transformation is wondrous: she fills out the tight confines of Tamora’s outrageous outfits and spiked heels, exuding authority and confidence, asserting her sexuality with every word. The skin crawls when Tamora instructs her sons to be as violent as possible when raping Lavinia, directly proportionate to their love for their mother.
Julie McIsaac (Lavinia), Charles Christien Gallant (Demetrius), and Kyle Rideout (Chiron) are tasked with the most disturbing scenes. McIssac is truly devastating as she pleads to be spared and then pleads for her death before the brothers take her offstage for the attack. In the aftermath of the attack, as McIssac lies bloodied and battered on the ground, Gallant taunts her and Rideout takes out a digital camera, posing beside her and laughingly taking pictures. Their off-handed and casual glee in having repeatedly raped and then mutilated Lavinia is affectively sickening.
Russell Roberts, as the title character, carries the weight of the world on Titus’s shoulders, but he’s never more effective than in Titus’s debilitating discovery of Lavinia’s rape and torture. He cries real tears, and conveys beautifully Titus’s realization that he’s powerless to protect his children. Later, Roberts takes great pleasure in one of the production’s few funny moments, as he pretends to be crazy to fool Tamora and her sons. Finally, as he succumbs to the madness of his revenge, slitting Chiron and Demetrius’s throats, then feeding the boys to their mother in a baked pie, Roberts makes Titus’s descent painfully human.
The blood flows as freely in Titus as the wine did in Tempest, but it never feels silly or gimmicky. Each violent act resonates deeply so don’t be surprised if by the intermission you feel physically ill. This Titus Andronicus packs an emotional punch that is so visceral, you’ll wonder if maybe you didn’t leave part of yourself behind when the lights come up.
Friday, July 18, 2008
By Andrea Warner
Monkeys in space probably sounded like a sure-fire hit to the Hollywood hotshots who gave this god-awful CGI movie the green light. It’s easy to score laughs (and some quick cash) with a monkey barrel’s worth of bad chimp puns— ‘cause kids are dumb, right?
Wrong. A big, fat, resounding silence greeted most of Space Chimps lame jokes, despite an audience laden with (I’m guessing) the studio’s target demographic: three to six year olds eating popcorn and drinking Coke at 10am on a Saturday morning.
In the film, The Space Program faces termination if a chimp-manned space shuttle cannot successfully return with proof of life on another planet. But, they need a “star” chimp to get more press for the expedition, so they recruit Ham III, grandson of the late, famous monkey astronaut, Ham. But, oh no! Ham III is self-involved, obnoxious, and just wants to (pardon the pun) monkey around in the circus as an entertainer.
As voiced by Andy Samberg (SNL, Hot Rod), Ham III is entirely unappealing and unfunny. Cheryl Hines and Patrick Warburton play along gamely as fellow chimps Luna and Titan, but it’s the equivalent of monkeys throwing feces at a wall—the jokes won’t stick no matter how much gusto they’re delivered with.
Most studios can’t rival the brilliance of CGI giant Pixar, but Space Chimps is so uninspired and dated, it feels as if it languished on the shelf for the last 20 years. The images are flat and lifeless, and the alien creatures that Ham and friends encounter look as if they were rendered by a five year old who lacks imagination. Space Chimps stalls, sputters, and dies before ever lifting off.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
My review of The Dark Knight appears in today's WestEnder. Pick up a copy of WE today if you get a chance!
The Dark Knight
By Andrea Warner
From the stomach-dropping opening sequence to the carefully orchestrated explosions to the twisted grimace of a scar slashed into a much mourned face, The Dark Knight tries to throw off the black veil of its troubled origins and becomes what it was meant to be: a kick ass summer blockbuster. It can’t quite escape the long shadow of Heath Ledger’s death, but it works overtime to make sure the audience gets plenty of bang for their buck.
Christian Bale returns as Batman (and Bruce Wayne), whose newest foe is his most formidable: the sick, psychotic Joker (the late Heath Ledger), whose sole motivation is to knock society’s saviours off their paper-thin pedestals. Aaron Ekhart’s Harvey Dent is the new District Attorney and he and Batman quickly become just the twin towers the Joker needs to topple to prove his point. Relationship drama comes courtesy of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes, Batman/Bruce Wayne’s long-standing love and Dent’s girlfriend.
Ekhart’s chiseled jaw and full head of shiny blond hair speak volumes about the kind of hero he seems destined to become. Gyllenhaal has precious little to do here, but her few lines permit her trademark playful intelligence to shine through. And, the neatly layered yet frenetic action sequences show plenty of cool tricks. (Want to know to flip a semi? Learn here!)
Thursday, July 10, 2008
By Andrea Warner
Like the very word from which it derives its name, The Tempest, has proved to be an uncontrollable force in Shakespeare’s canon. Originally labeled a comedy, it has gone on to defy scholarly expectations because of a deceptively simple narrative that masks grander themes of vengeance, the occult, and colonialist tendencies. That Shakespeare was a tricky guy, and he’s met his match in Meg Roe’s wonderfully magical reinvention of The Tempest.
Prospero —a Duke usurped by his brother, Antonio—washed up on a magical island with his daughter Miranda fifteen years ago. Prospero seized control of the island from the witch, Sycorax, and has enslaved her deformed son, Caliban. Ariel, a sprite, is eager to be freed from Prospero’s service, but is held to one more day of service as Prospero enacts revenge upon his brother, and washes the King’s boat ashore, stranding Antonio, the King, and several members of the King’s court. Prospero separates the Prince from his father, in the hopes that the Prince and Miranda will fall in love.
The Tempest’s opening minutes are electrifying, indicative of what’s to follow. With the use of a simple heavy rope, the cast and crew physically form the hull of the ill-fated ship, and struggle against the commanding storm Prospero has raised. It’s no easy feat to simulate a believable storm, and there were more than a few audience members steadying themselves in their seats throughout the sequence.
The ongoing physicality of the supporting actors is impressive, particularly Hamza Adam, Omari Newton, and Charles Christien Gallant, as Spirits and various mariners. Their movements are lithe and graceful, but strong, and bring remarkable energy to the stage.
Jennifer Lines’ great performance is also due in part to her physical embodiment of Ariel: eager to please (her knees turn in and one foot juts out in nervousness); desperate to know if Prospero really loves her (her face a mixture of hope and yearning); and anxious that her bidding buys her freedom (her eager flight for each task). Lines’ is incredibly light on her feet, and her energy never lags. She also possesses a lovely voice.
Allan Morgan delights in his character’s sadistic elements, but keeps Prospero playful as well. It’s hard to keep a steadying hand on Prospero’s multifaceted personality (perhaps also a commentary on mental illness?) but Morgan makes it effortless. And, his closing speech as Prospero asks the audience’s forgiveness is appropriately rueful—after all, to err is human.
Though the rest of the cast is also very talented, it’s Colleen Wheeler and Naomi Wright who steal the final accolades here as Stephana and Trincula, two ladies from the court who wash up on the island with a fondness for the drink. Their initial scene post shipwreck (mistaken identity, an eyebrow raising mounting) is possibly the funniest thing on stage this year. Wheeler (a modern-day Lucille Ball) plays up Stephana’s cougar-like shine to the slave Caliban (Bob Frazer), who proves game for anything, including foot licking.
Friday, July 4, 2008
By Andrea Warner
Brick Lane, based on the best-selling novel by Monica Ali, is a gloriously beautiful movie that should soar, but instead sags under director Sarah Gavron’s heavy hand.
Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is just 17 when, following her mother's suicide, she’s sent away from her village in Bangladesh to London as part of an arranged marriage to a man twice her age. Flash-forward sixteen years and she’s still trying to make sense of her life, living in a cramped East End flat with her teenage daughters (one mutinous, one angelic) and her husband, Chanu (Satish Kaushik) — at best a Bengali Cliff Claven — who alternates between buffoon and bastard. Nazneen lives vicariously through her sister’s letters, desperate to return home and feel whole again.
Enter the handsome stranger, the young Karim, who delivers the garments Nazneen sews at home for money. A few shy glances from under her headscarf and a full on romance begins to bloom, against the backdrop of racial tension permeating London's streets and the world since 9/11. Karim’s youthful impulse leaves him vulnerable to the radical Muslim uprising, whereas Chanu becomes the surprising lone voice of reason. The problem is that Gavron initially plays up Chanu’s character defects so wholeheartedly, it makes it almost impossible to reconcile Nazneen’s renewed devotion to her husband and the film’s emotional end.
Brick Lane is a beautiful study in contrasts, textures, and color. Where London is sterile and drab (old buildings and nosy neighbours who live in boxes stacked like blocks of Lego), Bangladesh looks lush and vibrant through the soft lens of memory, childhood, and longing. Pretty to look at, Brick Lane is merely a melodrama masquerading as a story of female empowerment. Stare too long and the flaws become all too apparent.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
The Back Kitchen Release Party
By Andrea Warner
Start with a Newfoundland pastime that brings together friends, family, and fiddles for rollicking jams stemmed in Irish and Celtic traditional music; then add a bittersweet back-story, a road trip across Canada, and a left turn in the last act, and you have the bones for the new Canadian classic, The Back Kitchen Release Party.
The premise reunites The Back Kitchen band following the death of their beloved founder, Kate. It’s been five years since Kate and Maggie left Memorial, but band leader Ned is convinced that this is the perfect opportunity to fulfill Kate’s dream of playing a cross-country tour, arriving in Vancouver just in time to play her wake. There’s just one problem: Maggie, Ned’s ex and Kate’s cousin, is now a violinist in the Toronto Symphony and is weary of getting caught up in the past.
It’s impossible to dwell on the storyline and characters without revealing some key plot points that are better left unspoiled. It’s better to focus on the great songs, good music, and the multi-talented actors who propel Party forward, taking a “real Newfie band from sunrise to sunset.” The cast proves themselves talented musicians whose voices blend into beautiful harmonies, but the male performers have better acting material to work with than their female counterparts.
Trevor Devall plays a classically charming no-hoper who gets by on the stubborn certainty of dreamers. He’s also Party’s playwright, and does a mean Captain Kirk impression. He hits all the right notes as an actor as well thanks largely to the lovely ballad “Maggie” that helps the whole band begin to heal. Jonathan Teague secures plenty of laughs, whether wielding a fishing net or a drum, and watching his character struggle to overcome his fears is funny and heartwarming.
Sarah Donald has been blessed with a unique voice and a wholesome appearance, but she’s mostly tasked with smiling beatifically throughout the first act, a supporting character if there ever was one. Sarah May Redmond seems born to help lead a Celtic band: her voice is big and clear, her accordion never looks unwieldy in her arms, and out of everyone, she appears to be having the most fun. It’s unfortunate that she’s saddled with the one character that is mostly just caricature and never quite feels real. Tracey Power, who wrote several of Party’s songs, brings her sizzling fiddle skills to the mix, but most of her scenes opposite Devall fall flat—the back-story between their characters lacks believability.
The musical standouts include the opener “Farewell to Betsy Mae”, a robust tune with plenty of tongue-in-cheek moments that captures the spirit of Newfoundland. “McCoy’s Privateers” is a hilarious ode to Star Trek. Donald and Redmond’s voices blend perfectly on “I Am a Sailor.” And, “Kate’s Song” could elicit tears from a statue.
When Party strays from the singing, the dialogue drifts between awesome and awful. Awesome: “Toronto is really rubbin’ off on you. You only been here a day and you’re already an arsehole.” Awful: “You have the right notes, Ned. You just have to know how to use them.” Thankfully this is mostly a live action concept album—that happens to be held on a stage.
Party got its start as a Fringe show, which is evident in its plucky and lively staging, the inventiveness of the songs, and the sparse set decoration. The cast does a brilliant job at bringing the band to life—the pent-up excitement of a five-year reunion is palpable, and the songs are good foot-stomping fun. This Back Kitchen is cookin’ with gas!
Honouring Our Elders
By Andrea Warner
Many of Vancouver's queer elders have been pioneers in the fight to live openly and honestly, despite facing years of hostility, discrimination and just plain ignorance. On Jun 29, The Centre dedicated an afternoon to honouring our community's trailblazers at its fifth annual Honouring Our Elders high tea, held at the Coast Plaza Hotel. With over 90 people in attendance, there were plenty of amazing memories to share and struggles to celebrate. Here are a few of their stories.
Basil Hunter and Frank Allison
Hunter and Allison, now both in their 90s, celebrated their 50th anniversary on Valentine's Day earlier this year.Both musicians, the couple played together for nine years at the Press Club in the 1960s, entertaining Vancouver's elite and visiting entertainers.Hunter wrote "Pacific Rhapsody and Brideship Ballet," which became part of BC's centennial celebrations.They count Phyllis Diller amongst their close friends, and they didn't let little things like a bum hip or knee keep them away from busting out a duet on the piano to everyone's delight.
Hunter: "When I saw her [Diller] in the dressing room [at the Cave], she was a mess and she said, 'What do you think of my hairdo, Basil?'"And I said, 'What did you do it with, Phyllis? An electric toothbrush?'"She said, 'Can I use that?' And I said 'That's a line you can have.'"And you can still hear her today using that on TV."
After wrestling for years with her desire to transition to female, Roberts finally took the plunge in her early 50s, risking a lengthy career as a high school teacher and her personal relationships. Now she's finding a new voice as a writer.
Roberts: "This is a celebration that things are getting better all the time. When I made that decision to transition, all that pain I'd been feeling all of my life suddenly just ended, and I've never looked back. One student told me she thought I was brave and an inspiration, and I think in that sense you're a pioneer because by your example you're making it easier for other people."
Chris Morrissey and Bridget Coll
Together for over 30 years, thorny immigration issues became the thrust of an ultimately successful federal legal challenge as Morrissey (Canadian) fought to have Coll (Irish with US citizenship) recognized as her spouse so they could settle together here.Morrissey is now the program manager of The Centre's Generations Project, which hosted the high tea.
Morrissey: "There isn't much visibility with older queers, and it's really important to acknowledge their lives.
"I'm the first Canadian to file a suit in federal court to be able to sponsor my partner. We came back from Latin America and we decided to settle in Canada. We tried every normal way, so we had to file a suit with federal court. We didn't have to go to court because immigration stepped in and [granted Coll residency]. But we've worked getting the legislation changed to include same-sex partners in family class for immigration."
Woodsworth came out in 1972 and has spent her life advocating for gay and lesbian rights and other equality issues. She also served as Vancouver's first openly lesbian city councilor from 2002-2005.She revealed at the high tea that she'll be seeking a seat on city council again in this fall's municipal election.
Woodsworth: "I was one of the early people in this country out and working for gay and lesbian rights in the late '60s, early '70s. I know the world is way, way better than we ever thought it could be because we organized together, we stood up, and we fought back, but it's not good enough yet and we have to keep working together."
Christine Waymark and Robin Rennie
Together since 1981, the couple has fought plenty of uphill battles. Rennie says she brought gay and lesbian rights into the programming at Family Services in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, Waymark says she was a candidate for ministry in the United Church when she was outed by a committee member and dismissed from the remaining finalists.
Rennie: "When I first came out [in 1972] it was a very hard thing to come out. There was nothing to come out to. I felt very alone..."I applied for the [Family Services] job not knowing that they were actually looking for somebody who was out. It turned out they wanted me to go out into the community and solicit people who would become involved with Family Services programs. I think it went very slowly, but it was wonderful."
Waymark: "When I was outed, I decided to become active and become honest. I got dropped as a candidate and I went on to be in AFFIRM, the United Church organization of gays and lesbians. I was the only lesbian to write the report that eventually led to the ordination of gays and lesbians in the United Church in '88."
It's really important to me that I have places where I can just be me. And "me" is definitely queer."