With most past festivals running as a single-weekend, single-venue event, this year's Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (TILGFF) expanded to encompass two locales over a total of eight days (July 11-13 and 17-21). While the festival's second half will continue to make its home in the artsy venue of Spiral Hall in Tokyo's fashionable Aoyama district, this past weekend's films screened for the first time in festival history at the deluxe Wald 9 Cinemas in Shinjuku, adjacent to Tokyo's famed gay neighborhood of Ni-chome.
The expansion of the festival also comes at a time when homosexuality is beginning to be more broadly discussed in the Japanese media - particularly due to the wild popularity of recently broadcast television drama Last Friends, which featured a character openly exploring her gender and sexuality.
The festival opened with Were the World Mine, a musical-style comedy-drama portraying the life of Timothy, a gay high-school student living in Anytown, USA. Picked on at school for being gay, Timothy life's changes radically when he is cast as the lead role of Puck in the school play, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream - and finds himself in control of a special love potion after the lines he is rehearsing for his school play suddenly turn into reality. With a phenomenally talented cast and a superb soundtrack, the award-winning film ranges from hilarious to poignant as it lays bare society's existing categorisations and gives voice to those courageous enough to challenge them.
Following the screening, a talk session was held with film director Tom Gustafson, together with co-writer and co-producer Cory Krueckeberg. The discussion was facilitated by Margaret, a beloved Tokyo drag queen who emcees the festival every year, and who has no qualms about making her guests squirm on stage. As such, she jokingly asked both guests about what they thought of Japanese "fairies," whether or not their film was made as a parody of Romero's zombie movies, and even whether their hotel room had a single bed or not!
The session did have its serious moments, however, as Gustafson explained that his desire to make the film came from his own difficult experience of growing up gay in a small, conservative town in the United States. "If I would have seen a film like this when I was a high school student, it would have had a huge impact on my life," he told the audience.
In an effort to make the film accessible to as many young people as possible, Gustafson and Krueckeberg routinely ask organisers to make a stash of free tickets available to LGBT youth in every film festival city that they visit. In Tokyo as well, 15 free tickets were purchased by an anonymous corporate sponsor and given to the members of two youth organisations: the gay support group Peer Friends, and the UK-Japan LGBT youth exchange project set up with Bristol, England. This program of reaching out to youth has a significant and far-reaching impact indeed, as the worldwide circuit of Were the World Mine also includes countries such as Canada, Denmark, Hungary, Ireland, Italy and South Africa, in addition to numerous cities around the United States.
The film has also picked up numerous prestigious awards in several countries - including mainstream film festivals in addition to gay and lesbian-themed ones. This has not meant easy sailing all the time, however. In a subsequent interview, Gustafson pointed out to Fridae that despite the film's overall success, it was rejected from the top five film festivals in the United States - ostensibly for being 'too gay'. "Perhaps they didn't like the fact that it features a positive ending," he mused.
Krueckeberg agreed: "The mainstream film industry in the US is petrified of making films associated with the gay closet - even though, ironically, it's this very same industry that created and continues to sustain that closet's existence".
The second day of the festival featured another guest director: C. Jay Cox, whose film Kiss the Bride introduced viewers to three main characters struggling to uncover their truest desires. Also set in small-town USA, Matt - who left home after discovering his sexuality - is shocked when he receives an invitation to return and attend the ceremony of his ex-boyfriend Ryan's marriage - to a woman. While Matt hopes to win Ryan back, it becomes increasingly unclear how things will turn out as the story continues to unfold in a series of unexpected twists.
Interviewed by Seiji Sugawara during the Q&A session, who asked why the sexuality of some of characters show signs of fluidity, Cox explained that he was attempting to portray the fact that sexuality is not always something that is written in stone - and that questioning one's own attractions can be a natural process for some people at certain points in their lives.
Prompted by Sugawara to explain why he decided to depart from the angst-ridden energy of his much-acclaimed 2004 film Latter Days, which told the story of a young man who discovers his attraction to men while serving as a missionary of the Mormon faith - which is known for its strong stance against homosexuality - Cox explained that he was interested in making his latest feature something completely different and more upbeat. "As a former Mormon myself, making Latter Days was a wrenchingly painful experience for me at times," he admitted. "The rest of the crew and I would joke around that we should make our next project a romantic comedy - and that's exactly what we did."
The third day of the festival also offered guest appearances from the documentary A Jihad for Love, which has received accolades during screenings worldwide (although being notably banned from the recent Singapore International Film Festival in what was to be its first Asian screening). The film portrays the lives of gay men and lesbians in 12 different countries who attempt to reconcile their identities with their belief in the Muslim religion, which strictly condemns homosexuality - even denouncing it as a crime punishable by death in certain countries.
The documentary serves as a tender reminder of both the purity and the strength of love, as numerous people interviewed in the film assert that they have committed no wrongdoing by simply loving another in accordance with the true desires of their own hearts. The film also offers several episodes that give hope of the Islamic religion expanding in order to accommodate an understanding of homosexuality, such as the portrayal of a gay imam in South Africa who holds sessions where he is able to successfully engage others in his religious community regarding the topic.
The film does not shy away, however, from portraying the very real hardships - and sometimes life-threatening dangers - of living as a homosexual within the Islamic faith. "It took several years for some people to feel comfortable enough to show their face on camera," explained director Parvez Sharma during an audience discussion following the film. "And even then, people were constantly calling me up during the editing process to ask that I conceal their faces." At one point, in an irony-laden moment of exasperation, Sharma even blurred the face of a penguin appearing in the film. "Maybe I should sell t-shirts in Tokyo featuring the penguin," he joked to the audience.
Sharma also appeared onstage with A Jihad for Love producer Sandi Dubowski, a Jewish-American who directed and produced the 2007 documentary film Trembling Before G-d about gay and lesbian Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. One audience member spoke up and confessed his surprise to Sharma and Dubowski regarding the collaboration, explaining that there is a strong image in Japan of Islam and Judaism standing at odds with one another.
"When I was a new immigrant to the USA, Sandi helped me out tremendously by opening many doors of support that I never would have been able to access otherwise," Sharma replied. "Being a Muslim-Jewish collaboration, I think this film has the longest credit list in history!" he added, again eliciting laughter.
Sharma then invited the audience to join the discussion taking place by people around the world regarding issues related to the film, which is found at his online blog: http://www.ajihadforlove.com/blog.html.
The TILGFF includes a total of more than 40 films from nearly 20 countries, and has something on offer for all tastes. To cover just a sampling: European lesbian-themed films Shelter (Italy) and Looking for Cheyenne (France) both confront the collision resulting from the reality of socioeconomic disparities existing between lovers; and the Spanish film Boystown is a comedy of errors with a phenomenal cast and a series of hysterical one-liners. The festival's first weekend also offered a number of films from Asia, such as South Korea's No Regret, Thailand's Bangkok Love Story, Taiwan's Drifting Flowers (by Chou MeiLing of Spider Lilies fame), Japan's Strange Couples and Moon Shadow, and both Japanese and Asian short film collections.
Most films will be re-screened this weekend at Spiral Hall. For further information, see the official festival website at tokyo-lgff.org.
For a glimpse of South Korean film No Regret director Lee-Young Hoon during his visit with the audience, as well as other juicy festival tidbits, see the TILGFF online blog here: tilgff08.blogspot.com.