Though the 13th annual New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival opens with the high-profile Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the documentary Bombay Eunuch tells an even more complicated story of cross-dressing and castration. In fact, the most engrossing films in our sampling of the features offered this year aren't strictly "gay"neither saccharine coming-out stories nor righteous documentaries about two-spirit earth mothers. Instead, we get a visit with South African hairdressers, an art film from India about a pair of wrestling train guards, and a sci-fi parody made by a male feminist.
Through Bombay resident Deepa Krishnan, Bombay Eunuch directors Alexandra Shiva, Sean MacDonald, and Michelle Gukovsky enter the closed world of hijras: castrated Indians who live as women. The hijras' low status forces them into abject poverty and sex work, but Indian culture grants them some mythology. Their blessings and curses, it is said, come true. Meena, the queen of the hijras, undercuts the portrait's potential as an academic freakshow by demanding a daily fee from the filmmakers. The project's intentions are compromised in a way that turns the whole enterprise into a culture-clashing circus; the payoff, which arrives from outside the frame of the documentary, is ironic and beautiful.
Paulo Alberton and Graeme Reid's Dark and Lovely, Soft and Free seems too simply intentioned to go off track. But if you're traversing South Africa to interview hairdressers in the townships, there's plenty of opportunity for unexpected adventure. Alberton and Reid's van breaks down; they go to remote areas where subjects decide not to talk. But the innocence of their mission transforms the documentary into a funny and touching evocation of post-apartheid life; the remarkably blasé hairdressers they do contact have found ways to weave themselves into a turbulent society.
The slatternly Southwesterners of Todd Hughes's The New Women go on a frantic road trip too. All the men in the world have suddenly fallen asleep, and it's up to the ladies to reinvent society. The theme is ham-fisted, Stepford Wives-style male feminismone doubts the elimination of men would create chaos so complete. But this cheapo black-and-white B movie's witty, trash-talking script bursts at the seams with loopy satire and ballsy female characters, led by Mary Woronov and Sandra Kinder, who could bring the house down reading road signs.
Balaram and Nimai, the rural Indian train guards in The Wrestlers, live by reading signstrain signals mostly, but also subtext. The two, like a live-action Akbar and Jeff, share everything, especially an enthusiasm for Greco-Roman wrestling. Buddhadeb Dasgupta's slow-paced slice-of-life starts moving midway through, when Balaram suddenly brings home a wife (not to mention a plot point). But the film's understatement and unpredictability alone maintain its freshness, not to mention charming performances by Shankar Chakraborty and Tapas Pal. Like the rest of this fare, The Wrestlers expands the homo horizon by making its gay themes subtle and contextual, instead of trying to make gender and sexual orientation the whole story.
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