Tell Me, Where Do I Exist?
By Juan Barquin
For years now, Sundance has touted itself as a bastion of inclusivity. Its messaging proudly points to its outreach and inclusion measures, from labs for creatives from underrepresented communities to inviting a limited selection of press from various backgrounds to cover those very works. This year in particular, Sundance has been highlighting its trans-created or trans-focused works, as have the critics and audiences who visited the festival. But what of representation off-screen?
In the midst of this year’s festival—still nestled in Park City, where only those with the right kind of funding can travel comfortably—Sundance’s home state of Utah has passed a law, in both Senate and House, that transgender folks will no longer be able to use the bathroom of their gender identity in state-owned buildings. This follows a measure signed into law just a year ago, also during the festival, that banned gender-affirming health care for trans people under the age of 18.
Despite various filmmakers who have debuted works at the festival vocally criticizing Sundance, the festival has proven there are limitations to how institutions show their support for the communities they dare to platform. That their response to the Daily Beast’s question for comment begins and ends with talk of inclusivity, but it speaks volumes that it omits any direct action or even a condemnation of their home state’s anti-trans bill. Without making any official statement about the dangerous politics that harm those they claim to support, and reducing virtual accessibility for those who cannot travel to Utah (by keeping certain films as in-person exclusives and vastly limiting accreditation passes), it forces someone like myself covering the festival (remotely and without official accreditation) to question why exactly the festival deserves my money, my time, and my voice.
The matter of where those with power spend their time and money, and what causes they lend their voices to, was the basis of one of the most frustrating works of nonfiction at the festival: Peter Sillen’s Love Machina. The film presents itself as a documentary about the transference of Bina Rothblatt’s consciousness into a humanoid AI, Bina48, and the way that her wife Martine’s creation has had great impact on the future of transhumanism. Yet what lies beneath that facade is as mechanical and soulless as Bina48 itself.
Love Machina serves largely as a narcissistic portrait of Martine Rothblatt, a trans woman whose wealth and work ethic have guaranteed her the ability to move through life without barriers. Whatever thesis Sillen might have once had is lost as he falls down the rabbit hole that is Martine’s desire, practically morphing into a commercial for the businesswoman and her many endeavors. It’s not that her work doesn’t merit praise (she has had involvement in life-saving medical procedures), but it’s odd to watch everything, and everyone, around her fade into the background. To watch the film is to never learn much about the woman she loves, other than her interest in Octavia Butler’s work and her gardening; a few short scenes devoted to her are about as close to exploring her humanity as the film gets.
As much as Sillen’s film poses as a dive into the ethics of android creation—even going as far as to passingly fold in the story of a Black artist who has smartly exploited the idiotic endeavor to stage “conversations” about race with a machine coded and created by white men—there is little depth. This exposes the filmmakers and everyone showcased: the words and thoughts of a machine, designed to respond based on what we have input, matter more than any real human being. To see Love Machina and take it at face value is to believe that preserving humanity through inhumanity for a future generation is a more worthy effort than using your resources to create a better world for your community in the now.
Bridging eras has always been something of a fixation for queer artists, and director Jules Rosskam and writer Nate Gualtieri’s Desire Lines follows suit by exploring transmasculinity within a bygone era (of bathhouses, police raids, and AIDS panic) and a contemporary one, with two men working in an archive and looking in on the past.
Desire Lines awkwardly splits its time between stiff scripted scenes of its leads pretending to work in an archive and a more traditional talking heads documentary featuring various trans masc voices speaking about their personal experiences, mingling with archival footage of author and activist Lou Sullivan speaking on the gay trans masc lifestyle. The interviews are the film’s most compelling feature, especially when hearing these men openly talk about how certain encounters with other men serve as both a means of sexual pleasure and of gender validation. These interviews are as playful as they are vulnerable—like a discussion of how smaller hands are a positive when it comes to fisting—but it is jarring to find oneself thrown back into the film’s brand of fictionalized narrative time and again.
For a film that seems determined to highlight the desirability of its trans masculine figures, and more specifically hopes to have its interviewees dissect what exactly desire means in their experiences, there’s something sexless and antiseptic about Desire Lines’ staged scenes with actors Aden Hakimi and Theo Germaine, each playing archivists who bond while working. Where Hakimi’s deadpan performance is thankfully broken up by the way Rosskam shoots his erotic fantasies—a sequence of self-pleasure and sexual connection in an adult cinema is among the film’s most rousing—Germaine’s line deliveries are rendered as empty as any of Bina84’s telegraphed responses to questions. Both the archive these men work in and the imaginary cruising ground that Hakimi wanders in his dreams are lifeless spaces, and it’s a shame to see such a stark contrast with the film’s real conversations.
The thin line between fiction and nonfiction, between desire and repulsion, typified a number of queer films at the festival this year, from features like Mikko Mäkelä’s Sebastian to shorts like Whammy Alcazaren’s Bold Eagle, which bafflingly was the only Midnight program short inaccessible for virtual viewing.
Sebastian is a perfect example of a feature that simply doesn’t have enough to say and might have worked better in a shorter format. It follows a young writer who starts sex work to use his experience as fodder for short stories and eventually a novel. Mäkelä gestures at promising ideas like the limitations of “truthfulness” in art and the way that generations of queer individuals can connect through art and by discussing lived experience, but Sebastian is simply too fixated on its narcissistic protagonist—whose obsession with Bret Easton Ellis is both amusingly telling and barely interrogated—and how he navigates the literary world.
However refreshing it is to see a queer man’s sexuality so casually depicted, there’s a reticence to dive into the nuances of sex work, sex for pleasure, and how the two often intersect. The relationships that the film positions as meaningful to its protagonist, including one with a much older man (an affecting performance by Jonathan Hyde), often come across as just another stepping stone for his writing career. And while there is certainly some marked contempt in the script for this kind of behavior, any attempt at analyzing its character feels as shallow as the persona he’s put on.
A perfect contrast comes in the form of Bold Eagle, which at 16 minutes is so densely packed that one can barely process it all upon first viewing. Alcazaren’s short simulates the product of a brain poisoned by the internet: part YouTube poop, part OnlyFans promo video, part reflection on the Marcos family’s dictatorship in the Philippines, and part exploration of how the pandemic impacted (and morphed) queer sexuality.
Alcazaren positions an actual sex worker (luckymaybe1923 on Twitter) as his focus, with the character’s identity intertwining with that of a house cat. Throughout the film, whether he's pushing the camera in on his hole or licking himself in a long shot, the fun lies in unpacking the absurd imagery. There’s a discomfiting sensation beneath all the blurred cocks and portrait mode visuals of sexual pleasure, of always being watched, that reflects our existence in an era of constant surveillance. It understands that isolation isn’t just a physical sensation but also a mental one, and wonders if the internet (as well as the toxic way we engage with it) is doing more to harm than connect us.
Theda Hammel’s Stress Positions, one of the festival’s sharpest comedies, is just as fixated on these questions of how we exist in a world where everyone knows everything about everyone. Quickly establishing itself as an early COVID-era period piece, the film pits the hapless Terry Goon (John Early) against friends, exes, and strangers alike, as he simply tries to take care of his 19-year-old Moroccan nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash) and keep him away from prying eyes.
Those eyes and ears exist everywhere though, even in isolation; ideas and secrets alike can surface in a video or a phone call or a text message. Much of the comedy (and distress) that Hammel and co-writer Faheem Ali (who also arguably plays the most charming chaser in cinema) delivers derives from how its cast members all seemingly exist to torture each other, spitting one brilliantly idiotic line after another at each other in screwball fashion. While Hammel’s gaze is casual, as conversational as the script and playfully avoiding some obvious slapstick shots, her script mines queerness, transness, lazy politics, and racial tension for laughs with panache. Much like her past endeavors, including her and co-host Macy Rodman’s NYMPHOWARS, it’s as high-minded as it is lowbrow, equally comfortable satirizing the cluelessness of white New Yorkers as it is serving up jokes like a Theragun shoved up someone’s asshole.
Stress Positions takes great pleasure in its queer menaces (including Hammel’s giddily chaotic performance), but there’s also a quiet sincerity with which it approaches navigating one’s identity and worth in a world that exploits as easily as it discards. And even if its comic sensibilities and mean-spirited nature are at times overwhelming, there’s always a cut to the film’s heart and soul: Bahlul. His narration and musings on the past as he watches camcorder footage of himself and his mother attending his uncle’s wedding on Fire Island, as well as the way he processes the very real advice that embracing fiction is a form of freedom, are always there to pull us back to reality once the laughter settles.
Almost as if to offer a direct contrast to the alleviating trans comedy of Stress Positions, Sundance also offered up one of the greatest works of trans horror yet to exist. Jane Schoenbrun’s breathtaking I Saw the TV Glow takes a different route to visualizing transness than their previous feature, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, jettisoning that film’s distinct digital-era aesthetic, instead bathing itself in a ’90s period atmosphere. I Saw the TV Glow is a tale about a teenager named Owen (Justice Smith), at odds with the world around him, who finds himself obsessed with a late-night television series, The Pink Opaque, which his new friend Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) introduces him to.
Schoenbrun imbues meaning into every frame, whether it’s a charming evocation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Clarissa Explains It All aesthetics or a late-night conversation about what it means to exist in a world that wants you dead. Its dreaminess is ever-present, making Owen and Maddy feel like ghosts walking through a haze, practically the only characters who feel like real human beings living in a fake world. This hypnotic state comes less from its reference points (including Lynch, Araki, and Assayas) than the way that Schoenbrun makes the mere notion of existence full of dread. Their families, their coworkers, and even the cast of the TV show they love, are symbols more than characters, each a representation of fear or connection that leaves a mark on these young adults. At a certain point, memories of those individuals who have floated in and out of our lives start feeling as unreal as the shows we watch.
It’s rare to witness a work so drenched in the understanding of the trans experience and, more specifically, about the way ignoring one’s identity and reality will inevitably eat away at one’s core. Though the word is never explicitly said, every bit of I Saw the TV Glow feels designed as a metaphor for dysphoria. To watch some of Justice Smith’s gestures, the ways he screams and whispers, his voice cracking like there’s something inside waiting to break free, is to watch someone perform and understand the damage that repression does to the soul.
This is a rich and dense work that requires more words than what’s possible in a festival report, so there’s comfort in knowing that many others will be dissecting every inch of it once it’s out, trying to understand Owen and Maddy just as they tried to understand the characters of The Pink Opaque, and, of course, themselves. It’s even more of a comfort that there now exists a film disinterested in tiptoeing around the dangers of repression, one that boldly implies that living in denial, day after day, is a fate worse than death.
With their film so confrontational about the way society comfortably enables and practically encourages trans people to stay silent or apologize for speaking up, it will come as no surprise that Schoenbrun is one of the few programmed filmmakers who has asked why Sundance has not acknowledged Utah’s HB257 and other anti-trans legislation. Where some remain quiet or actively applaud the festival for inclusivity, comfortable to stand on the red carpet and pose for pictures, we are lucky to have filmmakers like Jude Hope Harris questioning the organization via email and social media.
In a year where Sundance is celebrated for highlighting trans creatives, Harris’s email asks an important question: “Does corporate sponsorship [...] constrain the Institute’s ability to publicly address this issue?” As the festival comes to a close, without a statement from Sundance, the answer seems to be yes. It’s a shame the festival’s politics begin and end on screen.