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Vibrant AIDS drama among LGBT offerings at Berlinale

Berlin Film Festival

The Berlinale may trail a few other film festivals in buzz and prestige, but when it comes to “queer” cinema, it has long led the pack.


While Venice and Cannes instituted a prize for best LGBT-themed film in 2007 and 2010 respectively, Berlin started handing out its “Teddy Award” back in 1987 (with Pedro Almodovar’s “Law of Desire" snagging the very first one).

This year’s contenders for the honour include a gay romance from the Philippines (Joselito Alterejos’s “Unfriend”), an experimental Brazilian drama revolving around a middle-aged transvestite (Davi Pretto’s “Castanha”), and a German horror film in which a cop grapples with his sexual identity (Till Kleinert’s “Der Samurai”).

One of the most warmly received movies in the running for the Teddy was Chris Mason Johnson’s “Test”, a sly, vibrant, shoestring-budget indie about Frankie (Scott Marlowe), a dancer in San Francisco in 1985, who juggles his career and love life while agonising over whether to get the newly available HIV test.

With mischievous period detail (the indispensable Walkman, those aggravating tangled telephone cords) and a propulsive soundtrack (featuring Bronski Beat’s club anthem “Smalltown Boy”), the film overcomes a shaky start -- it takes a while to get used to the unpolished delivery of the performers, most of whom are professional dancers -- to pull you inside Frankie’s mood of gnawing fear.

The protagonist may appear impassive, but the anxiety and hunger for life roiling beneath his skin are released when he dances (Johnson’s camerawork is at its most confident when capturing the thrillingly kinetic choreography by Sidra Bell). “Test” takes a fresh approach to a topic -- the panic and paranoia in LGBT communities following the AIDS outbreak -- most memorably tackled in Bill Sherwood’s 1986 gem “Parting Glances”. But it’s also a film about bodies in glorious motion – and about dance as an affirmation of endurance and a revolt against the creeping threat of mortality.

I sat down with the director for a conversation about the film and its larger implications. Here are some highlights.

F24: Why did you choose to revisit this particular moment in history, when the HIV test had just been introduced?

CMJ: I think the stories that needed to be told first were of death and dying and governmental inaction and political activism. But I think enough time has passed that a different kind of story can be told. We’ve seen movies about older men and men in their 30s dealing with this. However, a movie about the 20-year-old facing the AIDS crisis isolated and alone – that hasn’t been done as much.

The dance world is very closeted, even though there are a lot of gay men -- just like Hollywood. So back then, the question for a lot of male dancers was: How could you be open about this disease if you weren’t open about your sexuality? It was sort of this double problem. I don’t think that story had been told.

Furthermore, this particular moment in our history was complicated. When the first test came out, there was no guarantee that the information would be protected. There was a lot of homophobic scapegoating, talk of a quarantine of gay people, or the government keeping a list of people who were sick. In hindsight, it seems extremely farfetched. But it was a real fear at the time. And there was this test, but the disease was a death sentence, because there was no treatment. There was a debate within the community about whether you should even be tested. So it was all very fraught.

F24: You were a professional ballet dancer before moving into filmmaking. Is the film autobiographical?

CMJ: Yes, to some extent. I was a teenager at that time, dancing professionally. So I was definitely there, and I was definitely scared. I’m definitely drawing on some memories in this movie.

F24: Gay-themed American films have started to move into the mainstream in the past several years, with movies like “Brokeback Mountain”, “Milk”, and “The Kids are All Right”. But mostly they remain slightly on the margins. What’s your assessment of the current state of “queer cinema” or the onscreen representation of LGBT people?

CMJ: Those are complicated questions. I think what we see on TV and sitcoms, even ones I respect, is kind of the gay character as court jester, which has a long history going back to 1930s Hollywood. I’m grateful for “Will and Grace” and “Modern Family”, but I feel like we’re ready to evolve beyond that. Movies like “The Kids are All Right”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “Weekend” and “Keep the Lights On”, and I hope my film, do that.

So the real issue for me is not mainstream versus marginalised, but between types of representation. I think after an initial phase of amazing queer cinema in the 90s, we entered a phase that was less adventurous. And now I think we’re coming out of that into a more artful, realistic representation that doesn’t depend on the court jester prototype. So I do think there’s progress, even if it’s slow.

F24: The big “AIDS film” of the year was “Dallas Buyers Club”, which drew criticism because it tells the story of this disease through a heterosexual character. What do you think of that, as someone who also made a film about AIDS?

CMJ: I haven’t seen “Dallas Buyers Club” yet, but that won’t stop me from having an opinion! I think the politics of representation are especially important when you don’t have a lot of representation. So how Hollywood does a black character, a Latino character, a transgender character, a gay character – that matters, because we see it so infrequently. When more and more of that content is out there, getting it exactly right will matter less. So I’m happy for the makers of “Dallas Buyers Club” for making it, I think that story should be told. But because there’s so little representation around the subject of AIDS, I understand why people in the gay community might have an issue.

F24: Compared to French films, for example, “Blue is the Warmest Colour”, the gay sex in American films is very chaste. Does that bother you?

CMJ: I think that’s because of the Puritan thing, but there’s also a real squeamishness about gay sex. I tried to address that in my film by having some fairly frank scenes. We’re still not comfortable as a broad audience watching gay sex, but hopefully we’ll get there, too. I want to add that I’m not interested in sex onscreen unless there’s some conflict or drama. A sex montage set to music is embarrassing to watch, gay or straight.

'Test' official trailer

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