Can an Indie Film Spark Hatred? Homophobia?

Posted by Eugene Hernandez on 6.15.2012


Filmmaker Tom Kalin (right) with actor Craig Chester (left) and film critic Gerald Peary. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

The setting last night was an intimate movie theater on the main street of a quiet American resort town.

Inside the cinema, a captive audience watched a low budget, black and white independent film. It was rough around the edges and shot over the course of about 14 days. The movie's director sat outside with his lead actor waiting for the screening to wrap, sipping drinks alongside a few other filmmakers and industry folks as the sun set on a cool Friday evening.

A few guests decided to skip the Q&A when the movie ended, quickly shuffling past as the director and star made their way to the front of the theater. It wasn't long before one of the remaining moviegoers, uncomfortable with the message of the movie, shot a pointed question at the filmmaker.

June is packed with film festivals and the scene above is one that's surely playing out a lot this month. While the Film Society opens the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Lincoln Center today, audiences are gathering in big and small cities this month—Los Angeles, Nantucket, Seattle, Palm Springs, San Francisco and Provincetown—to watch the latest crop of indie and foreign fare.

Last night's movie—here at the Provincetown International Film Festival on Cape Cod in Massachusetts—was Tom Kalin's landmark American indie Swoon. After 20 years, it is still striking a chord with audiences. At the showing, the film felt as provocative as when it was first seen on movie screens back in 1992, when it sparked a conversation that continued today at the festival.

Watch a video excerpt from last night's Q&A at the end of this blog post.

Made at the height of the AIDS crisis and before gay marriage and gays in the military, Kalin's Swoon is a take on the infamous Leopold and Loeb true crime story from the early 1920s, in which a pair of young, wealthy men kidnapped and murdered a teenager. Kalin reclaimed and explored the gay indenties of the perpetrators in this stylish indie. Produced by Christine Vachon, it debuted at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and was swiftly labeled as part of the New Queer Cinema movement, a bold burst of films (Poison, Paris is Burning, The Living End and others) that emerged in the 80s and 90s exploring the lives of gays and lesbians on the margins of society.

Last night in Provincetown, a queer-friendly beach enclave at the tip of Cape Cod that hosts a popular weekend festival, an audience member seemed to call the movie reckless. The film will stir fear among viewers who are against equality and inspire homophobic responses among moviegoers, the viewer warned. Standing alongside Swoon star Craig Chester, Kalin politely reminded the audience member that the movie was made 20 years ago and, just as he did back then, proceeded to defend it.

"I'm a believer in equal opportunity homicide," Tom Kalin explained sincerely, "I also want to claim the right to kill with rage and murder for irrational reasons and obsessive passion in the same way heterosexuals have had the latitude to do so in the history of storytelling since storytelling has begun."

At one point, Kalin—a filmmaker who was active in ACT-UP in the 80s and now teaches at Columbia University—invoked Billy Wilder's film noir Double Indemnity. Why is it okay to depict a woman who seduces a man and drives him to murder, he wondered, but not explore the same passionate power dynamic between a couple of the same sex?

"We have to authorize ourselves to live, in part, in our fantasy lives," Kalin continued, defending himself and his movie. "We were attacked for making this film. I was a 'bad homosexual' for making this film. I still stand by the film."

Kalin, Chester and producer Christine Vachon elaborated on the discussion this morning at a breakfast session considering the two decades since the New Queer Cinema moviement. Vachon said that twenty years from now she hopes that films won't be looked at through the prism of a queer cinema movement and will stand on their own alongside other movies, without such labels.

The filmmakers intend to continue the conversation later this year. A 20th anniversary showing of the film is set for September at BAMcinématek and the filmmakers have a deal with Cinetic Rights Management to exploit the digital rights to the two decade-old movie in hopes of reaching a new online and VOD audience with a subsequent re-release.

Watch an excerpt from last night's Q&A with Kalin and Chester below:

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