If you imagine Japan as a place where cultural norms dictate that personal emotions should not be displayed in public and one should never make others lose face, then Fatherless (1997) will hit you like a punch in the stomach. The film was made by debuting directors Yoshiya Shigeno and Yugi Komiya and follows a young bisexual man named Muraishi Masaya and his attempts to break away from a lonesome existence in Tokyo and return to his hometown Nagano to clarify the emotional conflicts that arose in the wake of his family’s dissolution.

Masaya visits his mother, his stepfather and his biological father in succession and confronts them with the traumas they have inflicted on him. Neither in the shots from Tokyo, in which Masaya’s activities as a male prostitute are depicted in glaring detail, nor the scenes from Nagano do the directors try to cloud their thorough description of the essence of self-hatred. Whereas the film’s strategy seems to be hard-hitting, it pales in comparison with the uncompromising attitude of the main character in his desperate attempts to re-establish the shattered emotional bonds. A project that compels him to ask for his father’s permission to slap his face in the final scene.

Personal stories

Personal films on intimate subjects that in varying degrees overstep the threshold of the private sphere became permanent fixtures at documentary film festivals long ago. This is also true of the fourth Thessaloniki International Documentary Film Festival where an entire series – ‘Stories to Tell’ – was dedicated to films “of human interest that stand out for the nature of their themes and the way they have been dealt with.”

Even so, it is difficult to remain unaffected by a film like Fatherless. Not only does it with youth arrogance explicitly depict the homosexual prostitution transactions and scenes in which the main character cuts his chest with a razorblade until the blood flows. The emotional contents of Masaya’s confrontations with his own demons and his family’s betrayal are also potent fare.

Compared to a work like Fatherless, other titles in the series – such as the two US entries Daddy and Papa (2002) and Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House (2001) – appear less radical. Even though they deal with personal problems and emotional themes that are equally severe.

Whereas the main character in Fatherless longs for a close relationship to a father figure, Daddy and Papa describes in a certain sense the opposite phenomenon: adopted Afro-American children who grow up with two white homosexual fathers. In recent years, a number of US adoption agencies have begun to accept homosexuals as adoptive parents. And since it especially has been difficult to find homes for Afro-American children, these children in particular have been absorbed by the homosexual subculture to such an extent that it actually constitutes a trend. The so-called ‘gayby boom’ not only challenges the institution of the family but gives rise to general discussions about the effect of this practice on the adopted children’s development of identity, sexuality and racial awareness.

Director Johnny Symons has several films about the plight of homosexuals under his belt and bases the essayistic and debate-oriented Daddy and Papa on his personal experiences. He and his partner have adopted a child, and the film puts the personal experiences of the three parallel case stories into perspective to illuminate the central issues from different angles. The reporting sequences and the soundtrack’s personal commentary make it abundantly clear that (interracial) homosexual adoption is far from uncomplicated. But – as it is disarmingly asserted – in an imperfect world it can be a good solution for everyone involved.

Homosexuality is also an important theme in Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House, Deborah Dickson’s cinéma vérité portrait of two lesbian activists who have been fighting for their sexuality for almost a generation. Ruthie and Connie first met in 1959, when they were both exemplary Jewish housewives. Together with their respective families they moved to a neighbourhood near Coney Island with many young families. In their new surroundings, their friendship was strengthened at the same time they became role models of sorts by virtue of their involvement in their local neighbourhood and the Jewish community.

So much greater was the shock and scandal when they fell in love with each other in 1974, left their families and moved in together. The upheaval was particularly difficult for Ruthie to handle, and she didn’t come out of the closet until 1988, when she finally had the courage to go public about her relationship with Connie. Together, they decided to sue the New York City Board of Education for not offering them the same health care rights as other ‘married’ couples. Overnight, this action made them a nation-wide topic of conversation and heroines in the lesbian subculture.

The film meets Ruthie and Connie at a time when they have won their case and as they are about to celebrate their 25th anniversary as a couple. It follows the daily life of these lively women and retrospectively describes the high price they had to pay for their love. A price they still pay. Even after a quarter of a century, far from everyone in their environment has accepted them. Several of their children, for example, refused to participate in the film.

Though all three films make use of widely different documentary strategies, they share one thing in common: like the best of the other seven films in the ‘Stories to Tell’ series – they engage the audience by virtue of the powerful, controversial life stories that are presented. They are stories about people who have transcended personal or social barriers – perhaps both. And stories that – as Yoshiya Shigeno says when explaining his choice of Muraishi Masaya as the main figure – keep the audience’s interest because the persons involved are forced into situations where they have “nothing (…) to lose.”

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