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Bold and extraordinary

Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg's lifetime companion, is played by Aaron Tveit, while James Franco, right, is Beat poet Allan Ginsberg in the film Howl, a film about a poem rather than a biopic

Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg's lifetime companion, is played by Aaron Tveit, while James Franco, right, is Beat poet Allan Ginsberg in the film Howl, a film about a poem rather than a biopic

Published Oct 24, 2011


the headliner for the third leg of the Out in Africa fest this year is Howl, a film about a poem, rather than a biopic, which is what I was expecting.

Howl is epic in scope, rather like the poem itself, written by Beat poet Allan Ginsberg in the 1950s.

Spilt into four parts, Howl tells the story of the obscenity trial of 1957 when, bizarrely for a modern reader and audience, the poem was tried for obscenity. Interspersed with this is a rendering of the poem by James Franco in the title role as Ginsberg, reciting the poem in a smoky jazz bar to an appreciative audience.

And taking the segments further, some parts of the poem are set to animation, beautiful imaginings of the visions described in the poem – from bleak American cities to more psychedelic renderings. I loved this part of the film – and couldn’t help feeling that Howl, the poem, was bolstered by these animinations, and that it was the perfect marriage of artform, wishing too that many more poems be given such exposure and life.

And the fourth component of the film is the interview with the Ginsberg – James Franco in fine form – talking about the poem and a little about his life, and friendships. This is the only part where, if you’re not familiar with the poet, you’ll glean some biographical information. Enough at any rate, to lead you through the film’s trajectory.

It’s a bold film, and the vision engendered is quite extraordinary, a film about a poem could go anywhere, but in the hands of writers and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, this works. The segmented aspect keeps the pace running fast, especially during the more staid court scenes set in a stuffily-realistic 1950s courtroom.

Running at just over an hour- and-a-half, the length is just long enough to keep you interested and involved without residual boredom.

I’d been looking forward too to seeing Heartbeats or in the French, Les Amours imaginaires, directed by the young French-Canadian prodigy, actor, director and writer Xavier Dolan, who’s been called a Pedro Almodovar in the making. His film, I killed my Mother, explored the claustrophobic bonds of the relationship between a divorced woman and her only son, and was a gripping true tour de force of telling.

Unfortunately, Heartbeats was a disappointment, with the pace lagging at times. Taking the form of a love triangle of sorts, this film has at its heart two best friends, Marie (Monia Chokri), and Francis (played by Dolan himself) who encounter the enigmatic Nicolas (Niels Schneider), and are drawn like moths to a flame to this man, each falling for him in their own ways. Marie, artfully made up to resemble a latter-day Audrey Hepburn, is so wonderfully beguiling you wonder why Nicolas doesn’t fall for her; while Francis is charmingly, boyishly all of his 25 years, and naively gauche for it. The film is linked together by an Italian version of the song Bang Bang, made famous by Cher, and the song becomes a leitmotif for the threads which link this film.

In addition a number of twentysomething men and women address an invisible audience – perhaps therapist? – telling of their despairs and failing relationships. A sort of commentary on the tumultuous ’20s, a time when relationships are paramount and the pursuit of a life partner tops the agenda in a quite obsessive way at times.

The recipe’s good, the film moves along interestingly, although there were times I wanted the action to speed up and found my attention flagging. Dolan is clearly a talent to watch, but this film doesn’t quite live up to the brilliance of I killed my Mother.

The sensual sumptuousness of Room in Rome follows. Two women meet in a club in Rome, the Spanish Alba, played by (Elena Anaya) and the Russian Natasha (Natasha Yarovenko. When Alba seduces Natasha, they spend the night together – it’s a night of intimacy ranging across sex, bathing together and, most of all, frank talk about their lives and loves, the most telling intimacy of all.

When the sun rises, and they eat breakfast together, preparing to part, questions remain, lives it seems, perhaps, are about to be undone, or not. A single moment, a chance encounter can have major repercussions, or not, and therein rests the crux of this haunting, quite beautiful portrayal of a chance meeting. It’s directed by Julio Medem, who also directed the haunting Lovers of the Arctic Circle.

Pariah, directed by Dee Rees who is visiting the country as part of the fest, tells the story of 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye). She lives with her parents in Brooklyn, Audrey, a stay-at-home mom beginning to look the empty nest syndrome in the eye, and Arthur, a policeman (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell) and younger sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse).

Alike lives a double life, feeling her way into her burgeoning lesbian identity in clubs with her best friend, while hiding her identity at home, changing into feminine clothing and earrings in an attempt to fool her parents into believing she is, in fact, a “normal” heterosexual teenager.

We watch as she navigates this perilous territory, and her first gay experience with a girl who it seems is just experimenting, a trauma that Alike will have to also negotiate if she is to make her way over to the other side. A compelling film, with a performance by Oduye which carries the film with assurance.

The two South African documentaries being shown are quite short, Breaking out of the Box and Whisper Not. Breaking out of the Box tells the stories of a number of black lesbians ranging in age and experience, telling their stories interview style. Whisper Not is based around the launch of a book of the same name in which various contributors, who have been living positively with the HIV virus, wrote their stories. The documentary is a positive affirmation of people who are living healthy, happy lives, despite having this disease.

l The Out In Africa South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival is now on until October 30 at Jozi: Nu Metro, Hyde Park, CT: Nu Metro, V&A Waterfront. For further information and a list of other films being shown go to:

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