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Out in Africa

Published Jul 30, 2012

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With the second leg of the Out in Africa fest now showing,

the highlight for me was the headline act, Cloudburst. This stars big names Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as two women who have been together for 31 years, co-habiting Dot’s home somewhere near the US/ Canadian border.

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When the blind Dot (Fricker) falls out of bed and sprains her bottom, it’s apparently the beginning of the end of their life together. Her granddaughter Molly (Kristin Booth) sets in motion a plan to commit Dot to a frail-care facility, convinced that the 80-year-old Stella (Dukakis) can no longer care for her “special friend”.

But Stella, sharp and salty and tangy as a pickled cucumber, is having none of it. The film is peppered with wisecracks, sexual innuendos and the sheer ourategousness that is Stella, a woman who has lived life on her own terms. She is a woman who has come to terms with her somewhat marginalised role but is happy within her own space; although at times, you wonder how she’s managed to get to this advanced age without landing in trouble, such is her outspokenness.

In a scene that you will remember long after the credits have rolled, the plain and butch Stella puts a headscarf on her head and busts Dot out of the care facility. The film is billed as a “geriatric Thelma and Louise”, and we follow Dot and Stella’s adventure as they head off on a roadtrip to Canada. The point is to get married there, so that Stella can have a say over where Dot ends up and take control of their lives in a way that only being spouses will enable them to do.

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Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker, Prentice (played by Ryan Doucette), who’s prancing along the freeway with his bare pecs exposed. When he accepts a lift from the two, he’s in for more than he expected, including listening to Stella’s explanation of what she’d have for a last meal on earth. Think kd lang and add some spice as Stella imbues her description with a strong whiff of Tabasco-flavoured dialogue. Prentice finds his own way to healing as the story progresses.

Stripped of her usual glamour, Dukakis sparkles and crackles in the role, and is the clear star of this piece. Fricker brings years of experience and craftsmanship, but this is really Dukakis’s film in all senses of the word.

Cloudburst is both tender as well as screamingly laugh out loud funny. The seriousness and undertones of tenderness are leavened by the witty, salacious verbal play, and for the most part the film moves along at a cracking pace.

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The depiction of older lesbians, who are still in love, and intimately erotic with each other (although such scenes are sparsely depicted) commends this film. Such depictions are sadly lacking, although I recall the excellent Spanish film 80 Days( 80 Egunean) which provided a glimpse of love and desire among two septuagenarian women and lifted the lid on the seeming taboo of depicting love between oldies.

The visual lushness of Cloudburst also adds to its appeal – the road trip takes in the northern stretches of the American continent at the height of summer. The film abounds with humour and provides a comedic note to the festival. The difficulties of being lesbians in the modern world, where a granddaughter can trick you into entering a frail-care home, are lightly touched upon; you won’t ponder the various difficulties, as they are not hammered home, but they exist, and this film’s spine curves around them.

At times, you ponder the history between the two women, but beyond knowing that they have been together three decades and Dot had a husband, that’s it. This film is firmly centred in the present.

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Far more serious in tone and direction was 3( Drei) the German film from Tom Twyker, director of Run Lola Run, Perfume and The International. This tells the story of a couple, Simon (Sebastian Schipper) and Hanna (Sophie Rois), who separately meet and have an affair with Adam (Devid Striesow). You need to suspend a bit of disbelief at this crack in the plotline and the unbelievability of this occurring, but do so, as this film probes and subtly explores the nature of this triangular encounter.

Simon and Hanna have been together for 20 years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the present day. Themes of German unification are woven through the narrative, and we glimpse parts of their history both in a political sense and in how politics enters the lives of ordinary people in a personal way.

Both have wanted children and yet have accepted that somehow that will never be. One of the partners is barren but they haven’t gone for fertility testing to see whom it might be, and they have stopped hoping. And yet this theme will underpin their own subsequent discoveries and serve to open up their world and lives in a way that has been impossible within the almost claustrophobic bounds of their long partnership.

When Simon discovers his previously hidden gay side after his encounter with Adam, he remarks to Adam that he isn’t quite sure how this works and his words seem to suggest that he’s hoping for more than an encounter and something approaching a relationship.

Although the film is a little slow at times, there’s enough intrigue and pace to keep you watching. Simon and Hanna re-experience desire as each are drawn time and time again to Adam, and to the bare as bones apartment of the aesthete Adam. Hanna remarks that it’s a flat without a past or a history, and nothing ties Adam to this place; it could even be a hotel room.

Later on we watch as Simon returns to the home in the country he shares with a wife and a child. This is a man who, it seems, refuses to be drawn too heavily into commitment.

Matters will come to a head, of course, and therein lies the heart of this film. Its conclusion left me thinking, pondering, wondering about the nature of relationships. It’s curious how some seem to require that added sizzle and the presence of a third person, or even more. The film also touches upon some of the nature of polyamorous relationships in which partners invite others into their couplings or marriages in a way that goes beyond the concept of “open marriages”. The film does not probe this concept, but merely lifts the lid on that theme, and allows you as a viewer to reflect on it.

I was less taken with two of the other full-length features which I watched: Kaboom, directed by Gregg Araki, and the Argentinian Ausente( Absent).

Kaboom won the first Queer Palme at the Cannes International Film Festival for its contribution to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex issues. It’s initially engaging, depicting a group of students at a university exploring their sexuality, both straight and gay, complete with dialogue that is as frank and funny as some of that found in Cloudburst. However, I found that the film descends into a level of parody and unbelievability that stretched my credulity, and patience.

Ausente( Absent), on the other hand, directed by Marco Berger, is slow-moving in the extreme. It’s centred on a manipulative high school student, Martin (Javier De Pietro), who pursues his teacher with a purpose that defies his years. The teacher, Sebastián (Carlos Echevarría), is understandably both distanced and confused by these attentions. The film is darkly lit, a metaphor no doubt for the darkness and confusion that surrounds both, but especially the teacher. Dream sequences that almost seem to segue into reality lend this film a tension that it otherwise lacked. While the premise was intriguing, execution remained tediously tiring.

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