Pride isn’t just about the party – here are ten films to help you brush up on your queer history
From the beginnings of the gay pride movement to the fight against AIDS and the lives of queer cultural icons like Marsha P. Johnson and Divine, LGBTQ+ life has always been a subject of endless fascination for documentary makers. Pride season is the perfect time to revisit some classics of the genre, but as much as you’re tempted to queue up Paris is Burning for the twentieth time, there are so many more emotive, inspiring and informative stories out there to try too. Ahead of this weekend’s Pride, here are ten of the best cult offerings to give a go instead.
HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE (2012)
Gay journalist David France worked with over 700 hours of archive footage for his documentary about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Using interviews, news coverage and footage of meetings and demonstrations, France documents the struggles that early AIDS activists faced in getting the US government to acknowledge and appropriately respond to the epidemic and shows how ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (Treatment Action Group) were instrumental in lobbying the FDA to make life-saving drugs available to AIDS sufferers. The film is dedicated to France’s partner, Doug Gould, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992.
THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1995)
Based on LGBTQ+ activist Vito Russo’s 1981 book of the same name, The Celluloid Closet documents the depiction of LGBTQ+ characters on-screen since the early days of Hollywood. Using dozens of film clips ranging from silent movies, obscure releases and key pieces of queer cinema as well as interviews with notable figures including Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon and Gore Vidal, the documentary shows the coded language and cruel stereotypes used to depict queer characters on film and demonstrates how LGBTQ+ characters have historically been portrayed as villainous, treacherous and perpetually tormented. There’s a grimly hilarious montage of various queer characters dying, but the film also suggests that the attitude towards queer characters was slowly improving by the early nineties when the doc came out.
WORD IS OUT: STORIES OF SOME OF OUR LIVES (1977)
A pioneering documentary in which a varied group of 26 gay men and lesbians are interviewed on a diverse range of topics including coming out, relationships and the stereotyping, prejudice and legal discrimination faced by gay people in 1970s America, spliced with news footage, vocal performances and vignettes of the subjects’ everyday lives. Released during a time when homosexuality was rarely documented, Word is Out was the first documentary about gay and lesbian people directed and produced by gay filmmakers. As such it was unique at the time in its positive portrayal of lesbians and gay men and its treatment of them as ordinary people, a tactic which became commonplace in the emerging gay liberation movement of the 1970s.
UNITED IN ANGER: A HISTORY OF ACT UP (2012)
Another brilliant documentary about the AIDS epidemic, United in Anger uses interviews with ACT UP members alongside archive footage and statistics to document the numerous problems faced by AIDS sufferers in the early years of the crisis, including government inaction, the corporate greed of the pharmaceutical industry and the climate of fear and hostility from the wider population towards those infected. The film depicts the formation of ACT UP and their prominent role in lobbying for a better response to the crisis, documenting several of their key demonstrations including a successful sit-in at the FDA -– who were responsible for testing and approving drugs – in October 1988 and their famous Stop the Church demonstration in December 1989.
DIVINE WATERS (1981)
Known as the twentieth century’s most famous drag queen and the Pope of Trash respectively, Divine and John Waters had an endlessly fascinating collaborative relationship which began when the Baltimore natives met in their early twenties and created trashy cult classics Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Polyester. Less well-known but arguably more insightful than 1998’s Divine Trash, this hour-long documentary produced to coincide with the release of Polyester explores the relationship between the partners in filth through lengthy interviews with Waters, his parents, and sister, as well as film clips and performances from Divine and fellow collaborator Edith Massey.
OF LOVE AND LAW (2017)
Partners in both love and law, Fumi and Kazu are a gay couple who have been together for fifteen years and together run the first LGBTQ+ law firm in Japan. Of Love and Law follows the couple over several years as they take on various legal cases related to human rights, freedom of expression and LGBTQ+ representation in a country which places a huge importance on traditional families and values, and in which gay marriage and same-sex adoption are both still illegal. Their cases are fascinating in themselves, particularly that of artist Rokudenashiko, whose vagina-themed artwork gets her arrested for obscenity. The resulting documentary is a warm-hearted and fascinating depiction of Japanese culture and the slow but steady changes that are happening in this formerly conservative society.
A DEAL WITH THE UNIVERSE (2019)
An autobiographical account of one transgender man’s attempt to have a child, Jason Barker’s debut full-length documentary is edited together from intimate home videos recorded over the period of more than a decade. We meet Jason in 2004 after he has already transitioned, but when his partner Tracey struggles to get pregnant, Jason decides to stop taking testosterone and begin fertility treatment in an attempt to conceive. Jason documents this lengthy, expensive and emotionally trying process through a series of honest and intimate video diaries in which he discusses his doubts, fears, and expectations at length. The result is an incredibly candid, moving and thought-provoking documentary with a truly fantastic ending.
FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO (2007)
Featuring interviews with five sets of conservative religious parents – some of whom are prominent ministers – and their adult queer children, this 2007 documentary is an ever-relevant exploration of the ways in which the religious right in America use interpretations of the Bible’s teachings to support a homophobic agenda. The arguments and counter-arguments espoused by its interviewees are well-worn territory for any queer who had a religious upbringing, but the film nevertheless offers up a sound thesis on the selective piety, misreading of scripture and pseudoscience used by the religious right, as well as detailing the often-traumatic impact and sometimes tragic consequences this has for lesbians and gay men who grow up learning their teachings.
THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MARSHA P. JOHNSON (2017)
In 1992, the body of black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson was found in the Hudson River. Her death was officially recorded as a suicide, though many of Johnson’s friends and acquaintances in the LGBTQ+ community believe that she must have been murdered, with evidence of foul play ignored by the police, who were reluctant to investigate the death of a black trans woman. In this 2017 documentary, also directed by David France, Marsha’s acquaintance and fellow trans activist Victoria Cruz investigates her death through interviews with her close friend Sylvia Rivera and others who had seen Marsha shortly before her disappearance. Despite coming under fire owing to claims of plagiarism from trans filmmaker Reina Gossett, the documentary does a great job of honouring Johnson’s often overlooked legacy as a prominent activist who played a key role in LGBTQ+ rights movement in New York.
GENDERNAUTS: A JOURNEY THROUGH SHIFTING IDENTITIES (1999)
An exploration of the San Francisco trans community at the turn of the millennium, Gendernauts was groundbreaking as one of the first documentaries to document trans people in a positive light, even making the case for gender as unnatural and socially constructed. Following on from her German language explorations of this topic, Teddy Award-winning German filmmaker Monika Treut travelled to San Francisco to interview trans, intersex and genderqueer people living there about subjects including their upbringing, coming out, transition process and relationships. Like Word is Out, the interviews are conducted in natural settings including the subjects’ own homes. The result is a tender, warm and often funny portrayal of the San Francisco trans community.