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Updated: Aug 20, 2021


I Am Samuel
I Am Samuel

I Am Samuel is a humbling fly on the wall documentary which opens with mobile footage of a brutal attack by a baying crowd on a gay man. “He needs to be circumcised,” a man screams. Sanctioned homophobia within Kenyan society is chilling. Penal code 162 in Kenya states, “anyone who has carnal knowledge against nature is liable to penalisation for fourteen years.”

And yet, I Am Samuel is sublime for several reasons. There is the enduring love between Sami, a serious and considered man central to the documentary, and his bashful, younger partner Alex. “It’s always nice to hang out with Sam. It is a moment to be cherished,” says Alex as the two wash and dry dishes in a rundown, Nairobi apartment. We witness them married under the jurisdiction of a member of their tight group of exuberant, gay friends (what jurisdiction could be higher?) who meet regularly to share stories. Family is paramount to these men, and for Sam the reactions of his aging mother and father to his sexuality is riveting. His mother, a large, gentle woman, always ready to laugh, relishes Sam’s relationship with Alex which she rationalises endearingly as “twins” because they are inseparable, walking arms around each other. On the other hand, Sam’s father, a weathered, clean shaven and dignified elder cannot sugar coat what he finds unspeakable. He asks directly about the relationship. Sami answers honestly, because he cannot lie and he is not ashamed (now, the title makes sense!). Religion is also central to Sam’s family and he participates in Jehovah Witness baptisms and meetings without question.

Director Peter Murimi captures remarkable shots of his homeland: aerial shots of endless, straight roads cutting through rich, rust earth in Western Kenya; mid shots of Sami’s grandmother’s hut, a simple bungalow crafted from mud; sweeping views of Nairobi’s skyrises and slum dwellings. The footage of Sami, his father and mother, his friends and of course, his lover Alex talking about their situation are profound. Murimi’s documentary took five years to make, and it is a gift. At the end of the film, as Sam and Alex walk arm in arm around the farm, his father cannot help smiling. Sam says, “sometimes there is a name added to our prayers and today it is Alex.” (DIRECTOR: PETER MURIMI; LANGUAGE ENGLISH/SWAHILI; 70 MINS)

Billy Tipton in No Ordinary Man 2020
Billy Tipton in No Ordinary Man 2020

No Ordinary Man is a moving documentary about the celebrated American jazz musician Billy Tipton who died in 1989 at the age of seventy-four at which point the attending medics discovered his birth gender to be female. This triggered a media interrogation (even by a young Oprah) of his bereaved wife, Kitty, and adopted son, Billy Junior, who were previously unaware of the facts. Integral to the vilification was the feminist academic, Diane Middlebrook, who took an accusatory approach in her biography of Tipton Suits Me, that Billy had lied about his gender and deceived his family. A novel approach to the documentary is the line-up of transgender actors who audition for the cameo part of Tipton, each bringing a different version of Billy, so charismatic that the job of casting director is made impossible. Most poignant is the effect of all this on Billy Junior, now aged, visibly traumatised, remembering his father: “No matter what he was, I loved him just the way he was.” (DIRECTOR CHASE JOYNT; USA 2020; LANGUAGE ENGLISH; 84 MINUTES)

Left to right: Firebird; Mama Gloria; Sublet

In Firebird, at first, what is particularly perplexing about this glossy drama based on a true story about a young soldier who begins a passionate affair with a high-ranking fighter pilot who is brought down because of his sexuality, is the accents. The actors speak English with thick Russian accents regardless of their country of origin. A little research finds the Estonian director Peeter Rebane went to Oxford and Harvard and the cast hail from the UK, Ukraine and Estonia. Sometimes the perfection of speech can feel rather stagey, but it is a nifty way of bringing the film to global screens and quite fun discerning who is putting on a Russian accent and who is trying for an English one. That aside, this is a beguiling film in the epic mould, rather like Top Gun meets Cold War, Soviet Propoganda with cinephilic actors in bespoke uniforms and seventies, cat-walk fashion for casual. The sense of threat from being “outed” by a hostile, military institution and forced to live as heterosexual to survive is palpable in this slick production and a sobering reminder that forty years on contemporary Russian society still has a long way to go regarding LGBTQI+ freedom of expression. (DIRECTOR: PEETER REBANE; CAST: TOM PRIOR, OLEG ZAGORODNII, DIANA POZHARSSKAYA, JAKE THOMAS HENDERSON; LANGUAGE ENGLISH; 1HR 47 MINUTES)

Mama Gloria is not only a documentary of the pioneering Gloria Allen, a transgender woman now in her seventies who hails from Chicago’s South Side, it is a worthy tribute to someone who has been subject to society’s historical injustices and surpassed. Mixed with black and white footage from the early sixties and the dull, colour footage of the seventies (when everything appears maroon and sandy orange), Mama Gloria brings Gloria Allen’s experiences to life. Switching between Mama Gloria’s current activism as a spokesperson for black, transgender women, including lunch with old school friends and meeting young LGBTIQ+ people, and a linear biography of her life, director Luchina Fisher evokes a history of trials and triumphs for transgender, black people in America. Monochrome photographs from Gloria’s past are striking, infused with glamour and poise. Her living legacy has been a finishing school for her peers which inspired the hit play Charm. Poise, after all, is Mama Gloria’s keynote and her drive to teach young transgender women to present themselves with dignity and not be reduced to anything less is resounding. (DIRECTOR LUCHINA FISHER; CAST GLORIA ALLEN; USA LANGUAGE ENGLISH; 1 HR 16 MINUTES)

Sublet, an easy-going drama with some thought-provoking undertones, features John Benjamin Hickey as Michael a bereaved but functioning, travel writer for the New York Times who rents an apartment in Tel Aviv from Tomer (Niv Nissim) a young, cavalier, film student making ends meet. Michael is introduced to the bijou side of city life by Tomer for whom professional landlord/tenant boundaries don’t exist. He shows the quietly respectable, but curious Michael where to get happy-hour meals and good Israeli food, as well as introducing him to his artsy friends and boho mother on a kibbutz. Tomer is a breath of fresh air in many ways, not least his youthful take on life. But Michael is worn down by recent attempts to have a child and Tomer’s inability to understand boundaries can go a little too far, not least his irreverence for sex and grown-up relationships. The more serious issues of surrogacy and wishing for children are touched upon but loosely explored in Sublet, as if just an aside to give the character Michael gravitas. On the other hand, Sublet skilfully plays with and unravels the generational and cultural differences represented by the two leads, showing where they miss and match in an entertaining way. (DIRECTOR EYTAN FOX; CAST JOHN BENJAMIN HICKEY, NIV NISSIM; USA/IRAEL 2020; LANGUAGE ENGLISH & HEBREW; 90 MINUTES)

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