The documentary film has become central to the representation of LGBTIQ+ people on screen. Every year, as the tools for filmmaking have becoming increasingly accessible, more and more queer filmmakers have documented aspects of LGBTIQ+ experience for cinema audiences, to great acclaim.
However, the relationship between queer people and documentary filmmaking has not always been a positive one. Docs made by cisgender filmmakers often veer towards the more sensational side of how heterosexual audiences might perceive queer lives (this is certainly true of one of the films in the list below). While gay men have made and featured in a rich and easily accessible canon of documentaries, lesbian, trans and other queer communities have been less well represented. The relationship between white documentary makers and minority communities has often led to controversy, with charges of exploitation and appropriation.
Here are 10 worth tackling.
Portrait of Jason (1967)
Director Shirley Clarke
Ingmar Bergman called this intimate documentary, in which charismatic gay hustler and sometime club performer Jason Holliday talks about his life to camera, “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.” It’s gripping throughout, and Holliday is a gifted raconteur, talking about his troubled personal life with great wryness and wit. It’s also a rare depiction of a queer black man in the 1960s.
Controversy still plagues the film, however, with many seeing it as exploitative and cruel. The end of the film, in which a drunk Holliday is reduced to tears following personal, off-screen taunting by the filmmakers, is an unpleasant watch, and led to an excellent dramatisation of the filming, Jason and Shirley (2015). Holliday was coolly philosophical about the original film, which he believed ended many potential opportunities for him. As one of the few recordings of this fascinating man, however, it remains essential viewing.
It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, but the Society in Which He Lives (1971)
Director Rosa von Praunheim
If the title alone doesn’t sell you, then the sheer audacity of its thought-provoking takedown of conservative principles and bland conformity may well. This German doc scathingly criticises gay men who yearn for heteronormative social constructs – on one of its many provocative voiceover statements, director Rosa von Praunheim compares the honesty of the ‘flamboyant faggot’ with the phoniness of the bourgeois gay man.
It was filming at the height of Gay Lib, and von Praunheim’s unapologetic disdain upset many gay viewers, but its starkness is refreshing and subject matter still highly relevant today. Von Praunheim continues to make both fiction and documentary movies. His films about the gay community’s reaction to AIDS, made in the 1980s and early 90s, are often brilliant.
Word Is Out (1977)
Directors Rob Epstein, Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Lucy Massie Phenix, Andrew Brown and Veronica Selver
“The silence of gay people on the screen has been broken,” proclaimed gay activist and historian Vito Russo after seeing this understated doc in which 26 queer men and women give to-camera interviews about their lives. This was the first feature-length documentary made by gay men and women, and offered new perspectives into how queer people were seen in the US.
Five years in the making, it’s a precious time capsule featuring a diverse range of voices, with interviewees aged 18 to 77. Major queer rights activists, such as Sally Gearhart and Harry Hay, appear in the film. It’s a strong example of how a simple, no-frills format can often yield the most powerful, quietly groundbreaking results.
Let Me Die a Woman (1977)
Director Doris Wishman
From the sublime to the outrageously ridiculous. Doris Wishman made her name making cheapie sexploitation movies in the 1960s and 70s, including the notorious Deadly Weapons (1974) starring stripper Chesty Morgan. Wishman turned her attention to trans women with this lurid and sensational doc, with lashings of nudity, trans women being treated as medical exhibits rather than people, and culminating in a graphic scene of gender reassignment surgery.
Why is this trashy, jaw-droppingly insensitive movie in a list celebrating great docs? As a historical document, it remains highly valuable in its alarming exposé, however unintentional, of attitudes towards trans women in the 1970s. It shows the indignities they faced even from nominally sympathetic figures, such as specialist Dr Leo Wollman, who cheerfully treats his patients with disrespect throughout. Leslie, the main subject of the doc, offered a fascinating, insightful commentary for the film’s DVD release.
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Rob Epstein won the best documentary Oscar twice, for two gay-themed films. The first, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), is his best-known work, but his haunting Common Threads, made with Jeffrey Friedman, is an important response to the AIDS crisis. The film tells the stories of five men, three of them gay, who died from AIDS-related illnesses, including Gay Games founder Tom Waddell and a landscape architect who is remembered by his lover, who also died during the film’s production.
As well as being highly moving, it’s also a damning response to the Reagan administration’s fatally slow reaction to the crisis. It ends with the first display of the enormous NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, dedicated to those who died from AIDS-related illnesses, at the National Mall in Washington DC.
Tongues Untied (1989)
Director Marlon Riggs
An arresting combo of documentary and performance, with poetry, dance and music playing a major role in the film, Tongues Untied is an intense, unforgettable depiction of black, gay experience in the US. Marlon Riggs blends archive footage into his unique, experimental film, to, in his own words, “shatter the nation’s brutalising silence on matters of sexual and racial difference”.
The films shows black homophobia (including a notorious routine from Eddie Murphy’s stand-up), white gay racism (heavy sexualisation of the black male body) and the devastation of the AIDS crisis. Conservative politician Pat Buchanan held the film up as an example of how its funding “glorified homosexuality”, and used it to criticise George W. Bush for allowing it to be made. Riggs died five years after the film’s release, but his legacy lives on, and the imagery of Tongues Untied can be seen in the works of filmmakers such as Isaac Julien and Barry Jenkins.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Director Jennie Livingston
The importance of Jennie Livingston’s exploration of New York ball culture in the 1980s only grows as the years pass. It was a rare film that gave centre stage to queer people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, whose charisma and humanity shines through both their interviews and their fierce routines and performances.
The film has also become a pop culture phenomenon, solidified by its constant referencing in RuPaul’s Drag Race, with its challenges engineered around ‘shade’, ‘reading’ and voguing. An additional poignancy watching the film today is seeing how many of the wonderful gay men and trans women have passed away, including one hugely likeable young queen who was tragically murdered during the production.
The Celluloid Closet (1995)
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
This mosaic of gay and lesbian experience on the big screen, from the dawn of film to the 1990s, is a must for cinema lovers, queer or otherwise. From the relative freedom of early cinema before the censorious Hays Code forbade depictions of “sex perversion”, to the endless depiction of queer characters as villains or doomed victims, the documentary showed how much – and how little – had changed over the decades in terms of Hollywood representation of LGBTQ+ lives.
The film has some very funny moments. Gore Vidal on the homoeroticism of Ben-Hur (1959) is a hoot, as is Susie Bright’s excited response to Mrs Danvers’ obsession with her former mistress in Rebecca (1940). But the endless, unashamed homophobia of so many of the clips remains startling, especially a montage of how frequently the word ‘faggot’ was used as a generic insult in the 1980s and 90s.
Director Monika Treut
While trans awareness has thankfully improved over the last few years, with more sensitive and complex portrayals emerging in both fiction and documentary films, the focus has generally been on trans women. In 1999, Monika Treut travelled to San Francisco to interview a number of artists, some of whom identify as trans men, some as genderqueer.
Gendernauts gives an infinitely less sensational portrait of trans people compared with contemporary films, shedding all the camp and drama for an engrossing, sensitive depiction. That said, the film is often very funny, very sexy, and 90 minutes in the company of doc subjects Texas Tomboy, Max Wolf Valerio, Jordi Jones and Stafford is time well spent.
Of Love & Law (2017)
Director Hikaru Toda
While Japan may be seen as a vital and modern country, its progressiveness does not extend to queer communities: it remains a conservative country with traditional family values. Enter Fumi and Kazu, a gay couple who run Japan’s first LGBT law firm, based in Osaka. The two men win the viewer over from the start, with a hilariously anti-climactic performance at Pride, and a terrifyingly cheesy ode to love that one writes and performs to his lover.
But the most gripping on-screen participants are the lawyers’ clients, ranging from a teacher who was sacked for not singing the national anthem to an effortlessly scene-stealing sculptor called Rokudenashiko, whose vagina-inspired artworks lead to legal prosecution for obscenity. Her vulva-tastic Fukushima diorama will linger long in the memory.