Walker’s Queer Takes Goes Bold: Lesbians in Sports Is Major Theme

This year’s Queer Takes film series at Walker Art Center, subtitled Standing Out, ought to be a focal point for every GLBT individual and ally during Pride Month. But unlike past years, you don’t have to choose between the series and other Pride events.

Queer Takes will catch you up with what’s going on culturally and globally in queer issues in a highly entertaining and transporting way. Mix it with the Guthrie’s Kushner Celebration, and you’ll feel entitled to some kind of joyously earned degree in queer studies just for showing up, in a far more entertaining and less stressful way than taking any class.

Each year’s Queer Takes always provides an expansive sense of reflection about who we are in the world. You don’t get this at the typical cineplex. A wide selection of contemporary films is on the cutting edge of what’s out there in independent cinema regarding queerness. Some years, you’ll see more trans work, a gay male focus, or classic queer fare. Different years have different tones, as different issues naturally come to the fore.

Although fewer offerings are scheduled this year, the cross section is wide, and uncannily specific to current concerns. It shines with two extraordinary documentaries about lesbophobia in sports. The lineup has the usual Teddy Award Winner for outstanding queer work honored at the Berlin Film Festival—actually, two of the films have won Teddys.

Queer Takes hews closely to the Walker’s basic mission.

Curator Dean Otto says, “With my selections this year, I was really focusing on the core mission of the Walker, and how that could be reflected, focusing on international programming, artists who are dealing with contemporary issues, and continuing relationships with artists over the course of their careers.”

Chef’s Special (Fuera de Carta) is a treat from Spain that’s not from Almodovar. Director Nacho Velilla’s comedy, set in Madrid’s gay ghetto, involves a gay father parenting his kids, whose attractions fix on a sexy football player who moves in next door.

Otto explains, “Spain is really having a vibrant development of young filmmakers.”

Sports are a central aspect in two documentaries.

Training Rules examines Pennsylvania State Lady Lions Head Basketball Coach Rene Portland, who had three rules: No drinking. No drugs. No lesbians. Two superlative documentarians, Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker, codirected the film.

Football Under Cover, winner of two Teddys, captures an extraordinary women’s soccer match in Tehran between the primarily lesbian German team and an Iranian team. Because of Muslim dictates, the Germans are required to wear scarves. Daring directors Ayat Najafi and David Assmann take us right onto the field, along with Assmann’s sister and coproducer, Marlene Assmann.

In terms of the Walker’s continuing relationships with artists over the course of their careers, Otto points to John Greyson, whose Teddy-winning Fig Trees screens at Queer Takes.

Otto notes, “We’ve had a long-standing commitment to showing his films from early on with the short film The Jungle to having the area premiere of Zero Patient here at the Walker in the early 1990s.”

AIDS activism at its most selfless is depicted in Fig Trees, a documentary about Canadian Tim McCaskell and South African Zackie Achmat. The latter refused treatment for the disease until drugs could be made accessible to all South Africans.

Moreover, Greyson refused to have Fig Trees screened at the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Fest because of what he sees as Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians.

Falcon Heights native Jenni Olson’s new short, 575 Castro Street, screens at this year’s Queer Takes. Otto regards her as the mother of independent queer cinema consciousness in Minnesota. Founder of the pioneering local Lavender Images film series in 1987 before she moved to San Francisco, she always has had her finger on the pulse. With this particular short, Olson got the amazingly opportunity to shoot the filmmaking process on the set of Gus Van Sant’s Milk. She has paired this footage with audio recorded by Harvey Milk that was to be played in the event of his assassination.

Training Rules
Documentary on Lesbophobia in College Basketball Reveals the Real Rene Portland

You know when the director of the Oscar-nominated Best Documentary Short, Straight From the Heart, and the cinematographer of the Oscar-winning Best Documentary Short, Deadly Deception, collaborate on a new documentary, you’re bound to get one hell of a film—especially when it deals with discrimination against lesbian college basketball players. That’s the thorny subject tackled by codirectors Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker in Training Rules. Though Yacker is its cinematographer, she also cowrote, codirected, and coproduced it with Mosbacher.

The codirectors expose the legacy of Pennsylvania State University (PSU) Lady Lions Head Basketball Coach Rene Portland, who had three cardinal rules: No drinking. No drugs. No lesbians. She got away with this crazy cruel credo for years, until star athlete student Jennifer Harris challenged her in 2006. The film also looks at six other women Portland victimized.

Yacker reflects, “Jen was up against a huge challenge: PSU and their coaching icons. Rene Portland was supported by football coach Joe Paterno. Both had been glorified in the sports community, despite Rene’s public statements condemning lesbians and their participation in college sports. Jennifer knew she would be the brunt of negative criticism, and potentially lose her chance to play in the WNBA. She knew she might not win against one of collegiate basketball’s most winning coaches, and the legal resources available to a large university. She knew that her lifelong dreams might be squelched forever, and yet, she decided that no one should ever have to go through what she went through. At the time she made this decision, she had no idea how many others had suffered before her. In my mind, that makes her decision to step forward even more courageous.”

Training Rules does not try to analyze Portland’s subconscious, but basically reports her actions.

Mosbacher wonders, “Was it just her tenacious background that caused such a vitriolic reaction to lesbians? I don’t know what Coach Portland’s sexual orientation is. I do know from our interviews that she considered herself a tireless fighter for the advancement of women in sport. She apparently thought the way to achieve this was to disappear all lesbians from sports. What a joke! It reminds me of Liz McGovern’s line in Training Rules, to paraphrase: ‘We would joke, and say, “Does she really think she can win a national title without a lesbian on her team?”’”

Mosbacher started out to make a movie with the broader theme of homophobia in sports, but when the Jennifer Harris v. PSU case came into the public eye, she decided to switch gears to make a film about the case that would, as Yacker puts it, “shine a light on the pervasive problem of homophobia in women’s collegiate sports. She knew the task at hand was complicated, and that a lot had to be accomplished quickly.”

Yacker has directed and produced her own award-winning docs, and Mosbacher was a fan.

As Yacker shares, “She asked me if I would join her on this journey, still keeping my role as cinematographer, but also as coproducer and cowriter. As things progressed, it was apparent that I was also directing along with Dee. It was an organic progression and a wonderful collaboration.”

Mosbacher maintains the Woman Vision Web site at <www.womanvision.org>, which has a link to Straight from the Heart. A great appetizer before you catch Training Rules at the Walker, it still bowls you over after all these years.

Football Under Cover
Teddy-Winning Documentary Takes on Taboos

Football Under Cover, the daring new Teddy Award-winning documentary directed by Iranian Ayat Najafi and German David Assmann, involves a women’s soccer match between Germany’s predominantly lesbian team and Iranian women athletes in Tehran. The Germans must navigate male-privileged policies of the Iranian government, but both teams ultimately get to play to a crowd of a thousand screaming female fans.

Iran, like many Islamic cultures, has a long way to go in achieving equality between the genders, but Assmann is aware of some important nuances.

Assmann observes, “Things are somewhat different in Iran—or at least in a megametropolis like Tehran—than, for example, in most of the Arab countries, where you hardly see any women at all in the streets. By regularizing private matters like the Islamic dress code on a legal level, it seems like it’s been made easier for women to take part in public life, go to universities, and pursue a career of their own. Still, there is strict sex segregation, and many instances of discrimination, which Iranian men seem not particularly aware about. We found most men believing in equal rights, but also many men who believed that men and women already had equal rights in Iran.”

Marlene Assmann, David’s sister, and a German citizen, is Football Under Cover’s coproducer. She was central to organizing the match. She points out that in Germany, soccer is a male-dominated sport, but in Iran, women must wear scarves when playing.

Marlene Assmann, who was on the field during the film shoot, recounts, “I was happy about all the shouting and cheerleading I could hear. Women are not allowed to dance or sing or even clap in public. In our stadium, we could see many things that you normally don’t see in Iran, and this was impressing, as it was the first opportunity for the players to play. It was also the first opportunity for the audience to cheer. And they painted their faces and had flags with them, and we were happy to see them taking this chance. One group of women came—the ‘white scarves’ that protest regularly when the men are playing—but also religious black-veiled women came. It was great to see the mix!”

When a culture is so oppressive to women, it’s pretty much a given that homosexuality will be as taboo, if not more. In Iran, homosexuality officially is punished by death in variously sadistic forms. It naturally imbues paranoia on the subject. Therefore, even speaking about homosexuality is next to impossible.

David Assmann relates, “Lesbians are sometimes referred to as ‘feminists,’ because, apparently, the word ‘lesbian’ is considered too bad to utter.”

Marlene Assman adds, “Two women were taking care of us, and by sign language, they told us not to hold hands, or have other body contact. Holding hands between women or men is normal in Iran, but between football players—they felt nervous about it. Any body contact was divided instantly.”

Because homosexuality is not talked about, it’s nearly impossible to glean people’s opinions on the subject.

David Assmann muses, “Though, one could argue that the strict sex segregation is in a way gay—and lesbian-positive——because as suspiciously as any man and woman seen together are regarded, people in same-sex company are being pretty much left alone. You can see soldiers in Tehran go hand-in-hand, and the idea of them being gay wouldn’t cross anyone’s mind—precisely because it is so taboo.”

However, sports, like art, may be a place where barriers between people can break down, even those around gender and sexual orientation.

David Assmann points out, “Football fandom for Iranians is a matter of national identity, which is especially important, because most of them strongly disagree with the religious and political spheres representing their country. For women, being denied the right of acting out their football enthusiasm—both actively, as football players, and passively, as supporters in the stadium—football has also become a matter of protest for equality. So, the atmosphere in the stadium was on the one hand extremely lively and enthusiastic—with the women seizing this opportunity to prove they knew how to behave in a football stadium—and on the other hand resembling a demonstration for equal rights.”

When asked if he and his fellow artists were intimidated or threatened by the Iranian government bureaucracy, David Assmann replies, “Obviously, we were intimidated by it, all because the authorities had the power to stop our efforts, or cancel the match at the last minute, so we depended on their goodwill. I definitely can’t say the Iranian authorities made it easy for us. But this film being my only project in Iran, I can’t tell if the bureaucracy was that difficult because of the subject matter of our film, or if that’s just the normal case of dealing with an nontransparent system like this.”

Football Under Cover was developed and realized in close cooperation with David Assmann’s three sisters, Marlene, Valerie, and Corinna, who all played in the Berlin football club. Plus, the majority of the film crew and the editor were women. Hence, though two men directed the film, it maintains a definite female perspective.

Queer Takes: Standing Out
June 23-25
Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.
(612) 375-6000

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