Arts

Doc Talk

Gender-bending ballet, ground-breaking theater, and Burmese brothers

In “City of Jade,” Taiwan-based filmmaker Midi Z reunites with his estranged brother in Burma. Left: “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart.”
Harvard Film Archive
In “City of Jade,” filmmaker Midi Z reunites with his estranged brother in Burma.

One of the under-credited institutions that furthered the cause of LGBTQ rights was Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a group of gay male dancers founded in 1974 in the heady early days of the movement following the 1969 New York Stonewall riots. Their often parodic, but technically proficient versions of ballet classics performed in drag proved popular and helped broaden the minds of mainstream audiences — not just about sexual orientation, but about the “elitist” art form of ballet itself.

Bobbi Jo Hart’s documentary “Rebels on Pointe presents a history of the corps, profiles current members, and provides insights into their campy, comedic (its divas take stage names like Ida Nevasayneva and Yakatarina Verbosovich), and subversively serious aesthetic. Lately, with the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community, the “Trocks” have shifted their focus from the cause of gay rights to critiquing gender roles in general. “They use their masculinity to say something about femininity," as one critic puts it. The sight of big-footed, hairy-chested dancers in tutus performing “Swan Lake” is funny, but it also calls into question what we regard as masculine, feminine, or in between.

Though the multinational troupe today is a big, happy family, older members recall the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and all confront some degree of homophobia. Three couples in the troupe have been married (senior member and artistic director Tory Dobrin is tearful as he says he never dreamed he would see a day when that would be possible), but an Italian member points out that his marriage is not acknowledged in his own country. 

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Like all dancers, they face the specter of physical limitations in a career that usually doesn’t last beyond 40. And then there is that age-old problem — where do you get pointe shoes in size 12?

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“Rebels on Pointe” screens as part of the 10th annual Dance for World Community Festival on June 4 at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre.

Go to www.danceforworld
community.org/festival-events/film
.

Lorraine Hansberry in “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart,.”
David Attie
Lorraine Hansberry in “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart,.”

Young, gifted, and black

It is perhaps the perfect complement to Raoul Peck’s 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” about James Baldwin. Tracy Heather Strain’s “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” about Baldwin’s lesser-known fellow writer and friend, provides further insight into a fertile period in African-American culture.

Best known for her groundbreaking 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” Hansberry came from a Chicago family that learned the limitations even well-to-do blacks faced in pre-civil rights America. Her father, a successful real estate broker who owned properties in the African-American part of the city, tried unsuccessfully to buy a home in the white section. This failure intensified his activism against segregation, a commitment he passed on to his daughter.

That experience, transferred to a working-class family, found its way into “Raisin.” It was Hansberry’s first play, and the first by an African-American woman (who, little known at the time, was also gay) to open on Broadway. 

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Strain re-creates Hansberry’s frustrations and determination writing the play, the boldness of the decision to produce it, the rebuffs and anxieties experienced along the way, and the triumph when it became an award-winning hit. At 118 minutes, the documentary is comprehensive.

Hansberry’s brief but intense career and her activism in the civil rights movement is recalled from journals, letters, clips from Daniel Petrie’s 1961 movie adaptation of “Raisin,” and interviews with family members, colleagues, and friends including Sidney Poitier, who starred in both the stage and screen versions of the play, and the singer and activist Harry Belafonte. The latter were among the mourners at Hansberry’s funeral when she succumbed to cancer at 34 in 1965.

“Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” screens as a co-presentation with the Roxbury International Film Festival on June 9 at 1:30 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts. A discussion with the director follows.

Go to www.mfa.org/programs/film/lorraine-hansberry-sighted-eyes-feeling-heart

Mission of Burma

A documentary that evokes such disparate films as “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The Wages of Fear,” and “The Salt of the Earth,” Wim Wenders’s documentary about the photographer Sebastião Salgado, Myanmar-born and Taiwan-based filmmaker Midi Z’s “City of Jade tells the story of the filmmaker’s relationship with his brother Zhao De-chin, who is addicted both to opium and to the dream of getting rich quick mining the title gemstone. It is also an intimate microcosm of more than 20 years in the tormented history of the filmmaker’s homeland. 

After years of estrangement, Midi Z reunites with Zhao, who has just been released from prison and has returned to the mining area of the title with a crew of workers and a bankroll from their uncle. Suffused with a toxic orange glow, the enormous pits, dotted with ant-like workers, are dream-like and infernal. Shooting with a handheld camera, Midi Z is present only as a disembodied, deadpan voice offscreen (except in a scene where he is being treated for virulent malaria), creating an observational subjectivity that makes the viewer part of the story.

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And a grim story it is. Zhao is one of scores of prospectors who have taken advantage of a lull in an ongoing civil war to exploit the mines while the corporate mining companies are absent. Nonetheless, they are harassed by both the rebels and the government forces, who shake them down for bribes by confiscating equipment and jailing workers. In one harrowing sequence, the screen goes black and we hear Midi Z beseeching soldiers not to arrest him or take his camera.

Self-reflexive and dramatically engaging, “City of Jade” is a work of formal inventiveness and profound empathy. Screens on June 4 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive; a discussion with the filmmaker follows.

Go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2018junjul/resistance.html.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.