Most folks aren’t too keen to watch documentaries. Instead of learning about factual events, they would rather lose themselves in a fictional story that merely entertains. And there’s nothing wrong about that! However for those willing or even desiring to delve into the documentary genre, there are actually a decent amount of queer documentary films to pick from!
But first, what defines a documentary film? (Instead of a biopic or other film based on a true story.) IMDb is a bit vague and unspecific on what fully defines a documentary film, however the key point is that a documentary film should contain numerous consecutive scenes of real personages and not characters portrayed by actors. Essentially everyone in a documentary film is themselves. Yet many documentaries are about topics & events of the past. As such, a documentary film can have actors portraying real, historical figures – but only in a reenactment dramatisation. (Which can easily blur the line between documentary vs biography…) And to make the genre a bit more confusing, IMDb accepts stand-up and concerts under the documentary. (Even though there’s a specific music genre!) Yet the crux of what defines a documentary film is that it the film documents reality, usually for the purpose of instructional, educational, or merely to create a historical record.
So what are my top queer documentary films? Well, I’ve pulled together a hodgepodge of queer documentary films that either are iconic, address key moments in queer history, or are otherwise important topics to discuss. I could easily create a list of ten or twenty queer documentary films – the genre is that well versed, even within the small niche of queer cinema!
But let’s get to the queer docs! Let me know in the comments what you think of these five queer documentary films – and whether you agree or disagree with my quick thoughts!
[Note: Not all of these films have full reviews yet – but they’re added to the quickly growing list of films I plan to tackle soon!]
Where does voguing come from, and what, exactly, is throwing shade? This landmark documentary provides a vibrant snapshot of the 1980s through the eyes of New York City’s African American and Latinx Harlem drag-ball scene. Made over seven years, PARIS IS BURNING offers an intimate portrait of rival fashion “houses,” from fierce contests for trophies to house mothers offering sustenance in a world rampant with homophobia, transphobia, racism, AIDS, and poverty. Featuring legendary voguers, drag queens, and trans women — including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, and Venus Xtravaganza.
Claimed by many to be one of the best – often THE best – queer documentary of all time, it actually took me until now to finally watch “Paris Is Burning”. I feel like I’ll probably get some snark for it and make a few enemies, but this queer documentary was just “meh” for me. As a documentary attempting to create a time capsule for the 1980’s ball scene in NYC – it gets a solid score on that front! Many phrases and elements of the modern gay lexicon come directly from the ball scene, so it was quite interesting to go more in depth into their origins. And director Jennie Livingston captures an oft-overlooked or even unknown yet crucial part of queer culture in a way that is honest and insightful. Yet it’s not entirely a positive story, especially when viewing this queer documentary today, over thirty years later knowing that many of the documentary’s key people are now gone.
However, my biggest issue with this queer documentary is that it’s too informative – but doesn’t really have a flow towards anything beyond just capturing the time. There is a LOT of terms, explanations, and more within this rather short documentary. Not that that’s a bad thing, for it’s quite an important piece of queer history! Unfortunately, watching “Paris Is Burning” simply didn’t meet the hyped up expectations I had for a queer documentary which many claim to be the best.
This documentary highlights the historical contexts that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals have occupied in cinema history, and shows the evolution of the entertainment industry’s role in shaping perceptions of LGBT figures. The issues addressed include secrecy – which initially defined homosexuality – as well as the demonization of the homosexual community with the advent of AIDS, and finally the shift toward acceptance and positivity in the modern era.
WOW – that’s literally the only word to describe “The Celluloid Closet”! Based on the book and extensive research by Vito Russo, this queer documentary is truly THE expert on queer representation (both good and bad) throughout the history of cinema. Chock full of clips from over ?? films spanning all the way back to the beginning of cinema itself, this is a visual masterpiece to watch! However, it’s full of tidbits and trivia that even I wasn’t aware of; there is something that everyone can learn about queer history in this documentary. While Vito unfortunately didn’t survive long enough to create the documentary, it’s narrated by his best friend, Lily Tomlin. I’m kicking myself for not watching this documentary sooner. The only issue I have with this iconic queer documentary is that, being made in 1995, the last two decades of queer cinema where representation has exponentially improved is left out. If you have not seen “The Celluloid Closet” yet, you MUST watch it today!
During the Nazi regime, there was widespread persecution of homosexual men, which started in 1871 with the Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code. Thousands were murdered in concentration camps. This powerful and disturbing documentary, narrated by Rupert Everett, presents for the first time the largely untold testimonies of some of those who survived.
“Paragraph 175” is a powerful, and haunting queer documentary that’s actually quite difficult to watch. The trouble is that this award-winning documentary has essentially been ignored, and was nearly too late even when it was filmed in 2000. In a documentary full of tragic historic events and recollections of the persecution of homosexuals under Nazi Germany’s reign, perhaps the saddest part is the statement that at the time of filming, there were only ten known homosexuals still alive who had survived the camps. In a time when history is on the verge of repeating itself (or worse, those who want to erase the facts of history itself), it’s even more important to not forget the events that led to the horrors of the holocaust. Be prepared to get upset and emotional, but do not skip watching “Paragraph 175” – it’s a crucial part of queer history.
Filmmaker Parvez Sharma travels into the secretive world of homosexuality within the Islamic faith. He interviews those who try to reconcile their faith with the ban on gays and lesbians, attempting to walk a fine line between persecution and honesty. Religious leaders who are unequivocal on the subject are also interviewed and take a predictably hard-line stance. The subjects of the film choose to remain Muslims in countries where many others would flee.
Having already reviewed Parvez Sharma’s documentary A Sinner in Mecca, I was intrigued to watch his earlier and first foray into queer documentary making: “A Jihad For Love”. Overall, I wasn’t as impressed with this documentary. The biggest problem I had was that there seemed to be no overall story arc; it felt more like he was skipping around to the various countries where queer Muslims are trying to balance their faith against being homosexual. Yet even with that stance there was no real clear division between the locales, which I feel is needed because the stories range from having to balance an internal personal struggle to some who’s actual lives were/are endangered because they are homosexual!
However, there is a lot of good information to unpack within this queer documentary, especially for anyone who does not understand Islam at all, or who is unaware of the various religious subgroups within Islam. (Not to mention that different countries also have codified Islamic religious beliefs into the legal & justice system!). Subtitles are required, however the beauty of this is that it also allows the many song lyrics to make sense. Overall, “A Jihad For Love” is a conglomeration of individual stories that all pertain to being both homosexual and Muslim and is worth watching.
An animated documentary telling the true story about a man’s need to confront his past in order to truly have a future. Amin arrived as an unaccompanied minor in Denmark from Afghanistan. Today, at 36, he is a successful academic and is getting married to his long-time boyfriend. A secret he has been hiding for over 20 years threatens to ruin the life he has built for himself. For the first time, he is sharing his story with his close friend.
Struggling to find the time to sit down and watch this documentary with the full attention it deserves. Stay tuned!