It has been a stellar year for cinematic storytelling of the LGBT community. This year's best documentaries feature a variety of fascinating subjects, including Prop. 8 plaintiffs, gay dads, a bank robber, gender outlaws, and an Olympian. See The Advocate's top 10 picks below.
When Ernst Ostertag and Robi Rapp met through Der Kreis (The Circle), an early gay organization in Zurich in the 1940s, homosexuality was legal in Switzerland, but there was virtually no social acceptance of LGBT people. Ostertag, a shy teacher, fell in love with Rapp as he watched Rapp perform in drag in a cabaret. Though similar in plot to The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich, this story has a happy ending. The are still a loving couple, and in the 1990s they became the first same-sex couple to have a registered partnership in Switzerland. Ostertag and Rapp are the subject of a new film directed by Stefan Haupt, The Circle, which is making the rounds of film festivals and won the Teddy Award at the 64th Berlinale. It is also Switzerland's official Oscar entry.
Regarding Susan Sontag
Filmmaker Nancy Kates presents an in-depth portrait of Susan Sontag, the renowned writer of groundbreaking works like the essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Illness as Metaphor, On Photography, and The Volcano Lover. Regarding Susan Sontag traces Sontag’s writing and filmmaking career from her high school newspaper through the publishing of these major works. It also provides insight into her private life through interviews with contemporaries and former partners, including her ex-husband David Rieff, with whom she had a son, and details her relationships with women in the latter part of her life. It’s a loving ode to the “Dark Lady of American Letters” that also does not hesitate to show its subject’s flaws.
To Be Takei
Actor, activist, Internet sensation, inspiration; George Takei has been all of these and more throughout his life and the documentary To Be Takei takes a fascinating look at the 77-year-old icon’s amazing journey. Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot and Bill Weber, the entertaining and moving film juxtaposes the demands of Takei and his husband/business partner Brad’s daily life alongside stories of Takei’s childhood spent in a U.S. internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II to his turn in the groundbreaking role of Sulu on the original Star Trek TV series to his rise as an Internet phenomenon with millions of followers and beyond.
Back on Board: Greg Louganis
Director Cheryl Furjanic explores the public triumphs and personal struggles of gay Olympic champion Greg Louganis as he reemerges on the world stage to combat prejudice, promote tolerance, and return to the diving world after a long period of absence in the candid documentary film Back on Board: Greg Louganis. The film follows Louganis over a three-year period as he struggles with financial troubles, returns to the sport he once dominated but was not welcomed in, and reflects on the choices, relationships, and missed opportunities of his career. This intimate portrait of the trailblazing athlete reveals the complicated life of an American legend whose talents sparked global interest in the sport of diving and whose courage and perseverance as an HIV-positive man moved a nation.
My Prairie Home
A darling at Sundance, My Prairie Home is a musical documentary about Rae Spoon, a transgender singer who embarks on a tour in Canada via a Greyhound bus. Throughout the movie, striking landscapes, nightclub venues, and Spoon’s own songs help illustrate the artist’s journey of self-discovery, from a conservative religious upbringing to present-day musings on life and love. Directed by Chelsea McMullan, My Prairie Home is a valentine to the power of song and memory, and a must-see glimpse into the life of an artist.
The Case Against 8
Watch history unfold in The Case Against 8, an HBO documentary that follows Prop. 8 plaintiffs and couples Sandy Stier and Kris Perry as well as Jeff Zarrillo and Paul Katami as they march toward the Supreme Court decision that would restore marriage equality to California. Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White, the film is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at one of the most important legal battles for the LGBT community of this century, and includes interviews with the plaintiffs, lawyers David Boies and Ted Olson, and Chad Griffin, the cofounder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which supported the plaintiffs.
Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger
Directed by Sam Feder, Kate Bornstein Is a Queer and Pleasant Danger is an in-depth portrait of one of the LGBT community’s most captivating trans pioneers, Kate Bornstein. As the author of Gender Outlaw, a groundbreaking manifesto on gender and sexuality, Bornstein has established herself as a leading voice in gender theory. The documentary, based on her memoir of the same name, features Bornstein as she reflects on activism and writing as well as her experiences as a former Scientologist, her battle with cancer, and a lifetime bridging the gender divide.
The Dog is a documentary that recounts the incredible story of John Wojtowicz, a bisexual bank robber who is perhaps best known through the film Dog Day Afternoon, with Al Pacino starring in a fictionalized treatment of the robbery attempt that make Wojtowicz famous. The Dog, filmed over the course of 10 years, weaves archival footage with testimonies from Wojtowicz’s friends, who recount his infamous 1972 attempt to rob a Chase Manhattan bank in order to fund the gender-reassignment surgery of partner Liz Eden. The documentary also portrays Wojtowicz’s activism in the early days of the LGBT rights movement as well as the impact of Dog Day Afternoon on his life during and after his prison sentence.
Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy
As “America’s Gaysian Sweetheart,” comic performer Alec Mapa has forged a funny and fruitful career on shows like Ugly Betty and the Logo stand-up comedy series Wisecrack, in which he draws material from his life in show business and his experiences as a gay Filipino-American. However, his greatest challenge and accomplishment to date is featured in his latest documentary, Alec Mapa: Baby Daddy. It tells the story of Mapa and his partner, Jamison Hebert, as they foster and then adopt their son, Zion. Framed by scenes of life in their L.A. home, the film centers on Mapa’s recent show at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where he shares the trials and joys of foster care and parenthood with humor, wisdom, and love.
Out in the Night
In 2006 a group of African-American lesbians were arrested after an encounter in downtown Manhattan with a straight man who made unwanted sexual advances that resulted in the man’s hospitalization for a minor injury. The sensationalized media coverage of the incident painted the group as a vicious gang, and several of the women received prison sentences that were disproportionate to the nature of the incident. Directed by Blair Doroshwalther, Out in the Night is an important documentary that tells the story from the point of view of these women. Through interviews, Doroshwalther demonstrates how sexism, racism, and homophobia resulted in failures by both the government and media in serving justice.