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Je Suis Hernández and Taïa

Je Suis Hernández and Taïa

How many gay film critics are there in America who defend their turf? An even better question: How many film critics are sympathetic to gay experience when it is not sanctioned by the Hollywood mainstream power structure (a la Brokeback Mountain)?

These questions arise after enjoying two superb yet unheralded films that explore gay experience: Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army and Julián Hernández’s Nubes Flotantes.

Neither movie has received critical praise equal to the rote white heterosexual celebration Boyhood, yet each movie is a rich expression of gay boyhood. In Salvation Army, Taïa explores the emotional complexity that comes with achieving gay awareness. It is the story of a Moroccan boy who can’t help defying his Islamic culture, simply by recognizing his own same-sex attraction. Abdellah (young Said Mrini, then adult Karim Ait M’Hand) endures the tacit homophobia of fundamentalist culture—as an innocently yearning youth, a desirous teen, and then as a young adult college student who emigrates to Switzerland where his emotions and longing for home combine complexly. This is the most remarkable film about a gay child since Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes.

In Nubes Flotantes, Mexican auteur Julián Hernández visualizes and dramatizes the experience of homophobia—the guilt felt by straights and the fear felt by gays. Both films are remarkable and deep. They are true to the feelings that gay folks rarely see expressed in media and do so with credibility and eloquence. Nubes Flotantes continues the sublimity of Hernández’s 2006 Broken Sky. His cinematographer Alejandro Cantu uses new, docu-style visuals and Hernández features a Mexican pop tune, “Amor” by Enrique “Coqui” Navarro, that confirms gay passion as part of the popular world.

Nubes Flotantes

I've praised Hernández before, but newcomer Taïa continues Hernández’s breakthrough. This Moroccan-Islamic alternative to Boyhood emphasizes the sense of difference that comes with gay identity. Abdellah is attracted to the masculinity of his older brother and is exploited by the secret sexual prerogatives of Islamic men who deny their gay impulses yet force him to act on his own hidden instincts. Abdellah is both rebel and victim (agreeable to fellatio and subjugation), and this ambiguity makes the film rich.

Taïa, a prize-winning author whose autobiography has inspired several books, visualizes his feelings about gay identity with naturalness and eloquence. He is aided by Agnes Godard, the good cinematographer who worked on Claire Denis’s sexually ambivalent, post-colonial European films (Chocolat, Beau Travail).

Salvation Army’s cinematic sophistication comes from Taïa recognizing his cultural heritage (both European films and the Egyptian cinema of Yousseff Chahine are Taïa’s acknowledged inspiration.) On the other hand, Nubes Flotantes is one of Hernández’s original personal expressions. This 13-minute film visualizes the complexity of homophobia (Taïa’s hidden subject). The lusty, fearful protagonist’s narration explains: “I walk over the fear. His fear is thick hate, cutting us both. Hate and fear are symbiotic. They can’t exist without each other.”

By surpassing “It Gets Better” nostrums favored by American mediamakers, Hernández connects with Taïa’s daring personal revelations. Hernández dramatizes the ambivalence that Morrissey expressed in “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” when he described: “Behind the hatred there lies a blundering desire for love.” Nubes Flotantes follows a swimmer’s response to badgering athletes and sees through to their humanity. It questions whether “hate crimes” are in the victim’s mind or the perpetrator’s?

This poetic, swimmer’s metaphor says, “Freedom is an aerialist on the verge of being attacked.” Each lithe body is like other creatures—dolphin perhaps—peace-loving, phallic, graceful, desirous. To his sympathetic audience of gay viewers—and to his antagonist—Hernández’s hero says, “Cure your wounds in me. Wandering clouds. Our bodies talk, greeting our harasser from afar.”

This isn’t an idealized answer to homophobia. Hernández’s swimming pool film has finds a perfect visual metaphor for gay life, which had escaped him in last year’s remarkable feature I Am Happiness on Earth.

“Fear is my body letting him know I’m helpless. Fear makes me a victim of my own fear. Fear attracts his violence.” This confession connects Hernández to Taïa. It also recalls Fassbinder’s 1976 Fear Is Fear. It brilliantly recognizes that both gay and straight men (homophile and homophobe) are brothers of the same fear. Hernández says to his adversaries what Taïa’s protagonist struggles to articulate: “Leaving you would be like leaving myself.” Can’t get more humanist than that.

Taïa and Hernández comprise a coalition of sensitive, imaginative, honest gay artists. The title Salvation Army connects to the idea of Western humanist freedom and the title Floating Clouds connects to the idea of spiritual liberty. These filmmakers free us from mainstream Hollywood’s condescension—and the traditional world’s restriction—by reintroducing gays to themselves and introducing cinema to an army of lovers.

Salvation Army plays at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through January 29. Nubes Flotantes is available on Vimeo. Watch a clip from Salvation Army below:

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