A detailed rundown of the slate of films for the 2023 Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival of the Utah Film Center

From the Utah Film Center, the 2023 offerings at the Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival represent five local filmmakers, 17 female directors, 10 directors identifying as a person of color, and 14 countries represented. A large majority of the films are receiving Utah premieres and at least one is being screened for the first time in the U.S. Some films have won juried awards and honors at international film festivals.

The Utah Review has screened some of the films on this year’s slate. The following is a detailed run down of the entire slate of feature-length and short films.

1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture (2022, Sharon “Rocky” Roggio) is part of a recent string of documentaries that spring from archival or historical research. In this case, the starting premise involves an erroneous translation of Greek language in Biblical scripture that became the lightning rod for those who contend that homosexuality is an irredeemable sin. 

One of the more striking aspects of the film is the director’s father who is a pastor and agrees to be part of the film in discussing the subject at hand. As POV Magazine noted, “However, he also unwaveringly defends his position and takes the scripture as gospel truth. … As a study in linguistics, faith, and compassion, the film takes the power of words to heart.” The film has won several festival awards, including an audience award at last year’s DOC NYC.

A Run for More (2022, Ray Whitehouse) follows the campaign of Frankie Gonzales-Wolfe to become Texas’s first elected transgender legislator, running for a district seat in the San Antonio City Council. 

Frankie Gonzales-Wolfe ran for election to the San Antonio City Council to represent District 8 in Texas. Although Gonzales-Wolfe lost the 2019 election, the documentary offers a glimpse into the successes and failures of political campaign strategies. Presently, 50 elected legislative officials in the U.S. identify as either a trans man or trans woman, according to data from Out for America – LGBTQ+ Victory Institute.

Big Boys (2023, Corey Sherman) offers something a bit different from other queer coming-of-age stories, as evidenced by the fact that Sherman’s directorial debut has nabbed major festival honors from Frameline47 and this year’s Outfest. Variety magazine called the film “deliciously uncomfortable,” which “features a lot of the usual ingredients: a misfit teenage protagonist, a transformative couple days (in this case, a “cousins’ camping trip” to Lake Arrowhead), a series of embarrassing but life-altering experiences.” But, what really has stood out for critics is that they “hadn’t seen anyone like his main character at the center of a movie before and loved how awkwardly this kid navigates trying to figure himself out.”

A Utah film that had its premiere earlier this year at the Brooklyn Film Festival, Empty Orchestra (2023, Nicole Hawkins) is set in Provo about a group of karaoke singers who meet weekly for a different community outlet for their devotion. “The participants embraced the social silliness and cringe that people often associate with karaoke; however, they also transferred some of the reverence, seeking, and organization from their Mormon roots into the ritual and community of karaoke,” Hawkins writes in her artistic statement, “[Its] narrative trajectory prioritizes the themes presented by this story: social marginalization, religious existentialism, grief, suicide, sexuality, communion, radical belonging, displacement and community. The film relies heavily on interviews, mixed media montages, symbolic motifs, and non-linear story-telling.”

Fireworks (2023, Italy, Giuseppe Fiorello) is a directorial debut for Fiorello who is widely known as an Italian actor in film and television. The winner of an Italian Golden Globe for Best First Work, the narrative — about two teenage males whose budding relationship offends the townspeople — is set in Sicily when Italy hosted the 1982 World Cup. Fiorello’s fictional story stems from a double homicide in Giarre that occurred in 1980 and became the spark for Italy’s gay rights movements. The crime was never solved because no credible witnesses came forward, for fear of breaking the strict Sicilian cultural obligations of omertà.

A classic in queer and pop culture that parodied great Hollywood films about Hollywood stories, Girls Will Be Girls (2003, Richard Day)  is a perfect addition to the slate, given Miss Coco Peru’s upcoming appearance at the festival. The film starred Jack Plotnick, Clinton Leupp (Miss Coco Peru), and Jeffery Roberson as three actresses trying to stay relevant in Hollywood. In a 2008 interview, Miss Coco Peru recalled how the film emerged from a drag event that featured two of the film’s stars: “We were such a hit that everyone said we should do something else together. Out of that we created Girls Will Be Girls. We decided we needed that third person — the formula is Varla makes Evie crazy, Evie starts acting out and ends up hurting Coco.”

A popular film festival rom-com that has garnered several audience award honors, Golden Delicious (2022, Canada, Jason Karman) features a Chinese-Canadian teen who reassesses everything about himself when a star basketball athlete transfers to his high school.

Winner of a jury’s honorable mention at last year’s Wicked Queer Boston’s Film Festival, Heels Over Wheels (2022, Spain, Pau Canivell) is a documentary about a drag queen family and a trans woman who travel to Murcia to publicly support a child who was assaulted by a peer at school.

Damn These Heels has scored some major features from Sundance premieres in a particular year to add to the slate and this year’s Kokomo City (2023, D. Smith) is a big prize, which was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for release and distribution. This 73-minute documentary gallops at a scintillating pace, weaving in the stories of four Black transgender sex workers, without moralizing judgment, sociopolitical commentary from experts, or cutaways to explain terms or for others to anchor the context of their unashamedly candid stories. The film’s style and technique amplify this, where abstract yet thematically relevant scenes of a man dancing in a warehouse or another dribbling a basketball actually ground the realism conveyed in the documentary’s narrative arc. This superb documentary rightly earned Sundance honors this year in the NEXT program (Innovator Award, Audience Award) along with the audience award at this year’s Berlinale.

In the hands of another director, the stories of Daniella Carter, Dominique Silver, Koko Da Doll, and Liyah Mitchell would likely have been diluted or would have faded into the background. Smith originally set out to find a director for the project but after five passed on the opportunity, the producer (Smith) decided to take on the director’s role. Right from the first moments, the film captivates, as Mitchell tells a story about a rap artist client who brought a gun to their session. 

The quartet of voices is always grounded in their realities of survival. They take the reins Smith has given them to speak publicly because they rarely if ever have had the opportunity for the place and fully liberated space that requires people to leave their constructed realities and social politics at the door. All four paint a vivid portrait of the confounding dichotomies embedded in the historical realities of their Black communities that have known for generations the pains of repression and oppression but yet cannot fathom granting acceptance and affirmation to those who identify as queer. 

Kokomo City is the exemplar of stripping away social stigma to reveal the inhumane dangers of ostracizing and moralistic judging as if we were gods. Smith leaves us with portraits of four individuals, rendered with the respect and integrity that every human being should be entitled to, regardless of their means or bearings. Unfortunately, Koko Da Doll was shot and killed in Atlanta, less than three months after the film premiered.

Based on Philippe Besson’s award-winning novel Lie with Me (2023, France, Olivier Peyon) features protagonist novelist Stéphane Belcourt who returns to his hometown to receive an award and he meets the son of the man who was his first love. Set in the region known for France’s production of cognac, the film offers parallel narratives of Stéphane’s youth and his return to a town he had left decades ago.

Lie with Me, directed by Olivier Peyton.

Framed as a charming comedy rather than as a legal drama, Milkwater (2020, Morgan Ingari) touches on the issues of surrogacy when a woman agrees to become one for a gay man in his fifties whom she met at a bar. The title comes from a verse in The Consecrating Mother, a poem by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Anne Sexton who died in 1974. Making her directorial debut, Ingari realized that surrogacy contracts are crafted with legal premises that are difficult to change should the surrogate decide to change their mind. “I’d been living out in the world as a queer person for a while and I started thinking inevitably about how I would want to start a family, so I thought that was a much more interesting angle from a queer lens – two relative strangers who want the best thing but dive in headfirst without really considering all of the other complications,” Ingari explained in a 2021 interview with The Moveable Feast. Ingari generally succeeds in this framing, especially in the second half of the film when Milo (the woman) realizes that what seemed like a cut-and-dry proposition at first glance has the potential of ruining both old and new friendships.

Based on the director’s real life experiences, Mutt (2022, Vuk Lungulov-Klotz) is about Feña, a young trans guy in New York City who is afflicted with an incessantly challenging day that resurrects ghosts from his past. In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Lungulov-Klotz, whose heritage is Chilean and Serbian, explained the creative outlet for the film: “I really wanted to approach the movie with empathy, maybe because that’s the way I approach storytelling in general. I love humans, and that’s why I want to tell stories about them. But I also wanted to have an ex-boyfriend or a father say something that’s wrong to invite them into this conversation. Essentially—I’ve said this a few times—I wanted to give them the empathy that I wish I would’ve gotten when I was coming out. Like, if you treat me as an equal or understand that what I’m saying is real and that I’m coming from a place of deep self-searching, you would just listen to me a little better.”

Queendom (2022, France & Russia, Agnilia Galdanova) is a documentary highlighting Gena, a queer artist from a small town in Russia, who stages radical performances in public that become a new form of art and activism, and put her life in danger. When the film premiered at the DMZ Documentary International Film Festival (DMZ Docs) in South Korea, Galdanova gave some insight into the risks involved in making the film: “There’s a scene where Gena gets arrested, which we expected. I also expected to be arrested, so we came up with the idea of putting our cinematographer on roller skates so he could escape the police.”

Fresh on the film festival circuit, Show Her the Money (2023, U.S., Canada, India) Ky Dickens highlights the difficulties women in the U.S., India and Canada face in securing investments for venture startups. Among the executive producers is actor Sharon Gless. “Women have been barred from the highest levels of power because they have been shut out of the financial world,” Dickens said in a June 2023 interview with The Wrap. “The film is an attempt to normalize the financial world for women. To truly have an equitable society, women need to receive funds to bring their inventions and ideas to fruition. And it’s equally important that more women become investors to help democratize who receives investment money. I hope ‘Show Her the Money’ tears down the curtains to a world that has felt elusive to so many women and gives them the voice to demand a seat at the table.”

Stroking An Animal (2023, Spain, Ángel Filgueira) represents the director’s debut feature-length film. Breaking Glass Pictures just acquired the North American rights for the narrative feature about a gay couple whose relationship is altered when a male friend enters their lives.

Taking its title in part from the society that became central to the gay rights movement in the 1950s, The Mattachine Family (2023, Andy Vallentine) is a subtly told story about how the landscape and options the contemporary queer and greatly diversified community have to consider when thinking about forming their families. Thomas is a photographer and his husband Oscar, is enjoying a resurgence in his acting career. Their first experience with a foster child was precisely what they hoped for but when the boy is returned to his birth mother, the couple disagrees about what their future looks like. Thomas is considering all options, including adoption, foster parenting and briefly surrogacy. Meanwhile, Oscar hesitates, worried about the risk of repeating the disappointment they experienced when they had to return the foster child. 

The film’s ending serendipitously mirrors the actual experience that Vallentine and his husband (Danny, who wrote the screenplay), when their daughter was born barely four weeks after they wrapped production on The Mattachine Family. In a recent interview with Rough Draft, Vallentine talked about the narrative’s crafted dramatic tension: “I think it’s always great to have complicated characters, so I think that that was the desire. At the time when Thomas and Oscar had Arthur, life was good for them. It worked out in that moment. One of the main drawbacks for Oscar of not wanting a child again, was seeing how Thomas was affected by that loss. .. You don’t experience that until that moment, until you see that loss, until you see your partner struggling with that, you know? It was one of those filmmaking tricks, I think, that adds layers to the character.”  

A cultural artifact from the cinematic time capsule, The Ritz (1976, Richard Lester) aspires to be a fast-paced zany comedy in the style of old-time Hollywood. The story is plain: a man on the run from a mob hitman ends up hiding in a gay bathhouse. Terrence McNally’s screenplay is filled with jokes that give a 2023 audience a solid glimpse about what 1970s humor was like. 

Threshold, directed by Coraci Ruiz.

Threshold (2020, Brazil, Coraci Ruiz) is a candid autobiographical documentary that chronicles over several years the relationship between a mother (Ruiz, in this case) and her son (Noah, who is going through gender transitioning during their adolescent years). The thought processes of both individuals are woven into an illuminating counterpoint, as a mother realizes that whatever she thought before about biologically determined gender is being transformed by her child’s thinking about where they most comfortably fit on the spectrum somewhere between identifying as non-binary and/or masculine. Ruiz also includes her own mother, so that the viewer can consider three generations of ideals about sexuality, gender and identity. 

The Sixth Reel (2021, Andress Carl & Charles Busch) promises to be a campy pleaser for the festival crowd. Busch, a legendary drag performer, and Andress rustle up an ideal ensemble for this madcap comedy caper about a collector of memorabilia who discovers the last reel of a film that many have thought was lost to obscurity Think of it as an updated but low-budget and more outrageous variant on the 1963 classic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The cast includes Busch along with Julie Halston, André De Shields, Patrick Page, Tim Daly and Margaret Cho.

Wonderfully Made (2022, Yuval David) is a documentary focusing on queer community members who remain committed to their Catholic faith, along with supportive clergy and other church members. While the topic is familiar to other documentarians, David’s film treatment ventures into the project of making religious iconography – specifically, of Jesus – as more conducive to emphasizing that the Catholic community can welcome queer members. As David explained in an interview with the Washington Blade: “The idea behind this is in Christianity and Catholicism, Jesus has always been portrayed one way for the last 1,700 years … That he has been portrayed as a white man of Northern European descent with blond hair and blue eyes. And as we set up the film, we wanted to challenge that history of art, change it [to show that] “the divine is in all of us.”

Short Films

The short film slate is packed with gems this year. The program includes three shorts from Utahns, including Amanda Madden, the Utah Film Center’s new Artist Foundry manager who previously mentored the student filmmakers at Spy Hop Productions for their two respective short films. A Spell For Queer Home is a soothing and encouraging poetic meditation (2023, Amanda Madden) that builds a cinematic collage portrait with deft transitions and segues. Madden weaves through contributions from queer and trans individuals, all converging on distinct and unique ideals about being fully at home as a queer person. 

Hidden Pride, directed by Fletcher Gibbons.
Spy Hop, PitchNic 2022.

One of two Spy Hop Production PitchNic shorts from 2022 featured this year at Damn These Heels is Hidden Pride – Life at BYU as a Queer Student (2022, directed by Fletcher Gibbons). The film comprises almost entirely soundstage interviews with queer students from Brigham Young University and how they cope with the challenges of balancing their identities with their education and campus activities. In a 2022 interview with The Utah Review. Gibbons said the idea came from the experience of their girlfriend, who is attending BYU but while her parents know and accept her sexual identity, she has kept it secret from her roommates for fear of losing her housing or ecclesiastical LDS endorsement. Gibbons, who identifies as an atheist, says it was an opportunity to step back and find out and hear what other queer students at BYU had to say about how they dealt with similar issues. 

Gibbons added that it was heartening for the filmmakers as well as the students featured in the short doc to realize that they do not “have  to feel so alone and that there is a community where they can find trust.” Same-Sex Attracted, a widely distributed and released documentary from 2020 that was part of Damn These Heels’ virtual slate that year, highlighted LGTBQ+ students at BYU, and questions about how they balance faith with the requirements of the school’s honor code. But, this most recent account in its short documentary form focuses on the challenges BYU students face after a 2021 speech by former BYU Jeffrey Holland, who also is a senior LDS apostle, in which he called upon church members to uphold LDS teachings targeting the social dangers of same-sex relationships and marriages. In Hidden Pride, the subjects talk about the difficult realities of finding a support system but also of their desires to stay at the school as well as remain committed to their faith, at least for the moment. Their answers might surprise viewers who wonder why students do not just leave BYU if they don’t feel that they are welcome there or why they cannot express their queer identities freely and truthfully. 

Queen Bees, directed by Riley Nickel. Spy Hop, PitchNic 2022.

The second Spy Hop PitchNic offering to screen at the festival is Queen Bees (2022, Riley Nickel) celebrating the art of the drag performer. The biggest logistical hurdle for Nickel and her production teamu was to shoot a documentary with performers whose shows typically are in clubs, which only allow patrons 21 and older. They went to Instagram and found a pool of 12 possible subjects. After a screening process with interviews, the student filmmakers settled on three established drag performers in the community along with a 15-year-old student who is just entering the drag scene and hopes to become a performer. 

Also on the slate is the award winning animated narrative Aikāne (2023, Daniel Sousa, Dean Hamer, & Joe Wilson), with the title coming from Hawaiian culture which is ancient term for intimate same-sex friends. The story is about an island warrior who ends up in in an underwater world after being wounded. He is rescued by an octopus who morphs into a handsome young man and amidst their budding relationship, they join forces to defeat foreign enemies. Damn These Heels festival goers will remember that the creative team behind this project came to the festival in 2018 with Leitis in Waiting, a documentary about transgender individuals, their unique roles in Tongan culture, and the struggle for equal rights even though they were accepted by two mainstays of the island nation: the Catholic Church and the royal family.

Apayauq, directed by Zeppelin Zeerip.

Apayauq (2023, Zeppelin Zeerip) is a superb 16-minute documentary short about Apayauq Reitan, a dog musher who became the first out transgender woman to complete the Iditarod sled dog race and win the coveted Red Lantern Award. It is marvelously constructed, interspersing scenes along the Iditarod trail with home movies of Reitan’s childhood years in Kaktovik. The footage is accompanied by Reitan’s voice recalling how even as a kindergartener she wanted to be a girl. As she approached adulthood and realized that her childhood experience was not a passing phase, Reitan found mushing, which her Norwegian father also was involved in, to be a liberating experience. Indeed, as captured on film, one realizes that in the Iditarod, it is hard to discern anyone because of all of the gear they wear on the mushing trail, where temperatures stay well below zero. Reitan came out two years ago and decided that it would be great to document her quest to do the Iditarod. With her background in photography which she studied in Norway, she thought she could juggle both challenges but then connected with Zeerip, a filmmaker whose projects include environment and outdoor recreation. The result has all the markings of an award-winning film, as evidenced by a special jury prize for documentary short film at this year’s Boston Independent Film Festival.  

International short film offerings include Mama Doesn’t Want to Go to the Beach (2023, Spain. Ana Belén Barragán Castañeda), a narrative about a transgender mother who resumes her hormone treatment while her daughter begins puberty. Making its US premiere, Stone (2023, U.K., Jake & Hannah Graf) is a narrative short about a woman who learns of her estranged father’s death and decides to attend the funeral and meet the woman with whom he had become close. However, she is stunned to learn that her father was a  transgender woman and now rethinks everything about her childhood and family experiences. The directors are a transgender couple whose films and personal stories have been widely covered in the U.K. Holy Madonna (2022, Ecuador, Esteban Vera). With screenplay by Vera and Salvador Yugcha, the film is about Martina, who is in the process of her novitiate, who assists the priest with masses but she wonders if she can reconcile her concerns about her own past in the queer community after the death of a drag queen. 

From Taiwan, the drama short Rooted (2022 Taiwan, Wu Yi-Wei) is about a teen who is rescued by a lifeguard who mistook him for drowning and suddenly finds long repressed desires coming to the surface. The Austrian short Shifting Bodies to Fluid Fiction (2023 Austria, Daniela Gutmann) is a short art video of Impressionism examining physical intimacy, as a trio of subjects film themselves with a Super 8 camera. What is unclear is who is filming and who is being filmed. Y (2023, Croatia, Matea Kovač) is an animated short, in which a blank sheet of paper depicts a struggle between artistic composition and decomposition, as a woman reminisces about her tumultuous relationship with a former girlfriend. Happy BirthGay (2022, Israel, Niv Manzur) is a story about a different kind of surprise party, when a mother goes all out to celebrate the first anniversary of her son coming out of the closet. Insta Gay (2023, Canada, Simon Paluck) is about a gay millennial who is feeling down after breaking up with a popular influencer. 

Happy BirthGay, directed by Niv Manzur.

There is a motley array of narrative and documentary shorts from the U.S. The comedy Dilating for Maximum Results (2023, Nyala Moon) has sprinted to a fast showing on the festival circuit, winning the grand jury prize for best short film at the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival as well as similar prize for best U.S. short film at Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival. The story is about a Black trans woman who tries to dilate after not having done so for several years, in order to finally hook up in person with her online boyfriend. 

A historical piece. Greetings From Washington (1981, Rob Epstein, Frances Reid, Greta Schiller, and Lucy Winer) brings viewers back to the sights and sounds of the first gay and lesbian rights march in Washington, D.C. Love, Barbara (2022, Brydie O’Connor) is a documentary tribute to Barbara Hammer, told through the lens and love of Florrie Burke, her partner of more than 30 years. Hammer, who died at 79 in 2019, was an experimental filmmaker who celebrated lesbian sexuality and the history, beginning her work in the 1970s. Much of her work — abstract exprimental video art — was shot entirely on eight-millimeter, Super 8 and 16-millimeter film. Never Look Away (2022, Devin D. Boss) is a documentary about a three-story mural honoring the queer community in Portland, Oregon. 

Pop-Off (2023, Rance Collins) is a narrative about a  nervous young gay man who has an eye-popping first experience when he hosts his hookup. Situated initially as a rom-com, Shafted (2023, Del Shores & Emerson Collins), the filmmaker realizes the fantasy premise about love at first sight in an elevator is too incredible to believe and wonders if it could ever be possible. We All Die Alone (2022, Jonathan Hammond) is ironic in its comedic and tragic tones, as the narrative centers on the hubris of an inept conflict negotiator that leads two warring gangs into an 8-way standoff. 

For tickets and more information, see the Damn These Heels website.

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