Two outstanding examples of leftwing documentary deserve the widest viewing. Opening yesterday at the Maysles theater in Harlem and playing through the 24th is “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, a study of the oppression of gay men in Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay that I would rank at the very top the list of films committed to gay rights, right next to “Before Stonewall” or “The Celluloid Closet.” Just having finished a theatrical run on the West Coast, “Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home” is now available as a DVD or streaming from Cinema Libre Studios, a production company that has a repertory of leftwing documentaries to its credit that is second to none.
Renate Costa Perdomo returned to her native Paraguay from Spain after learning of the death of her uncle Rodolfo Costa in order to understand what life was like for a gay man in one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships. The 108 of the title refers to a blacklist maintained by the state, while Cuchillo de Palo is Spanish for knife made of wood, a derogatory term directed at the “uselessness” of gay men who will never impregnate women, God’s purpose for them as Renate’s deeply religious and deeply homophobic father reminds her every chance he gets.
The moments spent between Renate and her father Pedro Costa, the proprietor of a blacksmith shop inherited from his father, is a reminder that many men and women retain prejudices despite progress made by a powerful and insistent movement determined to win equality. Sitting across the kitchen table from him, she presses him on the disservice he did to his brother by treating him as a sinner. He unctuously replies that he is a sinner too and begins reciting biblical verses. She tells him that it is impossible to have a conversation with him. His response is to shrug his shoulders and smile placidly. One can understand why his wife divorced him long ago and why Renate fled to Spain. While her father was by no means a Stroessner supporter, it is not too hard to figure out why his 35-year reign was facilitated. The population was obviously trained to be passive and obedient by a calculating government and church.
Despite this being her first film, Ms. Perdomo is very adept at developing character and revealing psychological complexity. Despite her father’s obdurate opposition to the idea that gays have a right to live as they please, there is a softer and more likeable side to him that she brings out in comically unproductive kite-flying and fishing expeditions. You can’t help but feel that his homophobia is partially explained by his failure to have ever become an adult. An infantilized Paraguayan male population is made to order for an authoritarian system.
But the most uplifting and dramatically powerful parts of the film are Perdomo’s interviews with men who spent time in jail or prison as society’s sexual outlaws and lived not only to survive but to come out of the closet as well. She also interviews transvestites who knew her uncle well, women who had less to fear under Stroessner in some ways since they never had to worry about losing a job. When you make a living as a nightclub act in drag, there’s little chance that being on a blacklist would cause you to be fired.
Structured as a kind of detective story with Ms. Perdomo digging into her uncle’s past, including a survey of police records, we are drawn into the plot and the circumstances of her uncle’s death. One assessment from a family relative: he died of sadness. Thanks to the efforts of gay activists in Paraguay and everywhere else in the world, such casualties are becoming fewer and fewer.
If you’ve ever visited downtown Los Angeles, you’ve probably seen the Skid Row area that is home to the homeless. In humanizing its denizens, who are bedeviled by drugs and mental illness or both, “Lost Angels” deserves place of honor next to “Dark Days”, the 2000 documentary about homeless men and women living in the train tunnels beneath Grand Central.
Like “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, there was a woman whose creative vision was behind “Lost Angels”. Writer and co-producer Christine Triano was formerly the editor of Alternet, one of the Internet’s higher profile progressive websites.
Departing from the predominantly pro-Democratic Party slant of Alternet, Triano has no use for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who has been spearheading a drive to throw the homeless out of downtown L.A. as part of a gentrification effort that will transform Single Room Occupancy Hotels into lofts for hedge fund managers and web developers. Villaraigosa had hired New York’s former police commissioner William Bratton to “clean up” the city, especially its Skid Row. As Mayor Giuliani’s right-hand man, Bratton had the necessary experience to terrorize the poor through implementation of a “broken window” theory that states that when you crack down on petty crimes, you undermine serious crime as well.
Giuliani’s crackdown was examined in another fine documentary titled “Giuliani Time” about which I had to say:
[Rightwing think-tank analyst Myron] Magnet explains that Giuliani assumed power largely on the basis of the “broken window” theory pioneered by the ideologues at the Manhattan Institute. This posits the notion that petty crimes (or even offenses to bourgeois values) such as street-level drug dealing or panhandling have to be eradicated in order for larger law-and-order values to prevail. Unfortunately, many decent middle-class New Yorkers, who tended to vote Democrat, got suckered into voting for Giuliani because they were fed up with panhandlers, crack vials in their vestibule, etc.
It is clear that Los Angeles voters were suckered into backing Villaraigosa on the same basis, an outcome that was welcomed by The Nation Magazine’s Marc Cooper who crowed:
Villaraigosa’s campaign embodies not just the hopes for a rising Los Angeles progressive politics; it has taken on national significance as well. “LA has become a national bully pulpit in fighting for working families across the country. If we are successful in electing a mayor who can expand the middle class, then it will become a national watershed,” says Martin Ludlow, political director of the County Federation of Labor and Villaraigosa’s former legislative chief of staff.
As a cri de coeur, both of these films will certainly command the attention of anybody with a moral conviction that the oppression of society’s outsiders, whether the gay men of Paraguay or Los Angeles’s down and out, must come to an end. Although the left has a reputation of being weak and divided, the existence of such powerful works of art and advocacy are a reminder that our message will be heard. I especially recommend the website for “Lost Angels” that has links to groups fighting against the eviction of the homeless and other causes on their behalf.
“Lost Angels” is available on DVD from the Cinema Libre Store as well as Amazon and other web retailers.
It’s also available digitally via HULU and Amazon Instant very soon.