Reel Review: Some of the films screened at the Q! Film Festival

Some of the films screened at the Q! Film Festival
Bali, September 7-9, 2006.

Michael P. De Guzman & Germaine Trittle P. Leonin

Thank You and Good Night, Mother 
60 min / Indonesia / 2006
Ivan Handoyo

Journey to Kafiristan
(Die Reise Nach Kafiristan) 
101 min / Switzerland / 2001
Fosco Dubini and Donatello Dubini

Tai-chi for Tipplers 
5 min / South Africa / 2005 
Jennifer Radlof and Karen Rutter


Landing in the island of Bali to watch films at the 5th Annual Q! Film Festival, a song insinuated itself inside my head. It's an old Filipino holiday song; one that my maternal grandmother could be heard singing while she laboured over family dinner. ‘There’s something in the air,’ the song begins. Watching the road as it snakes through the ragged flank of the mountain, hearing the sound of the sea rising and ebbing like the tide, and being brushed by the morning breeze, there really is something in the air. Brine, a hint of chilli, with a spray of sea foam — time caught in a grain of sand.

It touches everything; including my perceptions of the films I watched.

The boys and young men in Thank You and Good Night, Mother have been touched by a powerful force; one that marked them so deeply that no amount of time or distance can separate them from its source — the ocean. At the start of the film, tranquil images of the ocean are interspersed with shots of the 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia. Credits float along sea-foam, kelp, and debris one doesn't usually find underwater.

The film flows like a love letter sent to a distant, sometimes indifferent, lover. It is alternately ecstatic and tragic, mundane and sacred, erotic and poetic.

The boys and young men from the two maritime Indonesian villages of Bandulu and Carita, built like swimmers, skins burnished by the tropical sun, almost literally glimmer when they start talking about surfing. Their happiness is singular, defying social and economic standing, even personal relationships. Even when they’re just sitting in front of the camera, one feels their need to just spring from their seats and jump right back into the ocean, in search of that perfect swell.

I’m not sure of director Ivan Handoyo’s sexual orientation, but I sensed a strong homoeroticism, not in the way the surfers interacted with each other, but in the way they were shot. There is delicacy in the way the tightest shots are framed, so that eyes appear like planets floating in the dark space that is the skin, not just orbs that stare out of the screen. In another shot, back muscles ripple on the foreground as a surfer paddles towards a huge wave, which fills the rest of the screen. A perfectly composed image of man and nature.

The underwater camera work makes one long to feel the embrace of sea-water on bare skin. It makes the feet appear tender as they stir up sand and kelp, walking towards a deeper part of the beach. And when the waves finally hit, in the silent confusion of bubbles, sea-foam, tossed boards, and glimpsed flailing limbs, little deaths can be felt.

At the end of the film, I felt as if an affair ended. An affair that’s so intense, so sexually charged that its end was a mathematical certainty. When a force that powerful touches you there is simply no turning back. No matter where life takes you, a part of you will remain where you found it. Nothing will sever the surfers’ connection with nature. Love will bind them together, that much is clear.

The two women in Journey to Kafiristan have yet to be touched by the same force I earlier referred to simply because they keep running away from it. In 1939, the threat of war looms like a huge wave in the distance, with the potential to sweep away the world that writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach inhabits. Meanwhile, Swiss ethnologist Ella Maillart, just back from a research trip, can’t wait to embark on a new expedition, this time to a fabled land miles ways from Zurich: Kafiristan.

Annemarie is searching for refuge and adventure. Ella wants to establish herself as an esteemed explorer. Before long they’re on their way.

The thing with ‘travel’ films is one can easily get lost in the sights taken in by the protagonists. In this film, however, the sexual tension between the two women is so palpable that it makes the craggy and rocky surroundings drip with desire.

But even this sexual tension is, for the most part, ignored by both women, because they’re not just running away from the realities of the countries they left behind. They’re also running away from themselves. Annemarie is struggling with her heroin addiction. Ella thinks she can save Annemarie, in complete denial of her own need to be ‘saved’.

Kafiristan, or the land of the non-believers, is an aptly named destination for these women. They are like two dancers lost in a dark ballroom. Each turn, each twist of their bodies brings them closer, but it takes only a brush of skin to drive them apart again.

Things come to a head when it becomes impossible for them to continue their journey because the war has begun. Deprived of the means to achieve each of their goals, they turn on each other. Soon one continues the journey, leaving the other behind.

Yukio Mishima wrote that a man is made cruel by the knowledge that he is loved. I wonder, if Annemarie and Ella knew the things they needed to know, and believed in the things that they needed to believe in, would they have been, still, that cruel to themselves?


Based on the life of writer Annamarie Schwarzenbach and Swiss ethnologist, Ella Mallart, Journey to Kafiristan assumes a great deal about the personalities of the two lead characters. My gut feel told me much of it may have been mere speculation, but some details may have been dependent on actual accounts of people who knew them, such as the fact that they both had money being from rich families or had husbands with important State jobs. The seeming comfort and outward simplicity of their lives only made their internal desires all the more obvious. These were two educated women, comfortably married and well-off in their own right, but yearning for their own sense of accomplishment. A distinct ownership of their own ideas, pride in their plans and achievements is reminiscent of early feminism. They moved within the usual social expectations of marrying successful men and staying within their own class, but were silently testing the waters for the 20th century woman already.

Early on, at the start of the film, one already got the impression that these women had more emotional baggage than the actual suitcases and luggage they were carrying in their car. It was also apparent that the journey they were embarking on was less of a ‘heading towards something’ than ‘running away’ from something. The undertaking meant recognition and prestige for Ella on the professional level. But on the personal level, Ella also hoped to ‘save’ Annamarie from herself and her heroin addiction by taking Annamarie on this trip across Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Ella’s Messianic complex complicates the sexual tension already brewing between them. In the beginning, she believed Annamarie actually handed over control of her life to her. Clearly, it all depended on how much and how often Annamarie would let Ella have power over her.

In one scene, during a formal dinner with various intellectuals and state representatives, Ella speaks of the limitations brought about by boundaries people make for themselves. The concept was shown through the difficulties she encountered in her travel through country borders of Turkey and Iran. This metaphor held more implications for her and her relationship with Annamarie. While the lesbian angle is too subtle, it is an honest depiction of the beginnings of intimate relations between women — the internal turmoil, the hesitance, the unwillingness to cross perceived limits. 

Yet in the end, outside forces always take people to a moment of deep honesty. The last conversation between Ella and Annamarie at the train station allowed them to finally acknowledge their feelings, as well as their decision not to do anything about it. While the actual travel permitted them to journey in their minds and to wonder about possibilities, world events and other circumstances beyond their control made the decision for them and presented them with the only feasible, practical options — be it going to India or moving to America. Ultimately, that sense of ambiguity always saves people trapped in similar situations and gives them the opportunity to deny such complexities later on and simply, figuratively, move on.

Tai-chi for Tipplers is a short film that is part of the ‘Out in Africa’ LGBT film festival and film workshops. It is a humorous take on the stereotypical perception of lesbians and their chosen occupations. The grim and determined approach to their causes, be it women’s rights or environmental concerns, as well as the strain they voluntarily subject themselves to, is acknowledged in a self-depreciating manner and appears as an inside-joke among lesbians themselves. 

The portrayal is not derogatory in any way because it focuses on the reality of lesbian lives. If any, the depiction is an honest and funny recognition of lesbians’ efforts to apply themselves to worthy causes and to be productive individuals in society. In the movie, these activities unfortunately eventually drive hardworking lesbians to the bottle.

The movie, in all mock seriousness, proceeds to show the available de-stressing effect of tai-chi exercises albeit supplemented by tippling. The movements seemingly try to accommodate the regular activities of lesbian tipplers, including their sexual acts. These scenes showed lesbians partnered as tai-chi exercise couples imitating lesbian sex. They elicited the most laughter from the audience and also managed to satisfactorily answer the perennial heterosexual question of how lesbians have satisfying sex without a penis. 

The movie took the form of a documentary-cum-self-help video. It was light and funny, and the subject made it more hilarious while it depicted lesbian activism and angst in lesbian’s daily lives. The film succeeded in what it sought to achieve, that is to formally recognize the visibility of lesbians in all walks of life. It ultimately ‘placed’ lesbians in mainstream society and with the type of activities and causes they apply themselves to, it recognized lesbian identity as well. Films, be they short, documentary movies, or video spoofs like this are now a clear avenue for claiming lesbian visibility and celluloid has become an accepted lesbian ‘space’. 

Michael P. De Guzman, a self-confessed cineaste, is a freelance consultant in Cambodia. His areas of expertise include technical writing, HIV/AIDS, counselling, sexuality, IEC/BCC and graphic design. He also writes poetry and fiction in English and Filipino. His work has been published in magazines and newspapers in his home country, The Philippines. His first book, a collection of short stories, is set to be released in 2007.

Germaine Trittle P. Leonin is a legal officer for the Philippines' Department of Social Welfare and Development where she works on women's welfare issues and children's rights. An LGBT rights advocate for the past ten years, she is a member of Lesbian Advocates Philippines (LeAP!), the Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network (LAGABLAB-Pilipinas), and is the Founding President of the Rainbow Rights Project (R-Rights), a legal and policy think-tank for LGBT issues and concerns.