Queer Awakening

From The Day After Tomorrow to Moonlight, Letterboxd member and sometime-cultural writer Bintang Lestada writes from Indonesia about ten films that helped them see a better world.

Film assured me that there’s a life for gay people here.” —⁠Bintang Lestada

Indonesia is arguably a conservative society, marrying its religious and traditional values as the ultimate moral compass. Living out and proud here means being bold, but not too bold. Stylish, but not flamboyant. Out, but not out. Knowing that our parties might be shut down, our nightclubs raided at any moment. Understanding that my own wedding day will probably never come.

The hardships of this reality have shaped me externally as a person who is strong, independent and aware of my own agency. But internally, it is cinema that has helped me rearrange, unlearn and re-learn how I view the world, and myself.

Growing up, I didn’t think a lot about sexuality, or the concept of ‘identity’. In Indonesia, these ideas were not readily available to me during my teenage years. Instead, I focused on pursuing total independence via the high-school choir and drama clubs (the freedom in these spaces!). So when my queerness began to awaken, it was less about what I was finding out, theoretically, about same-sex attraction, and more about what I was feeling: intense waves of emotions I’d never experienced before.

However, it did take some time to really carve my malleable body and soul, and this endless, continuous process was nurtured by movies. Cinema was always the medium in which I both felt more understood, and came to understand myself.

Which is why, in this Pride month, I have taken an emotional trip down movie-memory lane, to empathize with my younger self, and visit once again the films that made me feel more deeply understood. This is my definitive list of the ten film-watching experiences where it finally dawned on me, ‘Oh… I am queer.’ What were your ten #queerawakening movie moments?

Beauty and The Beast (1991)

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise

Beauty and the Beast, for better or for worse, is the film that made me think that if you like someone, you should keep them away from their loved ones until you transform into a better person. (Please, I was a kid! I know better now!). More than that, though, is the fact that when the furry Beast showed up, my nine-year-old self was smitten.

Voiced by former teen idol Robby Benson, the Beast, who was once an arrogant Prince, lives out his curse—to be a huge, hairy hunk in gold-trimmed finery—in a remote castle populated by various singing household objects (his castle servants, also cursed). He imprisons a kindly old inventor who turns out to be Belle’s father, and when she arrives to plead for her father’s life, a swap ensues, love grows, an angry mob arrives, the last petal falls and Beast becomes human again.

Helmed by first-time directors Trousdale and Wise, Beauty and the Beast was a box-office smash—the most successful Disney animated feature ever, at the time. But I still remember how disappointed I was when Beast transformed into his human form—the pastiest version of a man I’ve ever seen. What does that mean to me? You do the math.

In & Out (1997)

Directed by Frank Oz, written by Paul Rudnick

Speaking of fairy tales… On paper, In & Out has everything that I want in a film: Kevin Kline, Tom Selleck, Hollywood royalty Debbie Reynolds, a story about awards season, failed weddings and women gone mad (in this case, the excellent Joan Cusack). Although this crowd-pleaser is often derided as a gay-film-for-straights, for me, it has one of the most interesting points of view on masculinity and how you should act on it.

Even if the central conceit—a high-school teacher questions his sexuality after a former student thanks him at the Academy Awards—is basically just a tool for comic relief, In & Out reassures me that you can still find out something new about yourself way down the line. The ‘I Will Survive’ scene pays for itself!

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Directed by Roland Emmerich, written by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff

It is true: this underrated climate-change disaster blockbuster was pivotal in my queer awakening. I believe I was ten years old; it was one of my first times attending the cinema with my family. During The Day After Tomorrow’s fireplace scene, in which Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum share a kiss, I remember thinking to myself: ‘Well, that’s not right.’

I Killed My Mother (2009)

Written and directed by Xavier Dolan

Before Québécois filmmaker Xavier Dolan prevented Cate Blanchett from sharing the Cannes Best Actress win with Rooney Mara for Carol (instead, Mara shared the prize with Emmanuelle Bercot, for her work in Mon Roi), he was, in my book, the man responsible for my first glimpse of gay sex on screen. In his acclaimed debut I Killed My Mother, Dolan painted sex as something sudden, animalistic, which I hadn’t really ever seen in coming-of-age films.

The writer-director (only sixteen when he wrote the film, twenty when he made it) also plays the leading character, Hubert, a selfish teen who, in between arguments with his mother, Chantale, explores his budding sexuality at both boarding school and in his growing connection with his secret boyfriend, Antonin (François Arnaud). Dolan’s youthful drive brings a hot realism to the film—and especially to Hubert and Antonin’s paint-splattered lovemaking. Aside from my deepest cultural issue—a screaming match with your mother … my Southeast Asian self cannot comprehend!—the grip that that wall-painting GIF has on Tumblr has been influential to so many of us.

Far From Heaven (2002)

Written and directed by Todd Haynes

If I had to name my top three favorite directors, Todd Haynes would be number one. I appreciate how he effectively, and affectingly, blends melodramatic tropes and social messages. Sure, there is a homosexual storyline in Far From Heaven, but more than that, it is the way in which Haynes sets up a world of momentary joy, otherness, and loss, and how this echoes the way queer people live our lives—stuck between the desire of contentment and the postponement of happiness.

Arisan! (The Gathering, 2003)

Directed by Nia Dinata, written by Dinata, Joko Anwar and Afi Shamara

I will say this again and again: Nia Dinata deserves her flowers for bring Indonesian (specifically Jakartan) gay lives to mainstream audiences. Taking cues from television series such as Sex and the City and Ally McBeal, Arisan! was a comedy-drama of true delight. It featured the first on-screen kiss between two men in Indonesian film history (Sakti and Nino were the couple!), and won five major Citra Awards at the 2004 Indonesian Film Festival (for best picture, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress and editing).

Arisan! spawned a television series and a feature sequel, and gave inspiration to film-critics-who-want-to-be-filmmakers everywhere, by launching the movie-making career of Dinata’s choice of co-screenwriter, Joko Anwar, who is now a prominent director, producer, writer and actor. For me, it was the first depiction of ‘chosen family’ in Indonesian cinema where the people looked like me and my friends. It may seem like a fairy tale to many, but for me it felt closer to a documentary. Above all, Arisan! assured me that there’s a life for gay people here.

For those interested in seeing more queer representation in Indonesian cinema, I put together a Letterboxd list of films originally compiled by QIA (the Queer Indonesian Archive).

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Directed by Nicholas Stoller, written by Jason Segel

I’ll make this one really brief: this is a film where I realized that big guys are my kind of men. Not to mention that Forgetting Sarah Marshall was the first time that I saw another person’s penis in its entirety. It was… satisfying.

Whip It (2009)

Directed by Drew Barrymore, adapted by Shauna Cross from her novel

Starring Elliot Page as Bliss Cavandar, a Texan misfit who abandons her mother’s wish for her to be a beauty-pageant contestant in order to join a roller derby team in Austin, Whip It is absolutely one of the queerest films I’ve ever seen (or, as one Letterboxd member puts it, “the gayest straight movie I have ever seen”).

Despite its star director (it was Barrymore’s feature directing debut) and god-tier queer icon cast (including Page, Alia Shawkat, Kristen Wiig, Eve, Juliette Lewis, stuntwoman Zoë Bell), Whip It had an underwhelming release and a very modest box office, but the love for the film has only grown in the years since—currently it has a decent three-star rating on Letterboxd.

Whip It guided me toward the feeling that you get when you realize you are queer: a kind of rush that comes when you discover the beauty of abstract chaos, and spaces where things don’t need to have a gender (like jamming-and-blocking on roller skates).

Carol (2015)

Directed by Todd Haynes, written by Phyllis Nagy from a novel by Patricia Highsmith

I have watched Carol more times than I can count (thanks to Letterboxd, I know there were twelve viewings within its first month of release alone). Maybe it’s the lush cinematography of Edward Lachman, or the chemistry between Rooney and Cate. Maybe it’s the precision of the perspective that Todd Haynes laid over the story, or how love and yearning are bound to parallel each other. Maybe it reminded me of the last time I tasted the urgency of romance, obscured by time. Maybe it’s all of these things.

Moonlight (2016)

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, adapted from Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play

How could someone with such a solid exterior like Black live a life without touch? Although I can’t imagine it anymore, I used to be like Moonlight’s main character, in that I lived a life without physical affection. That began to crumble once I knew the repercussions of intimacy. You want more. There are bound to be failures along the way—so much failure that you consider living an absolute solitary life. But then, what is the point of living?

Masculinity is a poison that pollutes men into thinking that nothing should ever be a problem, that you should solve your own troubles and traumas and never reach out. But, deep down inside, the memories of your past—when you used to know nothing about the badness of the world—become the map of the life that you want to live, and the shape of the kind of person that you forgot you so fervently desire.

There are people out there fighting for their lives, fighting to enjoy the same kind of contentment that many have, and they need us to be at the forefront of this movement. A better world for us queers: isn’t that the delicacy of this ephemeral life?

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