By Misha Davenport/For Sun-Times Media
While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Chicago enjoy laws that protect them from discrimination and basic human rights violations, it’s a different story outside the United States.
Director Malachi Leopold, who previously directed the 2010 documentary “Celebration of Light: Restoration of the Chicago Cultural Center’s Tiffany Dome” and the 2009 documentary short “22 Years from Home” (about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan), says the state of LGBT rights on the international stage is less rosy.
“Globally, the prognosis right now is that things are probably going to get worse before they get better,” Leopold says. “In countries like Russia, Uganda and Iran, LGBT individuals face a dire situation.”
Their plight is a focal point of his documentary “Alex & Ali,” which is being screened Sunday (3:15 p.m., Landmark Century Centre Cinema) as part of the 32nd Annual Reeling International LGBT Film Festival.
“LGBT people in the United States still face discrimination, but it is considerably less than they did a decade ago,” he says. “There’s a grass-roots International community risking their lives to build their own movement.”
After Leopold finished work on the Sudan documentary, he says he found the subject of his next documentary a bit closer to home when he had a conversation with his estranged Uncle Alex.
“I didn’t really know him. The majority of my family’s relationships are strained,” Leopold says. “I was raised in a strict evangelical household in Columbus, a small town in Indiana. The fact that my uncle was both gay and an atheist meant my mom and her brother’s relationship was always both strange and estranged. I don’t think there has ever been a time of peace or harmony between them. ”
Leopold rarely saw Uncle Alex when he was growing up. The more he discovered about his uncle, the more he realized he might make an interesting subject for a documentary.
“He spent 10 years from 1967 to 1977 living in Iran as a Peace Corps volunteer,” Leopold says. “He met and fell in love with another man named Ali and was separated from him during the Iranian revolution.”
REELING 32 When: Thursday through Sept. 25 Where: Landmark Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark; Music Box, 3733 N. Southport; Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark Tickets: $10-$15 (passes and special events, $35-$150) Info: reelingfilmfestival.org
The story had a “Romeo and Juliet” quality to it that Leopold felt was universal enough. With his uncle’s blessing, he decided to film their reunion after more than 35 years apart.
Leopold, who relocated with his wife to the West Coast in 2013, shot the bulk of the documentary while living in Chicago and commuting to North Carolina, where his uncle lives.
The reunion turned into a bit of a political thriller when Ali was detained in Iran as he was leaving to meet Alex. The majority of the film documents the fallout when Ali’s personal letters are confiscated by the Iranian police.
Leopold says the fact that his subject was a relative meant he pretty much had unfettered access, but that access came with a price.
“I have done documentaries on sex abuse and the plight of refugees in the Sudan, where there was certainly pain and devastation,” he says. “As the consequences unfolded in the documentary, because my subject was not a stranger to me, I felt everything significantly more.”
Leopold says he hopes the film inspires people to take action.
“The film shows the reality of what it means right now to be gay in most of the world,” he says. “Our own local battles might be over, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be advocates for the rest of the world. The freedom to love is worth fighting for.”
Three other films not to miss at this year’s Reeling, all at Landmark Century Centre:
“Anatomy of a Love Seen”
Relationships are complicated and oftentimes messy affairs in Mariana Rice Bader’s directorial debut. Featuring mostly improvised dialogue that gives the film a raw edge, the plot concerns life imitating art when leading ladies Zoe (Sharon Hinnendael) and Mal (Jill Evyn) meet and fall in love while filming a love scene in a film, break up as a couple and have to come back together six months after the real relationship has gone up in flames for a reshoot. It’s slow in parts and awkward in some aspects, but it just might be somewhat cathartic for anyone who has ever gone through a messy breakup of their own. (7:15 p.m. Saturday, $12)
“Waiting in the Wings: The Musical”
Director Jenn Page’s musical comedy is a tale of mistaken identity and the grandest of miscastings when Anthony, a would-be musical actor from Montana (a scene-chewing, hilariously campy Jeffrey A. Johns, who also wrote the script), and Tony, a New York go-go boy (Adam Huss), are accidentally hired for, respectively, a stripper showcase and an off-off-Broadway musical. Lee Meriwether plays Anthony’s best friend and confidante. Stage and screen legend Shirley Jones and Sally Struthers also appear in amusing cameos, but Johns’ opening number, “I’m a Disney Whore,” had me hooked from the get-go. Johns and musical director Arie Gonzalez will be on hand for a post-film Q&A. (9 p.m. Sept. 23, $12)
Writer and director Hong Kahaou’s beautifully shot, graceful chamber piece explores the relationship that develops between a grieving, Chinese-Cambodian mother (Cheng Pei-pei, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ) and the British “best friend” and roommate of her late son (played by Ben Whishaw, best known as “Q” from the recent Bond films). The pair bridge language and cultural differences (she doesn’t speak English, he doesn’t speak Chinese) to form a bond that allows both to come to grips with loss and the alienation that often times comes along with it. (7 p.m. Sept. 24, $12)