In Proteus, gay Canadian director John Greyson and South African activist Jack Lewis tell an interracial gay love story set in South Africa and Amsterdam in the early 18th century. Rijkhaart Jacobsz, a white Dutch sailor, and Claas Blank, a Hottentot servant, were imprisoned on Cape Town’s notorious Robben Island between 1718 and 1735. Jack Lewis stumbled upon the original transcript of Jacobsz and Blank’s trial for sodomy and knew he had a little-known true story with contemporary ramifications. The story also revolves around the quest by closeted Scottish botanist Virgil Niven who, whilst working for famous Swedish botanist Linnaeus, tried to name and cultivate all the sub-species of the South African plant once known as sugarbush and now identified as protea.

Proteus is somewhat of a new direction for Greyson, a gay-themed historical epic that also explores sex, race, politics and botany. He has had an interesting career that includes video shorts about gay issues such as The AIDS Epidemic (1987), AIDS-themed musicals such as The Making Of Monsters (1991) and Zero Patience as well as features such as Pissoir (1989), Lilies (1996) and The Law Of Enclosures (2000). He has won a Teddy in Berlin twice. Many Sydneysiders may have seen Lilies, his most successful film to date.

Greyson and Lewis use deliberate anachronisms, such as 1960s typists and Nazi-style guards, to create a resonance with modern times. This is not an entirely successful ploy, becoming merely confusing at times. However, the cinematography is one of the film’s strongest features. Bleached and pared back, the photography allows the audience to feel the stark desolation and isolation of Robben Island, where two men struggle to find love. There is no shortage of sex either. Proteus is at times funny, poignant and horrific.

Cult director Guy Maddin continues the Canadian focus of the festival this year. Maddin is a Winnipeg native, the son of Icelanders, who says his showbiz career began as a child when he was given a piggyback by Bing Crosby. His movie, The Saddest Music In The World, is based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains Of The Day) and continues Maddin’s exploration of melancholy, melodrama and male jealousy.

Maddin, who is 48, has made 26 films since he turned 30, some with great titles such as Sissy Boy Slap Party and The Cock Crew. For a long time he was obsessed with silent films and his early work earned him the title of successor to Lang and Murnau. The Saddest Musical In The World is his first musical and his first to feature a major star, in this case Isabella Rossellini, who plays a legless beer baroness.

The film is ostensibly set during January (think ice floes!) in Depression-era Winnipeg where a competition is being run to find the world’s saddest music, a.k.a. the world’s most hard-done-by history. This is Maddin at his most full-blown level of camp expressionism, a sort of Marx brothers level of eccentricity and lunacy set to music with a melancholic sub-theme. The film is shot in grainy black and white to look like Nosferatu crossed with Metropolis.

At times The Saddest Music is a slow, confusing and tortured take on nothingness with an anti-American veneer. Still, you are probably unlikely to see Isabella Rossellini in a Nero-esque role with glass, beer-filled legs again either.

Other gay and lesbian films in the festival include the highly anticipated lesbian film, Prey For Rock And Roll, directed by Alex Steyermark and starring Gina Gershon (Bound) as a singer and guitarist in an all-girl rock band based in LA; the Spanish feature Bear Cub, directed by Miguel Albaladejo; and the short With What Should I Wash It?
Also of interest is the very camp Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan; the melodramatic classic German silent film The Merry Widow directed by Erich von Stroheim; The Nomi Song; and of course De-lovely, Irwin Winkler’s musical portrait of Cole Porter featuring cameos by Robbie Williams, Elvis Costello and Natalie Cole.

Proteus screens at Dendy Opera Quays on Sunday 20 June at 8:30pm and again on Thursday 24 June at 4:20pm. The Saddest Music In The World screens at the State Theatre on Friday 18 June at 8:50pm and again on Wednesday 23 June at 2:50pm.

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