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A Queer Eye Is Watching You
by Becky Tan

The gay and lesbian film section of the Berlinale goes its own way; it even has its own prizes. The end-of-festival party is legendary and this year was no exception with 15 silver VW beetles for the stars, including Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. There was entertainment by Gail Tufts (remember when she came to Hamburg?) and the Croonettes, and 12 disc jockeys for all-night dancing. We didn’t go to the party (a bad decision which must be remedied next year), nor did we see any of the three winning films, which must be fantastic, considering that the ones we did see were very good.

A gorgeous man had to be found for the role of Beautiful Boxer Nong Toom, a Thai transvestite kick boxer. Director Ekachai Iekrongtham found kick boxer Asanee Suwan and after a year of acting training, he was perfect for the lead in this true story (which won him a Thai Oscar for best actor). This is a first film for both actor and director. The real Nong Toom grew up in a poor family of migrant workers. He began kick boxing in order to earn money for the family. He moved to a boxing training camp and after 20 local matches and only two losses went to the big ring in Bangkok. In spite of his muscular body he always felt like a girl. His successes and growing maturity gave him self-confidence to be himself, which meant feminine clothes, eyeliner and lipstick in the ring and privately. This didn’t square in kick boxing circles, but he gained respect by winning. He also helped his family to a comfortable life. In 1999 he decided on a sex-change operation which ended his career, because kick boxing is only open to men. She is now in her mid-20s and works in television. This film showed beautiful scenery in different locations in Thailand and had everyone sobbing with joy at one “woman’s” triumph.

World premieres are always fun. Look at me: I got to see Cachorro first. The title means Bear Cub and all the gay Spanish men looked the same: big with black hair all over their bodies, butch hair cuts and some bearded. It could have been the annual conference of the Steif stuffed-toy company, whether they were cooking, dancing, or banging away three-in-a-bed. Pedro (José Luis García-Perez) becomes Papa Bear when the vacation babysitting for his 11-year-old nephew Bernardo turns into a permanent job; the child’s mother has been too dumb for words. She was arrested with drugs between India and Tibet and lands in jail for an indefinite time – at least until Bernardo grows up. Pedro, who has a good dental practice and plenty of original ideas for spending his free time, renovates his apartment for the boy and digs in for a long parenthood. Along comes an ogre of a grandmother – the boy’s dead father’s mama – who has wanted to sink her claws into him for a long time. She wins custody after Pedro’s homosexual lifestyle is scrutinized by the courts. Their final compromise is for Bernardo to grow up in a boarding school with visiting rights for both. The topic is pertinent today with the controversy about same-sex marriages and adoptions by gay couples. The film tries to show that people should not be judged by their sexual orientation. Although the ending is not satisfactory – we want to cheer like we did in Beautiful Boxer – it is probably realistic.

Brother to Brother is a fictional story which features a real writer: Richard Bruce Nugent. In 1926 he, along with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Wallace Thurman, founded a literary magazine called Fire!!. This set off the “Harlem Renaissance,” the first Afro-American cultural movement in the U.S. to provide a forum for writers, artists and musicians. Nugent was a poet, painter and gay. Director Rodney Evans imagines that another young man, Perry (Anthony Mackie), meets Nugent (obviously before he dies in 1987). Nugent has fallen on hard times and outlived his contemporaries. The two become friends but not lovers, which is important to Perry who is questioning his own homosexuality and his talent as a painter. Nugent’s nuggets of wisdom, such as “gays want commitments like girls” and “every good writer has to make con-cessions to what the public wants,” do not fall on barren ground. The film, which came from the Sundance film festival, may have worked better if it had been a straight documentary of one of America’s forgotten poets, without the soul-searching and querulousness of a fictional Perry. All the references to Hughes, Hurston, Thurman and even James Baldwin made me want to read their books again. (Becky Tan)

The historical archives of Cape Town, South Africa, provided the genesis of the film Proteus, which depicts a true decade-long love affair that blossomed on the barren land of Robben Island in the 18th century. The story begins in 1725 when a young Khoi herder named Claas Blank (Rouxnet Brown) is convicted by an all-white court of attempting to re-acquire cattle that had been commandeered by white settlers. Blank, as a Khoi, is part of the Hottentot tribe and as such was considered an untouchable. He is sentenced to forced labor on Robben Island, the same penal colony where Nelson Mandela was first imprisoned.

Blank meets a Dutch sailor, Rijkhaart Jacobsz (Neil Sandilands), who is serving a sentence for his conviction of homosexual misconduct. (During the 1700s, sodomy was a crime deemed worse than murder.) Despite their many differences, they become attracted to one another and transcending all taboos, they become lovers. For ten years, the authorities turn a blind eye to the “friendship” between the Blank and Jacobsz. That is, until some other prisoners decide to punish the two by publicizing their relationship. Blank and Jacobzs are put on trial accused of sodomy. The penalty is death.

The trial itself is based on actual transcripts. The film, made in English and Afrikaans, was shot in just eigh-teen days, entirely in Cape Town. The result is a compelling true love story presented by terrific actors. (Mary Nyiri)

D.E.B.S. is a lesbian film that doesn’t dwell on its lesbian-ness. A feature-length version of a story that was first introduced to film festival audiences last year in a well-loved short, D.E.B.S. tells the story of four teenage crime fighters with great instincts and even greater legs. Max, Dominique, Janet, and Amy may look like normal prep schoolgirls, but in reality they are specially-trained secret agents. But everything changes when they are assigned to track master criminal Lucy Diamond. During the mission, Amy is kidnapped by Lucy, and while in captivity, falls in love with her. Ultimately, Amy is forced to choose between her old way of life and her new love.

Overall, I found D.E.B.S. to be a welcome breath of fresh, funny air during the Berlinale, and apparently others agreed with me since it won the Siegessäule (Berlin’s queer magazine) Readers’ Prize for best film dealing with queer topics. It cleverly spoofs everything from teen comedies to spy thrillers to girl-power action films. Its low-tech special effects are a hoot, and it has a nice love story that just happens to be between two women. While it certainly isn’t deep and may not be the best-made comedy out there, D.E.B.S. is an entertaining film that’s fun for a quick escape. And for a final word, I can’t do any better than the Siegessäule Readers’ Prize jury, who commented, “out of the sea of naked male flesh, this movie rose to the occasion with fun and girl power. The only thing left to say is: ‘This lezzie stuff is kinda hot!’” (Kirsten Greco)