This week’s documentaries on Rialto Channel, THE QUEEN OF IRELAND and LITTLE WHITE LIE both focus on identity, and the way that your culture defines you as a person – whether you like it or not. It can also force you into activism, and the two personalities that the films shine a light on do that in very different ways.
Tonight’s film is THE QUEEN OF IRELAND, a documentary that follows famous Irish drag queen Panti Bliss. Hailed as “part glamorous aunt and part Jessica Rabbit”, she a wittily incisive performer who is widely regarded as one of the best drag queens in the world. Director Conor Horgan is a longtime friend of the infamous Panti, so he couldn’t be more qualified to bring her story to the big screen.
Created by Rory O'Neill, Panti started out as an alternative way to make a living but also became an accidental activist, and in her own words “a court jester, whose role is to say the un-sayable”. Horgan apparently just set out to create a profile of Panti with the documentary, but then the now-infamous “Pantigate” happened and his film took a more dramatic turn. In an interview on a popular Irish talk show, host Brendan O’Connor asked Rory – as himself, not Panti - to name some of Ireland’s most prolific homophobic public figures. And so he did. But despite very concrete evidence to support Rory’s claim, those named got litigious. And they got paid. With the public on her side, Panti found herself at the forefront of an equality movement. Her campaign officially kicked off with what’s now known as the “Noble Call” speech – a monologue where she opined that homophobia is a sickness that afflicts the whole of Ireland, because it was bred into them. Even she suffers from it, when she “checks herself” on a street corner to make sure she isn’t drawing too much attention to her “gayness.” Unsurprisingly, the speech went viral, and her profile rocketed.
The film continues to follow Rory/Panti in the lead up to 22 March, 2015, when Ireland became the first country in the world to choose, by popular vote, to allow same-sex marriage. This, in a country where there were supposedly no "out" gay men 30 years ago. It is an emotional and incredible moment, and Horgan captures every moment through Panti’s eyes.
The style of filmmaking is quite standard, but the subject matter elevates it to the status of a “must watch”. Rory O’Neill is such a likeable and clever figurehead, and even his reflective moments are tinged with a sad wit. On living with HIV, he says: “I made my AIDS-y bed, now I must lie in it”, and jokes that the diagnosis effectively killed his love life. The film is full of warts n’ all moments, as well as real human fears as Rory considers whether material about “anal fissures” is suitable or not for a hometown show in front of his parents. Watching Panti perform to a loving home crowd in her birthplace of Ballinrobe, a small town in County Mayo, is a moment of pure joy – and the perfect ending to a great film.
LITTLE WHITE LIE is another close examination of a life, this time following filmmaker Lacey Schwartz as she delves into her history – at times reluctantly. Schwatrz’s story begins with her growing up in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in Woodstock, New York, with loving parents and a strong sense of her Jewish identity - despite the questions from those around her about how a Jewish girl could have such dark skin. She believes her family's explanation that her looks were inherited from her dark-skinned Sicilian grandfather, and a lack of siblings meant that she only had her parents to compare herself to. But as the years go by her gut starts to tell her something different.
She says in a recent interview that as she got older, she began “questioning my whiteness because of what other people said and because I was aware that I looked different from my family,” and when you look at her it’s no surprise. She said nothing to her family, but was bothered by the issue enough not to know what ethnicity box to tick on her college application. So, based on the photograph accompanying her application, Georgetown University passed her name along to the black student association, which contacted her.
The university “gave me permission” to explore a black identity, Schwartz says, but it’s a culture she was unsure how to inhabit. After her first year however, she finally confronts her mother, and Peggy Schwartz acknowledges that her biological father was not the man who raised her, but a black man named Rodney with whom her mother had an affair. The scenes as she attempts to discuss the situation with her “daddy” are fraught with emotion as he is forced to confront his own feelings about the fact that she isn’t his biological child. How long did he know? He doesn’t say, clearly uncomfortable with the intrusion.
A film about denial, race, family secrets and a search for identity, it’s interesting to note that learning that she was half-black did not fundamentally change the way Lacey saw herself, she says it did influence how she saw the world. It’s a strange film in that everyone seemed to know about Peggy’s affair but was simply unable to admit to it, or to acknowledge Lacey’s obvious biracial makeup. I would like to have seen more of that explored, and perhaps one day it will be.
Lacey Schwartz talked to Francesca Rudkin ahead of the premiere of Little White Lie on Rialto Channel:
Rialto Channel's PERSONAL PORTRAITS Season, on Wednesday and Thursdays at 8.30pm in October