Many film festival programmers look at a collection of films and realize they’re all speaking with each other, the themes reverberating across the divide, that they’re tapping into the zeitgeist, crying out together. Perhaps due to the past couple of years of COVID lockdown and loss, a deep well of loneliness has informed many filmmaking decisions. In these times, it’s easy to cling to stories of hope just as much as it can be to embrace a wail of despair. This came across loud and clear with these next two films which played Outfest LA this week.
Nelly & Nadine ★★★★1/2
Pristinely restored black and white footage of women having just stepped off a Red Cross boat to safety in Sweden first appears on screen. It’s 1945 and the camera pans across the faces of this group, some of them looking into the lens with beaming smiles, others less enthusiastic. Having survived the horrors of the Nazis, we learn a little about their lives since. I instantly connected with these people staring at me and began to cry, perhaps the clarity of the image making it feel so current and immediate.
We stop on the haunted face of a woman with strong features as she stares directly at us. Who is she and how did she find herself, an Asian woman, amongst the others? It’s a question which struck documentary filmmaker Magnus Gertten, setting him off on a research journey to uncover this woman’s history. Her name is Nadine Hwang, the daughter of a Chinese Ambassador to Spain. She was arrested in Paris on mysterious charges and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where female political prisoners were interned. Here, on Christmas Eve 1944, she would meet Nelly Mousset Vos, a Belgian opera singer arrested for espionage.
Through his process, Gertten locates Sylvie Bianchi, who reports that she has many of her grandmother Nelly’s boxes filled with diaries, Super 8 films, and photos. She only knew Nelly briefly and had never looked at these effects until now, thinking she couldn’t bear to know more about her time in the camps. Sylvie discovers instead Nelly and Nadine’s love for each other and their incredible journey together across the decades.
The boxes prove to be a treasure trove, giving us concrete evidence of the couple’s social life, their friendships with others, and the expressions of love, especially for the time the end of the war separated them. While Nelly had a more traditionally feminine presentation and wore dresses, Nadine presented as more masculine, often seen clad in pants with slicked back hair. It seemed impossible enough that they survived Ravensbrück, but then they reentered a society hostile to queer women, especially those who did not conform to gender stereotypes.
Gertten goes even further with the remarkable story by allowing us to see across the generations and the effect the couple had on them. It’s tremendously moving, eliciting audience sobs towards the end, when we learn of something Nadine passed on to someone she would never meet. To say more would spoil the breadth of this rich tale, which I feel should be required viewing for anyone with a pulse.
Nelly & Nadine screened in person at the 40th Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Thursday, July 21th and is available to stream online until 8am PT on Sunday July 24th 2022.
Regret To Inform You ★★★★
A Black gay man, played by the film’s writer-director Yusuf Nasir, lives in a cluttered apartment and struggles with booking acting gigs. Unable to convince his boss at his day job to give him time off for an audition, he heads to the casting office anyhow. On his way, a call from his agent informs him—microaggressions included—that the role has been taken and that he needs to present himself better to people. Insulted, he screams at his agent and begins to spiral. Clearly a paycheck away from becoming unhoused and devastated by the state of things, he allows his imagination to offer him a form of respite.
The screen explodes into a black and white dance sequence, with him front and center, dazzling us. This fantastic segment results in some of the best dance footage I’ve seen on screen in ages. Our main character believes so much in his own talent and seems to scream out to the world for recognition. Soon, reality bleeds back into this dream segment, resulting in a punch in the gut. I wanted to single out this short film since it made me feel something. I connected to our main character’s flaws and unmet ambitions, that overwhelming need to be seen. After this long period of isolation, isn’t that something universal? Don’t we all want to show the world what we can do? Nasir, who delivers a beautiful performance, captures that feeling vividly.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Yusuf Nasir received the Outfest LA 2022 Special Programming Award for Emerging Talent. Regret To Inform You screened in person at the 40th Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Monday, July 18th before the feature documentary Manscaping.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The 40th anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival runs in person and online until Sunday, July 24th 2022. For the full lineup and to purchase tickets head to OutfestLA.org