My happy place is the Altered Innocence logo card. When I close my eyes, I’m often transported to that James Bidgoodian terrarium, which is just as often tacked to the front of the best films on the modern media landscape. Not everything the high-style, queer distributor releases can be as transcendent as all-star titles like The Wild Boys, Knife+Heart, Arrebato, and Equation to an Unknown, though. Like all small-operation film labels, they’re also in the business of releasing minor, low-budget festival acquisitions that would otherwise drift into the great distribution abyss. And if you’ve ever been to a film festival, you know that distro model is going to include a lot of documentaries – a medium that’s cheap to produce but difficult to market. I’ve run across a couple Altered Innocence documentaries before on both ends of that distribution path: I caught their couture culture documentary House of Cardin at New Orleans French Film Fest before it was certain to land proper distro, and I sought out the personal coming-out essay film Madame because it already had the Altered Innocence stamp of approval. I love Altered Innocence most for its proud, consistent platforming of arthouse weirdos Yann Gonzalez & Bertrand Mandico, but I also respect that their stated mission to release “LGBTQ & Coming-of-Age films with an artistic edge” extends to smaller, no-name directors whose work would otherwise screen once at venues like Outfest, then fade into oblivion. In that spirit, I’d like to highlight two recent queer-culture documentaries distributed by Altered Innocence that might not have as flashy of a premise as phantasmagorical fiction titles like After Blue: Dirty Paradise (a sci-fi acid Western in which a lesbian orgy planet cowers in fear of a demonic assassin named Kate Bush) but still deserve wide attention & distribution anyway.
The more innocuous title of this pair is 2019’s Queer Japan, a densely packed, low-budget documentary about contemporary queer culture in—you guessed it—Japan. I’m calling it innocuous because it’s relatively soft in its political advocacy, over-explaining basic concepts that are common to most queer subcultures regardless of region. It argues that drag is art, bisexuality is real, and lesbian spaces are too often trans-exclusionary, all while scrolling through a never-ending glossary of basic terms in onscreen text & Instagram graphics. It’s somewhat illuminating as an update to the semi-fictional, half-century-old street interviews in Funeral Parade of Roses but, overall, the film’s queer politics are largely understated & unspecific. Thankfully, its region-specific details are much more prominent in the “artistic edge” Altered Innocence seeks to platform. At its best, Queer Japan is an extensive catalog of beautiful queer visual artists, ranging from avant garde drag performers to gay manga illustrators to high-fashion latex & puppy play fetishists. It also doubles as a tourist roadmap to popular queer nightclubs & pride events in its titular country, which I suppose might be of use to travelers using the doc as a quick crash-course primer. There’s a wide enough range of vibrant pop art footage that it’s instantly clear why director Graham Kobeins decided they had enough raw material to justify a feature length documentary here; it must’ve been daunting to edit. If anything, though, that overabundance of subject material is almost too wide of a scope for one documentary. I would have been a lot more enthusiastic about it as a whole if it dropped its onscreen dictionary of political terms and instead focused entirely on profiling queer Japanese artists in particular, since that’s where its heart appeared to be.
By contrast, the 2017 punk scene documentary Queer Core: How to Punk a Revolution did pull off the trick of tackling both queer art & queer politics without overextending itself. A talking-heads nostalgia trip into the queer zine culture of punk’s hardcore & riot grrrl eras, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the film in terms of form, but its revolutionary content more than makes up for it. It has plenty furious things to say about assimilation politics that continue to resonate beyond its vintage punk scene infighting & self-mythology, loudly decrying assimilation a “death trap”. It also has a stylistic upper hand over Queer Japan in its archival footage’s vintage zine aesthetics, cobbling together a loose art scene between such disparate artists as Bruce LaBruce, Vaginal Davis, Team Dresch, Tribe 8, and Bikini Kill (citing earlier provocateurs like Quentin Crisp, John Waters, and William S. Burroughs as their queer elders). Somehow, though, its political advocacy comes across as much sharper & more specific than its corollary in Queer Japan. It throws punches at supposed counterculture movements like hippies & punks for continuing the retrograde sexual politics of their Right Wing enemies, pointing out “punk”‘s origins as an explicitly queer term and pushing back against the macho hardcore scene & AIDS paranoia of the Reagan Era. As soon as Queer Core opens with a cumshot title card, its goal to make straight-boy punks uncomfortable is loud & clear, and all of its hagiographic interviews of queercore, homocore, and riot grrrl artists are filtered through that viscus lens. Director Yony Leyser’s only real misstep is an early narration track that’s quickly dropped to instead let the subjects speak for themselves, since they’re all loudly, politically opinionated enough to carry the movie on their own. The art cataloged in Queer Japan is on par with the art cataloged in Queer Core, but only one movie makes great use of the political meaning behind its creation.
You don’t have to be a physical media collector to access these titles. Queer Japan is currently streaming for free (with a library membership) on Kanopy, and Queer Core is streaming for free (with ad breaks) on Tubi. As strongly as I preferred Queer Core out of the two, they’re both worth your time if you have any interest in their respective subjects. I’d even extend that to say that I’ve yet to see an Altered Innocence release that isn’t worth your time. They’re the best distributor of “LGBTQ & Coming-of-Age films with an artistic edge” that I can name, give or take a Strand Releasing.