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Reel Identities Film Festival screens a diverse array of movies including documentaries, features and an Oscar winner (Freeheld). Most of the screenings are at the Contemporary Arts Center. Opening night features a reception followed by a screening of Tru Loved. Below are reviews of several films. Visit the Web site for a complete schedule and descriptions.

She's a Boy I Knew
Directed by Gwen Hawarth
2 p.m. Sat., Nov. 15

Gwen Hawarth's autobiographical documentary is a gentle and detailed account of her desire to go from being her parents' first-born son to eldest daughter. Born Steven Hawarth to a middle-class couple in British Columbia, he knew from the age of 4 that he wanted to be female. Through years of wrestling, junior hockey and marriage, he concealed those feelings. After revealing his wishes to his wife Malgosia, he started a journey of transformation, silly at first with overdone makeup and bags of birdseed stuffed into a bra, but leading to hormone therapy and ultimately breast implantation and vaginoplasty surgery (or sexual reassignment).

Hawarth studied filmmaking, and the film benefits from years of home movies. But the greatest asset to both the film and Gwen is being surrounded by loving and supportive friends and family. All are interviewed extensively, and though they were all shocked at first, each came to accept the new woman in their lives. It was perhaps hardest for Malgosia, who gave up a husband she loved, couldn't accept a lesbian relationship and, for a while, feared that he had never loved her but wanted in some sense to be her.

Telling the story in retrospect, Gwen leaves out much of the anguish as she retraces the many steps in the transformation. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays sponsors the screening. It's hard to imagine a better film to broach a discussion about a child's gender identity. — Coviello

Otto; or, Up With Dead People
Directed by Bruce LaBruce
10 p.m. Sat., Nov. 15

Canadian filmmaker and porn star Bruce LaBruce's Otto; or, Up With Dead People is a beautifully shot mash-up of zombie gore, gay porn, art-house filmmaking and mockery of French literary theory. A gay German zombie rises from the dead and heads for Berlin to figure out the meaning of life " and death, which puts him on a collision course with Madea Yarn, a pretentious filmmaker who seeks to understand the undead. Realizing that zombies are not terribly welcome, he tries out for a part in the film to disguise his true nature as a serious bout of method acting.

LaBruce mocks German art cinema by mimicking it, sometimes torturing the viewer with slow scenes and narcissism. But the rewards of austere and blunt sniping and soul-searching are wry and funny. Stopping to watch a butcher cut up pork and chicken carcasses, Otto thinks, 'I seem to remember that in life I was a vegetarian, or worse, a vegan." When Madea searches for props in a cemetery, she squeals with delight, 'I love the smell of the graveyard in the afternoon. It smells like extinction."

LaBruce's film is not campy; it's sometimes sexually graphic and morbidly gory. But it is outrageously memorable. — Coviello

Freeheld
Directed by Cynthia Wade
8 p.m. Sun., Nov. 16

Cynthia Wade's Oscar-winning documentary Freeheld follows the last days of police detective Laurel Hester's life and her fight for justice. Hester was a 20-year veteran of the Ocean County, N.J., police force. She was diagnosed with stage-three lung cancer, and her final wish was to pass on her pension benefits to her life partner, Stacie Andree. The board of Ocean County Freeholders repeatedly denied the request, even while other New Jersey counties approved legislation to allow lesbian and gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples. During Freeholder meetings, many of Hester's supporters held signs demanding the county's Freeholders 'have compassion," a sensation that comes easily to those who watch Harris fighting from her deathbed.

Wade focuses on the couple's struggle rather than the greater battle for equality. Freeheld is an intimate portrait that concentrates on Hester's failing health and heroic efforts to care for her partner. — Davis

click to enlarge In Freeheld, Laurel Hester fights to transfer her pension benefits to her partner, Stacie Andree.
  • In Freeheld, Laurel Hester fights to transfer her pension benefits to her partner, Stacie Andree.
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