Reviewed at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.
Amongst the tousled, too-hip-for-the-room Japanese punks and the deglammed hipster brunettes with Jackie O. shades, one of the more recognizable constituencies walking around this year’s SXSW would have to be the portly bearded male, so prominent in number that you’d think you were living in a wet dream of the men profiled in “Bear Nation,” Malcolm Ingram’s look at the fetish of a certain subset of gay men towards the hirsute and hefty. The film is a follow-up to Ingram’s first documentary “Small Town Gay Bar” and, like that film, you pretty much know what you’re getting into from the title, though “Bear Nation” doesn’t only refer to America, but apparently Canada and England, where Ingram films interviews, and the rest of the world, as the film shows through a series of posters and pictures in the end credits from bear conventions around the globe.
There are interviews with famous bears such as Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould and honorary bear Kevin Smith (the film’s executive producer), but mostly “Bear Nation” has average Joes telling their stories about having to first come out as homosexuals and then coming out once more as chubby chasers. All that’s well and good, but it’s not a 90-minute movie, and it might not even sustain the 44-minute version set to air on Logo later this year. (Ingram said during the Q & A that he’s taking the film on a 29-city tour of bear-related events this summer, where the film will find its most appreciative audience.) The trouble is “Bear Nation” is a film at war with itself, surely set into motion because the idea of being attracted to “bears” is intriguingly subversive, but presenting its subjects as normal, average guys with particular tastes like everyone else. And while the testimony of the men is heartfelt, their stories, as well as the many clubs and conventions Ingram takes us to, are too similar and mostly mundane to justify its feature length.
Dressed up in pop music and drizzled with campy clips from the ’50s, “Bear Nation” has energy to spare and Ingram continually spices up the film with his subjects’ tales of masturbating to “Smokey and the Bandit” and being sexually awakened by “Longtime Companion,” but there’s also pointless sequences of people on the street comparing gay bears to real bears and interviews where the t-shirts say more than the subject wearing them (one particularly amusing one reads “It’s okay that I eat meat because I eat all the gay animals”). Additionally, Ingram and cinematographer Andrew MacDonald make the distracting choice to shoot many of the interviews from an indirect angle that’s not quite a side profile, inadvertently undermining the integrity of what the men are saying since they’re always looking way off-screen.
Still, “Bear Nation” will likely resonate with bear lovers, and as many who are interviewed in the film suggest, take the stigma off of what one calls “a splinter group within a splinter group.” That much was evident from the film’s post-screening Q & A, where two separate audience members praised the film for documenting a part of the gay community that has existed for at least a decade-and-a-half, which is how long Bear magazine, which is featured prominently in the film, has been in business. (The hairy SXSW staffer who introduced the screening did his part to excite the crowd by asking where the “beardos” were and encouraged the audience to feel his beard, which he “sifted with coconut oil and sandalwood” earlier in the morning.) Ingram also took the opportunity to share how he personally finally felt comfortable when he was taken in by the bear community when he came out in his thirties, though he never includes his own story in the film. By leaving the story to be told by others, “Bear Nation” misses a key opportunity to rise above its attention-grabbing premise.
“Bear Nation” will be self-distributed and appear on Logo this year.
[Photo: “Bear Nation,” View Askew Productions, 2010]