Bamboozled: Why I’m Quitting Tropfest

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[This article now appears at ABC’s The Drum]

Ugh, Tropfest.

I go to Tropfest each year expecting to be disappointed. There always tends to be two or three films I like, and a lot more with too much ‘typically Australian’ humour for me to stomach (lots of bodily functions and fluids). The latter kind always do better in judging than the former, but I leave knowing I’ll come back next year.

Two films into Tropfest 22, I knew I didn’t want to come back next year.

I didn’t even want to stay for the rest of this year’s.

Now, I understand comedy is subjective, and I’m certain that others would consider a lot of the comedy I appreciate offensive (If It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia were fuel, I could live off it), but Matt Hardie’s Bamboozled was… soul-crushing. Capping off a weekend that saw the nation’s first legal same-sex marriages, it was an unintentionally poignant reminder that we have a long way to go when it comes to treating the LGBTQI community as ‘equal’, rather than ‘other’.

In Bamboozled, Pete bumps into his ex at a bus stop. The twist? His ex has had a sex change (a really tasteful use of the year’s theme, ‘change’) and is now a man. They catch up over a few (hundred) drinks, rehashing the two years they spent together. Their connection is clear. The next morning, Pete wakes up next to his ex (a man) and he clearly regrets his decision. Yes, their shared history and obvious chemistry is null and void because, ‘Ew, gross, I slept with a boy.’ Cue audience laughter. Then, he finds out its an ‘elaborate hoax’, and instead of sleeping with a Helen-turned-Harry, he’s just slept with a Harry. And he’s shamed for it. Cue more audience laughter.

“We got you, man! We got you!” Harry howls.

As if things can’t get any worse, in comes Helen, his real ex. “How do you like that, Pete?” she asks. “And now, you slept with a guy!”

“You totally banged me, man. You totally banged me!” Harry continues. He adds a, “He loved it!” as he high-fives his co-conspirators.

So, yeah: Ugh, Tropfest.

Some are defending the film, saying it’s just a joke. And that’s exactly the problem, there’s nothing particularly funny about being intimate with someone of the same gender. That, in and of itself, is not humorous. And neither is shaming them for it. That’s othering anyone who doesn’t identify as heterosexual, pointing at them and laughing (literally, in this case).

If selecting the film as one of 16 finalists wasn’t — wait for it — bamboozling enough, it went on to win. In the short term, it’s disheartening. In the longer term, it may have a positive effect. It may have inspired someone who was sitting in Centennial Park who wasn’t laughing to pick up their camera and tell a story we didn’t see on the big screen tonight.

But until then, it just feels shitty.

UPDATE: Director Matt Hardie has defended the film as a parody of the media in an interview with ABC.

“The punchline really is a comment on media and how the world may have homophobia, but the lead character, and what I was saying, he was completely willing to go with either gender, he was in love with the person,” he says.

Right, okay. I don’t know what media he’s commenting on. Yes, reality programmes like 2003’s There’s Something About Miriam were vile and exploitative, but they were also in 2003. Since then, we’ve seen positive, sensitive portrayals of the LGBTQI on the small screen thanks to reality TV. I’m no fan of Big Brother, but there’s no denying it’s done some good in this regard.

Let’s be honest here, if Hardie’s character Pete really was “completely willing to go with either gender”, his first words when waking up next to an affectionate man wouldn’t have been, “What the F?” In fact, the whole scene wouldn’t have been framed like every other morning-after-drunken-regret scene committed to film.

Hardie says the punchline is two-fold. It’s a commentary on a media (that may or may not actually exist), and “how the world may have homophobia”. I’m assuming he means Helen’s gleeful, “How do you like that, Pete? … You slept with a guy!” This is perhaps the most problematic part of his explanation. The world having homophobia isn’t a punchline. Having people shame a man they duped into having sex with another man isn’t a punchline. Playing it for laughs isn’t showing how the world may have homophobia, it’s showing the world how to be homophobic.

14 replies
  1. George Hirst
    George Hirst says:

    Yeah Will i was pretty Bamboozled. I was actually really enjoying the whole lead-up until the morning scene then, not only did we get the awful joke twist, it was just a cop out in terms of movie making. Give me a waking up and ‘it was all a dream’ cliche and Id have just been disappointed but not so angry that they could be that nasty.

    As part of partnership Tropfest entry that managed to make the preselection but not the final 16, with a film titled ‘Xandra: Gender Warrior’, a kind of snapshot of a trans girl dealing with her doubtful family and difficult background, I was pretty staggered that Tropfest would want to shoot itself in the foot by letting such a nasty film be selected. If you want to see a Tropfest entry that takes trans people seriously and has some fun as well then Im hoping Xandra will be selected for the Melbourne Queer Film Festival which we entered last week.

    Reply
  2. Mattch
    Mattch says:

    Eh, to me it felt like the film makers were making fun of the depths that reality TV would go to, in that it’s so depraved and immoral that it would concoct the scheme depicted and present it as entertainment. (As a satirical premise it’s not bad, just look at what Kyle & Jackie have done in the past).
    I don’t think the film makers wanted us to laugh at the guy who’d been tricked into sleeping with a guy, but wanted us to laugh at the idea of a reality TV show executing such a stunt.
    It’s debatable whether it was the best film of the night (it wasn’t) but calling it homo or trans phobic is like saying Django Unchained endorses slavery

    Reply
    • Will Kostakis
      Will Kostakis says:

      Not really. Django Unchained’s perspective on slavery was clear – there was no endorsement. In the same way that Inglourious Basterds ’empowers’ the Jews and gives them a satisfying ending to World War II, Django Unchained empowers the slave, rising up against the owner.

      Reality TV has been terrible in the past (remember Miriam?), but since then, it has been responsible for some of the most prominent and respectful queer representations on Australian screens. Bamboozled wasn’t really parodying anything. But if it was, and him being shamed was a criticism of the media… why would him sleeping with someone he thought was his partner for two years be a source of shame? And why would the ex-girlfriend be so proud of the deception/result? Why would he wake up thinking, “What the F?” before the reality TV twist?

      Reply
      • Mattch
        Mattch says:

        See I would have thought the film makers position on homophobia was clear, in that the makers of the fictional Bamboozled TV show are the bad guys. As satire (as opposed to parody) it’s playing on the cultural environment where Kyle Sandilands asks a 13 year old rape victim about her sexual history.
        Watching it again, I don’t think the main character is that ashamed of sleeping with a guy but rather that he’d had a drunken sexual encounter. The camera crew and the ex-girlfriend are laughing because they are horrible people. Did they need subtitle pointing this out?

        Reply
    • audiodesigndan
      audiodesigndan says:

      Let’s accept that it is commentary on the depths of reality TV… is that payoff really worthy of the best film at Tropfest? If that’s a new insight for Hardie, great, but it’s hardly inspiring when a filmmaker takes what everyone has known for over a decade and treats it like fresh commentary.
      Homo/Trans-phobic? It certainly comes across that way. The lowest a reality television show could go is to make two males sleep together? The most embarrassing thing a man could do is have sex with another man?

      Reply
  3. Mike
    Mike says:

    Always dangerous to comment when one hasn’t seen the film/painting/play etc, but…I’m always a little alarmed when “the media” is blamed or becomes the justification. To say it’s a critique of the media can sound like a cop-out, a fudge, for clunky ideas or poor execution.

    Reply
  4. Shaun
    Shaun says:

    What’s just as bad is the demeaning nature of the comments in relation to trans people at the start of the film. The director, in interviews by news articles this morning, clearly says that he took little time to create the film. Maybe his research was lacking in transgender issues? Either way, the way it was portrayed was horrific, going on about how it was a spur of the moment decision then it wasn’t… Ugh just ugh

    Reply
  5. Sally Goldner
    Sally Goldner says:

    (From me as an individual; not on behalf of any organisation I represent).

    There are many perspectives to this debate; I add mine as a person who among many other facets is transgender and an occasional stand-up/spoken word performer.

    I run by the guideline when doing stand-up of “unless a person identifies as part of that group, they don’t make jokes about it.” As someone who is a person (emphasis) with many facets including transgender and performer, I can - and do - take the Michelle out of myself on those facets. I also used to sit and watch people who didn’t identify that way and who thought they had incredibly funny material about trans that I knew wasn’t funny at all. The good thing was - virtually no one else laughed at their material either.

    As rightly noted by Will, “There’s Something About Miriam,” among many issues, was unacceptable in that played on the emotive and false allegation that trans people are “deceivers” re intimacy. I ask people to note that recently, 20th November marked Transgender Day of Remembrance and 239 known transphobic murders around the world in the last 12 months. A visit to the official website notes many such brutal murders over the years are because the other person is enraged by the idea of alleged “deception” by the trans person (think Boys Don’t Cry). General violence rates in Australia against trans people can be up to 25% – 12 times that of the overall population.

    In this light, I really question the artistic and so-called “comedic” merit of Bamboozled and its worthiness to win an award. I would think it is surely possible to critique reality TV in a way that involves humour without stereotyping groups or possibly putting groups at any greater risk than they already face.

    If we are asking organisations such as the AFL to take social responsibility in areas such as transgender, I think we are entitled to ask Tropfest and filmmakers to do the same. Certainly, freedom of opinion and artistic expression are important in society. I think human life and human dignity matter even more – maybe most of all.

    Reply
  6. Starlady Nungari
    Starlady Nungari says:

    As a prominent trans activist in the Northern Territory I am aware of how much energy our community puts in to educate the Australian public. I know that it’ very difficult to get funding to produce educational resources that are needed to create social change. Then a film like this comes along and does untold damage. It humiliates, degrades and shames both gay and transgender people including the people whom may not identify as sexually diverse but are none the less attracted to us. With suicide rates in our community astronomically high I think everybody involved in this film should have a deep look into their actions. A public apology would be a good first step quickly followed by this film being stripped of its award. If not we should begin writing to Tropfests sponsors demanding some answers of why they are supporting homophobia and transphobia!

    Reply
  7. Josh
    Josh says:

    The thing I found most offensive, even before the “reveal”, was that the “humour” was entirely based around the concept of how “weird” and “gross” it was that this guy was engaging flirtatiously with a transgender man. If that’s not what was meant to be funny, then what was? There is literally not a single joke in this entire film that doesn’t relegate transgender people or homosexual sex as something gross, embarrassing, or strange.

    Reply
  8. John
    John says:

    Stop making it a LBGT rights issue.

    Honestly, it is not offensive and if you’re offended get of yourself. The only offense Bamboozled made was in it’s mediocrity relying on such a gimmick. The acting went beyond hammy and the whole ‘change’ idea is so obvious as to make the whole thing trite.

    Bamboozled winning is offensive because there were several much better films. Personally, I would have picked Charades well ahead of it. But also, it’s Tropfest? After 22 years of the same bondi-boho douchieness shining through, why would you expect anything more from their panel?

    Reply
    • Teegan
      Teegan says:

      I don’t think this is a rights issue, its a representation issue. No one is saying homosexual or trans* rights have been infringed. What we’re saying is that presenting homosexual sex as an obviously terrible mistake for a straight guy to have made and presenting trans* people as weird and different to be gawked at, ridiculed and worthy of suspicion is detrimental to the perception and acceptance of people who do actually identify as those things. Don’t say there was no offence, there are clearly abunch of people offended. Just because you don’t personally feel that offence doesn’t mean its not there in the film. The suggestion that those who are offended “get of yourself” [sic] is naive and dismissive. The statistics listed above by Sally Golder spell out pretty clearly how serious transphobia is. People are literally being killed over these issues! And if these prejudices aren’t coming from the art/media/entertainment we consume where do you think they’re coming from? Children aren’t born with these prejudices, they learn them and one of the big contributing factors to that is the media they consume in which issues like this are trivialised. Don’t tell us not to be offended or concerned about the damage this film is doing because you clearly haven’t thought through the full impact. And you know what? I take back my first statement, this is a rights issue. Gay and trans* people should have a right to see themselves represented in the media as fully developed character not just as stereotypes and certainly not just as the butt of jokes.

      Reply
  9. Dano
    Dano says:

    After being a huge fan I’m quitting this year as well. I won’t be alone either, judging by the comments around us on the night, the rapidity people got out once they realised it wasn’t going to get any better, and some of the most tepid applause ever mustered by a 90000 crowd. Sad I wasted what was a beautiful sydney night on such irrelevant garbage. Glad some people are brave enough to raise an objection to a night I was embarrassed was being simulcast overseas. RIP Australian films.

    Reply

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