Pedro Lemebel was one of the most famous openly gay public figures in Chile during the later stages of Pinochet’s reign, before developing an international cult following for his personal and slyly satirical essays. I have to confess that prior to watching Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s impressionistic documentary, premiering in Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama sidebar, I was unfamiliar with the man and his legacy – but with many Latin American countries now lapsing back in to a conservatism Lemebel raged against his whole life, now is the perfect time for a new generation of LGBT people to discover his work.
The documentary was filmed across an eight year period leading up to Lemebel’s death from cancer of the larynx in 2015. During this period, he spoke candidly about his history of activism, with essays and performance art protests designed to shine a light on LGBT issues, largely focusing on the LGBT people living in poorer, more conservative neighbourhoods, who were at a greater risk of being murdered in their day to day lives. Garibaldi journeys with Lemebel through many of the Santiago neighbourhoods where he grew up, but the approach to chronicling his life is far from conventional; the grainy cinematography calls to mind a home movie, with his early family life and later career in the public eye discussed in conversational terms that feel like catching up with an old friend.
This is all the more impressive due to how the film doesn’t shield you from his more abrasive, confrontational works of performance art protest. You never get the sense that this is a man who has mellowed with age, so much as the world has slowly started agreeing with his arguments – although with conservative and far right powers on the rise elsewhere in Latin America, his thoughts on the hardships exclusively faced by poor gay men in less welcoming towns have a chilling relevancy.
During the film, Lemebel talks about how his upbringing was comparatively privileged to others; he may have lived in a poor neighbourhood, but when his parents both eventually accepted him, his struggles were purely economic (he got fired from a teaching job due to presumption of homosexuality) rather than existential. He may have discussed a variety of LGBT themes within his work, but this is the idea Garibaldi’s film keeps returning to – Lemebel wanted to use the privilege of the spotlight to discuss the gay people whose plights society ignored. There’s no greater way to honour his memory than to make everybody leave the film with this as fresh in their mind as much as the life of the man himself.
Lemebel is an enrapturing look at the life of an LGBT icon, told with an intimacy that feels like catching up with an old friend. Joanna Reposi Garibaldi perfectly honours the spirit of her subject by grabbing your attention with many of his more abrasive, harder to define stages of performance art, then slowly peeling back the disreputable veneer to uncover the man at the heart of it all. Much of Pedro Lemebel’s work can be described as an “acquired taste”, and stylistically this fits that billing too – but I’d be surprised if audiences without any prior knowledge of him weren’t left eager to learn more about his life and legacy.