Angel (above) is one of the four teens profiled in Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig, a documentary about musicians who rally around the Harvey Milk School for LGBTQ youth.
Benefiting a controversial school through song
By Steven Snyder
The passion that seems to overflow from the vibrant, moving and somewhat addictive Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig is quite similar to the passion that makes the Tribeca Film Festival such a remarkable experience. Broken down to their essentials, both are built around great works of art that inspire people to come together in celebration of all that make us different, yet the same.
For the festival, its all about a slate of great films that bring together a community hungry for new visions and new experiences. For Follow My Voice, its all about a celebrity-packed tribute album produced in support of the Harvey Milk School, a high school that protects persecuted gay teens from the intolerance of the straight world. In the process of telling their story, the film, a competing entry in this years NY, NY Competition, also captures the creative, collaborative, can-do spirit that is so emblematic of the city.
When it was founded in 1985, Harvey Milk School became the countrys first, fully-accredited high school for lesbian, gay, bi-, transgender and questioning youth. The films drama arises nearly 20 years later, when the city starts to fund its $3.2 million expansion and renovation in 2003. Controversy erupts over the spending of tax dollars on the school, the only place of its kind for LGBTQ teens to turn to when the harassment in public schools becomes too much to bear. As protesters begin to congregate outside its home at 2 Astor Place in the East Village, and City Council members and anti-gay ministers argue over how much money should be spent on the alternative school, one record producer comes up with a way to raise money that will sidestep the naysayers.
His idea: Create a benefit album that pays tribute to the cult hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a rock opera that confronts the issues of being an outsider and enduring scorn that are so familiar to HMS students. And so Chris Slusarenko sets out to make the album a reality, recruiting an impressive cast of talent that includes Yoko Ono, the Polyphonic Spree, Yo La Tengo, Jonathan Richman, Ben Kweller, Sleater-Kinney and others.
While this tribute album comes together, director Katherine Linton turns her cameras on four Harvey Milk students who recount why theyre at the school and what hardships theyve had to overcome, and asks them to turn the camera on themselves through a series of video diaries. We learn how one was forced to hire a lawyer to fight back against her conservative parents. We hear the schools director talks about the lives of these students before reaching the school, enduring regular beatings and ridicule in their public school while being ignored by administrators.
As one subject observes, If anti-gay violence were counted as a hate crime and violent homophobes were removed from high school and sent to a reform school, then maybe we wouldnt need this [school].
As a concept, Slusarenko hits a nerve with these musicians who agree to adapt songs from Hedwig in their own style, and donate their talents towards the creation of the album Wig in a Box, whose proceeds go toward the school. As a film, Linton discovers a dynamic formula within her documentary, functioning in parts as a concert film, in others as an inspirational tale of camaraderie and also as a moving expose on the challenges faced, and overcome, by these four, brave teens.
Its an infectious concoction, a film that finds a catchy rhythm between scenes spent in music studios, personal testimonials and the political brouhaha surrounding the school. The constant through it all, though, is the passion of the students and the musicians, which comes to a climax the day students begin a new school year at Harvey Milk, defiant in their refusal to be kept away by homophobic protestors who use God, as well as Sept. 11, to slander the school.
Follow My Voice: With the Music of Hedwig shows 4/28, 4/30, 5/1, 5/4, and 5/6. For theater and ticket information, visit www.tribecafilmfestival.org.