Right now, most viewers want to escape. While fantasy, horror, and comedy often allow for such absconding, documentaries bring reality to bear. They highlight the inequities of our society and social institutions. However, they can also demonstrate the best of us. The undeniable human connectivity we possess. In the three docs: P.S. Burn This Letter Please, The State of Texas vs. Melissa, and Through the Night—selected for Tribeca Film Festival’s digital iteration, are stories that certainly do show the worst of us; but also demonstrate the bend of justice, charity, and love inherit in our empathetic bond to one another.
If you’ve seen Paris is Burning or Pose, or have been alive during the 21st century, then the world of Jennifer Tiexiera and Michael Seligman’s documentary P.S. Burn This Letter Please isn’t all too unfamiliar. Set among the drag balls of the 1950’s, mostly in New York City, the film derives its uniqueness from the narrative’s dependence upon mixing both oral and epistolary history. That is, while interviews are glean from the still-living participants of the balls, the letters come from a box left in a storage locker. The combination gives P.S. Burn This Letter Please a wellspring of pleasure and intimacy while recounting the gay scene of New York and the broader United States.
Dating from the 50’s, the letters were all addressed to a ‘Reno Martin.’ The person behind the pseudonym of Martin, for much of the doc, remains a mystery. However, Tiexiera and Seligman do work to reconstruct Reno’s circle of friends by tracking each down to slowly web together their past. Incredibly, many of the participants from the balls are still alive, living in their late-80’s and early-90s. From all corners of the country, some served in the military, and came to New York because of the freedom, albeit limited, the city offered.
Other than the letters’ clear historical value in describing the balls and friendships of the era, thrillingly it is the language present in the writing that’s critical, too. Hearing gossip called “the dish” or make-up referred to as “the paint” enlivens the period for viewers. Moreover, the subjects investigate the term “drag queen.” Former-queens like Terry and Robert refer to themselves as “female impersonators” or “femme mimics,” respectively—which demonstrates the still evolving language of identity. Even so, the words that most color their language are “glamour,” “artistry,” and “elegance.” P.S. Burn This Letter Please displays a litany of breathtaking photos and snapshots of these queens adorned in their chic and resplendent dresses celebrating, as one interviewee says best, “in gay abandonment.”
Tiexiera and Seligman work to break down misconceptions of New York’s LGBTQIA scene, such as asking about The 82 Club; a popular mob-owned drag bar where stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Judy Garland, and the Kennedy’s visited. “The people coming to these shows were your mom and dad,” one subject exclaims. The directors and participants paint a slightly more normalized and open 1950’s America than previously reported, yet never discount the fear of punishment at the hands of authorities and the courage to exist freely these queens displayed. The reminiscing in P.S. Burn This Letter Please, recounting past friendships and memories brought back to the surface, along with the intimacy of its epistolary storytelling, makes this documentary into an elative window into the past.
Melissa Lucio sits entrapped behind a plexiglass wall, relegated to a phone and a speaker box as her only form of communication to the outside. A death row inmate in Texas for the last 11 years, convicted of beating and murdering her two-year old daughter Mariah, Melissa awaits her final appeal. Her story, explored by Sabrina Van Tassel in the true-crime documentary The State of Texas vs. Melissa, is a heart wrenching and urgent example of justice rendered incorrectly.
Opening with footage of Melissa’s interrogation, where authorities coaxed her to demonstrate on a doll how she supposedly struck her daughter, the demoralized mother of fourteen issues exhaustion. However like other defenses gone awry, her case was beset by questionable strategies by her lawyer, uneasy interrogation tactics by police, and a pernicious legal system.
Van Tassel culls together poignant interviews from Melissa’s family, including her mother, siblings, and children. But the most arresting portions of her documentary arrive through recounting Melissa’s tragic past. Molested at a young age, married at sixteen, attached to problematic and manipulative men, and later living either in a homeless state or in a series of two-bedroom apartments with her sprawling family, she was an easy target for a conviction that villainized her in the same way society often turns troubled victims and the poor into an extra notch on a prison roll. Moreover, the brutal footage of her interrogation: where authorities denied her food and water—and the gruesome triggering pictures of her deceased daughter’s bruised body—are powerful components to an unflinching film.
However, it is Melissa trapped behind that glass wall on her final appeal that also haunts my mind. Wearing a white jumpsuit, with a blinding white light shining in the visitation room, she sits center-framed yet distant. There’s a separation yet intimacy in the depth of the shot, one mirroring the apathy of the justice system in conflict with the empathy of the viewer. Van Tassel through The State of Texas vs. Melissa finds a tragedy, but tries to right the law’s misused “justice” before it is too late.
A collage of children’s photographs color and cover their walls. Their vibrant house and family atmosphere is the day-and-night time home for an unnumbered amount of kids. This dwelling belongs to Nunu and Patrick; a wonder couple and owners of a 24/7 daycare in Westchester, New York servicing mothers working long hours. When considering its discussion of social safety nets, very few documentaries from Tribeca hit as timely as Loira Limbal’s Through the Night.
Often, the mothers most dependent upon Nunu and Patrick are nurses or have multiple jobs. They work in the gig economy or other low-wage, but time-consuming pursuits. The difficulty for these parents isn’t just the financial strain in finding a suitable daycare, but in the cruel reality that by working to support their children, they’re forced to subtract valuable time from physically being with them, too.
They’re lucky to have Nunu and Patrick. Critically, the former’s undeniably soothing voice eases all around her. However, even this super tandem is merely human. Throughout Limbal’s compact documentary, Nunu tires under the day-to-day weight of nurturing an unending stream of children. She loves her husband, the job, the life, and most importantly the kids. Even so, Through the Night nearly takes a tragic turn because of Nunu’s workaholic ethos. It’s a reminder of how the system often fails in its promise of upward mobility. In fact, at one point, a mother loses her funding from the government for daycare because her daughter turned thirteen. It causes her to choose between working less or leaving her children unattended. Without providing mothers with crucial rights, such as livable wages and daycare support, others like Nunu and Patrick are thrust into needlessly picking up the slack the government won’t.
During the coronavirus pandemic, we’re reminded of the integral role social safety nets provide to those most disadvantaged. When these programs don’t exist, then the most vulnerable require more time to rise, but far less to fall when met with adverse situations. A thoughtful directorial debut for Limbal; Through the Night is sweet and delightful, and remarkably personal and compelling.