Framline46, San Francisco’s 46th annual International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, is now officially underway after a riotous opening night in the Castro Theater (at which the new queer sports drama series A League of Their Own premiered its first two episodes).
The following weekend saw many more incredible premiers of contemporary queer films and Q/A’s with their creators hosted at venues across San Francisco and the East Bay. One such film was Juan Felipe Zuleta’s 2022 remarkable, staggeringly original indie flick Unidentified Objects.
Screened at the AMC Kabuki 8 in Japantown this past Sunday, June 19th, Unidentified Objects follows the journey of unlikely duo Peter and Winona - the former a philosophizing, cantankerous gay man born with dwarfism and the latter a bouyant, somewhat erratic sex worker - both of whom must get from New York to Canada (albeit for very different reasons). While Peter seeks to reconcile himself with past trauma, Winona longs to return to the utopian alien civilization by which she believes she was abducted years ago.
This narrative set-up is typical of the “road movie”, a genre wherein a motley and often awkward assemblage of characters are forced to travel with one another through the barren backroads of a changing American landscape. What makes Zuleta’s film so dynamic, though, are the respects in which it departs from these standard genre conventions by (1) foregrounding two socio-economically disenfranchised characters who inhabit marginalized identities and (2) embracing a stunningly psychedelic formal aesthetic.
As the pair near their final destination, making their way from motel to motel in a bright pink Grand Cherokee, the film grows increasingly surreal. Peter, in a series of dream-sequences, is engulfed in otherworldly purple light and confronted by shirtless alien policemen. These bursts of uncanny oddity into the film serve both as reminders of Peter’s trauma (and the futility of escaping said trauma) and as the celestial beauty of queer and other marginalized identities.
In this way, the ethereal purple color so prominent in Camilo Monsalve’s cinematography comes to symbolize a cosmic utopia without borders, shame, or judgment - without heteropatriarchy and ableism - (the world for which Winona yearns) as well as the ghosts of Peter’s past he must come to terms with.
Attendees at Sunday’s screening were incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in a Q/A after the film with not only director Juan Felipe Zuleta himself but writer Leland Frankel and lead actor Sarah Hay. Hay’s hypnotically electric performance as Winona bounces off Matthew Jeffer’s performance remarkably well (who’s turn as Peter is crushingly vulnerable and equally unforgettable). The two leads are, in many ways, the heart of the film, which Zuleta attested to in the Q/A, explaining that “The biggest and toughest decision a director has to make is casting a movie … Finding Sarah and Matthew was the biggest blessing.”
Ironically, Hay came very close to not starring in the film: her agent was not as enthused on the project as she was initially, and so, as Zuleta recounted, “We had to conspire behind her agent and manager’s back”. Hay then added “That’s how it should be; artists should be able to connect with each other.”
Zuleta, who is Colombian himself, intended for the film to be “a poem, an ode” to the immigrant experience and explicated that the film’s title and many allusions to aliens were motivated by the American state’s labeling of immigrants as aliens, as unidentified objects, which is of course a means by which to dehumanize and belittle.
Zuleta then told a crushing anecdote about how, during the film’s production, he and the crew were confronted by an overtly racist man and threatened while scouting a gas station: “After that, it was very important for me to shoot in that gas station.” The director concluded with the insight “I feel one of the biggest problems in the world is the lack of understanding for those who are not like you.”
At bottom, Unidentified Objects is a film seeking to remedy that very problem, with both protagonists coming to understand and appreciate each other over the course of a kaleidoscopic road trip. While - as Zuleta explained - the film wrestles with difficult themes, it is ultimately optimistic, affording audiences an unexpectedly funny, devastatingly authentic, philosophically stimulating experience wholly unique in the contemporary cinematic terrain.
Check out the many other equally incredible queer titles coming to Frameline later this week here!
Photography by: Aldebaran S/Unsplash