‘Chavela,’ ‘Tom of Finland’ movies to be screened in Long Beach

LONG BEACH — Films about a legendary lesbian singer in Mexico who defied gender stereotypes and a Finnish artist whose homoerotic, fetish art had a huge impact on 20th century gay culture will screen this month thanks to a partnership between the Art Theatre of Long Beach and the Q Film Festival.


“Chavela,” a documentary about Chavela Vargas, the iconic ranchera singer who was a rebellious, sexual pioneer; had a career revival at 71, and was a favorite of filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, will be shown Saturday at 11 a.m.


“Tom of Finland,” which follows the life of Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland, from the trenches of WWII through the repression of the 1950s to the advancement of gay liberation, will be screened Jan. 10 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 13 and 14 at 11 a.m. The Jan. 10 screening will include a wine reception before the film and a Q&A after the movie.

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Organizers at the Q Film Festival, which spotlights LGBTQ films and is produced by the Long Beach LGBTQ Center, wanted to schedule “Chavela” and “Tom of Finland” during the September movie showcase, but the films were not available, said Robert Cano, who programmed the two films and is the founder of the Q Film Festival.

Chavela Vargas is the subject of “Chavela,” a documentary about the iconic ranchera singer who was a rebellious, sexual pioneer; had a career revival at 71, and was a favorite of filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. Photo: Alicia Perez-Duarte


“Chavela” tells Chavela’s story ― from her beginnings in her native Costa Rica as Isabel Vargas, a young girl rejected by her family because of her “manliness” ― to her rise as a ranchera singer in Mexico, where she found her own identity and transformed into Chavela. She refused to follow female stereotypes and developed high-profile friendships with other artists, including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, among others.

By the 1950s, Chavela, who had a signature look of wearing pants and ponchos and smoking cigars, was a household name in her adopted country.

The documentary “Chavela” centers around a 1991 interview – the singer’s first public appearance after 15 hard years lost to alcoholism and heartbreak and shot 21 years before her 2012 death at 93.

Pioneering erotic artist Touko Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland, lived in this two-story Echo Park home during the latter years of his life. Photo: Adrian Scott Fine/L.A. Conservancy


Laaksonen first came to Los Angeles in 1978 to showcase his artwork in a solo exhibition. The success of the show led him to become a frequent traveler to the region. The erotic at pioneer lived in a two-story Craftsman home in Echo Park, owned by Durk Dehner, who invited Laaksonen to use the house as his local studio and residence. Laaksonen also used the house to escape the cold Finnish winters.


In 1984, Laaksonen and Dehner spearheaded the Tom of Finland Foundation in the house to catalog his work and to provide a safe space for artists facing discrimination and misrepresentation due to the erotic nature of their work.

In July 2016, the Foundation nominated the Tom of Finland House at 1421 Laveta Terrace for designation as an Historic-Cultural Monument. Four months later, the Los Angeles City Council approved the nomination.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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