Gay Cruises Are Equal Parts Heaven and Hell

The director of the documentary 'Dream Boat' explains the magic, drama and disillusionment of a gay cruise.

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Nov 7 2017, 8:15am

A still from Dream Boat

There are gay bars and parties, queer book clubs and beer busts, and then there are events that make the rest of gay culture look quaint: things like circuit parties and gay cruises, gatherings where thousands assemble to forsake sleep and health for days on end and really let themselves go.

Often, these kinds of events transcend straight society; on an all-gay cruise, for example, patrons may feel a certain kind of freedom they wouldn't on shore, far from the social mores and pressures of heteronormative culture. It's that kind of freedom—and the more troubling elements of gay culture it reveals, too—that's highlighted by the documentary Dream Boat, which saw its US theatrical release on Friday.

Dream Boat follows five diverse gay men as they embark on a massive, unnamed gay cruise. The men hail from places both progressive (like Philippe, a disabled Frenchman who lost the ability to walk to a meningitis infection in his youth) and not (like Dipankar, a young man from India who speaks heart-wrenchingly about his hopes to find a lover and escape the intolerance of Indian society).

Over seven days and nights, they attend massive dance parties on deck in painstakingly-curated outfits, get drunk, betray existential angst and depression, find friendship, and have surprisingly little sex. They question the limits and paths of their lives back home and face a number of prescient anxieties in gay culture at large: HIV stigma, body dysmorphia, coming out, discomfort with femininity. It's a film ruled by dissonance: On one hand, the accepting, otherworldly nature of a nearly wholly-gay gathering, and on the other, the kinds of internalized discrimination that gay culture brings.

I spoke with Tristan Ferland Milewski, Dream Boat's director, about what drove him to make a documentary about a gay cruise, the marathon filmmaking process on board the ship, and what larger questions his film brings up about modern gay culture.

VICE: What were you trying to capture, emotionally and narratively, going into the trip?
Milewski: I think it's always interesting to dive into a microcosm like this. It has its own codes and rules, but it always mirrors society at large in a way. I think in a way, a cruise like this represents a universal quest—we all want to live and love as we are. And as you see in the film, it's not so easy sometimes.

As long as the world is how it is, people will still need places where they can be themselves without fear and discrimination, and this is a boat, a place, where they can do that. But then again, of course, there might be new norms and new kinds of discrimination. It's an interesting tension to examine.

For example, within our community, what do we do about our emphasis on masculinity? How do we treat ourselves as gay men? The question for everybody is, who do we want to be as gay men? So it's a bit about identity also.
The film gets at these existential questions of life—and in the end, for all the protagonists, there was also a kind of catharsis. The film has very sad moments, but there's also an empowerment in the end.

What were some of those existential questions and tensions?
The quest for love and freedom, but then of course, the things we take from society and internalize—self-discrimination.

There's the performance of masculinity; I think many gay men have this experience, that their masculinity is questioned through being gay, and maybe you're denied your masculinity in a way you internalize. But of course, gender itself is performance. Which comes up quite nicely in the boat's Ladies' Night [a party on the trip where patrons dress in drag], which is the busiest, most joyful and free night of the trip.

I thought it was important to show the other side of gay culture, too, to show really deep love. There are two amazing couples in the film that really went through a lot. It was important to show them and not just paint this tragic image of being gay. It's all about raising questions: where are we today, and who do we want to be? What potential do we have to turn gay culture into something empowering and positive?

What surprised you during the trip?
I always find it incredible when you have these crazy parties, and you see the sun rising, and you see day and night, time and space melt together. And you can imagine that over seven days and nights of the cruise, going 24 hours a day, there's no sleep. Because you can't coordinate with anybody and say "Okay, let's meet tomorrow at 11." First of all, nobody knows what 11 o'clock is or where anybody is. You had to be constantly connected; we had two camera units and we had to stay connected to the protagonists we were following. It was a big revelation to me about how little sleep you can survive on.

What attracted you to the gay cruise in the first place?
I think it's a bit like this family—the dream of a family, with the ups and downs that it has. The first time I'd been on this cruise in particular was the year before, but of course I'd been to that kind of event before. But I think that me, being privileged, coming from a place like Berlin, where you have this vast LGBTQIA world with lots of events, everything, and you can choose and see whatever you like. I think in other places there's not such a variety.

Many of the cruisers travelled far to get to the event, and to have this feeling and connection and freedom. It has a certain magic. But it also has downsides. It's a boat of dreams and a boat of disillusionment. And of course, there's this intensity—you go to your limit in so many ways, and your time there is so limited. There's big expectations, the pressure is high, and it's a completely exceptional situation, you're out of your daily life and only mingling with gay guys. Suddenly, these existential questions come up: where am I in my life now? How free am I in my real life? How are my relationships? How is my life going? And depending on the expectations you bring to the boat, you can fly or you can fall. It's very intense.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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