From the migrant boats that appear almost predestined to capsize in the documentaries Fire at Sea, Sea Sorrow, and Human Flow, to the belated baptism of sorts from Moonlight, many recent films have basked in the metaphorical possibilities of water. In director Tristan Ferland Milewski’s documentary Dream Boat, the ocean isn’t the site of drowning or paternal kinship, but that of a queer utopia. Here the sea is a safe space for non-Westerners to flee the homophobia of their own countries and praise Europe’s liberalism, and for Europeans to do a bit more than what they already do at home without the nuisance of having straight people in their sight—even if straightness seems to be what they’re after, or at least a certain fantasy of it.
Which is perhaps why some end up cockblocked by their own desire and, despite the number of gay men around, can’t get laid, as many of the men find others to be too feminine. Ironically, true glee appears mostly during Ladies Night, when the men dress as women, prancing around with their otter goatees and high heels without the burden of having to woo the biggest dick on deck. At last they look sincerely happy—not spurned by the feeling of being doomed to unrequited love. Being in drag seems to suspend the burden of performing an always-lacking masculinity in order to entice some impossibly masculine partner. Ultimately it isn’t the open sea that brings these men solace from the world on land that’s rigged against them, but the very femininity they work so hard to run away from whenever it isn’t Ladies Night.
Dream Boat features luscious aerial shots of a ship packed with gay bodies sunbathing, working out, and twirling to electronic music in chaps and leather masks. The film aestheticizes everything that comes into view. When the camera cares to prod behind the abs and the speedos, the men’s confessionals all feel so very ’90s. These interviews, conducted inside cramped private quarters, almost all revolve around how these individuals came out, memories of childhoods marred by bullying and complaints about gay men all looking the same and only caring about size. Although the grievances are mostly from men who come from places outside of Europe and America, which points to a gap between what counts as a gay life in Palestine versus such a life in Austria, it all feels redundant and predictable. A refreshing intervention in the midst of such trite accounts is a handicapped French man who explains how he found out his legs were going to stop working as he fawns over old Mireille Mathieu LPs.
The cruise ship at the center of the documentary is dressed up (literally) in the planet’s various flags—Lebanon, Argentina, the European Union—as if the gays on board were pinkwashing their way to some paradise, where not just women but femininity in others more generally would be excised from all bodies. Dream Boat alludes to this most troublesome aspect of gay sociality despite its attempts at portraying the cruise like a kind of “We Are the World” triumph in which all nations come together as one big gay happy family. But if this global reunion is such a panacea, why is there so much moping?
One man says that he didn’t get lonely until he boarded the ship. A Palestinian man self-exiled in Europe adorns his beautiful Belgium flag on his oiled body with the help of a friend. He used to be depressed, but now he’s happy because his recently acquired Belgian passport lets him live in a place where instead of harassing him, the police protect him against discrimination. Or so he says. The film doesn’t seem very interested in exploring the implications of the pronouncements that such individuals make. Which is a shame, because that’s precisely Dream Boat’s most interesting, and disturbing, element: the dissonance between the ship’s reason for being and the sorrow of its passengers, who remain marked as foreigners (to others and themselves) even when the ocean is meant to efface the concept of borders.