Finally, a documentary looking at that most esoteric of niche cultures: the gay cruise ship. We have our destination parties and theme parties, but what if you could combine all of those and spread them out over seven days in the hot sun, all aboard a confined location where there are upwards of 3,000 potential sex partners?
When the film opens with the inaugural party (in which everyone must wear something bearing the flag of their country of origin), one of the men looks across the main deck populated by hundreds of half-naked men, most of them wearing harnesses which have become a signature of gay raves, and turns to his partner and says, “The buffet is open.” Then there’s a cut to the captain on the bridge and his all-male crew. He boasts, “Let’s take the boys to sea.” My oh my, the rest of the film could have continued in this line of tongue-and-cheekiness, and I would have been head over stilettos in love with it. But when first-time director Tristan Ferland Milewski tries to get serious, that’s when it starts to feel like we’re trapped with no lifeboat.
The film’s subjects are five men from five different countries. There’s Indian Dipankar, who just came out of the closet and is still getting his “sea legs;” Marek, the Polish hottie; Martin from Austria, who barely has any screen time; Ramzi, the Palestinian expatriate and his boyfriend, who just beat cancer; and Philippe, a middle-aged Frenchman in a wheelchair. Through interviews with them and a haphazard group of other passengers, we are taken through the usual gay laundry list: ageism, family disownment, living with HIV, masculinity, May-December relationships, open relationships, religious expulsion, and, that reliable old heart-tugger, suicide attempts. It’s no fault of the men in the film, but haven’t we been down these roads enough times? The more fascinating subject is right in front of the director: the cruise itself.
Ramzi briefly touches on something poignant. He says that in order to be noticed, he has to work out, grow a beard, and buy the right outfits. But then he looks around the dance floor at a typical gay club and everyone looks exactly the same. That’s the phenomenon scholars call “gay clone culture”: men who have been either kicked out or ostracized from their homes and who, in order to find a new home within the gay community, conform to coded looks and behaviors. That results in denizens of men who all look and act like each other—in effect, erasing their individual identities.
Milewski’s film touches on that for a second and then cuts back to the hot disco full of grinding abs and butts, which is about as flippant as the film gets. At one point, we’re shown that on the mornings after the raves, the deck is covered with used condoms. But are these tokens of pride or shame? Why bother bringing up clone culture if you’re just going to cast it aside, like every other serious issue the film brings up?
Another missed opportunity is that half of the boat gets sick after just a few days. One of the characters even says, “It’s always like this,” but it’s a just a throwaway line, only to be assuaged by the film’s main theme, that these men have all been sidelined by straight society so they deserve this getaway, but are there no other deeper implications to how they behave toward each other in this homogenized setting? (Where are the fights? Gay men get into fights like cats on crank. You cannot tell me gay cruises are big, cheery, altruistic joy fests.)
This is by no means a revelatory or even stylistically appealing documentary. The subjects at times give off a reality-TV audition vibe, and several of the scenes feel staged. That being said, Dream Boat could play well in a sexuality studies classroom or a support group meeting as an “Intro to Gay Men’s Issues.”