The BFI Flare festival, Europe’s largest LGBT+ film festival, ran from 21 March to 1 April. We were present as delegates during the many screenings, talks, and socials that the festival offered, and we thought we’d share our thoughts on a selection of the films screened at the festival.
Becks (2017, Powell and Rohrbaugh) tells the story of Brooklyn-based singer Becks (played by Lena Hall), who moves back to St Louis after a breakup with her girlfriend (played by Hayley ‘Lesbian Jesus’ Kiyoko). We observe the dynamics between Becks and her Catholic mother, her best friend, her absent brother, and the townspeople who ‘have never met a real-life lesbian before’.
Then, obviously, Becks falls in love with the WASPy wife of her childhood bully, and the two start an affair. While the premise is not particularly original, I found it interesting that Becks’ love interest Elyse (played by Mena Suvari) never seems to hesitate or blame Becks for her identity crisis as a formerly-straight woman, when it is such a common trope to demonise the lesbian character for ‘tempting’ the good housewife into sin. The film associates lesbian love with the potential for freedom and escape, in a way that so few films do. Furthermore, the performances by the main cast and the strong dialogue ensure that the film is never boring or repetitive.
Altogether, it is an easy film to watch and enjoy. There is nothing too out-there, but yet it still manages to subtly avoid many of the stereotypes that are so common in lesbian films.
Between Here & Now (Short)
This Danish short (2018, Splidsboel) reminded me a lot of Eastern Boys (2013, Campillo), with the benefit that with its 22 minutes, it was the exact right length for the narrative arc. Any longer and it would have lost the area of mysticism and fleetingness that surrounds it now, any shorter and it would have felt like a rough sketch of a plot.
Brown Queers (Short)
Aesthetically beautiful, this short (2017, Williams Gamaker) plays with and discussesideas of perceiving, self-perception, and being perceived a particular gender and sexuality, or as a transgression of those, particular among People of Colour. At 25 minutes it feels slightly too long considering it is a portrait of only three people, and they seem to have very similar views, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a discussion of race, sexuality and gender, at most it would have to be a starting point of those discussions. As an art film it works brilliantly, though.
This short (2017, Al-Kadhi) deals with the difficult position of British-born QTIPOCs and their relation to the British colonial past and the nostalgia towards it that is produced in mainstream film and television. The talking-heads style black and white footage is intercut with colourful scenes of the interviewees dressed up in drag-like wigs and costumes playing sports and socializing in deliberately anachronistic colonial settings, and we are never sure if they are mocking the portrayal of colonial times, or inserting themselves in it, or perhaps both. The relation of the interviewees to the past (critical but also a wish to fit in? Jealous? Nostalgic?) is left complicated, which sets it up as a great opener of discussions.
A Deal With the Universe (Feature)
A Deal With the Universe (2018, Barker) is a documentary both by and about Jason Barker, his partner Tracey, and their road to pregnancy. After countless unsuccessful attempts at fertilising Tracey’s egg cells, Barker chooses to stop certain aspects of his transition in order to allow himself to become pregnant. The documentary deals with the various aspects of parenthood, the pain of unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy, and the reactions of friends, family, and others.
Considering the topics that it touches upon are very heavy (infertility, cancer, death of a loved one, transphobia), the story is told with a surprising amount of humour, probably owed to the fact that Barker is also a standup comedian. Furthermore, while press coverage made it seem as a film that played on the Channel 4-type shock factor (“it’s about a MAN who gets PREGNANT” you can just hear the invisible exclamation points in almost all mainstream coverage), the documentary is actually very intimate and toned-down, never veering into the voyeurism that it could have gone into. Again, this is probably due to the fact that Barker is the documentary’s director as well as the subject.
Altogether, A Deal With the Universe is one of the true gems of the Flare, and for many viewers, including myself, it was the highlight of the festival.
This visually stunning short (2017, Campbell X) celebrates the desire that women feel towards masculine people who are assigned female at birth (trans men, butches, studs, genderqueer people et cetera). The shots are all in black and white, and show the subjects both fragmented and in full, both autonomous and anonymous. This allows the film to discuss sexuality and sensuality (indeed, desire) without becoming voyeuristic.
The Fish Curry (Short)
This short animation (2017, Verma) tells the quiet and understated story of a son preparing his father’s favourite dish, the eponymous fish curry. We see the main character preparing the curry, and preparing himself for a very important dinner as part of a very important talk. Although there is very little action or dialogue, we feel the weight and the tension of the main character’s nervousness. At the end, we are very much left without narrative conclusion, but this works well, because it is just a short snapshot.
Goldfish (2017, Angelopoulos) might be the short with the most interesting premise: a boy, Stratis, believes his fish Tom (named after Tom Daley, obviously) is gay. We see Stratis’ father react to this revelation, as well as to Stratis’ less masculine characteristics, in what is ultimately a sweet and funny story about family and social pressure.
The Happy Prince (Feature)
Rupert Everett’s directorial debut The Happy Prince (2018) centers around the last days of Oscar Wilde, his exile and his illness after incarceration.
Considering that this is one of the more high-profile films at the festival (the cast includes Colin Morgan and Colin Firth, probably the most famous Colins of this era), it is perhaps unsurprising that it is a little less daring than many other films. Wilde’s popularity with the public hasn’t wavered since the 1997 film Wilde (dir. Gilbert), and the only thing that seems to
make the film relevant to the current age is told to us right at the end, namely that Wilde, along with other gay men (including Alan Turing), was pardoned by the British government.
As a costume drama and a biopic it has its mood swings, veering between dreamy and harsh, at some moments choosing to portray Wilde as the snappy, eloquent dandy, and at others showing him to be mad, irrational, and rude. It is an interesting direction for the biopic to go, and certainly raises questions on how we view our heroes of the past, especially ones that were despised (legally and socially) while they were still living. However, I can’t help but feel that the film could have made more of an impact if they had simply decided what kind of message it wanted to get across.
Hard Paint (Feature)
In Hard Pain (2018, Matzembacher and Reolon), we follow the story of Shico, an introverted prostitute, who makes his money livestreaming himself dancing in neon paint. The film’s pace is slow, but never boring, and shows Shico starting a relationship, both personal and professional, with a dancer who is set to leave their city when he gets his scholarship to attend dance school.
The film has an interesting approach to filming bodies, framing them seemingly objectively, without becoming clinical. There is a lot of non-sexualised nudity, and even in sex or romance scenes, it never feels as if the film is trying to be voyeuristic.
The slow pace allows the film to have an air of mystery, and really immerses viewers into the feeling of repression, of being trapped in a particular space or situation.
Love, Scott (Feature)
Love, Scott (2018, Wayne) is a documentary about the Canadian Scott Jones, who was left paralysed after surviving a homophobic attack. The documentary deals with parts of the emotional as well as the physical aftermath of the attack, and particularly tries to address the fact that Scott’s attacker may have been convicted of murder, but was never charged with a hate crime.
The fact that Laura Marie Wayne, the director, is a personal friend of Jones’ that he knows from their musical education, gives the film an amazing personal touch, which is a nice occasional relief from the heavy topic it discusses. Indeed, the documentary works best when it just feels like two friends having a conversation, which happens to be recorded. There are some points in the film where this familiarity seems to become undone by the forced narration, but the intimate, less scripted, more whimsical moments make up for it.
As a call for social it also does well when it shows Scott’s mother realizing that gay men still need to be emotionally prepared for a world that will reject them, when Scott shows his frustration at the fact that you can know you’re being targeted for what and who you are, and yet legally there is no acknowledgement of this, and when we see Scott’s community in Canada come together to celebrate their sexualities and support each other to not let this scare them back into the closet- in short, when it focuses on the emotional and social impact that the attack has had.
At the end there is an attempt to make a more formal, broader call to arms, which falls a bit flat exactly because this has been such a singular story about a very particular person in a very particular place. Altogether it tries to be two films at once: a portrait of a man who has had something terrible happen to him and the way he deals with this, and a general activist film that tries to make change but doesn’t give us the tools to focus on what should be changed and how. While it lacks a little in the latter, it does very, very well in the former.
My Days of Mercy (Feature)
My Days of Mercy (2017, Shalom Ezer) was the opening film of the festival. The story centers around Lucy (played by Ellen Page), who travels across the country to protest the death penalty. She lives with her siblings as their father is in prison on suspicion of the murder of their mother. At one of the protests, she meets the counter-protester Mercy (played by Kata Mara) – yes her name is actually Mercy and yes this does make the title fit in the long history of lesbian films with corny titles that sound like bad porno rip-offs of themselves, like I Can’t Think Straight, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Blue Is The Warmest Colour.
Anyway, obviously Lucy and Mercy start an affair, and obviously their ideological differences complicate this. As an opening film it was quite a safe choice, but not the most exciting. While the cast ensures that this will be one of the most discussed films in the festival, it is not as daring as I expected of both actresses. Given that particularly Page has been very vocal, progressive and political in interviews, and is one of the only mainstream lesbian actresses whose career in the mainstream is fairly secure, it is unfortunate that she is either unable or unwilling to choose a project that is more out-there, more experimental, more edgy.
Particularly the treatment of race feels very off about a film that could have decided to take a more outspoken step: first of all, there are some protesters in some of the background scenes who hold placards reminding the audience that the death penalty disproportionately affects People of Colour. Yet at the only protest in the film that tries to prevent the death of a Black man, we see a shot of Mercy and Lucy running off, away from the Black and Brown protesters, in order to have their little romance together. The shot almost seems like an ironic commentary on the film itself, and as a rule of thumb I would say that if your film contains a scene in which two white characters run away from a mob of unnamed People of Colour, this better not be framed as a good and romantic thing.
Second of all, the only major Black character is a woman (again unnamed) who has no personality, seemingly no life or family of her own, and exists only to conveniently be a substitute mother to Lucy and her siblings- she gives Lucy some extra money out of nowhere, she sings gospel with the other protesters, and she consoles the children when they are sad. With all the discussions about race on film going on, I assumed that filmmakers knew better than to have such stereotypical and one-dimensional characters in their films.
Technically, the film is pretty good. There are strong acting performances from both the main actors and the supporting cast. The dialogue is wittier than I expected of a film with such an intense topic and such paint-by-numbers overall plot. There are scenes, especially in the second half of the film, that did genuinely move me, and there are many points at which I thought they were going towards Oscar-baiting material, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they avoided that route.
However, while I watching it, I felt similar to when I was watching Freeheld: while the film could have touched upon , it prefers to take a more conventional approach, in which it loses two audiences: it is not yet accessible enough for a mainstream straight audience, but it is also not original or interesting enough to capture . It is good for an hour and a half of entertainment, but it is not going to be a turning point of lesbian cinema. Then again, it never pretended to be the latter.
Postcards From London (Feature)
Derek Jarman, John Waters and Baz Luhrmann walk into a bar, they brainstorm for a few minutes, and Postcards From London (McLean, 2018) is the result. This absurd comedy was the closing film for the festival, and what a choice it was. Visually, the film is a whirlwind of colours and movement, turning every shot into a spectacle in itself, and making central London look like the neon-noir (and that is not a typo) New York it so desperately tries to be – tempting, but dangerous.
The story is about Jim, who moves to Soho from Essex to seek his fortune, ending up working as a rent boy (sorry, ‘raconteur’) for a group of men who pride themselves on an in-depth knowledge of the arts. The film is a pastiche of various references to gay culture both high and low, and occasionally to references of references, with jokes flying quickly.
While the references are relatively niche and aimed at a white, educated, gay male audience, Postcards From London has enough content and humour to stand on its own. At some points it would have been nice if it had believed in itself a bit more, rather than hide behind infinite layers of irony and camp.
Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Short)
This short (2017, Pepall) is a humorous twist on the old classic of a bridesmaid’s lamentations just after the wedding of her best friend (although the twist is kind of given away by it being screened at this particular festival). The story fits the film’s length perfectly, and it isn’t overly ambitious, but rather chooses to focus on what the format of a short film does best – giving a quick insight into a character’s life, without trying to dwell too long. It could be criticised as somewhat flimsy, but I think that that is part of its appeal, as so many LGBT films tend towards the very intense and melodramatic, and this is a nice short relief.
You Will Be Free (Short)
You Will Be Free (2018, Jacques) is an experimental short, using footage from games, advertising, and other popular culture to create a pastiche commentary on the concept of bodies. The short gives a simultaneously fatalistic and hopeful view on gender identity. While this may sound paradoxical to some people, it is an odd mix of emotions that will seem familiar to especially LGBT+ youth.
This Article was written by Pippa Sterk.
Pippa Sterk, LFFF Coordinator and Programmer, is a London-based writer from the Netherlands. She has an MA in Sociology from Goldsmiths and a BA in Film Studies from Sussex University. She writes articles about media and activism, with a particular focus on LGBT+ film, and she is currently working on her first novel.