In the wake of Moonlight’s Oscar triumph, what role do LGBT film festivals continue to play? This question lingered over the latest edition of BFI Flare, which ran 16-26 March at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London. In 2017, are LGBT stories finally moving out of the margins and into the mainstream?
The filmmakers and audiences at BFI Flare might answer that Moonlight was just the start. Festivals like this one still play a vital role in bringing to much-needed life LGBT stories and experiences from around the globe, films which would otherwise struggle to find a commercial theatrical release and theaudience that comes with it. The film industry has always been about the centre and the margins with the high levels of capital needed to create and distribute a motion picture privileging those who are already closer to the centre of power. And in supporting Flare, a 31-year-old festival dedicated to LGBT storytelling, the BFI — the UK government’s central nexus of film industry patronage — continues to legitimise the importance of queer identity and culture within a changing political framework.
The film industry has always been about the centre and the margins, as the high levels of capital needed to create and distribute a motion picture privileges those who are already closer to the centre of power.
As the BFI Flare programme reminds us: ‘The Festival was born out of politics and thus remains central to our very purpose — our very being.’ Indeed, the programmers this year stressed the need for queer visibility at a time when a growing far-right threatens the rights which these communities have fought so hard to gain. Opening Night featured the World Premiere of Against the Law, a BLGBT50, a showcase for LGBT films at BFI Southbank this summer and on BFI player.
But the Festival didn’t focus solely on British LGBT politics, as evidenced by its #fiveFilms4freedom programme. These simple, affecting short films offer a brief glimpse into the daily struggles and triumphs of gay, lesbian, and trans individuals — and are meant to be shared globally online with those most needing to connect through social media, ‘including those in seven of the countries where LGBT activity is punishable by the death penalty.’ More overtly political was the feature documentary Out of Iraq, the tear-jerking story of Nayyef and Btoo, two Iraqi soldiers who met during the Iraq war and faced a hostile government, international visa obstacles, and seemingly impossible political barriers to be reunited in the United States. It was hard not to be moved by the earnest, charismatic lovers, who communicated only by Skype during a four-year separation. The film prompts us to appreciate the freedoms we take for granted, if we are not queer, or if we live in a less restrictive society.
I couldn’t help but notice that even in an LGBT film programme, there were many more stories about gay male characters than about lesbian or trans characters. In an industry talk, Director of the BFI Film Fund Ben Roberts acknowledged as much: that gay male storylines have become more mainstream, and that this is an extension of the gender parity problem in the film industry. With less than 10% of all films directed by women, this inevitably results in fewer films concerned with lesbian than with gay male issues. Even within the margins, there are those who are further marginalised.
But many of the lesbian-focused films in this year’s programme were true gems, especially those exploring same-sex female desire in non-Western cultures. The Chinese short film Cocoon was a lovely, understated exploration of an unhappy marriage and a mother’s same-sex desire, as seen from the perspective of a daughter, who is herself coming of age. An East Asian lesbian relationship also featured in one of the Festival’s biggest titles, The Handmaiden, which could otherwise not be more different. Directed by Korean virtuoso Park Chan-wook (Old Boy) and adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is a sumptuously mounted period thriller, set in 1930s, Japanese-occupied Korea. While the film has been rightfully acclaimed for its impeccable craft and intriguing double-crossings, the love scenes between Lady Hideko and her Korean servant still squarely appeased the heterosexual male gaze: here were two lissome, naked young Asian women engaging in graphic lesbian sex. Was this film really a celebration of lesbian love, or gorgeously designed cinema exploiting sexualised female bodies?
here were two lissome, naked young Asian women engaging in graphic lesbian sex. Was this film really a celebration of lesbian love, or gorgeously designed cinema exploiting sexualised female bodies?
Also playing to genre conventions was the predictable but charming Irish boarding-school comedy Handsome Devil. An outcast gay teen is assigned a handsome rugby star as a roommate. An unlikely friendship forms, Andrew Scott evokes Robin Williams as an inspiring English teacher, everyone is told to be true to themselves, and there’s a climactic rugby final which we can already guess the outcome of. But if an LGBT film can so successfully mine generic tropes and appeal to an adolescent pop audience, isn’t that progress of a type?
In contrast, the Gala Presentation of Torrey Pines offered a live score performance alongside a truly bizarre 60-minute film. Using quirky stop-motion animation, US filmmaker Clyde Petersen blends crude childlike art with ingenious moments of visual poetry to capture a nearly wordless story of adolescent angst, loneliness, and gender confusion. Mainstream audiences would have no idea what to make of it. But that’s the beauty of film festivals — you’re going to see something which you’ll probably never get to see in cinemas otherwise.
So to answer my original question, yes, in a post-Moonlight era, LGBT film festivals are still as essential as ever, presenting an astonishing diversity of filmmaking talent to highlight the political progress that’s been made on queer freedoms — but likewise, illustrating the progress that still needs to happen in defining who sits in the centre and who sits on the margins.
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Winnie M Li is an award-winning writer, activist, and filmmaker. Her debut novel, DARK CHAPTER, will be published worldwide in 2017. She is Co-Founder of the Clear Lines Festival, the UK’s first-ever festival addressing sexual assault and consent through the arts and discussion. A Harvard graduate, Winnie has written on the topic across a variety of formats. Through her PhD research at the London School of Economics, she is exploring the impact of social media on the public dialogue about rape and recovery. Previously, she worked as a producer on six independent feature films. Follow her on @winniemli or visit winniemli.com