Founded in 1986, BFI Flare is now a well-established festival screening new LGBTQ+ films from around the world. Held at London’s British Film Institute (BFI) on the Southbank near Waterloo, films are shown across four screens and there are also public and industry talks and club nights on the two weekends that the festival spans.
It’s my first time attending this year and for several days I scurry between the screens, trying to watch as much as possible, often leaving only minutes in between the final credits of one film and the opening credits of the next. Thankfully there is a steady supply of free coffee. I don’t read many of the synopsises in the program and mainly make decisions about what to see based on the times they are showing. If I see the film at 4pm I can also catch the 6.30pm and maybe the 9pm, or should I wait till the 5pm and have a break before the 9pm? These are nice problems to have, though near the end of the week I’m spending more time in the cinema than at home and all the hours sat in dark rooms makes me feel a little vampiric. I like to think my system is a fairly democratic way of surveying as much as possible and because of this, I see both the good and the bad films on show. Certainly, there isn’t a lot of consistency, which has both positive and negative consequences. The ways in which the films operate as LGBTQ+/queer is broad and generally diverse, though the central concern of almost all the narratives is how central characters negotiate their sexuality. Over the ten days I encounter both the affectively profound alongside made-for-daytime-TV affairs, catching 18 films in total.
The screening program is divided into sub-categories and described in the program catalogue as such: Hearts: Films about love, romance and friendships, Bodies: Stories of sex, identity and transformation, Minds: Reflections on art, politics and community and Short Films: Small but perfectly formed. Almost immediately these strands blur for me and it doesn’t seem important to remember which screenings came under which heading. I enter each film with little knowledge or expectation. Most are pretty good, a few wonderful, a few awful (though I didn’t walk out of any) and some surprise me by how they stay with me, resurface frequently long after the credits have rolled, poke me and brew sophistication the more I return to them. I’ve been thinking about what “queer” cinema looks like for a few years and it is still hard to pin down this vague category to a set of criteria whereas an idea about what LGBTQ+ might look like is an easier task because the acronym speaks to something fixed (even if fixed for a short moment).
There is a general sense of comradery between attendees both public and industry. The clustered seating in the foyer, café and upstairs hub invite discussions and by the end of the week others are feeling similarly exhausted and exhilarated by all they’ve absorbed, swapping favourites and low points alike, questioning or celebrating the portrayals and politics, eager to discuss thoughts with friends or strangers after credits roll and curtains close. Often I have a chat with whoever is sat next to me, another person alone in the theatre, eyes wide with joy, occasionally teary, and sometimes rolling.
The opening night kicks off with Vita and Virginia directed by Chanya Button. The film gives a stylish rendition of the love affair between Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) that was partial inspiration for Woolf’s book Orlando, first published in 1928. The film, in framing these two female writers, itself understands the role of the word in the film’s economy and production of meaning. As well as constructing the world with seductively stylish interiors and clothes that enwrap all whom tread through it, it is scripted beautifully and peppered with historical extracts of the women’s letters to one another. These mini-scenes of letter exchange are enacted by Vita and Virginia speaking aloud the words they have written one another whilst facing the camera head on, and throughout the film there are many moments in which the elegance of the writing moved a smile to my own unspeaking mouth. Both women are portrayed as insatiable – always longing and striving if not for love then for the limits of language, and to tell love through language before fucking love beyond language in sex. They declare lust and love in the language of their letters and looking across rooms, Vita’s wanting and Virginia’s writing underscored with the gentle electronic thumping of the soundtrack which enhances the drama with its gentle, melancholic beat. Most characters seem involved with a few others – polyamory making a swarming erotic that is written across the skin of many bodies. Though Virginia and Vita’s husbands suffer pangs of jealousy as the women magnetise, they both show these men striving to understand and support the women they love.
Other films of note include Austrian film Nevrland, an impressive debut from Gregor Schmidinger starring first time actor Simon Frühwirth in the central role of Jakob. Jakob is a young gay man who works in a slaughterhouse and lives with his father and grandfather and meets Kristjan (Paul Forman) on a gay cam chat website one night. The environment of the slaughterhouse sets up the film’s affective horror environment, all dead flesh and entrails making the visceral bodies abject. They are viewed with cool detachment as they are hosed down and cut up on the production line. After meeting Krisjan, the two guys go to a Berghainesque club, which reappears in later quasi-dream sequences. The contrast between the grotesque workplace environment and the cool thumping of minimal techno in the club makes Nevrland a slick, uncanny horror. The strobe light which frequents the club scenes is one I’ve seen before in independent European gay film (I’m thinking about scenes from Robin Campillo’s 2017 120 BPM and Camille Vidal-Nasquet’s 2018 Sauvage) and allows for bodies to disappear and reappear in the diegetic space, shifting between present and absent and thus operating on an unnerving cusp of the alive and dead.
The best of the more conventionally mainstream films I see is Giant Little Ones, the second feature from director Keith Behrman and the affective opposite to Nevrland, despite the central characters being of a similar age and exploring their homosexuality for the first time. This witty Canadian coming-of-age movie begins with best friends Franky (Josh Wiggins) and Ballas (Darren Mann), a friendship that is compromised following an intoxicated homosexual encounter. Though this is the main narrative catalyst, the film attempts to survey a range of LGBT scenarios including Franky coming to terms with his father’s homosexuality (played by Kyle MacLachlan), the experiences of being a closeted and/or outed gay or bisexual teenage guy and non-binary gender identity.
My surprise highlight was The Gospel of Eureka directed by Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri, a documentary about a small southern town in the United States narrated by local drag queen Mx Justin Vivian Bond. As well as having a strong Christian community, the town of Eureka has an active LGBT community and though the two are sometimes at odds, the film’s achievement is showing their similarities. Editing and framing are utilised in a particularly profound manner and build a harmony between the different environments present within Eureka. The best example of this is during a scene that documents the town’s large-scale enhancement of Jesus’ life in an outdoor amphitheatre, cross-cut with Eureka drag queens performing Christian gospel, pop and country music in the local gay bar. In both settings, the camera treats its subjects with tenderness and care, allowing for poignancy and nuance to be communicated through the amateur theatrics of the drag show and Christian playhouse alike. For the latter, the camera films the performance of Jesus’ life in a cinematic language using establishing shots and close ups, shallow focus on the cross as it holds Jesus’ body before cutting to a small boy in the audience whose eyes are captivated by all he sees.
Other documentaries also proved to be some of the better films of the festival. Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life documents gay porn star Jonathan Agassi, his career and his relationships with his family. Though we are given the back story of his rise in the porn industry, the film mainly focuses on Agassi at the time of filming. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the so-called fantasy that Agassi enacts in porn and as an escort must be sustained through a life that is depleted of pleasure. In order to meet the expectations that his name evokes, the film witnesses Agassi become sucked into depression and drug comedowns. Director Tomer Heymann and Agassi clearly form a trusting bond during filming, allowing the camera to witness hard drug use, sex shows, client calls and emotional confessions, all of which culminate in a scene near the end that shows Agassi’s body in the throes of a drug-riddled spasm. In the closing moments this film formally transcends its representational coding, turning from standard documentary style to post-cinematic episode. We conclude the film with Agassi at a club having sex on stage, similar to the opening scene, though the mood is now heavily tainted by the conflicted subjectivity we understand Agassi as containing. The camera watches Agassi on stage surrounded by other performers whilst members of the audience touch themselves. Slowly, a pink filter saturates the image, obliterating the bodies and their sexual performances into abstraction. Pulsating movements are no longer playful or seductive, but made sinister and disturbing by the hot pink flood.
With a running time of just over an hour, Deep in Vogue (d. Amy Watson and Dennis Keighron-Foster) is a dynamic snapshot of the current drag scene in Manchester, UK. By centring the central narrative thrust around the preparation for an upcoming vogue competition, the film interviews members of the contending “houses” who describe their differing approaches to dance, preparation and identity. This central arc provides a platform for wider discussions around LGBTQ+ communities in Manchester, with many moments of support, solidarity and wit. Dance is filmed particularly well; not only do we see people performing during the final competition, the film also includes many stand-alone sequences showing dance routines on a large stage. The black floor and background are activated by a white spotlight that the performer contorts their body through, the light hitting them from different angles that allow us to see the almost mythical and oneiric way they are able to move.
Light in the Water (d. Lis Bartlett) similarly works as a portrait of a specific LGBT community that forms through and around a shared love of a specific activity, this time the West Hollywood Swim Team. Here, recognition is given to the men and women who formed and continued as active participants in the team from the 1980s through to the present, breaking taboos and world records alike.
Water Makes us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure (d. Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens) is the queerest film I see all festival. It not so much breaks with but just doesn’t care about normal formats of filmmaking. Instead, the directors, also a couple, take us on a road trip around California to consider how nature is thriving and shrivelling through their own eco-sexual viewpoint. The film is a collage of experiences, sewn together like a make-shift party dress made of tinsel and glitter-glue. Annie and Beth are silly and playful, but serious about nature and how to care for and defend it. They sexualise and humanise it, resist relating to earth and water as objects to be consumed as is so often to case in contemporary capitalism. Instead of considering natural resources as materials to be extracted, they eroticise it, writhe their bodies upon it, and literalise it as a subject by having the earth itself narrate of the film, voiced by queer theorist and activist Sandy Stone.
The closing night film was Justin Kelly’s JT LeRoy, based on the true story of the titular author whose scandalous story of identity broke in 2006. I remember reading LeRoy’s novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (published in 2000 and 2001 respectively) around the time that it was revealed that the public facing LeRoy was not “really” the author, later discovered to be Laura Albert.1 The film systematically tells the story of how Savannah Koop (Kirsten Stewart), younger sister of Albert’s partner and band mate Geoff (Jim Stu), ended up playing the enigmatic author for public events and readings whilst Albert (Laura Dern) continued to be LeRoy over phone and email. Unlike the festival’s opening film Vita and Virginia, JT LeRoy does not formally highlight the literary narrative core. Instead, it efficiently communicates how events began and spiralled, how people got upset, felt used and then were discovered. However, the final scene includes a short confessional monologue from Albert that considers with nuance the difficulties of having a body that doesn’t fit one’s idea of their identity, avoiding any proscription of how this complicated arena of thought and feeling should appear. Ending on this note felt like a good way for the ten days of Flare to finish. Overall, the festival explored and expressed tensions between subjectivities, bodies and desires in all manner of ways without a singular model prevailing.
BFI Flare London LGBTQ+ Film Festival
21-31 March 2019
Festival website: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/flare/Online/default.asp