Pippa Sterk reviews her favourites from London’s iconic LGBTIQ festival
Running from March 17th to March 28th 2021, the BFI Flare being completely online for the second year is a poignant reminder of how long this pandemic has been going on and how much community interaction we’re missing out on. However, the online presence of the festival also has its upsides – it has become more accessible to ‘attend’ than ever, not just relying on expensive screenings in the South Bank and surroundings, and with all short films made free to view. I certainly felt that this has been, ironically, my most community-centred interaction with Flare yet, as I was able to see more films and discuss them with more friends and colleagues than ever before, leading to a deeper appreciation for many of the stories portrayed.
Here are my highlights of the festival, enjoy!
My First Summer (dir. Katie Found) is an Australian film about isolated teenager Claudia who lives in a remote house in the forest, her birth never having been registered. After she sees her mother drown herself, she is visited by the outgoing Grace who also witnessed the drowning. Grace lives in a house filled with conflict between her mother and her stepfather and starts to visit Claudia as a form of escaping the tension in her family, while also trying to help Claudia work through her trauma.
Most of the film consists of the two young characters teaching each other about their respective worlds and exploring their attraction towards each other in hazy, muted lighting rather than bright colours. Claudia introduces Grace to artificial sweets and makes colourful bracelets celebrating all of Grace’s good qualities, while Grace shows Claudia how to dye clothing using mashed-up plums. It is an unusually nuanced, un-patronising and tender exploration of adolescence, helped by the fact that the two main actors are absolutely phenomenal. The themes of responsibility, care, trauma and escapism are handled delicately, without falling into the all-too-easy trap of wrapping these issues up too neatly.
Rūrangi (dir. Max Currie) tells the story of Caz who returns to his hometown of Rūrangi in New Zealand after ten years of being away in Auckland. There, he becomes reacquainted with his father, his high school sweetheart, his best friend and the rest of his former community who all knew Caz prior to his coming-out as trans. Grief, abandonment and the fear that one is too late to fix things or establish a solidified identity are the paramount issues that Caz and his environment are dealing with. Caz is blamed for not being there while his mother was dying of cancer. Caz’ father is blamed for shoving femininity down Caz’ throat despite it so obviously making him unhappy. Caz’ best friend is angry that Caz would assume she’d have a problem with his identity, even though she has been in a relationship with a woman for ages, at the same time as trying to solidify her own identity as a Māori woman. Caz’ high school boyfriend has a crisis of identity when he finds himself still (or again?) attracted to Caz despite thinking of himself as a straight man.
None of these issues get fully resolved and that is what makes the film so good. All characters are both justified and not in their grief and their confusion. All issues go unspoken to a certain extent, or are awkwardly and angrily brought up at the wrong moment, in the wrong way. It shows the complexity of familial and communal relationships and it shows that these complexities take time to work through, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to work through them.
The film manages to tell a very accessible story about trans identity without sliding into the hackneyed tropes of trans narratives: at no point is Caz physically hurt, there is no big before-and-after makeover scene. The only time that Caz is deadnamed, the audio becomes muted, so that we as an audience never hear that name. Perhaps most importantly, all trans characters are played by trans actors (actor and singer Ramon Te Wake even performs a beautiful cover of Smalltown Boy as the credits roll). This film not only is a great work in itself, but also holds up a mirror to other films that aim to cover trans narratives; if Rūrangi can do it without turning into a swamp of stereotypes, why can’t you?
Dramarama (dir. Jonathan Wysocki) gives us a snapshot of life in the early 1990s in Christian Southern Californian suburbia. High schooler Gene is on the verge of coming out to his friends during their last murder mystery party before they all go off to college. However, as conversations move from abortion to sex, the window of opportunity for Gene to be frank about his gayness seems to close by the minute.
With most of the action taking place in one of the friends’ houses, with only the five main characters to interact with each other, the film is an obvious homage to the literary conventions of the one-act play as much as to the whodunit – the limitation of space and characters means that over the course of the film we see secrets spill out and long-held resentments unveil.
However, the film’s awareness of its place within the latter genre stops it from feeling forced or overdone. It’s playful enough to not feel melodramatic, but effective enough for the stakes to be raised. We do want to find out what happens next, and we do want to know how characters will react to one another.
Lastly, Tove (dir. Zaida Bergroth) is the story of the early years of Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins. The film is a beautiful portrait of a woman trying to create stability and respect out of fundamentally unstable situations. The film starts in post-war Helsinki where Tove rents a flat that is a fixer-upper to say the least – a recurring gag throughout the film is the small electric shock that people get when they turn on the light. Nevertheless, she makes the living space her home.
Throughout the film we see Tove’s struggle to establish herself as a serious artist, drawing the Moomins initially as a simple way to make some money, much to the dismay of her ‘proper’ artist father. We follow her attraction to theatre director Vivica, who is later revealed to have several other lovers while Tove has given up everything to be with her. The relationships that Tove engages in, be they platonic, romantic, or familial, are all haunted by the various complications of their contexts, yet every constituent part is pivotal to the creation of Moominvalley. Without feeling overly cerebral or overly sentimental, the film manages to stack together intricate snapshots of Tove Jansson’s life, connecting them to her artistry.
Acrimonious (dir. Olivia Emden) is a rare film about gay divorce, handing the subject matter in a thoughtful but comedic way. After a non-acrimonious divorce, protagonist Emeka moves back in with his family, unsure of how long his stay will be. His sudden thrust back into an old life with less money and less class status is difficult and causes tension between Emeka, his family and his friends. The short gives a nuanced insight into the identity crisis that a breakup can trigger.
Land of the Free (dir. Dawid Ullgren) shows a lakeside birthday party being broken up when an argument erupts between birthday attendees and passers-by. A couple, Felix and Yonas, are drunkenly making out on the shore when some older women pass by and laugh. Yonas, convinced that the women are laughing at the sight of two men kissing, angrily confronts them, upon which he is told not to make such a fuss, and that the women were laughing at something else altogether.
The story is predominantly told in split screen, giving us simultaneous views of the action on the shore, and the birthday boy’s distant view of the argument from the water. The effect is that we feel at the same time drawn into the drama and removed from it, rooting for Yonas to prove his right as we are begging him to calm down and not ruin the party. In only eleven minutes, the film shows the Pavlovian instincts of self-preservation and anger that result from constant subjection to prejudice – we never find out whether the women were laughing at Yonas and Felix, but we can feel the frustration and the exhaustion of being made to feel “other” yet again.
In From A to Q (dir. Emmalie El Fadli), teenager Alex has a dream in which she kisses her best friend, a girl, and confesses that she is in love with her. Over the course of the following week, she tries to figure out how to approach the subject, while also ensuring that the friendship continues. The short plays out as a typical high school romance, including visions of grand gestures and dance breaks. However, it remains on the right side of saccharine and creates a relatable narrative of learning to accept confusion.
Love Is a Hand Grenade (dir. Jessica Benhamou), like Acrimonious, is a story about falling out of love with someone. After a night out, responsible main character Gabby tries to take care of her friend Alexis who has mixed drugs, alcohol and mental health medication. As Alexis complains drunkenly about her former boyfriends, she makes more and more advances towards Gabby, until the two end up sleeping together, despite Gabby’s engagement to a man. The following morning, they have to deal with the consequences of their actions and their friendship starts breaking down.
As LGBT+ films have often featured dramatic or heart-wrenching breakdowns of relationships, the pushback is often to create films that are exactly the opposite and show queer joy. While this remains incredibly important, it is also refreshing to see a film that is neither, with two characters who are incredibly attracted to each other but simply not compatible.
The brilliant Mama Gloria (dir. Luchina Fisher) tells the story of Gloria Allen, a Chicago-based trans organiser. We follow Gloria all the way from the bullying she faced growing up, to her emergence on the drag ball scene, to her abusive marriage, and finally the charm school classes that she set up to provide a community for Chicago’s young trans people. Although the documentary never tries to hide the difficult times in Gloria’s life, the particularly interesting parts of the film lie in the moments where we see Gloria in environments that have traditionally not always been welcoming to LGBT+ people: we see her speak in church, we see Gloria’s prom date from high school, we see Gloria visit her extended family, we see her speak about a hospital where she worked as a nurse, the first workplace that allowed her to work shifts as a woman.
The seemingly unquestioned support that Gloria is given in these spaces is not only heartwarming but also puts a mirror up to any viewing public; if these people could love and understand Gloria in her identity as a trans woman decades ago before the language of transness was mainstream, there is really no excuse for any lack of acceptance now. What further makes it a real emblem of filmmaking is the knowledge that director Luchina Fisher’s daughter is trans and the film is dedicated to her.
Rebel Dykes (dir. Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams) would have had an incredibly local premiere if the festival had screened at the South Bank, as it focuses on the lesbian communities of South London. In the interwoven use of animation, talking heads, archive footage and re-enactments, we learn of the construction of several women’s communities, from the Greenham Common Peace camp to a lesbian S&M club and woman-centred sex shop Sh!.
The documentary touches both upon the necessity of community for lesbians and how these communities were sustained. At the same tim, it highlights the difficult and often highly charged discussions that happened within these communities. We see women who were out as trans at the time, as well as people who considered themselves lesbians at the time but have since come out as trans men. We hear about the experience of a Black lesbian, as much as we hear about the various people who moved to London from abroad. The film’s beauty lies squarely in its ability to show wildly different people with wildly different (but equally important) attachments to the various communities. Just like the film doesn’t choose one medium through which to tell its story, there seems to be no preference given to who gets the last say about what it means to be in a lesbian community.
Well Rounded (dir. Shana Myara) explores the intersections between fatness, health, disability, race, gender and sexuality. On one hand, we hear the scientific side of what fatphobia does to people psychologically and in terms of their ability to access healthcare. On the other hand, we hear deeply personal stories of people’s own experience with discrimination, familial pressure to conform to certain beauty standards and eventual self-acceptance. The film makes very effective use of animation and location shooting and has a very Instagrammable overall aesthetic. However, behind this easily consumable façade lies a radical re-thinking of how we relate to our bodies and how we think of beauty. By the end of its modest runtime (only one hour), we have had pretty much every beauty myth debunked and every stereotype about fatness disproven.
AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman (dir. Dante Alencastre) stitches archive footage and talking heads together to tell the story of Connie Norman, an American early AIDS activist and transgender campaigner. We see her delicate balancing of radical thought with making the LGBT+ cause accessible to a wider public. Her poetic way of speaking makes it clear why she became the spokesperson for so many causes. Connecting current fights for justice with previous ones, this documentary shows how much all movements depend on the work that has gone before.
Above the Troubled Water (dir. Joe Cohen) follows four Nigerian gay activists who had to move away for fear of homophobic violence. They chronicle their individual coming-out stories, the lives and activist spaces that they tried to carve out for themselves in Nigeria and the ways that they are involved in their local communities now. Among the issues explored are the slow response to the AIDS crisis, the need to self-medicate after trauma and the problems that the men face as gay immigrants, including the imperative of always being considered an ungrateful guest in a country of arrival.
Son of Sodom (dir. Theo Montoya) is a haunting film that interweaves archive footage with performance video. Its origins lie in a recording of a casting process for director Theo Montoya’s film. During the casting session of Camilo Najar, we see the 21-year-old gay actor from Medellín, Colombia, talk about death, beauty and the future. We then learn that Camilo died of a heroin overdose a year later. The film creates a claustrophobic atmosphere depicting people caught up in their environments and in their habits, while also paying homage to the wit and the warmth with which Camilo related to people around him.
Trans Happiness Is Real (dir. Quinton Baker) shows a grassroots streets art campaign, following a series of transphobic stickers put up around the streets of Oxford. The campaign focuses on affirming trans identity and trans happiness in the face of a depressing anonymous attack. At only eight minutes, it is the perfect quick introduction to creative campaigning.
Space/Walk (dir. Tarik Elmoutawakil) brings together two queer Black people of different generations (Mark who is in his sixties and Miri who is still at college), to talk about the difficulties and the joys of living on the South coast in their specific identities. The result feels almost like a podcast rather than a short, but in the best way possible – it harks back to the pre-pandemic days, where we could sit in a public space and overhear conversations between others. The respect and the joy that Mark and Miri find in each other is palpable.
This Is an Address (dir. Sasha Wortzel) tells the story of legendary American activist Sylvia Rivera who lives in a homeless community near the Hudson River. She succinctly explains the cycle of poverty that keeps people homeless, as most aid requires someone to have an address, prompting her to proclaim that she lives “somewhere”, and as a place has to have an address, “this is an address”. The film shows the interconnectedness of marginalisation and the inability to lay claim to one’s own territory, as homeless settlements are removed to make way for the development of high-rise buildings. The film ends with the acknowledgment that it was filmed on stolen territory, as any film shot in the US is bound to be.
Images courtesy of BFI Flare.
1. The official artwork for this year’s BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The creative explores the idea of navigating obstacles with resilience – as unique individuals and as a community. It depicts green, purple, yellow and blue corrugated lines and different sized balls breaking through the pattern.
2. A still from “My first summer”. A symmetrical image of the two main characters on a bedroom floor, their faces leaning in for a kiss. Warm sunlight illuminates the room.
3. A still from “Love is a hand grenade”. The two main characters lie on the floor next to each other, their profile to the camera. The person in the foreground appears thoughtful.
4. A still from “Well rounded”. Three people lean against a pink wall eating ice cream. They wear summer clothing and appear joyful and playful.
5. A still from “Trans happiness is real”. This shows a hand cross stitching the phrase “trans happiness is real” in bright colours.