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I’ve got a confession to make: I have never seen Brokeback Mountain. Or Milk, or A Single Man, or My Beautiful Laundrette. Mind you, I have seen Not Another Gay Movie, which might go some way to explaining my general wariness of ‘gay cinema’. I’m with Philip and Carl on this one – it’s rare that Hollywood turns out a film on gay themes that’s worth the price of admission. As far as the mainstream movie industry is concerned, gay men are either fabulous or tragic, lesbians mostly exist for titillation, trans people are jokes or monsters, and bisexual people probably don’t exist. Add in my own tendency to prefer zombies and explosions to rom-com fluff or serious drama, and it’s no wonder that it’s so rare for a film with LGBT themes to float my admittedly rather eccentric boat.
So I felt I was taking a bit of a risk when I bought a weekend pass to the Leeds Queer Film Festival. Would it be more of the same, or a breath of fresh air?
I’m pleased to report that the selection of films I managed to catch over the four days of the festival were, for the most part, a refreshing change from the gay narratives one usually sees on screen. Really, that’s there in the name – whatever your opinions on the use of capital-Q Queer as an overarching term for all things not straight and narrow, it implies a certain political slant at odds to the commercial mainstream. In this case, that meant a focus on works from independent and DIY filmmakers, and a selection of films that intended to highlight people and experiences marginalised even by the gay world – trans people, sex workers, migrants, and so on.
Which is all very laudable and all, but was it any good?
I should first say that I didn’t get the chance to see everything that was shown over the four days, but what I did catch was a diverse mix of offerings; at best, fascinating and thought-provoking insights into little-discussed topics, and at worst, boring navel-gazing. Most of the short films I happened to catch – which was by no means all of them – were somewhat inconsequential; DIY spirit and quirky homemade trappings aren’t enough to cover for a lack of plot or substance. I also felt that the film selection could have benefited from more fictional works to balance out the documentary and biographical films. Of course, I don’t know how the process of getting permission to screen films at a festival works, and I certainly don’t want to be seen as knocking the organisers, who undoubtedly put a lot of work into setting this up from scratch, on a low budget, and managing to secure an extensive line-up of films and speakers – it’s just that, I personally, felt there’s only so much my thoughts can take of being provoked, and would have appreciated some light relief here and there.
That’s not to say, however, that the festival was all so much cinematic muesli: good for you but not exactly enjoyable.
Regretters, a documentary about two Swedish men who transitioned to female and then back again, was memorable both for its topic and for its simple but effective set-up – just two people, in a room, mostly talking to one another and occasionally to camera. Other than some photographs and archive footage, that was it as far as visual diversions went, and yet it was entirely riveting for its hour-long running time. The subject matter could very easily have been handled in a prurient or judgmental way, but in letting Mikael and Orlando tell their own stories and arrive at their own conclusions, it managed to avoid most of the usual pitfalls of documentaries on transgender subjects.
Normal, a documentary on sex workers, was similar in style and set-up – seven individuals telling their stories straight to camera. What was different about it was that the individuals and stories were real, but to protect identities, the subjects were portrayed by actors. I knew that beforehand, but the performances were (for the most part) so naturalistic and convincing that I completely forgot until about halfway through that the people on-screen hadn’t actually lived these stories. It could have done with being a little shorter, but it presented perspectives I’ve never seen before and very effectively demonstrated how sex work is much more ethically complicated and murky than the simple narratives we’re usually presented with.
My highlight of the festival came on Saturday with Treyf, an autobiographical work about the experience of being a secular Jewish lesbian, trying to figure out where you fit in. Despite being entirely about a very particular niche in society, it managed to be entirely relatable in terms of the more universal experience of trying to work out who you are, balance the conflicts between different parts of one’s identity, and trying to find other people in the same chunk of the Venn diagram as yourself – plus it was witty, charming, and gave me a serious craving to go to a New York deli and buy a bagel the size of my head.
So taking it altogether: a mixed experience, but a pleasantly different one, and a world away from the usual cinema-going day-out. I’m still a cynic about mainstream gay cinema, but that doesn’t matter – last weekend has more than proved to me that we don’t need the mainstream to tell our stories. The technology’s there; all you need is the inspiration and the motivation to go out and do it for yourself.