BFI Flare’s Second Chance Sunday sidebar offers festival-goers a chance to reacquaint themselves with the biggest LGBTQ+ crowd-pleasers of the past 12 months. Based on this year’s selection, you could paint a portrait of 2017 as a seamless succession of heartening queer cinema success stories.
BFI Flare London LGBTQ+ Film Festival runs 21 March–1 April 2018 at BFI Southbank, London.
There’s Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, aka the British Brokeback Mountain, which made modest history last autumn as the highest-grossing debut by a British director at the UK box office. Luca Guadagnino’s sublime gay romance Call Me By Your Name followed in the footsteps of Moonlight as a festival-circuit smash that went on to enjoy breakout commercial success and major awards recognition.
A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio’s Almodóvar-inflected portrait of a young trans woman facing discrimination in present-day Santiago, became the first film starring a trans actor (Daniela Vega) to win an Oscar. And while it stumbled at the box office, Battle of the Sexes saw one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars (Emma Stone) play one of the sporting world’s greatest queer icons (Billie Jean King).
While pondering these same titles, however, you could also draw the less cheerful conclusion that in order to penetrate the mainstream, a queer film ought to be an empowering tale of an exceptionally photogenic young person navigating their nascent sexuality or evolving gender identity. Certainly, opportunities to catch LGBTQ+ films on the big screen that deviate from this formula remain relatively rare. Happily, BFI Flare, firmly established as the UK’s biggest queer film event as it enters its 32nd year, continues to rise to the challenge of championing work that reflects the diversity of its audiences.
The notion of the queer family is explored and interrogated in a host of this year’s programme highlights. Linda Cullen and Vanessa Gildea’s documentary The 34th offers an enthralling portrait of the activists who led the march towards marriage equality in Ireland. The film posits that an improved understanding of LGBT family life proved vital in steering the country towards a resounding Yes vote in the 2015 referendum.
Specifically, it cites as a ‘lightbulb moment’ the country’s 2013 Constitutional Convention, during which Clare O’Connell and Conor Pendergrast, both adult children of committed same-sex couples, delivered speeches about their happy, wholesome lives. But this seemingly innocuous decision to shine a light on cosy queer domesticity had been highly contentious behind the scenes, with gay male campaigners in particular fearing this approach might play into the hands of bigots intent on drawing parallels between homosexuality and paedophilia. The film does a fine job of celebrating a decisive victory for progressivism in a country typically characterised as socially conservative, without glossing over the contempt for queer communities that still exists at all levels of society.
Close-Knit was overshadowed by the thematically similar A Fantastic Woman when it premiered at last year’s Berlinale – one reason that festivals such as Flare remain essential is that mainstream outlets seem willing only to champion a small handful of queer films at any one given time. Like Lelio’s boldly confrontational Oscar-winner, Close-Knit is a tale of a young trans woman’s struggle to be accepted by her cis male partner’s family.
But director Naoko Ogigami strikes an altogether gentler tone here, focusing on the forging of a meaningful connection between protagonist Rinko (Toma Ikuta) and her partner’s young niece Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), who moves in with the couple after her reckless mother essentially abandons her. In a manner that feels convincingly reflective of Japan’s non-confrontational culture, the adults around Rinko seem reluctant to acknowledge her as a trans woman. However 11-year-old Tomo has no such qualms, exhibiting playful, open-minded curiosity about all aspects of her experience, including the compelling details of gender reassignment surgery.
As such, the film calmly counters the all-too-commonly asserted notion that trans identity should be harder to grasp for children than any other facet of adult life. It also touchingly explores the way in which chosen families can heal the scars left by dysfunctional relationships with biological relatives.
Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s Good Manners offers a delightfully twisted take on lesbian parenting. Set in an ominously otherworldly São Paulo, its first half plays out as an offbeat, uneasy romance between white, wealthy Ana (Marjorie Estiano) and her newly hired black domestic helper Clara (Isabél Zuaa).
Heavily pregnant and living alone in a lavish apartment, Ana has evidently been ostracised by her family. As her desire for Clara becomes palpable, it seems plausible that she’s been deemed a disgrace on account of her sexuality. But it transpires that Ana harbours an altogether darker secret, one which renders her attraction to Clara somewhat ambiguous, and which casts a horrifying shadow over her child’s impending birth.
Without giving the entire game away, the second half depicts Clara’s travails as the guardian of said child, a boy named Joel (Miguel Lobo) who carries a supernatural burden. What gives this outlandish modern fairytale a real jolt of poignancy is the fact that Clara’s situation is, to a large degree, rooted in realities faced by many queer families. As a non-biological mother to a child with an unconventional identity, she’s forced to obfuscate and conceal the truth on an almost continual basis.
Good Manners also serves as a reminder that Latin American queer cinema is in particularly rude health at the moment. Just a week before Sebastián Lelio picked up his Oscar for A Fantastic Woman, the Berlinale’s Teddy Award for best LGBTQ+ feature was handed to Hard Paint, by Brazilian duo Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon.
It tells the story of Pedro (Shico Menegat), a young gay man in Porto Alegre whose work as a webcam performer allows him both to stay afloat financially in tough economic times, and to explore his sexuality in a relatively safe space. Like God’s Own Country and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend before it, it strikes a neat balance of eroticism and unsentimental compassion. Pedro’s life is tough and precarious, but he’s ultimately strengthened rather than crushed by the hardships he endures.
Conversely, Marilyn, the debut feature by Argentine filmmaker Martín Rodríguez Redondo, frontloads its flashes of optimism. In a mesmerising early sequence, repressed rural teen Marcos (Walter Rodríguez) sneaks off to a carnival dressed as a masked woman and dances with the reckless abandon of someone embracing their true identity for the first time. But the euphoria is sharply curtailed, as Marcos’ desperation to be desired and accepted leads a series of increasingly ill-advised decisions.
The film is taut and handsomely mounted, and offers a relatively uncommon glimpse of a young person struggling simultaneously with their sexual and gender identities. Ultimately, however, Marilyn feels borne from the questionable notion that the best way to engender sympathy for a queer character is to inflict relentless misery upon them. The true story upon which it’s based offers the possibility of a redemptive final-act twist, but here the events are played as unwaveringly tragic.
The Wound trailer
Moving over to South Africa, John Tengrove’s The Wound offers a similarly unflinching look at queer individuals struggling to thrive in a remote, conservative community.
Once a year, withdrawn factory worker Xolani (Nakhane Touré) serves as a mentor to boys undergoing Ulwaluko, an ancient initiation into manhood involving ritual circumcision and a period of seclusion in the countryside. The role affords Xolani the opportunity for discreet sexual encounters with his childhood friend Vija (Bongile Mantsai), but the inquisitive gaze of young gay initiate Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) puts the pair at risk of exposure. What unfolds is a powerful indictment of a culture that blindly reveres traditional notions of masculinity.
Finally, the programme includes a small selection of films depicting differently abled queer people, among them the playfully audacious teen comedy-drama Pulse. Inspired by the real-life experiences of its writer and star Daniel Monks, it starts out as an endearingly scrappy portrait of an affable high-schooler, grounded in droll Australian humour. But it soon emerges that we’re in an alternate reality in which full-body transplants are a relatively straightforward medical procedure.
Deeply in love with his straight best friend, our young protagonist assumes the appearance of a beautiful girl in an attempt to have his desire reciprocated. Needless to say, things don’t quite go to plan. It’s a sly subversion of body-swap comedy tropes, which eloquently expresses the challenges of establishing a sexual identity with a physical form that doesn’t resemble that of a Hollywood star.