Thiessa Woinbackk is a break-out star for me in this year’s BFI Flare. She stars in her first film role in Valentina, as a trans 17-year-old slogging her way through high school in small town Brazil. With a wisdom and inner strength that belie her youth, supported by her rock-solid mum (Guta Stresser) and new queer best friend (Ronaldo Bonafro), she rises above the obstacles she faces in a country with some of the worst rates of transphobia in the world.
Trans students face a ‘social boycott’ that causes around 80% of them to drop out of education in Brazil. Director Cássio Pereira Dos Santos aimed to make this issue more visible, and he succeeds with great sensitivity and authenticity. Many of the young actors who play Valentina’s friends were discovered in theatre groups around the rural towns in Minas Gerais where the film is set. The powerful performances and unsentimental direction combine to create a tour de force.
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Growing up in the sticks can be dreary for any teen but especially so as an LGBTIQ+ person with little access to community or much in the way of local fun. In Colors of Tobi, we meet the very astute and reflective non-binary Tobi, who poses a lot of interesting questions about masculinity and gender identity in the 21st century. Letting their life be documented over their mid-teens, Tobi transitions to be male before settling into a non-binary identity. Their family are perplexed but eager to learn so they venture to the city for Pride and to link with trans youth and parent support networks. The documentary is beautifully handled, leaving behind the tropes of ‘one person’s transition journey’, weaving in class, rapid intergenerational change and the impact of the increasing shift to right-wing nationalism in central Europe.
Similar themes are touched upon in the free short docs programme For the Record with the sublime Being Sascha. Philosophical and engaging, Sascha eloquently explores what it means to live beyond the binary in the sleepy, conservative city of Basel in Switzerland.
Small-town woes are certainly not a factor in Mama Gloria. Set right in the thick of Chicago city life, this glorious film introduces the world of trans elder and local legend, Gloria Allen. As she strolls around the neighbourhood, young trans and queer people flock to her with deference and love. A respected teacher and youth worker, Gloria is a trail-blazing icon and community leader, passing on her wisdom to the next generations and making sure they understand who paved the way for them. Resplendent archive footage illuminates Gloria’s youth in the mid 20th-century trans and gay clubs of the Windy City. This unmissable documentary is a co-production with Black Public Media, an organisation that has existed for four decades to tackle the systemic racism stalling the distribution and development of films focusing on people of colour.
In the vein of pioneers and trans history, AIDS DIVA is an engrossing documentary honouring the life of Connie Norman (1949-96). A key figure in ACT UP Los Angeles, she was quickly propelled to the forefront as a fearless and charismatic speaker. Embracing the moniker of AIDS Diva, she was both furious and funny, fighting tirelessly for access to healthcare and visibility in the first two terrifying decades of the disease. The director Dante Alencastre said he wanted to address the whitewashed, cis-male centred presentation of queer history. This is a moving tribute to one of the fiercest and most fabulous trans women in history.
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