There are certain stories that are irresistible to queer filmmakers, and one of them is the time-honoured trope of an uncertain young person who is captured on a journey of self-discovery whose denouement is the loss of virginity. The film ends with an adolescent or young person in love, full of hope, still uncertain but eager to continue with all the enthusiasm of youth.
It’s easy to be seduced by the memory of one’s own stumbling out of the closet and the emotional minefields of early love and sex. There are lots of great films that tell this story, and it’s important for each generation to be able to explore what coming out and falling in love is like. But I want to know, what happens after the end of that film? What happens after 20 or 30 years or more? What are the lives of mature LGBTIQ+ people really like?
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Screening at this year’s BFI Flare, PS: Burn This Letter Please is an extraordinary film which was inspired by the discovery of a group of letters sent by a group of drag queens in the 1950s to a young man making his way in New York.
The creators of this film spent 6 years tracking down the letter-writers, who are now all in their 80s and 90s. These old queens were once young, fabulous and fearless. They had to be. In interviews they come alive and reveal as never before just what it was like to walk on the wild side as young drag queens at a time when both homosexuality and wearing women’s clothing were against the law. To see them as they are now, and see and hear (through their letters and photographs and some rare footage) how they were then, is a fantastically moving experience.
The film also boasts an incredible range of archive film, drawn from archives around the world, showing New York’s queens as they were. Like so much queer history it’s a fragile survival. The chance discovery of the letters was the catalyst for this rediscovery of a group of amazing characters.
In the 1950s and 60s, being queer wasn’t always a whole lot of fun. The Act, a British short, is a revealing film about the life of a young man who deals with the difficulties of finding love when the law is against you. It has as much emotional depth as a full-length feature and is contained in the programme Hearts’ Desires. Self-loathing and shame was encouraged by the conservative social attitudes enshrined in religion, law and the medical establishment.
Cured is an epoch-marking film about a group of activists who conspired to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association list of mental illnesses. It sketches the emotional landscape which defined the predicament of the LGBTIQ+ community and reveals the brave and passionate individuals who stood up to challenge the idea that homosexuality was a sickness, and won. The story is told through many of the survivors from that time and includes a rich range of material, including interviews with the key participants in this battle. Their victory changed all our lives.
If you’re yearning for a love story then I whole-heartedly recommend Firebird, based on a true story about the encounter of a young junior officer and his female best friend with a fighter pilot in Soviet-era Estonia. Based on a memoir written by one of the participants, it features a stand-out performance by British actor Tom Prior, who brings to life a deeply moving story told across a generation of political and personal tumult.
Festival favourite Eytan Fox also offers a different kind of drama in Sublet, a stylish story of an intergenerational encounter between a middle-aged man and a young filmmaker. Going beyond their different world views we discover what two different generations of gay men can learn from each other.
Don’t give up on young love, but do try and see something which offers another perspective too.
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