Art against hate: queer cinema from repressive countries

This year’s BFI Flare features a number of films made by fearless directors working in countries where homosexuality is criminalised.

Alex Davidson

Rafiki (2018)

Rafiki (2018)

Every year BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival showcases the best of queer cinema from around the world. While the programmers may be spoiled for choice for submissions from countries where queer artists enjoy relative freedom, there’s also a chance to see works made in countries where gay relationships are criminalised or traditional conservative values lead to a widespread contempt for LGBTQ+ people. Homosexuality is illegal in more than 70 countries, and punishable by death in eight, making the production of LGBTQ-focused films from these nations all the more remarkable.

Historically, some fearless filmmakers have created great work about queer characters, despite being made in countries where queer people are persecuted. Male homosexuality was completely illegal in the UK before 1967, but that did not stop Basil Dearden making one of the most remarkable British films of the 1960s – Victim (1961), starring Dirk Bogarde as a closeted gay lawyer involved in a blackmail plot. It’s a film many believe helped change the law.

In the US, where it took until 1973 for the American Psychiatric Association to issue a resolution stating that homosexuality was not a mental illness, LGBTQ+ people were almost always depicted as villains or pathetic victims without agency in mainstream film. For queer filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith, experimenta was the ideal vehicle for channelling gay experience, with Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Smith’s Flaming Creatures (both 1963) standing as classic works in the queer cinema canon.

Rafiki (2018), a story about two girls in love, made by Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu, is showing at this year’s Festival following its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. In Kenya, gay sex is punishable by 14 years in jail, and around the time of its premiere at Cannes Rafiki was banned in its homeland due, in the words of the censors, to its “homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law”.

José (2018)

José (2018)

The ban was soon lifted following international and Kahiu’s own resistance, and it continues an impressive recent flow of excellent queer cinema from Kenya, including the beautiful Stories of Our Lives, which premiered at the Festival in 2015 as a centrepiece screening. Courageous African directors have explored queer lives in their works before, such as Mohamed Camara’s Guinean film Dakan (1997), which offers a sympathetic depiction of two gay lovers.

Li Cheng’s José (2018), which scooped the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is also showing at BFI Flare. Fusing realism with a hint of mysticism towards the film’s climax, it’s a moving portrait of a gay man living in a nation seldom shown in films screened in the UK – Guatemala. As with Rafiki, the film benefited from being a co-production with US funding, a collaboration which can enable marginalised queer people to be represented on film.

Brazil has been a wonderful source of quality queer cinema in recent years, with films such as Futuro Beach (2014), The Way He Looks (2014) and the magnificent Hard Paint (2018) being released in cinemas. While, legally, LGBT people have the same legal rights as the non-LGBT population, with a high percentage of the population being accepting towards gay relationships, some grim statistics – Brazil is reported to have the world’s highest murder rate of LGBT people – tell a darker, more complex story.

Last year’s election of Jair Bolsonaro, a president who has likened homosexuality to paedophilia and who insists that any gay son of his own would be better off dead, is a particularly disturbing step backwards. Socrates (2018), showing at this year’s Festival, an excellent feature made by young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds in and around São Paulo, with an impressive central performance from Christian Malheiros, depicts where such contempt and marginalisation can lead.

Socrates (2018)

Socrates (2018)

Owing to high budgets and complex logistics, fiction features are one of the rarer modes of storytelling seized by filmmakers representing countries where homophobia and transphobia is rife, with documentaries emerging as a preferred format. Leitis in Waiting (2018), a doc that explores the role of ‘leitis’ (third-gendered people) in Tonga, a country where homosexuality is officially illegal and punishable by imprisonment, is a particularly revealing example. On the one hand, the leitis are respected as servants, and are held in particularly high esteem by the country’s royal family; on the other, a wider respect of leitis, who want to be seen as equals, is lacking, fuelled by a conservative (and US-funded) religious oppression.

Another BFI Flare film, The Silk and the Flame (2018), a documentary about Yao, a Chinese gay man who visits his disabled parents, who are unaware of their son’s sexuality, in their rural village, is heartbreaking. It’s a mournful, potent film, and the mother’s despair at her son’s lack of wife or children speaks to the rigidity of a society built on Confucian values of family.

Carlito (2018)

Carlito (2018)

As filmmaking equipment has becoming increasingly affordable and accessible, short films have been an increasingly key form for filmmakers, particularly in countries where funding for queer-centred films is non-existent. This year the shorts programmes at BFI Flare include films from countries where queer people are denied human rights, including Colombia (Dario), India (Please Mind the Gap), Singapore (Between Us Two) and, incredibly, Iran (Parking), a country where homosexuality is punishable by death. Parking, in particular, shows the perversity of a law that punishes gay men while letting genuine criminals off with far more lenient sentences.

A poetic seven-minute Peruvian film, Carlito se va para siempre (‘Carlito Leaves Forever’) is also being screened both at BFI Southbank and online, making up one of the #FiveFilms4Freedom, a curated collection of shorts from BFI Flare which have been made available to watch across the British Council’s global digital platforms, free of charge. Quentin Lazzarotto’s short follows Carlito, a young man who resolves to leave his indigenous Amazon village, for reasons revealed at the film’s close.

One of the key ambitions of the #FiveFilms4Freedom project is to reach queer communities in countries where homosexuality is still criminalised. Hopefully all of these films showing at the Festival, and the brave queer people who made them, will help change minds and attitudes towards LGBTQ+ in the countries in which they were made.

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