2021: the year in queer cinema

In festivals and beyond, it was a bumper year for LGBTQ+ stories, both fiction and documentary

Rebel Dykes (2021)Background photo credit: Jill Posener

As theatrical venues began to open again in mid-2021 and film festivals moved from creating online-only experiences to welcoming people back to cinemas, great queer works flourished once more on the big screen.

Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee is a remarkable animated documentary about Amin, a gay man living in Denmark who recalls the period decades earlier when he and his family had to leave Afghanistan; it screened at film festivals even as harrowing images of men and women piling into cargo planes at Kabul airport dominated the news, following the return to power of the Taliban. In this context, Flee was especially powerful viewing.

It was a highlight at the Berlinale, where the Teddy award, given to the best queer film, was won by another documentary that deftly balanced humour and heartbreak: Eliane Raheb’s Miguel’s War, about a gay man from Lebanon who moved to Spain and who, like Amin, revisits traumas in an attempt to reconcile with the past.

Titane (2021)

The Queer Palm at Cannes went to Catherine Corsini’s The Divide, a drama mainly set in an overstretched hospital ward as a lesbian couple await medical attention while tensions between police and gilets jaunes escalate outside. It has effective moments, but Julia Ducournau’s mighty Titane, starring Agathe Rousselle as a woman who goes on the run after a killing spree, disguises herself as a boy and enters the world of a melancholic fireman (Vincent Lindon in a magnificent performance), would have been a more deserving winner. What starts as an extreme, punky spectacle transforms into a moving, wild drama and won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or.

Some of the best queer dramas of 2021 looked to the past. Terence Davies returned with Benediction, his superb biopic of the poet Siegfried Sassoon, an epic wallow in 20th-century British gay history by way of Wilfred Owen and Ivor Novello, with an unforgettable final shot. Milica Tomović’s debut feature Celts, a sharp and sometimes shocking satire set at a children’s birthday party in Belgrade in 1993, as Yugoslavia falls apart in the background, features a number of strong queer characters and marks the arrival of an exciting new talent. In Austrian director Sebastian Meise’s excellent Great Freedom Franz Rogowski gives a formidable performance as a gay man repeatedly incarcerated in post-war Germany during the era of Paragraph 175, which outlawed men having sex with each other. While the film adaptation of the West End musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie lacked pizzazz, a glorious sequence to a new song, ‘This Was Me’, sung by Holly Johnson, showed queer resistance in Thatcher’s Britain.

Many of the most exciting documentaries of the year also looked back at queer histories. Rebel Dykes, directed by Harri Shanahan and Siân Williams, is a fierce, sex-positive celebration of the underground lesbian scene in 1980s London, featuring riveting interviews with the women who revelled in the anarchy of it all. Jamila Wignot’s Ailey is a sensitive portrait, rich with audio and video archive footage, of the African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey, whose Revelations is one of the most performed ballets in the world. More than 20 years after her groundbreaking documentary Gendernauts (1999), Monika Treut’s poignant Genderation revisits the trans and genderqueer pioneers featured in the earlier film, including Sandy Stone, Susan Stryker and Max Wolf Valerio, who look back on their time in San Francisco, a city that has changed immeasurably over the last two decades.

Colors of Tobi (2021)

Urgent films made in parts of the world where queer people face discrimination and sometimes violent persecution received their premieres in 2021. Alexa Bakony’s Colors of Tobi, released as Hungary becomes increasingly conservative and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is passed by parliament, is a moving and uplifting documentary which follows a non-binary teenager eager to move from their rural town to Budapest. Madalena, a Brazilian fictional feature with the grim subject matter of the aftermath of the murder of a trans woman, ends with a magical sequence of three of the dead woman’s friends carrying out a kind of queer wake in a forest, before a sobering intertitle informs the audience that more trans people are murdered every year in Brazil than any other country. As Poland, under the presidency of the explicitly homophobic Andrzej Duda, becomes increasingly hostile to queer people, Piotr Domalewski’s atmospheric thriller Operation Hyacinth, in which a cop investigates the murder of gay men in 1980s Warsaw against a background of persecution and police raids, was a necessary reminder of where such state-approved homophobia can lead.

The best films of 2021