Ron Peck honoured as BFI Flare returns

London’s celebration of queer cinema is back with a vibrant programme showcasing many recent festival hits, as well as a tribute to the pioneering British director whose film Nighthawks was a landmark piece of gay cinema.

13 March 2023

By Ben Walters

Nighthawks (1978)
Sight and Sound

This year’s BFI Flare, London’s LGBTQIA+ film festival, includes a tribute to UK queer cinema pioneer Ron Peck, as well as a new expanded-cinema strand and fortified links to the international festival circuit.

The festival’s programmers are keen to assert Flare’s increasingly robust position on the international circuit, noting the programme’s growing number of world premieres and the securing of prior festival hits for its showcase galas. Its opening film is The Stroll, Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s documentary about trans women of colour in New York’s Meatpacking District, which screened at Sundance. Flare’s closing film is Hannes Hirsch’s feature Drifter, about the contemporary gay experience in Berlin, fresh from the Berlinale. And the centrepiece gala is Tünde Skovrán’s South African intersex drama Who I Am Not, which was at SXSW. (Lee Sohyoon’s South Korean high-school comedy-drama XX+XY also centres on an intersex character, suggesting an increasing filmmaking focus on this little-represented identity.)

This year sees the launch of Flare Expanded, a weekend of free interactive and VR work from artists and filmmakers Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Antonia Forster, Taylor McCue and Tsang Tsuishan, spotlighting engaging subjects such as sex work, dance, illness and archiving. The strand is programmed by Ulrich Schrauth. New programmer Rhianna Ilube and assistant programmer Wema Mumma also join the existing Flare team of Grace Barber-Plentie, Jay Bernard, Michael Blyth, Zorian Clayton and Brian Robinson.

The programme also features a range of porn-related material covering various identities and experiences, including the 1979 French film Le Beau Mec, featuring original choreography by Rudolf Nureyev. Other highlights include Ungentle, Huw Lemmey’s poetic exploration of queer spies, narrated by Ben Whishaw, and Tara Brown’s presentation ‘We Have Always Been Here!’, which traces a lineage of queer disability on screen.

Strip Jack Naked: Nighthawks II (1991)

The festival also makes space to mark the passing in 2022 of London filmmaker Ron Peck, with a rare screening of Strip Jack Naked: Nighthawks II (1991) and a discussion event dedicated to him. The original Nighthawks (1978) followed the experiences of geography teacher Jim (Ken Robertson) naturalistic, semi-improvised conversations, extended shots fixed on characters’ faces and semi-documentary footage of driving, cruising and dancing in clubs. Its representation of the capital’s gay scene in the years before Heaven, Thatcher or HIV was unprecedented, albeit strongly centred on white men, and its climactic scene of Jim openly discussing his sexuality with a class of teenagers remains remarkable.

The film, observes Flare programmer Brian Robinson, “revealed something of the everyday reality of being gay with a cast of non-professionals, which struck a chord with many who had never seen their kind of life, in quietly unspectacular fashion, reflected on screen”. Peck, he adds, “helped school a generation and was an inspiration in showing that queer stories could be made and be successful at a time when few thought this was possible”.

Nighthawks was a labour of love for Peck and his collaborator Paul Hallam. They scraped together a budget of around £60,000 over three years, collecting spare change in buckets as well as securing more substantial investment from producer Don Boyd and, crucially, German television. Derek Jarman lent his Butler’s Wharf warehouse apartment as a location (and it can be glimpsed in a dance scene). The film’s muted tone and ambivalent ending divided opinion among gay audiences, both prompting protests and filling screens for months. It proved popular internationally as well.

In Nighthawks II, Peck looks back from the other side of the 80s, potently combining an account of the earlier feature’s unusual production history with personal memoir and social history. It touches on lost scenes, lost friends, schoolboy crushes, revelatory screenings, the 20-strong group who willed Nighthawks into existence, the lack of institutional support for Peck’s vision and the media backlash.

At Flare, Nighthawks II screens with Peck’s student short Its Ugly Head (1974), about a closeted young teacher and his disabled wife. The screening is followed by a panel event, ‘Remembering Ron Peck’, which will pay tribute to the filmmaker’s sensitivity and drive and showcase rare clips and archival material. Contributors will include Peck’s friends Mark Ayres and Lise Baun Grarup, Bishopsgate Institute archivist Stef Dickers, artist Ian Giles and BFI curators Simon McCallum and William Fowler. For Robinson, Peck was “a generous and thoughtful participant in the world” who “encouraged community participation, never lost a sense of the importance of creating queer culture, never forsook his campaigning gay liberationist roots and created a lasting legacy with his films.”

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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