Trans films in the spotlight as BFI Flare returns

The 38th edition of the London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival will platform inspiring and thoughtful stories of trans lives, including Elliot Page’s subtle family drama Close to You 
and Levan Akin’s Istanbul-set Crossing.

12 March 2024

By Ben Walters

Elliot Page in Close to You © Me + You Productions
Sight and Sound

At this year’s BFI Flare, two special presentation screenings will explore aspects of the often complex dynamics between trans people and their families of origin. It’s a timely subject. The tenor of public discourse in the UK around the lives of trans people continues to degrade even as the stakes carry on rising. In February, two teenagers were jailed for life for murdering another teenager, Brianna Ghey. The judge stated that the killers were partly motivated by “hostility towards Brianna because of her transgender identity”.

Following the verdict, Ghey’s mother Esther spoke publicly about her daughter’s life and showed empathy towards the killers and their families. This contributes to humanising the trans experience and the consequences of transphobia, subjects that the UK media and politicians typically meet with misinformation, ridicule and scaremongering. On the day Esther Ghey visited parliament, the prime minister jibed about the leader of the opposition’s difficulty “defining a woman”. Opposition politicians and journalists excoriated his tactlessness. Yet even if much of that pushback was hypocritical lip service, it’s instructive to note its context: a situation in which violence towards a trans individual was also understood as violence towards the nuclear family. Brianna Ghey’s life became worthy of (at least the show of) respect when it was understood as being part of family life.

This brings us to the screenings: Close to You and Crossing. Both were directed by cis male filmmakers (Dominic Savage and Levan Akin, respectively) but were created in collaboration with trans advisers, cast and crew. Set in Canada, Close to You stars Elliot Page as Sam, who is returning from Toronto to the small town where he grew up for his father’s birthday. It’s something of a landmark in industry terms: Page is the only out trans man in a position to produce, star in and co-write a feature centred on the trans male experience, and his openness about his own life (in, for instance, last year’s memoir Pageboy) brings an added sense of intimacy. Page will also deliver a talk at Flare, his presence adding a further frisson. Close to You was created in a similar way to Savage’s dramas for Channel 4, I Am… (2019 to 2022), devised and plotted in collaboration with a prominent lead actor then improvised by the company.

At first, the film seems to present a familiar scenario: a queer character’s uncertain return to their family of origin after a long absence. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Sam’s family are supportive of his transition and hold him dear – or at least this is the story they tell themselves and each other. Rather than the explicit conflicts and tensions of traumatic rejection and overt bigotry, this is a dynamic of more subtle misapprehension, avoidance and self-centredness. “There are a lot of people who on the face of it are open-minded but underneath there’s something they’ve not dealt with,” as Savage puts it. “Whatever they want to show they are, the reality seeps out.”

In one exchange, Sam rejects the primacy of the bond of home: “Family’s not the most important thing. It’s not.” It’s a striking moment in its insistence that the value of queer lives is not dependent on their perceived compatibility with conventional structures. “Some people would find that heresy, almost,” says Savage. “Their whole lives are predicated on the notion of family, good or bad. But he’s right, you know? He’s right.”

Mzia Arabuli in Levan Akin’s Crossing

Crossing is also about a journey that unearths buried family issues, though from a different perspective. Young Georgian man Achi (Lucas Kankava) joins retired teacher Lia (Mzia Arabuli) on a trip to Istanbul in search of her niece Tekla, whom the family rejected when she came out as trans years earlier. Much of the film’s charm comes from their odd-couple bond, conspicuously unmarked by overt transphobia. The idea of trans identity as a threat is clear, though: Achi’s boorish brother describes it as “a real tragedy for the family” while Lia recalls Tekla’s existence as “a great shame for our family”. And while Sam is in nearly every scene of Close to You, Crossing is primarily driven by Tekla’s absence. It’s through Evrim (Deniz Dumanli), a trainee lawyer with an active dating life, that trans life comes vibrantly to the screen here.

Inspired by a story about a Georgian grandfather’s support for his trans granddaughter, Akin (And Then We Danced, 2019) worked with trans organisations and advisers during the film’s development and production. The casting director, for example, was a trans man. “[Trans consultants were] concerned that it would be a tragic depiction of queer life in Istanbul,” says Akin. “That’s something I’m concerned about too. I want to show positive stories without being naive. We know the context but we want to tell stories about solidarity.”

Crossing also offers a lively portrait of Tarlabaşı, the distinctive neighbourhood where Lia and Achi search for Tekla. “It’s the trans quarter but also home to sex workers, a Kurdish population, many others,” says Akin. “It was majority Armenian and Greek before the pogroms. It’s a distinctive neighbourhood and it was important to get the geography correct.” Through its complex networks of streets, people and groups, we see lives lived through forms of belonging and support that might step up where families fail.

The Flare programme also offers extensive documentary representation of a range of trans subjects. Going by culture-war talking points, some might imagine trans and intersex participation in competitive sports to be a recent development – a misconception implicitly rebuffed by Julia Fuhr Mann’s century-spanning feature, Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning. Sport isn’t the only major cultural platform with barriers to trans inclusion: another is explored in Ila Mehrotra’s India’s 1st Best Trans Model Agency. Fashion also comes into play in Amy Pennington and Jos Bitelli’s TOPS, which uses UK breakfast-TV tropes to unpack trans men’s style choices. Jules Rosskam’s Desire Lines, meanwhile, examines the specificities of gay trans male identity. 

Experimental approaches to trans subjects are on show too. Writer Paul B. Preciado’s formally innovative feature debut Orlando, My Political Biography uses Virginia Woolf’s novel as a creative springboard. Reas, from Lola Arias, presents a carceral fantasia with voguing and musical numbers. And shorts programme State of the Art draws on influences from painting, drawing and dance. At a time when wider appreciation of the complex diversity of trans lives feels more important than ever, it is to be hoped that where festivals such as Flare lead, more mainstream platforms will follow.

Six further highlights at Flare

Don’t Ever Stop 

Stuart Pollitt, UK

Don’t Ever Stop (2023)

Pollitt’s documentary pays tribute to the famed UK DJ and music producer Tony de Vit, doyen of London superclubs such as Heaven and Trade, who died aged only 40 in 1998. Flare also offers tantalising docs about the Los Angeles disco institution Studio One, the recent world tour undertaken by musician Lil Nas X, the filmmaking duo, and couple, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, and the photographers George Platt Lynes and Jürgen Baldiga.

Lady Like

Luke Willis, US

Lady Like (2024)
© Photo by Matt Burke

This year’s closing night gala is a doc portrait of UK-born RuPaul’s Drag Race season 14 runner-up Lady Camden, aka Rex Wheeler. The film promises to follow their route from growing up in Camden to performing on the local queer scene in San Francisco. It also examines the global profile afforded by the reality show while considering the form’s potential for both personal growth and community engagement.

Layla

Amrou Al-Kadhi, UK

Layla (2024)

Flare opens with Al-Kadhi’s debut feature, a culture-clash romance starring Bilal Hasna and Louis Greatorex as a drag performer and her straitlaced beau. Informed by Al-Kadhi’s experience as drag artist Glamrou and an awareness of imperilled queer spaces, it premiered at Sundance. Look out, too, for Unicorns, Sally El Hosaini and James Krishna Floyd’s romance, inspired by pioneering UK Asian drag queen Asifa Lahore.

Lesvia

Tzeli Hadjidimitriou, Greece

Lesvia (2024)

Birthplace of the poet Sappho, the island of Lesbos (or Lesvos) gave its name to lesbian identity. This multi-layered documentary about the Greek island is made by Tzeli Hadjidimitriou, a lesbian from Lesbos, and seeks to explore the hopes and desires of women who have been coming to the island since the 1970s as well as the thoughts and responses of locals.

Pine Cone

Onir, India

Pine Cone (2023)

Directed and co-written by Onir, who is one of India’s few out LGBTQ+ filmmakers, 
this semi-autobiographical story is something of a watershed. The story of gay director Sid (Vidur Sethi) is set against pivotal moments for gay rights in India (1999, 2009 and 2019), with a backward-moving chronology offering an unusual perspective on the challenges and changes the character faces over time.

Woman Of… 

Małgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert, Poland/Sweden

Woman Of... (2023)

Set during the waning days of Soviet Communism, Szumowska and Englert’s drama maps the arduous journey toward personal fulfilment of closeted trans woman Aniela (Małgorzata Hajewska) against hopes of national liberation catalysed by the changing political landscape. Also at Flare, Marek Kozakiewicz’s documentary We Are Perfect uses an open audition process as a window into the Polish trans experience today.


BFI Flare runs from 13 to 24 March at BFI Southbank and on BFI Player.