Last Sunday as I minced through a heaving throng of pop, rock and R&B-loving queer folk at the closing party of the 33rd yearly BFI Flare – London’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival, I felt a slight pang of mourning.
Founded in 1986, I have been excitedly frequenting this inimitable film festival for the last four years, mesmerised by its vast selection of features, shorts and events celebrating queer culture from across the globe.
BFI Flare 2019 opened its doors to 157 filmmakers from 23 countries, 279 industry delegates and 148 press delegates such as myself. The BFI Flare industry events over the eleven-day festival and BFI Flare’s popular Press & Industry screenings were attended by 1,052 guests, with a 74% higher attendance rate than 2018. Its clear that this historic cinematic movement is going from strength to strength.
From the 21st to the 31st March I practically lived at the BFI, rejoicing in the inspiring representation of both sexual and gender diversity on screen. The social soirees bringing together LGBTQ+ film aficionados, filmmakers and their supportive allies were also opportunities to mingle with like-minded queer cinema buffs and engage in essential post-film analysis.
The festival boasted 27.3K attendances, and the newly launched BFI Flare Facebook Live had over 160K viewers, reaching audiences all across the world, with the #FiveFilms4Freedom shorts being viewed over 3.9 million times online.
Known affectionately in the LGBTQ+ community as “Queer Christmas,” this iconic film festival screened films which stimulated debate with my fellow queer film fans, moved me immensely with their raw depiction of queer life in less “tolerant” cultures (and eras) and essentially celebrated the human right to love and be loved.
Opening with the UK premiere of Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, festival early birds were treated to a cinematic gem telling the beguiling story of one of the literary world’s most enigmatic sapphic love stories.
Having studied gender, sexuality and writing as part of my English Literature degree, I was intrigued at the attraction between these two famous novelists and so I adored watching their love story unfold on the big screen in this visually decadent masterpiece. Gemma Arterton plays the unashamedly frivolous, sexually fluid aristocrat Vita Sackville-West who forms an obsession with mentally unstable literary genius Virginia Wolf (Elizabeth Debicki). The impressive acting skills of both women along with the haunting musical score and almost celestial cinematography, transported the viewer into the polyamorous, bohemian-chic world of the free-spirited 1920’s Bloomsbury set and presented an intense depiction of obsession, commitment phobia and dwindling mental health – or “female hysteria” as it was often diagnosed in that era.
Intersex individuals were also powerfully represented via documentaries such as No Box for Me. An Intersex Story and A Normal Girl, as well as the mesmerising short Ponyboi – the first intersex narrative film made by an intersex artist.
Trans identity is also rejoiced on the big screen at Flare. I was particularly intrigued by Jess Kohl’s short documentary Nirvana about India’s yearly leading transgender festival, Koovagam, which offers the viewer a delightful delve into this practically unknown movement, responsible for empowering trans women in this enchanting corner of the globe.
The often overlooked (and misunderstood) subject of asexuality was also touched upon in the heartwarming short Infinite While It Lasts, whilst films such as the poly romcom-esque Two in the Bush: A Love Story and the festival’s closing film JT Leroy – a quirky true story featuring the proudly queer Kristen Stewart proudly depict bisexuality and sexual fluidity. In a society (and even within the LGBTQ+ community) where bisexuals are often judged or misrepresented on screen, such powerful celluloid depictions were very much welcome additions of this iconic London film festival.
QPOC (queer people of colour) were also represented by enigmatic films such as Rafiki – the Kenyan lesbian romance by Wanuri Kahiu. Making headlines after its 2018 Cannes Film Festival debut as its first Kenyan entry, the film broke barriers by winning a landmark court case after the Kenyan Film Board banned the film from playing in Kenyan cinemas. Rafiki proudly won a week-long showing in this (mainly homophobic) country, triumphantly defying the country’s anti LGBTQ legistration by doing so.
Some of my other favourite films (and I watched oodles of them) included the British adaptation of Fiona’s Shaw’s groundbreaking novel – Tell it to the Bees, directed by Annabel Jankel and starting Anna Paquin and Holliday Granger as two women who fall in love amidst a cripplingly homophobic small village in 1950’s Scotland.
Like many lesbian love stories I have read or watched onscreen, depictions of toxic masculinity are common – as was the case with this incredibly emotive drama. Lydia (Grainger) and her young son has been callously abandoned by her selfish and aggressive husband resulting in her being evicted from her quaint cottage. She meets the intriguing village doctor Jean (Paquin) who offers her a safe haven in her spacious inherited home and the role of her housekeeper.
Jean has all the “qualities” a “straight” woman could possibly find attractive in a man – she has the status of being the village’s only (female) doctor (almost unheard of in the 1950’s), is loving and caring to her son and makes Lydia feel protected from the cruel, judgemental society single mothers faced. She also has a “masculine” energy about her, which I believe increases the attraction Lydia (who had previously only been with men) feels towards her. Again I feel this is a realistic portrayal of how a previously straight-identifying women realises that she is in fact bisexual, or sexually fluid – a notion I felt I could relate to.
Carmen and Lola was another lesbian love story screened at Flare which was a true joy to watch. Set in the scathingly oppressive gypsy community in Madrid, the film touches on issues such as the social stigma surrounding queer female sexuality, toxic masculinity (yet again) and disownment from family members.
I was surprised to learn that the starring actors (Moreno Borja, Carolina Yuste, Rosy Rodriguez, Zaira Morales and Rafaela Leon) were not trained actors at all, but actual members of the (homophobic) gypsy community and inhabitants of the Spanish region in which the film was shot. The scene depicting the moment Lola’s parents discovered her sexuality was so incredibly well acted and dramatic, it moved me to tears.
Another film which turned me into a blubbering mess throughout – and my favourite film of the entire festival was Tucked, directed by Jamie Patterson. The film boasts 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and tells the heart-wrenching tale of veteran drag queen Jackie (excellently played by Derren Nesbitt) who is diagnosed with cancer and given 6 weeks to live. He decides to bravely live his final days regaling the crowd at the Brighton drag club he works at, and it is here where he meets the fabulous new queen of the venue – a 21 year old gay drag performer named (rather poetically) Faith (Jordan Stephens) who appears to identify as trans/non binary.
Struggling to make ends meet, but proud of everything he stands for, Faith is homeless, and after being spotted sleeping in his car, is taken in to the small yet cozy home of Jackie – a much needed safe refuge.
This beautifully acted and scripted British film focuses on the father/son bond these two slightly lost individuals form – with Faith encouraging Jackie to make amends with his estranged daughter and helping him tick a few frivolous things off his bucket list, such as a naughty cocaine binge (the awkward scene at the drug dealer’s house will leave you in stitches) and a trip to a strip club to have a private dance with a young female stripper – banishing the common stereotype that all drag queens/cross dressers are gay.
And so, after attending various social events, watching numerous cinematic masterpieces, feeling part of a queer film-adoring community in a space encouraging artistic debate, proud self-expression and unity, I did feel a tiny smidgen of sadness as I danced away the day on Sunday 31st March. BFI Flare, the 33rd London LGBTQ+ Film Festival was finally over, and as much as I enjoyed every moment, it was time to step outside onto the blustery banks of the Thames and make my way home to generic, mainstream television.
Roll on next year’s Queer Christmas…
For further details about BFI FLARE, please visit: www.bfi.org.uk/flare