Review: The 36th BFI Flare London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival 2022

The BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ film festival returned to Southbank’s iconic British Film Institute on the 16th March for the 36th time and finished in a blaze of queer glory on Sunday 27th March.

This year, the festival presented 6 world premieres, 56 features and 84 shorts from 42 different countries around the world – showcasing queer experiences from different cultures and viewpoints.

After previously being forced to host this beloved film festival online for two years throughout the pandemic, this year, the BFI brought joy to many queer film-lovers and allies by returning for a real life event.

Known affectionately in the LGBTQIA+ community as Queer Christmas, BFI Flare has always been a festival where I felt I belonged. After realising I was bisexual over 8 years ago, I started to attend every year, marvelling at the vast range of educational and inspiring queer feature films, shorts, workshops and after parties.

This year was just as enjoyable for me, even more so after a two year break, and whilst I loved all the screenings I attended, there were a few films that stood out from the rest;

This is Not Me 

A raw depiction of what life is like to be trans in the Islamic Republic of Iran, This is Not Me follows the erratic and emotional journeys of two young men transitioning in a country fraught with social stigma and legal restrictions.

Iran is the only islamic country in the region to recognise trans people – all other LGBQ+ identities are banned. There are however a plethora of social and political difficulties paving the paths of trans people that often result in social isolation or even suicide.

Shervin and Samar offer a realistic and moving insight into what life is like for trans youth in Iran. How traumatic it is for them to be forced to wear such an obvious symbol of womanhood – a headscarf, until they receive both top and bottom surgery.

Whilst it was heartwarming to see that both boys had such supportive and loving parents, it was heart wrenching to see the emotional turmoil they were enduring.  I felt Samar’s pain as he spoke of enviously watching men swim the sea, whist he sat sweltering on the beach covered in layers and how he yearned to be called “sir.” I teared up as I watched Shervin express his worries about going to university dressed as a woman before transitioning and then turning up dressed as a man – obviously fearing social suicide and ridicule. When his father cried after emphasising to his son that he needed to emigrate to truly be free (“not because I want to be free of you”), it emphasised the notion that having the freedom to live as you are is truly the only way to live.

This powerfully moving documentary also had some incredibly heartwarming moments. I felt pure happiness watching the boys thrive after finally getting the legalities sorted to begin their transition process – the top surgeries, the testosterone, the approved legal documents – the beaming smile on Samar’s face when he first saw his flat chest after his surgery or when he tried on a suit in a retail store.

This is not me is not just an inspiring documentary about trans men living in an oppressive environment, it’s an educational insight into their lives, their hardships and their subsequent joys.

 

In from the Side 

This gripping feature debut by Matt Carter focuses on the dramas surrounding the South London Stags – a gay rugby team split into two teams. The strikingly handsome Mark (excellently played by Emmerdale’s Alexander Lincoln) is part of team B and ends up in a steamy overnight encounter with an equally dashing hunk from team A – Warren, played by the talented Alexander King.

The chemistry between the pair is mesmerising, but passion turns into a hotbed for potential drama when it transpires that both men are in long term serious relationships. Mark lives with his high flying boyfriend in his swanky Vauxhall penthouse and Warren’s boyfriend plays for the same rugby club. Trawling through moments of extreme awkwardness and gut wrenching emotional turmoil, the two hotties embark on a passionate affair and we are left wondering if they will run off into the glorious gay sunset or whether it will all end in tears.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Alexander Lincoln before the premier at the BFI who  told me the film “encapsulates not just the issues experienced by the homosexual community, but also the heterosexual community.  It’s all encompassing and essentially a very human story”

I had to agree, whilst the film focuses on an all gay rugby team, the emphasis is on raw human emotion, intimacy, relationships and ethical dilemmas. In a city where loss of individuality and loneliness is rife – within both the LGBTQIA+ and heterosexual communities, In from the Side raises the importance of comeradery, the need for belonging. To feel part of a “chosen family,” play as part of a team – in sprite of the dramas that end up unfolding.

I was surprised to hear that this was a low budget debut film funded by a kickstarter campaign. the acting, score, cinematography and continuously gripping narrative ensured I was well and truly hooked for the whole 2 hours and 14 minutes.

 

Warsha

This outstanding 16 minute film was part of a selection of shorts called Everything Changes, screened at the beginning of the BFI Flare festival. Whilst I was impressed by the other films I saw that night, Warsha completely won me and the audience over – receiving a well deserved roar of applause when it ended in a blaze of fabulous queer glory.

The film opens with what appears to be a group of men sleeping in cramped and squalid living conditions. One of them sneaks off to the bathroom and places a photograph of a beautifully made up performer with bright red lipstick on the mirror. I assumed they were about to partake in a spot of self pleasure when the door bursts open with the other men mocking our protagonist for some sneaky sexual alone time.

We then follow the protagonist to work – a construction site with high rise buildings. We overhear the managers talk of “loosing 7 men” already to the “beast” – clearly people who have fallen to their deaths on a terrifyingly tall crane. We watch in trepidation, but also with curiosity as the lead of the film climbs up to the top – using very unstable apparatus. The cinematography at this stage is breathtaking as we are invited to take in the wonder of the bustling city of Beirut from rooftops.

As our brave crane operator finally reaches the top and climbs into the crane booth hyperventilating and panicking, we feel their fear and subsequent relief. Again, they pull out the image of the flamboyantly dressed performer and our minds wander yet again – is this a cis het man feeling horny in bizarrely terrifying conditions? Maybe this is the only place they can be free to let off some steam? It turns out hoverer, that his steam is from an entirely different kettle….

As they tune the radio to a station playing a hypnotic arabic song with lyrics yearning for freedom, our crane operator starts to move their arms in dance whilst looking out over the city edging the ocean. The scene then cuts to a fantastical montage of them dressed to the nines in a glamorous red sparkly outfit and a full face of makeup, including very striking ruby lips. We see them dangling from a chain at the edge of a crane, their body moving in glorious unison with the pounding music in a truly mesmerising and moving scene.

This powerful performance finally ends and we see our lead sitting back in their crane booth – back to their mundane reality, but this time with a slight spring in their step.

Warsha is a importantly evocative portrayal of a queer person living an extremely closeted life in a Middle Eastern country where their true identity could result in imprisonment or death. The moving narrative emphasises just how important it is to be able to express your true self and how difficult it is to do so – in muslim communities in particular.

The juxtaposition of the crane driver finishing his bejewelled dance in the sky before praying on his knees on the thin infrastructure of “The Beast” high above the city, is truly beautiful. Here is a person with a love for his culture and religion, but an unyielding desire to simply be Free – the most basic human right of all.

 


Gateways Grind 

This fascinating documentary by Grace Barber-Plentie enchants the viewer with an insightful delve into London’s longest running lesbian club – Gateways. The name of the documentary plays cheeky homage to a colloquial term used to describe a naughty dance move regularly performed at this iconic venue by lesbians from all walks of life.

TV personality and former Gateways guest Sandi Toksvig takes us on an educational journey from 1943, when the club was acquired by Ted Ware after he won a bet, all the way to its bittersweet closing party in 1985.

The documentary focuses on a plethora of voices from various ex Gateways attendees and lesbian iconic figures including the late civil servant Barbara Hosking, DIVA magazine publisher Linda Riley, award winning LGBTQIA+ poet Trudy Howson and  Stonewall co-founder Lisa Power.

We are regaled with a variety of stories revealing the mysterious goings on at Gateways – from debaucherous tales of passionate bathroom shenanigans, to more moving stories of women seeing the venue as a place where they felt they belonged – essential amidst a society riddled with discrimination and social taboos.

I learnt that the Gay Liberation Front protested at the club and were shooed away many times by no-nonsense club owner Gina Ware. These militant activists believed that lesbians should be out and proud, not hiding away in a basement. The reality of the time meant that many lesbians had to keep their queer identities a secret or risk loosing children, jobs and even family members though ostracisation, so Gateways was an essential discreet haven for them all.

Numerous celebrities would frequent this adored club and it was even where 1968 drama The Killing Of Sister George was filmed. Many of the venues regulars were used as extras – forever immortalised in film, living their best gay lives to the max away from the disapproving heterosexual gaze.

There were many humorous moments throughout Gateways Grind, which resulted in roars of laughter from a sold out crowd during its London premier screening at the BFI. One moment in particular made me chuckle when narrator Sandi, decided to take matters into her own hands by painting the old Gateways door in Kings Road back to its original striking shade of green. She even went as far as sticking up her own self made blue plaque until the real one was officially appointed – a true activist at heart.

The documentary ends on a positive note when we discover that 40 years after the club closed down, a campaign to grant it a well deserved blue plaque is underway. With so many blue plaques awarded to notable male-dominated establishments, and with such a colourful and rich history behind the (newly painted) green door, it would be the perfect way to commemorate Gateways’ rightful pride of place in UK queer history.

 

 

 

 

 

Mitra Wicks

Editor in Chief