From the Archive to the Farmyard

As LGBT Pride month comes to an end, James explores the abundance of queer film and TV treasures at this summer's festivals.

3 July 2017
crowd of producers standing outside
By James Weddup
James is Project Partnerships Manager in the BFI Film Fund, supporting BFI NETWORK and our dedicated partners across the UK.
 
The past year has been a fantastic one for queer film. Following Moonlight’s rapturous reception at the BFI London Film Festival and far beyond, two of this summer’s festivals opened with very different works destined for a firm place in the queer canon. Sheffield Doc/Fest commenced with Daisy Asquith’s Queerama in the grand setting of the City Hall, and just three weeks later Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) burst into life like milk from a cow’s udder (if you’ve seen it, this analogy will make slightly more sense) with Francis Lee’s sexy rural romance God’s Own Country. We’re taking a snapshot of these and other queer works at Doc/Fest and EIFF, picking out a few titles and ruminating (no cow pun intended this time) on this wonderful moment and how much more might be ahead. 
 
Outside of the two festivals, this is a heady moment for British LGBT+ life in general, as well as for our queer film culture. It’s Pride week in London, in the year that we mark fifty years since the landmark Sexual Offences Act 1967 that (partially) decriminalised sex between men (in certain circumstances). The BFI is marking this anniversary with its Gross Indecency season, running through July and August; the BBC and Channel 4 each have a raft of newly commissioned documentaries and dramas exploring queer experience in the past fifty years.
 
Doc/Fest’s programming took in some queer stories from Britain and further afield. Jon Carey and Adam Darke’s Forbidden Games tells the story of Justin Fashanu, the UK’s first out gay professional footballer: from his early life in Norwich when the county felt devoid of racial diversity, to his navigating, as a gay black man, a profession dominated by homophobia and racism. The film’s portrait of the pressure and prejudice that diverging from the norm brought to bear on this remarkable figure had surprising parallels with Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me which, in its examination of Whitney’s relationships, sites itself steadfastly within the realm of docs exploring LGBT experience. David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (the follow up to his astonishing Oscar-nominated study of the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague) also drew acclaim as a must-see title that peeled back layers of prejudice in exploring the 1992 death of Johnson, a New York trans activist and veteran of the Stonewall riots.
 
 
Opening night’s Queerama provided a context and expansive reference point for the other queer explorations in the festival. Supported by the BFI using National Lottery funding and Ffilm Cymru Wales, and assembled from the vast holdings of the BFI National Archive, Queerama weaves a beautiful tapestry from the queer lives – real and fictional – committed to film from 1919 to now. Sometimes joyous, sometimes horrendously sad, it creates an engrossing and cinematic narrative from disparate material, and along the way celebrates the bravery of men and women who stepped in front of the camera to talk about themselves at a time when legal persecution for gay people, let alone enormous social stigma, was part of everyday life.  
 
This complex project was produced at light speed by Catryn Ramasut of Cardiff-based ie ie Productions, one of the 22 emerging production companies given BFI Vision Award funding last year. A number of these producers are engaging with rich and challenging LGBT stories and using their funding to establish new relationships that could bring to light experiences relatively new to film. For emerging filmmakers (and many others besides) the archive composition of Queerama presents a viewing list full of gems: ground-breaking storytelling from directors like Campbell X, Ron Peck and Isaac Julien that showcase cinematic voices that value difference. 
 
 
Doc/Fest also had a number of LGBT+ documentary events, the most memorable of which was a panel on forthcoming BBC3 documentary Growing up Gay (Antidote Productions), helmed by Olly Alexander of Years and Years pop-megastar fame. Many of his music videos – see 2016’s Worship and Desire – are intense queer short films in themselves, taut glitter bombs that push boundaries with their narratives and aesthetics. Olly and his producers discussed their experience of making the new doc and pulled out some vital points for new and emerging documentary makers across film and TV. They recognised that working with sensitive subject matter – here the impact that being born into a homophobic society has on young gay people – required the development of specific practice. The team partnered with charities to develop a safeguarding process for working with vulnerable people as the film’s subjects, carefully phasing their introductions to being on camera and prioritising their well-being over the demands of the project. The session and the clips screened had immediate personal impact and the Q&A responses to the film – grateful, overwhelmed, impassioned – showcased the role of documentary in urging on, and being testament to, social change. 
 
Fast forward three weeks and God’s Own Country at EIFF revealed a fresh love story between two men that is both rooted in Yorkshire and takes place within a broader European canvas. The achievements of Francis Lee’s debut (also backed with National Lottery funding via the BFI Film Fund) were recognised with the Michael Powell Award for best British feature film. The festival also showcased a number of British shorts about LGBT+ experience. Anne-Marie O’Connor’s Mum presented a domestic vision of trans life and the intimacies of a mother-daughter relationship. In the same programme, Harry Lighton’s Sunday Morning Coming Down was my festival highlight. Harry is a BFI NETWORK@Flare mentee, and his next short is being made through the BFI Lottery-funded London Calling programme, run by Film London. With his film in Edinburgh Harry took us straight back to the 1990s, conjured concisely by period fashions and a Garbage Version 2.0 poster adorning a bedroom wall. Jordan drives his brother Max to a windswept seaside town, for an assignation that is fraught with potential pleasure, shame and perhaps violence. The film simmers with the loneliness of being the only person like you that you know, and with the anxiety and sense of transgression produced when public places are the only arenas available for sexual contact. Most of all, in its twenty-minute length it depicts with the lightest of touches a period now gone by in our sexual life as a country: when Section 28 still forbade in our schools any positive discussion of gay life; before Grindr; before Queer as Folk, and certainly before the bold celebration of shared history that is Queerama.  
 
 
These films from Doc/Fest and Edinburgh show how the specifics of queer experience are currently being explored by our new and established filmmakers, in all their multiplicity and nuance. These shorts and features are showing us, up-close, the texture of lives lived against the grain: the joy of being different, of finding love in hostile environments, of breaking taboos and joining subcultures that lend freshness to existence. Thinking about this, a passage from Olivia Laing’s 2016 book The Lonely City jumped out at me on the train home from Edinburgh. She explores the work of polymath artist and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz, suggesting that he “articulated a sense of being not just outside society, but actively antagonistic to its strictures, its intolerance of different life-forms. […] All his work was an act of resistance against this dominating force, driven by a desire to contact and inhabit a deeper, wilder mode of being.” What better mantra could there be for our new filmmakers – and a potent reminder that we can look to the figures and experiences of the past, just as Queerama does, to help us envision the richest of futures.