Pride and joy: the best LGBTQ short docs from BFI Player

James Weddup highlights some essential streaming ahead of London's Pride parade

5 July 2019
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.

It’s Pride season, and right now there are reasons to be cheerful: Taiwan legalised gay marriage in May, and for the first time in Asia same-sex couples have been able to legally wed; in June, Botswana’s High Court unanimously ruled to remove sections of its penal code that criminalised homosexuality. This summer’s Pride marches across the UK will hopefully (along with a lot of dancing and drinking) push for greater global equality in the future.

While progress is being made, it’s also important to reflect back on LGBTQ+ lives in the UK and beyond. Against the grain, filmmakers have presented non-conforming lives lived in spite of screaming tabloid prejudice, institutional discrimination and an almost total absence of recognisable narratives about gay people in the public sphere. These filmmakers often took to the documentary short form – and its experimental reaches – to realise their stories. The medium was relatively cheap, and escaped the censoring constraints of more mainstream media.

It’s no accident that people were drawn to experiment formally when articulating LGBTQ+ experience, since the lives they sought to represent on screen were groundbreaking in themselves, while established modes of representation would have seemed too, well, straight.

We are lucky that many such LGBTQ+ films are now available to watch – often for free – on the filmic feast that is BFI Player. I’ve picked five here but there are many more, from previously unavailable archive television to recent award-winning features. These five works all offer lessons to new filmmakers, whether they present whispered private words heaved up from the depths and on to video, or make audacious visual forays that make a searing (and occasionally dirty) mark on their spellbound viewers. When your feet are tired from marching, sit back and press play…

Happy camper: Cairo Cannon (centre) in True Blue Camper

True Blue Camper, dir. Cairo Cannon, 1996

“She barely remembered me. And I remember everything she did, all summer long.” Cairo Cannon revisits her teenage years spent in an all-American summer camp. She tracks down old flames and best friends forever (or so it seemed at the time…), and describes crushes, trysts and stolen moments with a narrative voice that manages to be both wry and naive. Shot and cut by Carol Morley, the film combines Cannon’s photos and reminiscences with scenes of contemporary summer camp life. In doing so it generates a heightened awareness of the thrilling possibilities that camp provides for intimacy between young women across the decades. Nostalgic, bittersweet, and funny, “It’s hats off to Alford Lake – to leave you, our heart would break.”

Watch for free here.

The Homecoming splices tender moments with deliberately confrontational sexuality

The Homecoming: A Short Film about Ajamu, dir. Topher Campbell, 1995

“As a black man, this is my fantasy, and it’s my desire.” A sort of constructed reality doc before the term existed, this 1995 short tracks photographer Ajamu Ikwe-Tyehimba’s day as he prepares to travel back to his home town in the north. Despite including a lot of unnecessary business about a lost train ticket, it remains a remarkable portrait of the artist as a young, black man. It’s also a record of a place – 90s Brixton – and gives glimpses of its now vanished gay scene. Cultural commentators including Stuart Hall dissect Ajamu’s images as we gaze at them, noting that Amaju “is very much aware of the kinds of looks he is invoking, and organising, from the spectator” – offering a vital picking-apart of the relationship between all image-makers and their viewers.

Watch it for free here.

Tea Leaf, dir. Ruth Novaczek, 1988

“Wipe away the saliva. I tried to kill myself.” Opening to the strains of Patti Smith’s ‘Redondo Beach’, a punk sensibility courses through Ruth Novaczek’s eight-minute short documentary from 1988. Its brutally frank monologue is delivered over a patchwork of Super 8 footage of urban life; this exercise in confession and self-exposure emerged from the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative (now LUX). “I just want to go out; I just want to fit in,” says the narrator – has anyone ever expressed the pains of youth more concisely?

Watch it for free here.

Illegal Tender, dir. Paul Bettell, 1987

Five minutes in, two men kiss on a rooftop in the sun, the camera circling them in an ecstatic dance to a military drumbeat that makes clear this is no cheeky snog but rather a call to arms. Bettell’s film is simultaneously industrial and gentle, trippy yet lucid, and is fizzing with visual motifs that linger in the mind long after viewing.

Watch for free here.


21st Century Nuns, dir. Tom Stephan, 1994

“Take men to bed, not to war.” Meet Sister Bridget Over Troubled Waters, Sister Belladonna and (if you dare) Sister Frigidity of the Nocturnal Emission. This 10-minute film school doc takes in police raids, the poll tax riots, the classic ‘banana on the condom’ sex education demo and much more. Watch the film’s subjects, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, canonise Derek Jarman – or Saint Derek of Dungeness of the Order of Celluloid Knights, to use his full title. The sisters’ ultimate aim is ‘the promulgation of universal joy’ – and as we enter Pride month, and the years ahead, what could be a better mantra?

Watch for free here