Dangerous, Transgressive, Exciting: An Interview with Queer Filmmaker Richard Squires

“I am a diagnosis. A medico-legal construct of capitalist design.” These are the first words uttered by the young narrator of The Perpetrators. He is a ghost-boy, wandering the streets of the deserted suburbia dreamscape by night, trying to make sense of his queer identity through a palimpsest of books found at the local library, overheard stories, and TV cartoons swimming in his imagination.

Richard Squires is a London-based filmmaker, academic, and founder of the production company LMFYFF. Merging animation, experimental filmmaking, and theory, Squires’ recent films are perhaps more accurately described as video essays, which unpick the intricacies of the historical perception of queer people in Britain during its ‘darkest’ times. His newest short film, The Perpetrators, continues this pursuit into a history relatively unknown to the current generation of queer people in Britain. Video essay becomes video dictionary, as psychological theories on homosexuality punctuate each act of the film. From the ‘Invert’ to the ‘Psychopath’, to the ‘Pansy’ and the ‘Sex Deviate’, Squires breathes (animated) life into each queer stereotype as seen through the eyes of the fearing heterosexual majority, as well as through those of an imagined young Squires himself. I sit down with him to talk about this new endeavor.

Richard Squires on shooting.

Miruna Tiberiu: You describe The Perpetrators as ‘autofiction’, deeply embedded in your lived experiences and queer childhood and shot in neighborhoods you grew up. Can you expand a little on this context, for our international readers at GAY45?

Richard Squires: I grew up in leafy suburbia, in the south of London, in the 1980s. Whilst it is not far geographically from the metropolis, it felt quite provincial and isolated. The advances of the gay rights movement in the 1970s had been eclipsed in the UK by the AIDS epidemic, the Conservative government’s Clause 28 law (which forbade the teaching of non-heterosexual lifestyles in schools), and widespread bigotry. So, as I was discovering my sexuality, queerness was depicted in the media as a threat, something shameful and sordid, yet I also experienced it as dangerous, transgressive, and therefore exciting. 

The 1980s in the UK also saw a resurgence of the ‘stranger danger’ moral panic so I remember as a kid being warned not to talk to strangers and seeing public information films on TV about shifty men offering candy to children. Flashers – men in long raincoats who exposed themselves to passers-by – also seemed very prominent at that time. Looking back now, it seems like a decade when all kinds of repressed sexualities – some legitimate and others genuinely dangerous – were breaking through and there was enormous fear associated with that. I feel like a product of that time, a time when queer people were regarded as sexual deviants and still grouped with pedophiles and child killers. The media frequently depicted gays as ‘recruiters’ of the young, we were a threat to the heteronormative suburban family. The dark, deserted streets of suburbia always felt more potentially dangerous to me than city streets, there’s something aesthetically seductive about the orange streetlights but the dark, deep foliage everywhere hides all kinds of secrets. So, The Perpetrators is, for me, a personal reflection on growing up in this environment in the 1980s offset against the historical pathologization of homosexuality.

Richard Squires, “The Perpetrators”, screenshot.

Do you remember when you first came into contact with the LGBT+ community?

I think I first came into contact with queer people on TV. In the UK, we had celebrities like Larry Grayson and Kenneth Williams who were these very camp TV personalities, their sexuality was alluded to but they weren’t out. There was a lot of derogatory representation and I remember people referring demeaningly to ‘queers’ a lot. 

At the same time, like a lot of kids, I had some real-life encounters with older boys and men who tried to pick me up, some of which I used as material for The Perpetrators. These are murky memories now but one of the most poignant encounters happened when I think I was about 11 years old in the local cinema when a man sat next to me and after the film had started, he placed his hand on my knee. It was a confusing time. As a kid, queer people were very ‘other’ to me, and yet I understood early on that I also was different in some way.

The Perpetrators is your first post-pandemic film. Can you talk me through the process of shooting a film during lockdown?

The Perpetrators combines analog film, original animation, and archive materials, so some elements of production like the animation continued throughout the pandemic. As with my previous feature Doozy, the animated sections are important in terms of the structure of the film, and animator Elroy Simmons finished most of the animation before we’d shot all of the live-action. I worked with cinematographer Alex Grigoras who shot the footage of the Ford Cortina car at night and these were the shoots that were most affected by the pandemic. The streets were deserted during lockdown so that worked well for us but hiring a vintage car and organizing a crew was more challenging and in fact, we had to abandon one shoot completely. A lot of the other film footage I decided to shoot myself as it was relatively simple static shots and I enjoy filming with a Bolex at night. Filmmakers are creative and used to problem-solving so you just have to adapt to the conditions.

THE PERPETRATORS trailer from Richard Squires on Vimeo.

Your films are an amalgamation of theory, psychology, history as well as characters created in the Hanna-Barbera animation styles. Why did you continue this use of a very specific animation style in The Perpetrators?

I am certainly attracted by the idea of fusing relationships between the different components in my films. The original animation which references Hanna-Barbera characters has only appeared in my last two films and there have been very specific reasons for referencing that ‘limited animation’ style. It is used in The Perpetrators partly because I loved cartoons like Scooby Doo as a kid and, to some extent, I think they helped form my ideas of what a monster was. I think the unveiling of the villains at the end of the show is interesting, it feels to me like a kind of coming out for the characters. The ghost boy in The Perpetrators encounters a series of animated monsters who reference pathological classifications of queerness from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s – the Invert, the Psychopath, the Pansy, and the Sex Deviate. They emerged from my research into queer criminality, and I hope they help to articulate the relationship between queerness and monstrosity in the film.

Your exploration of the queer artist as an outcast in Doozy is carried on in The Perpetrators, which presents deserted night-time backgrounds peopled with shallow, grotesque queer stereotypes from the past century and a half. Do you think this is still the case for queer artists now, in 2022? 

A: I think night-time plays an especially important role in queer lives, not just because it has been a time we can relax, socialize, dance, fuck, etc. but because it relates to notions of ‘queer darkness’ that theorists like Jack Halberstam have spoken about. The darker aspects of LGBTQ history are, for me, as important as the apparently positive, affirmative ones. Queer stereotypes are often horrific, but I think there are some aspects we can relate to, and they can be repurposed and reused. Stereotyping undoubtedly still exists today but queerness is evolving too so these classifications will change over time. That queer evolution is exciting to me. It was important, for example, that The Perpetrators – which reflects upon growing up queer in the 1980s – makes a link with the experience of LGBTQ youth today, so the ghost boy, the animated protagonist of the film, is narrated by a 16-year-old trans boy from the UK.

Richard Squires, “The Perpetrators”, screenshot.

Are you working on any new projects? Anything we can look forward to?

A: I am currently developing a feature-length essay film about a case of what the media dubbed ‘gay male depravity’. I am interested in how images help to form us, and I think we have to be brave and learn as much as possible from problematic representations. I think queer activism can only benefit from exposing and interrogating these histories.

An interview by Miruna Tiberiu.

The Perpetrators has just premiered in the Short Film competition at Queer Lisboa 26 in Portugal and will continue screening around the world. Details for upcoming screenings can be found at this link.

Miruna Tiberiu is an editor at GAY45. She is an undergraduate student at Cambridge University. She has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Miruna is currently in Paris carrying out her dissertation research on Franco-Romanian cinema and hopes to continue this work as a postgraduate at Cambridge. To keep up with her work, follow her on Instagram or Twitter @mirunii_t.

SMART. QUEER SMART.

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