The Best of Queer Cinema at the BFI Flare Film Festival

By Miruna Tiberiu

In March, queer filmmakers and film lovers alike came together once more for the latest edition of one of the world’s largest LGBT+ film festivals, the BFI Flare. From appearances of queer icons such as Billy Porter (Our Son), Elliot Page (Close to You), and Kirsten Stewart (Love Lies Bleeding), to the 10-year anniversary celebration of the British Council’s ground-breaking scheme for short films promoting queer stories from around the world, Five Films For Freedom, the sense of importance reverberating through the BFI’s space was as strong as ever. GAY45 Editor-in-Chief Miruna Tiberiu brings you this year’s festival highlights; films which represent the best of queer cinema, be it through highlighting new voices from the margins or experimenting with the tools of filmmaking in exhilarating ways.

 

Midnight on MSN

Elise Levy’s short film, emerging from France’s top film school La Fémis and screened in the ‘Say What You Mean’ short film category at this year’s Flare, plunges you into the Tumblr aesthetic of times gone by in an occasionally dark yet warm coming-of-age tale. It is 2008 – the peak of MSN. By day, Laure and Alix are barely classmates in a Parisian middle school; by night, lit by not much more than their computer screens, they grow closer on MSN. Levy allows the intricate politics of middle school power relations to permeate the screen softly, commenting on a form of innocent cruelty that teenagers so often revert to as the thought of being rejected by the crowd becomes the biggest monster they must fight at all costs. The viewer, who may now be far away from this complex world, momentarily jumps back into the skin of these two 13-year-olds, experiencing the stress of this time as vividly as the dreamy, nostalgic undertones of a budding queer discovery that nevertheless shine through the film’s more heavy moments. Alix and Laure begin to understand that they can forge their identities on the Internet in the absence of a safe space in which to open up as they go about their ‘real’ life. They discuss their favourite bands – Radiohead and The Doors evidently feature at the top. They make silly videos using a blurry webcam, collapsing in fits of laughter. As they grow closer, so does the urge to talk about what their connection means. But perhaps it is too soon, both for them and the world around them. Midnight on MSN pulls through for all of us who have unresolved regrets about our past, who want to bridge the gap between who we are now, in the midst of a more accepting queer community, and who we were not able to be earlier in life. It is first and foremost a tale of first queer love, as convoluted and difficult as it is, far away from the straightforward heteronormative tales we grew up waiting for.

 

Crossing

The chorus of thanking that permeated the Q and A following the world premiere of Crossing at this year’s Flare certainly speaks for the importance of Levan Akin’s latest film. An unlikely pairing between a young lad, Achi, and his stepbrother’s ex history teacher, Lia, gives birth to Akin’s tender road movie which takes its protagonists from their native rural Georgia to Istanbul in search of Lia’s niece Tekla, a trans woman who has seemingly disappeared. Lia is initially reticent to allow Achi to accompany her, grunting indifferently as the latter attempts to make small talk and excitedly asks her questions about her life. Slowly, the two settle into the territory of their new friendship as they discover a generational middle ground which accompanies their discovery of the bustling streets of Istanbul. Akin’s film builds an all-encompassing atmosphere of the scenes that its two protagonists traverse. The film takes us into the depths of Istanbul’s trans community, which bleeds into its sex worker community, both as inviting and caring as the other. Bound by a cinematic lens which wafts with the wind, and an intoxicating soundtrack of Turkish and Georgian music which sweeps the viewer into a trance, Akin weaves together such fragmentary tales of survival and community-building in the face of marginalisation, bringing together such cinematic rivulets into a sensory stream of a journey through Istanbul’s hidden lives. Building on from Akin’s 2019 debut, And Then We Danced, which saw queer love flourish from within a traditional Georgian dance troupe, Crossing speaks of bridging the gap between a nation’s history experienced collectively and the young communities that are making themselves seen, proudly and together, in present day.

Crossing will be released soon on MUBI UK, Ireland, Germany, North America and Latin America.

 

Orlando, My Political Biography

As much paying tribute to Virginia Woolf’s foundational novel which broke the binaries of gender identity as reinventing it for the trans community now, almost a century later, gender theorist and trailblazing philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s first venture into filmmaking speaks of the collective through the personal. As a continuation of Preciado’s experimentations with what he terms ‘auto-theory’ in his seminal text Testo Junkie, his documentary similarly explodes all genre boundaries. Featuring everything from camp musical sequences to interviews with young trans people from all around France and autobiographical fragments narrated by Preciado himself, Orlando, My Political Biography tackles what Woolf’s Orlando can (and can’t) say to the trans community now. Whilst dealing with trans stories, the film does away with this very labelling. We all exist within a complicated and ever-morphing conglomerate of identities, it illustrates. The notion of selfhood – crucial to this titular biography – questions to whom, in the eyes of whom, and at the hands of whom, we are ourselves. Thus, whilst celebrating Woolf’s pioneering work in illustrating how identity moves so far beyond mere gender through a colourful, magical world, Preciado passes the baton to a more intersectional cast of trans characters living with these questions in the present. Orlando’s colonialist stint is unpacked as Preciado brings together a group of 20 or so Orlandos of the present, all of whom communicate their different perspectives – in terms of age, race, class, and nationality – as they announce, in turn: ‘My name is […], and I’m playing the role of Orlando’. These characters are brought together in a joyful, angry, ending sequence. French gender theorist and activist Virginie Despentes appears, dressed comically in judge garb, to give her final verdict. She ‘officiates’ each of the characters’ identities as Orlandos before breaking the sombre stance and pulling them all into a hug as a punk soundtrack plays over kitschy end credits. Breaking down the ivory tower upon which philosophy has resided for so long, Preciado heralds a new way of creating knowledge that is rooted in personal experience, experimentation, and oral storytelling. His is a documentary which lends itself to discovery, whether the viewer is aware of Preciado’s contributions to contemporary gender theory or not.

Orlando, My Political Biography will be released in UK & Irish cinemas 5th July.

 

Desire Lines

Still from Desire Lines. Courtesy of Jules Rosskam.

Experimental documentary filmmaker Jules Rosskam comes back in full force with his latest documentary feature Desire Lines. Picking up from Preciado’s breakdown of binaries in cinematic form and identity alike, Rosskam’s film takes a trip into queer archives in search of the stories of transmen who are attracted to men. Merging archival footage which speaks of the transmasc communities which existed within major events in queer history – in the times of gay bathhouses and the AIDS Epidemic among others – with present-day interviews with transmen on topics ranging from Grindr culture to contemporary community-building in queer spaces, the film forges a transmasc community across space and time. Nor can Rosskam’s film be merely labelled a documentary; out of history, he builds a realm of imagination. Alongside his extensive research, Rosskam places us in the perspective of a fictional character – Ahmad – as he grapples with the intertwinement of his multiple identities, be it gender, sexuality, or nationhood, delving much like the viewer into the wonderful world of a fictional queer archive in search for a place to belong. To read more about Rosskam’s genre-bending feat, read his recent interview for GAY45.

For more information about upcoming screenings of Desire Lines, check out the film’s website.

 

Riley

Based on a deeply personal experience, American filmmaker Benjamin Howard’s directorial debut speaks of the ongoing need to fight for LGBT+ rights in the face of societal regression in the Western world. This coming-of-age drama follows the titular Dakota Riley, a high-achieving football player with a perfect future lined up for him. He’s popular, a sure-fire choice for several sports scholarships after high school, and has a loving girlfriend. And yet, he feels like something is missing. Moving back and forth between this urge to experiment with a desire for men that he does not, or will not, yet fully grasp, and a spine-chilling fear to allow himself this freedom when he knows that his entire future is fated to play out in the macho world of sports that doesn’t seem to have a space for his true self, Riley loses more and more control. His real fears of ostracization become intertwined with ones which seem self-imposed, almost an extension of his rigid vision of who he is and who he will become. Jake Holley’s emotionally-mature portrayal of Howard’s protagonist builds this internalised battle to a crescendo, capturing a deeply human response to the fear of being different that has been drilled into so many of us since birth, regardless of how “accepting” the societies we are born into tell themselves they are. At times, Holley’s vulnerability feels like a deep breath; an undoubted highlight of the film is a touching, intimate, conversation between Riley and his girlfriend towards the end of the film. The film, which reaches peaks of tension characteristic of horror films, turns a new leaf here. This ending sequence feels wonderfully cyclical, a new beginning of sorts. Riley is, then, perhaps less of a journey towards coming out and more a tale of taking that first step to open up to others.

For more information about upcoming screenings of Riley, check out the film’s website.

This year’s BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival was held on 13-24 March 2024. For more information about the best of queer cinema to watch out for, visit the BFI’s website.

Miruna Tiberiu is the Editor-in-Chief of GAY45. She is a student at Cambridge University. Tiberiu has written for numerous publications, including The Cambridge Review of Books, and the Cambridge Language Collective. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Cambridge’s first all-queer magazine, Screeve. Tiberiu was longlisted for the International News Media Association (INMA)’s “30 Under 30” Awards 2023.

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