This year’s edition of the BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, which took place 16th – 26th March 2017, offered once again a wide-ranging selection of features, documentaries, short films and events, demonstrating the vitality, diversity and creativity of current LGBT cinema.
True to its early philosophy the festival had a militant and engaged tone with the commemoration this year of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, decriminalising private homosexual acts in England and Wales. Many films highlighted the staggering gap which still exists between nations in terms of gay rights, and the astounding hardship sexual minorities – in particular transsexuals – have to overcome, often taking tremendous risks to live their identities and sexualities fully. A great initiative was the fiveFilms4freedom programme, in partnership with the British Council, which made a selection of five LGBT short films from BFI Flare available online for free throughout the festival. More than 130 countries worldwide accessed the selection the previous year.
But the festival was also an opportunity to celebrate how art, friendship, love, sex, identity and a good dose of humour form the fabric of LGBT culture, with its HEARTS, BODIES and MINDS strands.
Out of Iraq, by Eva Orner and Chris McKim was by far the most striking film I saw this year. It tells the incredible story of two Iraqi soldiers who fall secretly in love during the Iraq war in 2003, and fight tirelessly for twelve years against all the odds to be reunited in the US.
The documentary, based on original footage, news archives and the many photos taken by the couple, tells the difficulty of being gay in Iraq, a country torn by war, the weight of religion and the cruel treatment of LGBT people. The film highlights the absurdity of violent anti-gay laws which see men being thrown off the top of high-rise buildings or lapidated for simply being gay. Although the content is factual and very upsetting at times, the film also has a lot of humour which provides not only comic relief but also reflects the characters’ ingenuousness and flamboyance. There is a stark contrast between the love story that develops between the two soldiers and a backdrop characterised by violence, despair and death. The low-budget film production is purposely kitsch and camp with its arabesque overlays, its One Thousand and One Nights soundtrack and its adventure film helicopter shots of the deserts – which lift the spirits and make it a truly enjoyable watch.
The film is structured chronologically and explains how Ayeed and Btoo enter the Iraqi army, how they meet and fall in love, and how it becomes clear that their secret love story won’t survive long if they stay in Iraq. After Ayeed is able to obtain asylum in the US and leaves Btoo behind, he meets refugee advocate Michael Failla in Seattle who offers his help to get Btoo over to the US. A long, gruelling process slowly unfolds, that will span over a decade. An ordeal that would put any love story to the test but which at no point throws their relationship into question. Ayeed and Btoo’s persistence is truly remarkable and how they overcome the countless hurdles and obstacles in the way to live their life together is very humbling.
Although the testimonial format of the documentary is a bit contrived and designed for American TV, Ayeed’s stories do bring to life the absurdity of the war and the huge risks and sacrifices persecuted people have to take when they decide to leave their country. Despite the threats, the disavowal, the fear, you never leave your home light-heartedly, and the description of Ayeed’s painful separation with his mother and sister is harrowing. But at the same time, Ayeed has such an upbeat, fun and sensitive personality that even when Btoo’s big interview with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) comes up, he is capable of making jokes to lighten the atmosphere and take up the challenge coolly. Btoo on the other hand is more reserved but passionately in love – his tenacity is just as remarkable as he hides away and moonlights in Lebanon for many years.
What’s so fantastic about this story is that it has a happy ending. Eventually, Btoo makes it to the US and the couple even gets married. Although it seems almost too good to be true, it sends a great message of hope for refugees trying to flee from war zones or death threats because of their sexual orientation, race, gender or identity. Persistence and determination do pay in the end.
Another fascinating documentary I did not get to see (but will try to catch online soon) is The Pearl of Africa by Jonny von Wallström which tells the story of Cleopatra Kambugu, the first out transgender woman in Uganda.
Part of the festival’s HEARTS strand, Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans) by André Téchiné is the legendary French film maker’s latest effort, giving into his favourite subject, teenage gay love, a new twist thanks to co-writer Céline Sciamma, who directed the minimalistic but touching Tomboy and energetic Girlhood. Being 17 tells the story of two teenage boys in high school in a small town in the French Pyrenees who develop a complex and ambiguous love/hate relationship. Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila) are both outcasts who get picked last in team sports, but rather than unite in adversity, keep fighting and provoking each other, and while Damien practices his boxing skills, Thomas seeks solace in manual work at his parents’ mountain farm. Damien’s mother, Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain, one of French cinema’s top actresses), is an active and energetic local doctor who raises her son alone while her husband works abroad in the military. She offers Thomas to stay at home while his pregnant mother is at hospital. The boys are not delighted by the news, but little by little as they share a roof they start taming each other and a relationship both electric and kind develops between them.
Although the film feels authentic and well-intentioned, offering a personal take on coming-of-age stories by confronting two very different characters and unlikely lovers, the film has its flaws. The cinematography is beautiful, the Pyrenees landscapes are stunning, the acting is strong and honest, but the film suffers from a rather implausible plot. The story becomes less and less believable as the characters become closer to each other. Some narrative contradictions, like Thomas walking to school in the middle of winter in broad daylight, or Damien asking Thomas to drive him to an online gay date in the middle of the country, and the constant back and forth between the different locations makes the film feel a tad too long despite its pleasing, rural setting.
Also part of the HEARTS selection is I love you both by Doug Archibald, a charming, light-hearted first film in the spirit of indie comedies Juno, Little Miss Sunshine or Submarine, where a brother (Doug Archibald as Donny) and his (real life) twin sister (Kristin Archibald as Krystal) get involved willy nilly in an atypical ménage à trois. In a very affluent and sun-drenched Californian suburb, Donny, a hopeful professional pianist and Krystal, who works at the daddy’s advertising agency, are inseparable and are going to yet another boring party organised by Krystal’s pathetic colleague Ivy (Kate Berlant). But the party turns out to be more interesting than expected as they meet the charming Andy (Lucas Neff) and fall under his spell. Over the following days, both will spend time together or separately with Andy and experience contradictory and fluctuating feelings, as confusing to him as to his unexpected suitors.
This funny, easy-to-watch indie comedy, which is a heartfelt story about love between siblings, contains the compulsory road trip along the Californian coast, the night at the cocktail bar and some hilarious secondary characters like Ivy (whose comfort food includes pizza with Snickers) or the twin’s (real life) mother Char (Charlene Archibald) who casually orders 20 inch pizzas on a rough night. In this fantasy environment, having a job doesn’t seem essential, money is no object, and characters don’t have much substance, so don’t expect any sociological analysis, but it’s a very valiant effort as a first film.
As part of the BODIES strand, Body Electric (Corpo Elétrico) by Marcelo Caetano tells the story of a young man enjoying the summer in the hot streets of San Paolo. It’s a slow-paced portrayal of Elias (Kelner Macêdo) a somewhat dissolute and carefree handsome 20-something gay man who works in a fashion design workshop for a living but would rather give it all up to live at the sea. Through his different encounters, he tests the limits of seduction and egotistical desire, becomes familiar with the boundaries of professional and private life as he gets involved sexually with one of his colleague, and works out what he wants in life. The film is beautifully shot and the sensuality and diversity of Brazilian culture is really brought to life thanks to vivid colours, inviting music and simple but beautiful cinematography. If anything the film would have benefited from a shorter edit.
Among the short film selection, a few standouts were: 1992 by Anthony Doncque (France 2016), Alice and Ayla by Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancox (UK 2015), Victor XX by Ian Garrido (Spain 2015), Incomplete by Hilow (UK 2017), Raniya by Sidsel Møller Johnsen (Denmark, 2016).
So many films to see, so little time… have you seen any interesting films during the festival? Share your views!