Cultures Film & TV

BFI Flare 2021: Celebrating Queerness in a time of Pandemic

CW: discussion of transphobia and homophobia

There is something perhaps inauspicious about the fact that the largest LGBTIQ+ film festival in Europe shares an anniversary with the week that the UK first went into lockdown. The 34th annual BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, was scheduled to begin just two days after Boris Johnson announced on 16th March 2020 that non-essential contact and travel should be significantly reduced. One year later, queer spaces have been closed for the best part of a year – with the exception of those LGBTIQ+ bars, clubs and nightlife venues for whom it was viable to open in a reduced capacity last summer – and their absence is keenly felt. The natural resilience of LGBTIQ+ individuals, developed from years of overcoming discrimination, have allowed communities to adapt to virtual forms of connection (see: Queer House Party). But even at the height of the AIDS epidemic, physical queer spaces of community and belonging remained open. The sense of loss, as Drag Race UK finalist, Bimini Bon Boulash has described, is palpable: ‘Especially young queers that are finding themselves, it’s so necessary. […] that’s where I found myself. In a club. In a sweaty club, I found myself.’ 

Despite the barriers preventing access to what are, for many LGBTIQ+ people, essential businesses, this year’s BFI Flare shone brightly. The 12-day festival (17-28 March) included 26 feature films and 38 free shorts from 23 different countries, offering stories touching on the three festival themes of ‘Bodies’, ‘Hearts’, and ‘Minds’. I watched a selection from each of these categories, and was struck by the ways in which viewing these films in a pandemic context gave a special charge to these tales of solidarity and defiance, and offered hope for a world beyond our current anxieties of illness and infection. The two films which perhaps best spoke to these ideas were the directorial debut from Anna Kerrigan, Cowboys, and Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer’s documentary, Cured

Cowboys – my selection from the ‘Bodies’ category – offered a moving depiction of the bond between a father and his transgender son who flee to the Montana wilderness when seeking to escape from the boy’s conservative mother, whose traditional understanding of gender prevents her from accepting her child’s identification as a boy. As its title suggests, Cowboys rewrites the genre of the Western in ways that put an extremely refreshing vision of masculinity at the centre of this traditionally violent cinematic form. Jo comes to terms with his gender identity through the iconography of the cowboy, whose fascination with bandanas, decorated belt buckles, and boots call attention to the extreme gender performativity of Jesse James or the roles of Clint Eastwood. The cowboy is an especially fitting image for this trans boy, who finds a metaphor for his own “outlawed” and tangential relationship to society. The film ultimately offers a unique take on the familiar narrative in which a transphobic father projects his own unease with his masculinity onto his child. Steve Zahn as Troy presents a warm and tender father absent from many LGBTIQ+ narratives, and a subtle exploration of mental health difficulties reaching beyond any pressures imposed by patriarchal society to retain a stoic and impassive front. The prejudice is displaced onto Joe’s mother, Sally (Jillian Bell), who takes on the role of conservative parental figure and even commits a brief but unsettling act of physical violence against her child. On the whole, Cowboys is perhaps too crude in its division of “good parent” from “bad parent”, but there are (fleeting) moments of identification with Sally, with the implication that her gender conservatism is tied to her own lived experience of the effects of misogyny (exclaiming at one point, ‘Who would choose to be a girl?’) 

Cowboys and its narrative of triumph over advertisty found parallels with my choice from the ‘Minds’ category: Cured. This documentary recounts the historical activism that led to the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychological Association’s manual of mental illness in 1973. The film’s alternative genealogy of queer liberation uncovers the neglected activity of gay and lesbian communities against the post-Freudian institutionalisation of psychology, and offered a corrective to the view that LGBTIQ+ emancipation began (and ended?) with the brick-throwing at Stonewall. Drawing on previously-unseen archival footage, the film offered a striking depiction of the ways in which homosexual activity was pathologised by American psychological authorities under Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. This includes moving accounts of the horrors of gay conversion therapy pedelled by Charles Socarides et. al. The film was particularly striking in its suggestion that the current state of gay rights in America is sufficiently advanced that, as one interviewee claimed, ‘it is very hard nowadays to have any awareness of how difficult life was for gay people’ when the belief that homosexuality could be ‘cured’ was widespread. Indeed, the sense of a widening generational gap, and the role of the documentary in seeking to draw attention to the trailblazers who fought for the freedoms now bestowed upon younger generations of LGBTIQ+ individuals, was a theme which found echoes in the final film I watched from the festival, my choice from the ‘Hearts’ category: Eytan Fox’s Sublet.

In Sublet I found a warm comedy depicting the often striking disparities between two generations of gay men, telling the story of New York Times travel writer, Michael (John Benjamin Hickey), on a trip to Tel Aviv, and his “landlord”, the twenty-something, cash-strapped Tomer (Niv Nissim), who rents out his flat whilst sleeping on the sofa. The two men differ on just about every topic conceivable – monogamy, horror films, pyjamas, Grindr – and this sustained dialectic is the source of much humour and, at times, great sadness. In ways that parallel Cured and its presentation of the stories of those overlooked in the history of gay liberation, Sublet draws attention to just how different Tomer’s experience of his sexuality is from Michael’s, who grew up in America in the 1980s. When it is revealed that Michael’s first partner died of AIDS, Tomer is presented as harbouring an ugly, momentary ignorance about this crucial period of gay history, claiming, ‘It’s so depressing… why does everything have to go back to that?’ The differences between the two are further examined in a storyline concerning Michael’s impending surrogacy, when the travel writer expresses unease about having children altogether, especially as growing up, ‘no gay men had kids’ at all. As is perhaps expected, any generational difference is overcome when the two eventually end up in bed together near the film’s end. (I haven’t yet made up my mind as to whether I think this spoils an emotive depiction of a platonic friendship between two generations of gay men. Or does it capture, rather, a uniquely queer sexual freedom that embraces the multiplicity of homosocial/sexual relations beyond a mono/polygamous binary?) 

All three of these films serve as reminders of the radical potential of queerness in a moment where we have to keep apart from each other for the time being. I long for a time when I can cry at an airport, like Tomer saying goodbye to Michael, which concludes with perhaps one of my favourite lines in recent (if not all) cinematic history: ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m crying at the airport, I’m so fucking gay.’

Image credits: BFI Flare

Chris (he/him) is the LGBTQ+ Welfare Officer for the St Catz MCR in 2020-21. He is passionate about LGBTQ+ culture in general and the task of uncovering queer histories. Chris also writes music as 'These Brittle Bones' and can be found on Spotify/Apple Music.