Thursday, March 26, 2015

Flare: Where Are the Lesbians?

Yesterday I saw no films at Flare, but did engage in stimulating discourse, courtesy of a panel, a networking lunch and extended social time.

The panel was the provocatively titled Where Are the Lesbians?, bringing together programmers, filmmakers and journalists. I took copious notes, but what emerged were several strands of debate, namely: why are there so few lesbian characters on mainstream TV; who authors these characters; why is it so difficult to get funding for films with lesbian characters. Not much was decided, though much frustration was expressed, and I was left feeling rather deflated by the prevailing gloom. There was a view expressed that things were better in the old days, when Channel 4 used to commission LGBT programming. And I do well recall seeing a lot of UK films in the early 1990s make their way across the pond, to be eagerly set upon by queer audiences in San Francisco. We were amazed a television station had funded them. That situation no longer exists, but was there ever a golden age of lesbian programming, really? It may be misplaced nostalgia. Are programmers more conservative now, asking lesbian filmmakers to tone down the queerness of their female characters? Or is it that the whole system has always been heteronormative and patriarchal? I smiled wryly when a young filmmaker who had self-funded her feature expressed the optimistic view that things will get better in years to come. Will they?

After the panel, I chatted to a few attendees, including Lisa Gornick, who had raised the vexed question of capitalism ever so briefly in the panel. In her experience, filmmakers see few financial returns, even if their work is distributed. She asked the question, not addressed in the panel: what is a lesbian film? Something made by a lesbian or something with lesbians in it? So many questions to consider. The only concrete plan that emerged is that Diva magazine has arranged a meeting with the BBC to ask why they keep killing off their lesbian characters. Other plans to increase distribution opportunities for queer films, via a UK festival network, may also be in the offing.

Then it was on to the extended social time, which culminated in a giant long table of dykes eating, drinking and chatting, with a bit of film talk thrown in. From small beginnings do revolutions grow.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Flare: Community Entanglements

I have spent the past few days alternating between watching films online and visiting the festival on-site, making for a strange parallel universe effect.

As it happened, I was watching Colin Rothbart's Dressed As a Girl online as it premiered at the festival on Sunday. I do wish I could have been there to see the participants in-person. Given what I watched onscreen, they have wonderfully complex and tangled lives. Starting as a recap of Jonny Woo's Gay Bingo club and East London's drag scene, the film tracks the lives of several associates of Woo, and he offers some arch commentary from his position as arch provocateur and master of ceremonies. In truth, I found Woo's narrative arc less interesting than the others, as he played up his drug and booze antics early on and then became clean and sober by the end of the film. His co-stars Pia and Amber proved more compelling to me, both quite vulnerable in their own ways, with the former wandering off in a haze of conspiracy theories and the latter attempting to transition to female while also reaching out to her biological family. Her encounters with her Dad were painfully awkward, as he attempted to be supportive while also tripping up on the correct pronouns to use. I imagine it was the type of documentary of most interest to those who already know the scene under examination.

As a companion piece, Ben Walters offered up the latest instalment of Burn, his "platform" for alternative performance and moving image. I still don't get how this platform works, but he showed nine short films made by some of the same people seen in Dressed As a Girl, plus a documentary on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, site of its own alternative scene in south London. Standout shorts included Woo's vision of multiple Margaret Thatchers lip-synching to "Hold On", plus Figs in Wigs' hilarious food-and-names electro music video. Tim Brunsden's Save the Tavern proved to be an oddly restricted look at the glorious queer history of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, as it seemed to be entirely Duckie-centred, with no mention of any of the other clubs that currently call the RVT home. Where it was quite good was in giving some of the backstory to the current situation of the club and its place in queer history, offering some great archive footage of Adrella and Lily Savage, as well as explaining how the club offered a gathering place for a community under siege during the AIDS crisis.

Where I often come unstuck in situations like this is in hearing the testimonies of people who say they found a home at such places. "It's so welcoming and friendly," they say, and I wonder to whom? I saw next to no people of colour in any of these films, for example. And for every boozer that people call home there are those who don't feel welcome. What if you don't drink? I am all for saving the RVT, but I do wonder whether the community has moved on from always assigning the highest status to a place that is focused on consuming alcohol. As one commentator says in Save the Tavern, they only got the cabaret in to sell more drinks, after all.

And speaking of precarious forms of community, last night I finally saw Girlhood, Celine Sciamma's third feature, still exploring the lives of girls, but this time focused on black girls living on the edge of Paris. What. An. Amazing. Film. It went on a bit too long and had a few false endings, but I was gripped and full of concern as downtrodden Merieme transforms herself into fierce girl gang member Vic, before falling in with a drugs operation and then having to decide what her path in life really is. It was easy to see how she could make so many "mistakes", given her circumstances, from her abusive brother lording it over her at home, to her tentative relationship with sensitive Ismael having to be a secret. The girls who took her up built up her self-esteem but at the cost of having to commit acts of brutality against other girls. And I think this is the film's strength: it makes a case for female solidarity by showing how often girls end up fighting each other rather than the dominant males who oppress them. If I see anything better than Girlhood at the festival, I shall be very pleased indeed.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Flare: On the Market

This year I am making an effort to attend more events at Flare, which has resulted in me being slightly more sociable than normal. Yesterday's visit, for example, resulted in only one film being viewed, The Falling, which I am not reviewing now, as it has a release date of 24 April. I will, however, write about the event of the film screening.

But, before I went to the film screening, I attended two other events and ran into quite a few familiar faces. It has taken 20 years of London living to experience what everyone seems to say should be true: seeing familiar faces at specific events. Well, it finally happened. Most odd.

Early in the day I visited the Market Place Live, Film London's get-a-film-released-in-90-minutes challenge. There was no actual film production, but rather a panel of industry folk ready to use their experiences to advise on getting a fake film onto screens. So, we had Parkville Pictures producer Cecilia sweating it out, trying to get the BFI and various funders interested in the film Treat Me Like a Lady, a curious beast of trans rom-com and spy caper. I learned quite a bit of industry jargon, from m.g. to P&A, though I never did quite twig what Cecilia meant when she kept saying she had done the whole thing without a "com title" (phon). A bit of demystification would have been helpful to those of us not in the know. Later, I attended a delegates reception and got a bit of info on the terms from financier Laure, who had also been on the panel. I also spoke briefly to Desiree Akhavan, director of Appropriate Behavior, who seems to have dropped anchor in London, at least for a bit.

The evening was capped off by a screening of The Falling and a rather rushed Q&A with director Carol Morley, a shame as the film raises many questions. Not that I had anything on the tip of my tongue, but if I had, it certainly would not have been, "What do you think of the male characters?", a rather loaded enquiry made by, yes, a male audience member. I groaned inwardly. It's interesting men never seem to make these enquiries of films that feature a male-dominated cast, which is to say most films. The Falling is set in a girls' school and, unsurprisingly, most of the cast are female. Missing the point, I would say. Morley was gracious enough about the question and encourged audience members to start a conversation online, even if they hated the film, which provoked great laughter, as did BFI host Tricia Tuttle's comic swoon, in sympathy with the mass psychogenic illness that the film depicts.

And on that note, I shall leave off for now.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

BFI Flare Preview

Tonight marks the return of BFI Flare LGBT Film Festival in London, running through the 29th of March. I am especially looking forward to Carol Morley's The Falling and Monika Treut's Of Girls and Horses, as well as attempting to do some networking at the many events scheduled throughout the festival.

As well as new films, it's a chance to check out old favourites such as Orlando and The Color Purple to see how they stand up.

While I have yet to see much in preview, there are five short films online for a global audience to enjoy, courtesy of the fiveFilms4freedom project to promote LGBT rights across the world. The aim is for people to watch the films together on 25 March. I am not sure how the films were chosen, but all are worth a look. If only I could figure out how to shave the bicycle into my scalp, as seen in True Wheel.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Appropriate Behavior

I am intrigued to see the high-profile publicity Desiree Akhavan's film, Appropriate Behavior, is attracting, no doubt in part because of her attachment to the Girls juggernaut. But, I do hope discerning cinephiles will seek out Appropriate Behavior and enjoy Akhavan's oh-so-knowing and yet hopelessly inept Brooklynites as they grapple with relationships gone awry and being closeted to their families.
Appropriate Behavior
The heroine, Shirin, is a bisexual Persian-American 20-something reeling from the breakup with her girlfriend Maxine, bits of their story told in flashbacks punctuating the narrative. This time-skipping, as I discovered in a recent chat with Akhavan, was suggested by the film's producer, Cecilia Frugiuele, whose company Parkville Pictures financed the project. The trope slightly fractures the narrative, but doesn't detract from Akhavan's sharp ear for dialogue and range of intriguing characters, most notably a couple who hook up with Shirin in the most excruciatingly tense threesome I have seen committed to film.

If the ending is a bit vague and abrupt, the preceding 90 minutes speed by in a blur of deadpan one-liners and a bit of character development that belies the film's millennial glibness. Plus, the moody score is by Josephine Wiggs, who I am glad to say is continuing to make music after seeming to drop off the earth for a decade or so. Apparently, she is now touring with The Breeders again.

It is great to see such a mix of talents involved in independent film. UK filmgoers can see Appropriate Behavior on general release now and it will also feature in the upcoming Flare programme. More on that in due course.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lesbian Lives conference

seagulls; photo by Val Phoenix
I spent a well-earned day out in sunny Brighton yesterday checking out the second day of the Lesbian Lives conference. Somehow this conference had never come to my attention before, but since I have become somewhat immersed in academia, I hear much more about such things, though this is the first gathering I have attended outside of London.

Coming to the conference on the second day meant I missed a few discussions that had clearly started the day before, or even further back. I was curious to see if there would be any points of disagreement or tension, as the build-up to the conference saw some high-profile debates over freedom of speech and inclusion of trans women at queer and feminist events. None of this was apparent at the conference, as the day passed quite uneventfully. A far cry from my last lesbian conference in 1991, when disagreements were played out on-stage and in the corridors, voices raised and positions hardened.

Aside from two keynotes, I attended two panel discussions, one on archives and the other on French feminism. It has recently come to my attention that I am woefully ignorant of the French philosophical strand of feminism represented by such thinkers as Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous and so forth. The panel I attended attempted to make connections between the writings of Monique Wittig and English-language writers, making it a bit less daunting for me. I was very pleased to hear one of the panellists making comparisons between Wittig's writing and that of Virgina Woolf's Orlando, which I have read. The funny thing is I took a class with Wittig back in 1989 when she was a visiting lecturer at my college. But, I cannot remember a thing about what she taught, just that I had one very intimidating tutorial with her, and she fixed me with a rather disdainful gaze as I attempted to ask a timidly framed question. Not a woman to be trifled with. It seems her reputation as a visionary thinker is being redeemed by the current crop of queer theorists.

The other panel was about making use of the past, which has direct relevance to my research, as I prepare to move on to the next phase and decide how and why I shall make use of institutional archives. One speaker made a distinction between how the words lesbian and queer are received in non-Western cultures, which I found interesting, as both are Western terms. Apparently, lesbian is seen as having activist associations whereas queer is not, much to my bemusement: in my experience both have activist associations. Anyway, it's interesting to hear these points when one attends conferences. I have yet to get an explanation as to why identity politics is seen as outdated, however.

Once the conference disbanded just before 5pm I took advantage of the gap before my train left to hightail it to the seaside where I drank in the sea air, watched a glorious sunset and dodged a violent hailstorm before heading back to chilly London.

Friday, February 06, 2015


Just got back from viewing of the film Pride at the unlikely venue of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, screened as part of their LGBT History Month programme. Of course, I am a good five months late seeing the film, but thought I would share my thoughts anyway.
Pride (UK 2014)

It's a tearjerker, historically inaccurate in places and underwrites the women characters, with barely a named lesbian in the mix. But, what really stuck with me was the use of the word "solidarity". I had thoughts on this word dropping out of the social vocabulary, as I was writing my dissertation recently, but left this idea out of the finished work. Certain words seem to belong to certain decades and "solidarity" seems to scream '80s-'90s to me. I well remember using it, feeling it, living it, but not recently.

Hmm, I ponder to myself. Was queer/AIDS activism the last gasp of the solidarity movement? In Pride the solidarity is meant to be between the LG (as it was in those days) community and the striking miners in South Wales in 1984. But, the community itself is not in agreement. The men talk over the women and mock their expressed desire for a women's group. And most gay men they meet in clubs are not at all interested in supporting a demographic they perceive as macho and homophobic. Solidarity is hard-won, if at all. Despite the film's feel-good ending, the miners lost and Section 28 was adopted within three years of the film's final scene.

One of the characters, Jonathan, is based on Jonathan Blake, who spoke after the screening. Now 65 and a long-term survivor of AIDS, he clearly has a history of activism, and many in the audience were keen to hear his thoughts on the changing face and focus of LGBT activism, with concerns raised about privatisation and commercialisation of events like Pride (the event, not the film), as well as HIV care. For my part, I was keen to hear more about the community the film depicts as being centred around the Gay's the Word bookshop. Sadly, this part was fictionalised: Blake says he lived in a squat in Brixton and most meetings were held in gay pubs, such as The Bell. I hold out hope that somewhere there is a solidarity movement brewing in a queer bookshop.