Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Flare: Community Entanglements

Dressed As a Girl
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.

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