The LLGFF is currently on tour around the UK with a selection of 10 films showing at cinemas around the British Isles from Poole to Inverness, Norwich to the Welsh town of Mold between the beginning of July and the end of September. Curated by the British Film Institute, the main festival in London in March/April and the touring programme aim to show the best gay and lesbian films from around the world. I and two (straight) female writers from Electric Sheep watched a selection of the films being screened at the LLGFF, appreciated some and were left nonplussed by many.
Gay cinema appears to be in a state of flux at the moment. Crossover hits such as Mysterious Skin (2004) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) have shown that mainstream audiences will watch gay-themed films, and yet a large section of gay cinema panders to a loyal audience that seems to have low expectations, satisfied simply by gay and lesbian representation on screen. Obviously the LLGFF doesn’t represent all gay filmmaking; for a start, I noticed the absence of Cthulu (2007), an underrated gay horror film that toured both gay and horror festivals in the US throughout 2007. I was also surprised that the LLGFF didn’t host the premiere of Little Ashes, a film that came out in UK cinemas four weeks after the end of the festival and extrapolates the homoerotic potential of the friendship between Federico GarcÃa Lorca and Salvador DalÃ. It’s a film that had massive crossover appeal due to the presence of heartthrob of the moment Robert Pattinson as one of the leads. However, the publicity for the film was both coy and leading regarding the onscreen coupling of the two characters, suggesting that the distribution company didn’t want the film to appear designed for a gay audience, and was not sure who to market the film for, except perhaps the greying Merchant-Ivory crowd. As a result, the film snuck in and out of cinemas without attracting any of the hysterical tweenagers who fainted at the sight of Pattinson when he was out and about promoting Twilight.
The LLGFF’s selection of the gay and lesbian films made over the last year shows a lack of imagination on many counts and too many films are simply re-treading familiar ground. This isn’t just a problem in lesbian and gay festivals, but affects all festivals that only show one type of film. Horror/’cult’ film festivals also often show a great deal of poor movies, as it is difficult to find enough outstanding recent works to fill the programme of a whole festival. We would have a healthier cinema in general if there were more examples of those ‘specialised’ kinds of movies scattered throughout the year on screens (and not just those affiliated with the BFI). Unfortunately, in the current economic climate, a lack of faith in audiences and dwindling advertising budgets means much horror and gay filmmaking is relegated to festivals only.
Myself and Virginie Sélavy went to the opening film of the LLGFF – Dolls (Pusinky, Czech Republic, 2007) – and enjoyed its mix of teenage high spirits, sex, drunken carousing and adolescent trauma faced with the prospect of unpredictable lives to come. Dolls follows in the footsteps of populist teen soaps such as Skins, but by mixing the drama with an Eastern European road movie, manages to make the material seem fresh. That said, it’s an unlikely film to open a lesbian and gay film festival as the lesbian aspect of the drama is a very minor part of the plot, and ironically, when realised in a grimy toilet that seems more like a gay male fantasy than a female one, is one of the least convincing parts of the film. I’m not saying there should be a sliding scale of ‘gayness’ to justify inclusion in a LGB festival, but the fact that the opening film of the festival is barely gay at all is perhaps reflective of the lack of engaging gay films released over the last year.
Elsewhere, Virginie and Pamela Jahn were unimpressed with Ghosted, the latest film by German experimental filmmaker Monika Treut or with Bandaged, a lesbian update of Eyes without a Face, which promised much but delivered little. I saw Chris and Don – A Love Story, a documentary about the life of Christopher Isherwood as told through the eyes of his partner Don Bachardy, which was earnest and portentous but, barring some kitsch animated sequences, wasn’t nearly as riveting as the film you might expect about the writer of ‘The Berlin Stories’ (filmed as Cabaret) and Frankenstein: The True Story. I also saw Dream Boy, an adaptation of the novel by Jim Grimsley, which is not unlike a teen version of Brokeback Mountain: two boys in a god-fearing rural community fall in love, each having to contend respectively with an abusive father and a rapist/murderer friend. Dream Boy is certainly a watchable film and the two young leads are constantly engaging, but too much screen time is taken up by longing looks, while the director seems unable to let a single scene go by without relentless music filling the air, and a semi-hysterical performance by blues singer Rickie Lee Jones as the mother of one of the boys threatens to unbalance the whole film.
As for up and coming filmmakers who might populate future LLGFFs, one of the shorts that showed at this year’s festival, Bramadero (Mexico, 2008), is also included in Peccadillo Pictures’ collection Boys on Film 2 – In Too Deep. PP are one of the major suppliers of films to the LLGFF and one of the biggest gay and lesbian labels in the UK, so one would hope Boys on Film represents the best gay shorts from around the world. Indeed, the nine short films included in volume 2 have been shown at festivals from Brooklyn to Cardiff, Istanbul to Gothenburg, and include three festival winners among their number. Generally, the quality of the shorts in the collection is quite high, although inevitably like all collections, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
The aforementioned Bramadero is a silent, erotic physical theatre piece bordering on pornography. A more cynical reviewer might suggest it only made it into festivals and collections like these to give audiences some bona fide on-screen penetration, which so many other shorts only allude to. However, as the woeful 9 Songs – Michael Winterbottom’s only unwatchable film – demonstrates, sex is only interesting when it accompanies a plot, no matter how realistic the performance or attractive the performers. But elsewhere in the collection, there is a successful balance between plot, intrigue and eroticism. Cowboy, like Cthulu, mixes the desire of a city visitor for simple country boys with the horrific dénouement of classic horror films like Straw Dogs and Children of the Corn, and it’s both refreshing and disturbing to see this genre given a gay twist. Weekend in the Countryside is a Gallic version of the same, giving the typical French thriller scenario of a visitor to a house in the countryside a homoerotic angle. Lucky Blue, although bogged down by longueurs, and The Island, show the range of quality gay short filmmaking, one being a charming and typically Swedish – reminiscent of early Lukas Moodysson – tale of adolescent romance and the other an amusing CGI-augmented monologue about turning homophobia on its head in a utopian fantasy.
The other four films that round out the collection unfortunately disappoint for a variety of reasons. Kali Ma, which deals with an Indian mother’s revenge on her son’s homophobic bully/object of desire, is spirited but let down by amateurish filmmaking. Love Bite would make an excellent pre-credits sequence to an unmade longer movie but as it is, comes across as a mean-spirited sketch that’s escaped from a BBC3 comedy show. Futures & Derivatives starts well, as a law firm hires a mysterious, brightly coloured Powerpoint expert to create a presentation for a client, but the fantastic dénouement probably only makes sense in the director and editor’s heads, while the tedious Australian comedy Working it Out, about desire and jealousy in an all-male gym, was probably funny on paper but is not in execution. Overall though, since half of the films entertain, titillate and, being short and low-budget, achieve more than the sum of their parts it’s a collection worth seeking out. That said, in both the cases of PP and LLGFF, less is definitely more, and both might do well to think of whittling down their selections of films to offer only the absolute best of gay cinema.