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10 Reasons Why Queer Film Festivals Still Matter (Inspired By a Trip to BFI Flare)

10 Reasons Why Queer Film Festivals Still Matter (Inspired By a Trip to BFI Flare)

All this week, your /bent correspondents have been down on London’s South Bank, checking out what’s on offer at the BFI’s newly-renamed LGBT festival Flare (more on that name change in a moment). The festival opened on Thursday with the European Premiere of Hong Khaou’s Sundance hit “Lilting” and will close with Sophie Hyde’s “52 Tuesdays”, in between offering London audiences perhaps its most diverse programme yet.

For the rest of this week, we’ll be bringing you coverage of some of the films that may not have yet received their due on the international festival circuit. Indeed, with festival submission numbers at an all-time-high, the spotlight afforded by LBGT festivals such as Flare feels more important than ever.

This is not to say they are without their problems, not that they are the solution to the various issues of representation faced by LGBT communities and audiences. But this week, they feel like something that needs to celebrated. Here are ten reasons why.

1. They help to mark the status quo of queer culture

Back in 1977 a season of films screened here in London under the title “Images of Homosexuality”. This might sound vanilla, but remember this was the year that Denis Lemon, editor of Gay News, was being tried for blasphemous libel at The Old Bailey. Anita Bryant’s vile Save Our Children campaign began in the US, with its nasty scare-mongering and libelling of gay men. “Images” presenting an alternative, to the world and to young gay men themselves, were a liberating, necessary corrective. The name of the festival continued to track a commitment to representing the needs of its community: in 1986, it reemerged as “Gays Own Pictures”. AIDS was at its height; playing with the rhetoric of self-ownership was surely not accidental. A couple of years later women were let it and it became “The London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival”. And now it has emerged anew once again: BFI Flare: The London LGBT film festival. This overt inclusion of bisexual and trans gender folk saw the name catch up with the programming, and happily announces the festival’s much longer commitment to the diversity of identity. Inclusive but not homogenizing, with a momentum reflecting the films it showcases, Flare is the perfect name for one of queer film’s most important international events.  

(You can read a lovely reflection on the need for a name-change from programmer Brian Robinson here).

2. They provide queer filmmakers with a tangible community

Despite the potential for collaboration, the day-to-day grind of a filmmaker can be lonely – doubly so, if you are making content for what is considered a niche audience, or with limited funding of potential – both realities faced by queer filmmakers. It can therefore be encouraging and inspiring to spend time with people facing similar struggles, celebrating each others achievements and conspiring to produce more of the same.

3. They serve LGBT audiences starved for content

Sellout crowds are the norm rather than the exception at BFI Flare, and they are by no means alone among queer film festivals in this regard. If more programmers and distributors witnessed the passion and dedication of these audiences – many LGBT festivals worldwide attract dedicated tourists – the year-round cinema offerings might not to be so limited.

4. They encourage links rather than divisions between L, G, B & T…

The divisions between gay male, lesbian, bisexual and trans communities are arguably less significant than they have ever been – and trust us, /bent is doing what we can to help! But LGBT festivals by their nature help to promote dialogue between these communities – the BFI’s main programming strands are organised by thematic categories such as “Hearts”, “Bodies” and “Minds” rather than along orientation lines. This encourages viewers to watch programming they might otherwise not, and helps avoids films (and their filmmakers) from being pigeonholed.

5. They provide programmers with the space to do the same

Caged lesbians. Scream Queens. A lesbian feminist haunted house. The programmers at this festival are given free rein, and we adore where they take it. Personal doesn’t mean solipsistic, it means a fuck tonne of homo-fabulous. It’s great to see people who know so much about odd niches in film being given the latitude to develop and share them. It’s clever without being preachy and fun without being flip. We love it.

6. Queer Bollywood

Need we say more?

7. They promote a queer presence in their host city

London may be a liberal metropolitan bubble, but there are still many queer people who feel routinely marginalised by the city and its culture, particularly those who are not gay men. It is therefore pretty fabulous to see a cultural institution such as the BFI taken over by Flare for ten days, and witness the sheer diversity among the festival crowd. To the occasional surprise and confusion of a stranded tourist, this week we are here and very much queer.

8. They create space for stories excluded from the mainstream…

LGBT content at mainstream festivals is always limited. Would films such as “Age of Consent”, the story of London’s only leather bar The Hoist, have been able to enjoy packed screenings in the UK’s pre-eminent cinema venue without Flare? It seems unlikely.

9. They also highlight the stories that still need to be told

In marking where the LGBT community is at, the festival also marks where else it could think of going. For everything that is included, there is always room for more: different perspectives, stories which are not being told. So far, I want to hear more from lesbian filmmakers not writing about the aches of coming out or bourgeois malaise. This said, I have no doubts that when these films are made, Flare is the place we’ll see them.

10. They present cinema as the diverse, constantly evolving beast it should always be

Even when mainstream festivals program challenging films, they are still conservative in other ways – for example, almost every non-specialist festival in the world has a huge bias towards male directors. LGBT festivals – especially those such as Flare that are supported by government funding – are expected to be diverse and inclusive. More of the same is not what’s on the menu – quite the opposite. And in an industry still prone to tell the same old stories on repeat, the value of this cannot be overstated.

If you’re in London, check out Flare programmer Michael Blyth’s talk on “Queer Eye for the Dead Guy” this Friday at 6.20pm. More details here.

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