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How Do We Get More LGBT Stories On The Screen? Some Thoughts From The BFI’s Ben Roberts

How Do We Get More LGBT Stories On The Screen? Some Thoughts From The BFI's Ben Roberts

Yesterday night saw the close of BFI Flare, London’s rebranded LGBT film festival. Earlier in the week we brought you our thoughts on why queer film festivals are still necessary, but since festivals can only be as good as the films they screen, we thought it would be interesting to consider queer film from a production perspective.

One man well-placed to do just that is Ben Roberts, the openly gay head of the BFI’s Film Fund, which invests over £26 million of public money in feature film production, development and distribution every year. It’s a potentially invaluable lifeline for LGBT film, given the commitment to diversity expected from a public funding body like the BFI. But what exactly is the Film Fund’s approach, and how does it benefit LGBT filmmakers and their stories?

When I spoke to Roberts, our call was unfortunately coinciding with a screening of the latest cut of “Pride” – a film recently supported by the fund and starring Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West among others, which tells the story of a group of gay and lesbian activists who offer their support to some striking miners and their families in a homophobic Welsh village. The film has a gay writer but a straight director, and is not intended for a primarily gay audience. But, as Roberts explained, that is part of its appeal.

Pride”, like the Film Fund-backed “Philomena”, is a real Trojan horse of a film

It’s mainstream but it’s teaching everyone tolerant values that you cannot argue with, and it’s very emotionally engaging. It’s really inspiring in terms of how it treats its LGBT themes. It’s the same thing with “Philomena”. The power of putting Judi Dench in that role – where she doesn’t give two hoots about the sexuality of her son – on women of the same age who read the Mail is really quite incredible. It’s like how when I came out to my folks, they were principally concerned with how similar characters who they identified with on The Archers had reacted. “That’s OK. I can live with that. If Judi’s fine, I’m fine”.

Queer filmmakers are not going to be supported simply for being gay

Sometimes the best thing we can do is be agnostic towards the sexuality of the filmmaker as long as the stories are interesting. We would be very happy if a gay filmmaker’s first film was gay, second film wasn’t, third film was, fourth film wasn’t, fifth film kind of was. I suppose the question is how are we supporting LGBT filmmakers who are wanting to tell stories that are incredibly personal and very much dealing with themselves and issues of representation.

But we’re still just looking for the most interesting stories. Something that’s levelled against filmmaking that’s based purely on the sexuality of the characters is that it’s not going to be that interesting to anyone, including lesbian and gay audiences. It still comes down to the question of what is your film about? What story are you telling? Is that interesting in its own right? The politics of it can be very present but we’re only supporting about twenty five films a year in production. You’re alighting on films not because they are ticking a certain box but because they’re compelling.

This is not always the case when it comes to LGBT-themed material

I would love us to find more, but actually we don’t see that much that’s really compelling. It’s incredibly rare how often you find those pieces of writing that we get excited by. The majority of the stuff is fairly unambitious. They’re achievable, they’re affordable, they’re written from a personal perspective. But they’re kind of ordinary. They don’t really have a character beyond mumblecore – a lot of walking and talking, dialogue-heavy, two handers which are dealing with a relationship between two characters. They might be relatively small in terms of locations, the kind of films you can shoot and self-finance, and that’s just not what we’re looking for. Are we really needed for that kind of film?

He advises LGBT filmmakers to be more ambitious

Have your primary characters be lesbian, but broaden your palette. We don’t really invest in microbudget filmmaking through the Film Fund, although we fund [microbudget schemes] iFeatures and Microwave, which funded “Lilting”. Our budgets can still be under a million quid. But a lot of material doesn’t need that kind of budget.

Something like “Weekend” did come to the film fund (before my time) and wasn’t supported. “Lilting” was made through the Microwave scheme. Both those films, even on that small scale, are distinctive but perhaps through execution more than design. Often first films, whether they are LGBT or not, are just films demonstrating that a filmmaker has the ability to execute something very simple. And we can then come in and say OK, now broaden your horizons.

Not all filmmakers have the capacity to move beyond that personal, semi-autobiographical first film

80% or more of first-time filmmakers don’t make another film, LGBT or not. It comes back to the idea that everyone has a story in them… but do they have more than one story? It’s no surprise that Andrew Haigh is making his second film [“45 Years”] about something else completely. He is very talented and creative and imaginative and he’s been able to imagine something else.

Diversity may be best supported at the earliest possible stage

When I first arrived, I felt there was a little bit more frustration that we weren’t doing enough than I sensed this week. We really are trying to identify those projects that we can support and hopefully that’s becoming evident. It’s just finding really great stuff is tough. Sometimes there is an expectation that we will be able, in one sweep, to determine what gets made and what doesn’t. It’s true to a degree, but we don’t fully finance films, so it’s not just down to us where the taste and appetite lies.

We should be helping people tell the best versions of their stories at the development stage. We can have some more rigorous targets in diversity at that end of the spectrum, when people are making shorts or developing their first features as screenplays. That’s where I think we should be making sure we’re not asleep at the wheel. What’s sometimes understood as us being closed-minded is often actually oversight. It’s at the seeding end where the filmmakers who are LGBT or identified as queer can be developed beyond their instincts to make a £50,000 microbudget film, and developing their storytelling and dialogue skills to apply beyond what they’ve had in their head for ten years.

He would love to discover a new Derek Jarman, but hasn’t managed yet

The area I’m slightly more frustrated by is truly bold and somewhat more overtly queer filmmaking, that is really screaming its politics and its messages. I do feel that’s very hard to find, possibly because no-one feels as much of a need to be so vociferous. We’re always wishing for another Jarman and generally not meeting them. We see work that is aesthetically mirroring something but doesn’t have the integrity of it. What are filmmakers compelled to say today versus when you were having to campaign against Section 28? There’s a slight normalisation of a lot of scenarios.

But in terms of representation, what they support works both ways

When I look at our slate across the year, I would like to think there are enough films about women, enough films with BAME representation and enough with some kind of LGBT representation that feels truthful. Truthfulness is the other part of it. We are definitely filtering out those films that feel cliched or slightly fraudulent in terms of their characterisation. I think it’s important that we are equally policing against those films. I’ve had several conversations with producers where I’ve called them out against a character that I think is offensive, and we have not funded stuff on that basis. And that’s as important as what we fund.

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