BFI Flare Festival 2021 by Helen M Jerome: I’ve attended the main BFI London Film Festival in person – and virtually – for a couple of decades, but this is the very first time I’ve been invited to cover the BFI Flare Festival 2021, albeit online. And I have to say I was mightily impressed. Not just at the variety of drama styles and genres, but at the high quality of the documentaries, expressing a wide range of LGBTIQ+ experiences across many decades. So much so that I’m going to flip my usual festival coverage on its head, and dive straight in to tell you about the documentaries first!
You’ll have to go a long way to beat the depth of emotion and breadth of research contained in Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer’s documentary, Cured (above). And there’s some pretty shocking stuff in here, as rich archive footage and interviews combine to explore the fearless campaign to try to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of mental illness. One commentator says “it was like a horror movie”, which almost seems like an understatement as you see the bogus evidence heaped up, and people given a choice of conforming or being confined to a mental institution… to be ‘cured’. Indeed one woman talks about how she was forced to marry ‘conventionally’ aged just 14 to avoid being locked away. When you see the onslaught of the religious right, fear, and medical ‘consensus’, it’s almost a miracle that there was light at the end of the tunnel by 1973, when the polarising debate reached fever pitch. And lest we think this is all ancient history, it’s worth remembering that the same arguments are being unearthed all over again with trans men and women, and conversion therapy is still big in many parts of the world, and only banned outright in four countries: Brazil, Ecuador, Germany and Malta.
When a documentary takes you into totally unfamiliar territory, like Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera’s film, P.S. Burn This Letter Please, I’m usually hooked. This film unearths and reconstructs erased and forgotten stories and lives from a trove of correspondence from drag queens in 1950s New York City, which is splendid enough. In addition, there are delightful bonus breakout stories, like the thirty odd wigs that mysteriously “went missing” from the Metropolitan Opera collection, plus the involvement of the mob in the drag scene, not to mention putting flesh on these tales by tracking down and interviewing many of the original letter writers.
Before the BFI Flare Festival I was only vaguely aware of the jazz musician Billy Tipton. But thanks to the innovative Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt documentary, No Ordinary Man, I now feel enlightened and genuinely in awe at Tipton’s life and career. Described as ‘trans-masculine’, his identity wasn’t properly known until his death in 1989, when another narrative was framed around him. With almost zero actual footage, the directors use contemporaneous archive, but crucially also film the auditions of a series of trans men wanting to portray Billy. And this not only fills the gaps, but adds another level with their frank insight and experiences. It also posits the interesting idea that jazz and improvisation might have been the perfect medium for someone with a different identity.
It feels ironic that one of the most insightful portraits of someone coming to terms with gender dysphoria is from Hungary, a country that’s heading down an increasingly reactionary and populist route. From director Alex Bakony comes Colors Of Tobi, who is a teen with an incredibly supportive and loving mother and father who just want to do the right thing for their child, who is approaching the decisive age of 18. It’s a far from straightforward journey, with many bumps in the road, and is much a self-discovery for the parents as it is for Tobi.
Luchina Fisher’s film, Mama Gloria (above), centres around one trailblazing trans woman, Gloria Allen, who has turned into an icon for the generations following in her footsteps, especially in her hometown of Chicago. But it also tells a much wider story about the bigger picture, now that 14 percent of the 1.5 million trans people in the States are seniors. Gloria’s strong, colourful life story has already had a play, Charm, written about it, and this documentary is structured around an in-depth interview with the remarkable woman herself. And as the candid Gloria comments, surveying her life: “sometimes it can be difficult and scary, sometimes it can be beautiful.”
This would make a good companion piece with Dante Alencastre’s documentary, Aids Diva: The Legend Of Connie Norman. The heroic trans figure’s legacy from the 1990s links almost seamlessly to now, especially in attitudes to healthcare for those in the LGBTIQ+ community. Norman stood on the right side of history – much of it in LA with Act-Up – in the huge fight against government large and small, when they refused to help in the battle against AIDS. An auto-didact who faced transphobia yet managed to reach across the divides, she passed on the message: “let no-one not allow you to be yourself.”
Well Rounded, from Shana Myara, is a Canadian film that unpicks the premise that all dieting and weight loss is good for your health, and tackles fat oppression and fat-phobia loaded on top of other bigotry around race and sexuality. The body positive participants pose as many questions as answers, noting that “we don’t blame someone for their height, but we absolutely do for their weight,” then asking “Is there room for me?” and “Am I allowed to be here?”
There are many memorable moments and characters in Rebel Dykes, made by Harri Shanahan and Sian A Williams, but for me there was one section that stood out, and I’d selfishly like to see a film drama or doc just about it: Greenham Common. Each sub-culture that rocked up there built their own mini-universe with their own leaders and labels at each gate around the Greenham military base, and evolved and operated almost in isolation from the others. And of course, you can see how that later led to squatting in Brixton, pub and club culture. But this opening section is all so fascinating it puts some of the later intra-factional wars in the shade.
The drama features in the Flare festival ranged from charm and sweetness to frank and hardcore, with Marley Morrison’s impressive debut, Sweetheart (above), definitely in the former camp. Set during a nightmare holiday for 17-year-old AJ (Nell Barlow, superb) with her mum, younger and older sister and empathetic brother-in-law, this is all about the joy and misery of that first summer crush. Falling for lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), AJ’s fierce, focused passion – while hating every minute of her holiday camp experience – and the excellent casting helps make this an awkward and endearing cross between Make Up and Bagnold Summer, with Morrison definitely one to watch.
My First Summer is yet another highly promising debut. This one, from Katie Found, also centres on the magic of first love. Feral girl, Claudia is recently bereaved and orphaned, and rescued by confident girl, Grace. Found explores their mutual awakening, with the Australian edges of towns and wildernesses and adult interference always adjacent, and nudging them into conforming. It’s all bathed in golden light as their friendship deepens and intensifies, and sped up with montage sequences as it careers to a make or break conclusion.
Argentine thriller, The Dose (top pic), from Martín Kraut starts as a medical drama with a strong lead character, Marcos, then goes a bit Hitchcocky, with suspicions and misdirection as it progresses. Marcos is a night nurse who occasionally plays god, by euthanising patients on his ward when he thinks their quality of life has gone. But all this changes when superficially charming new guy Gabriel (and his name is not accidental) insinuates himself into the hospital circle. Is he an angel – of death? Is he playing psychological games? There’s a battle with Marcos fighting his attraction to Gabriel, while feeling displaced from his workplace – and his home – and the finale is surprisingly satisfying. Nice work.
Yet another promising debut comes in the shape of Anna Kerrigan’s drama, Cowboys, which stars the always dependable Steve Zahn as a father who helps his young transgender son (Sasha Knight, wonderful) escape the clutches of an overly protective, conservative mother. With meaty country soundtrack and stunning Montana scenery, it’s a great way to highlight an overlooked issue of gender dysphoria and denial, via a literal and psychological journey, as a family coming to terms with life-changing decisions is unsentimentally portrayed.
Eugen Jebeleanu’s at times shocking but always believable drama, Poppy Field, is set in Romania, and it’s a case of the wrong place, wrong job and wrong time to be gay for a hot-headed policeman Cristi, who has fallen for a French Muslim guy. It all comes to a head when Cristi and his colleagues have to intervene at a cinema showing a gay movie, and his furious denial is expressed violently. And it’s no surprise to find that it’s based on a true story.
Smart, slick and structurally clever, Ali LeRoi’s film, The Obituary Of Tunde Johnson portrays a well-heeled African American family with their beloved 18 year old son, Tunde, just coming out to them. Straddling tense thriller vibes with soapy melodrama, the plot keeps looping back and replaying sections with different outcomes, as if Groundhog Day kept climaxing with the protagonist’s death. Yet he keeps doing the same thing expecting a different outcome.
Worth seeing just for the late Cloris Leachman’s final performance at the age of 94, Phil Connell’s darkly whimsical comic drama, Jump, Darling casts her as grandma. Russell (Thomas Duplessie) is a drag artist whose act is dismissed as “gay variety shit” – and he leaves the city to return to grandma, ostensibly to get his hands on her car, but they’re drawn together by memories that haunt them both. He’s a fish out of water; she’s certainly not politically correct. The bonus is some fabulous dance sequences in the bar where Russell sweetly falls for one of the barmen – and a terrific soundtrack.
Another fine directorial debut comes from Cassio Pereira dos Santos in Valentina (above), telling the story of a young trans woman who is still getting grief, especially when trying to change her ID card. She and her determined mother pack up and move to a small town to start afresh, but need the estranged father to sign all the papers to make everything legit at her new school. And there’s pushback, paranoia and panic from the local bigots when Valentina’s story emerges. The calm resilience of Valentina, played by Brazilian YouTube sensation Thiessa Woinbackk, is inspiring, and the film raises many vital issues.
Max Currie’s film Rūrangi is another ‘homecoming-to-a-small-town’ drama – and was originally intended as a five-part series for TV in New Zealand. Further issues to do with race and environment swirl around the central character of young trans man, Caz, along with identity, family, grief and acceptance. How can Caz confront his father after a decade away? Can his friends embrace his change? Is conventional wisdom around masculinity increasing mental health problems? Definitely worth catching this one.
If you like the classic 1990s comedies of John Hughes, then Dramarama, from debut director Jonathan Wysocki is tailor-made for you. It’s set in 1994 when a group of high school friends – basically the nerds – stage their own murder mystery event, and find their party crashed by boorish jock Jason, who delivers their pizza and brings them down, a real cat among the pigeons. The central character, Gene, is very John Cusack/ Jon Cryer and totally in denial about his feelings for his best friend. One by one we see the boasts and dreams of the friends punctured as their truths emerge, their group fractures and their next life stage beckons.
Peeter Rebane makes his debut as director in Cold War romance, Firebird (above), which was co-written by its leading actor Tom Prior, who plays Sergey, a young cadet who falls hard for heroic fighter pilot Roman. They initially bond over a shared love of photography, which provides welcome relief for Sergey alongside the brutal training regime, with random cruelty pervasive. This also contrasts with their feeling of liberation after their brief encounter with the unfettered sequences of Stravinsky’s ballet, Firebird. But there’s a twist in the tale, as Sergey’s best friend Luisa is also falling for Roman. Visually there’s much Cold War shorthand, plus inevitable unpatriotic jokes about Soviet shortages and untruths. And the love-triangle narrative and theme of secret, forbidden passion feel weightier once you realise it’s all based on a true story.
I loved about three quarters of Thomas Wilson-White’s dreamy drama, The Greenhouse (above). Set in the midst of a close-knit, fluid and mixed Australian household, previously led by two mums and now coming to terms with bereavement of one of them, this later takes a hand-brake turn. One night daughter Beth goes into the greenhouse and discovers that she can revisit scenes from her own life, rewinding and witnessing old pieces of family life. Meanwhile she’s encountered a woman from her romantic past and seems stuck, as flashbacks and cold reality about her present and near future press down on her. That’s when it goes into zombie territory – and I would’ve personally preferred it stayed on the edge of fantasy rather than into this overused generic trope, but you have been warned. Loads of good stuff up until then though!
Two mirror image films throw light on odd couples cast adrift and thrown together in unfamiliar territory for one half of each duo. Sublet, from Eytan Fox, is set in Tel Aviv and puts a neat, middle-aged, slightly morose travel writer (John Benjamin Hickey, fabulous as ever) in the somewhat dishevelled flat of his carefree young filmmaker host, thanks to a mix-up in dates. He’s initially appalled yet intrigued by the neighbourhood, and once he’s shown round places off the beaten track, his judgemental, frosty exterior starts to melt and they’re drawn to each other despite their age differences. As for debut director Daniel Sánchez López’s Boy Meets Boy, you could say it’s a bit of a tribute act or homage to the Richard Linklater Before Sunrise trilogy, only this time the location is Berlin instead of Paris and the couple are two young gay men exploring the city across one day. Local lad Johannes is a dancer who knows how to bust some moves and is devoted to his existing boyfriend. Visiting Harry is happy to hook up with random strangers on Grindr, but is charmed by the city, and their endless conversations and chemistry promise much…
Finally, a couple of films to steer clear of for different reasons. Tone-deaf romantic comedy, Kiss Me Before It Blows Up, is director Shirel Peleg’s debut. Tel Aviv is the highly romanticised setting (as with Sublet), as gregarious Israeli Shira brings home her new, German girlfriend. Meanwhile, in a parallel culture clash, Shira’s bigoted Jewish grandmother has a secret Palestinian lover, and her brother is filming everything… and in the foreground the full force of family secrets and unfettered hatreds emerge. Hopefully Peleg’s next project will be able to build on the good, quirky elements and avoid the stereotyped characters and plotline. As for Oskar Roehler’s Enfant Terrible biopic of the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder… well, it includes the line “someone has to be the asshole”, which sums it all up perfectly. Leathery characters and costumes, some gay casting couch moments, plus flat acting and bad wigs are all just about held together by the central performance of Oliver Masucci, but it’s still a bit of a slog, to be honest. Avoid.
Check out more information about the BFI Flare Festival 2021.