BFI Flare Festival 2024 by Helen M Jerome – The DVDfever Review

BFI Flare Festival 2024 BFI Flare Festival 2024 by Helen M Jerome: It feels like the annual BFI Flare Festival is growing into something loud, proud and significant. Boasting features, documentaries and shorts for every taste, it also embraces all manner of genres. You can’t really pin down an overall theme – though there are a few commonalities – as the only thing linking these films is their LGBTQIA+ flavour, in the protagonist, driving narrative, or even a subplot. It’s always a festival to keep an eye on, and this year boasted huge strength in the documentaries along with the feature films. So dig in!


Starring Elliot Page and directed by Dominic Savage, from a story they developed together, Close To You (above) feels like a very personal, passion project that’s understandably close to Page’s heart. Set in Canada, it starts with lots of tiny details and close-ups, with the handheld camera constantly roving around as we sense Page’s character Sam’s unease a1t setting off on a journey into his past. You feel his hesitancy and dread as a trans man returning to his home town – and his family – after years away from them. Travelling there by train, he bumps into an old school friend, Katherine (Hillary Baack, from Sound of Metal), and as viewers we immediately grasp their connection and their past in these brief moments. Everything becomes a question mark as Sam’s re-entry into his small town, childhood home stirs up old memories and new antagonisms. This central section is loosely structured, while tautly observed, and feels almost improvised, as an edginess replaces the superficially warm embrace of family. Don’t want to spoil the final act, but despite the setbacks in the central part, there is hope – and the acting by both Page and Baack is superb.

Music is at the core of Karen Knox’s drama, We Forgot To Break Up, which is set a couple of decades ago. In fact, it almost feels like a documentary or homage in its obvious affection for that era’s hugely popular wave of music from Toronto, notably the collective Broken Social Scene, including Feist and Emily Haines. Here the focus is on a bisexual trans musician, Evan, who is loved by his band partner, keyboard player Isis, but also lusted over by their new guitarist, Lugh. Meanwhile, sub-plots abound and there’s some decent music too. And as the band – The New Normals – rise in fame, the pressure mounts, relationships snap, and the ménage a trois threatens to destroy the group.

There’s love, money and health, but also music across M H Murray’s I Don’t Know Who You Are, again set in Toronto. Benjamin, played by Mark Clennon, is a gay music teacher and musician hanging out with his friends, and living his best life until a shocking sexual assault leaves him reeling. He’s desperate for funds and it’s a race against time for urgent treatment in case he’s been exposed to HIV in the assault. Tonally this veers from Benjamin’s all-consuming, panicky, nightmarish state to matter-of-fact health encounters on a journey where he finds out what matters and who his friends are.

BFI Flare Festival 2024


As well as starring in Close To You, Elliot Page is also executive producer on D.W. Waterson’s sporting drama Backspot (above). We are plunged into what initially seems to be raucous and intense gymnastics training with much close-up POV shooting of buddies and rivals. What they are actually practising for, however, is cheerleading, which puts brutal pressure on small teams of young women. The main focus is on a working class teen girl, Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo) and her middle class girlfriend, Riley (Devery Jacobs) both striving for perfection and both trying to please their coach Eileen McNamara (Evan Rachel Wood). We feel their stress amidst the noise and bright lights, where blood, sweat and tears, plus vomiting, injuries and panic attacks, are constant companions. Crucially, the immersive way it’s shot makes it feel like you’re heading for meltdown along with Riley, and you hope that the kindness of one stranger can prove pivotal in her young life, and push her towards a more altruistic attitude.

Riley, from director Benjamin Howard, has the feel of Friday Night Lights, and follows a young American football player. The moody teen athlete Dakota Riley is, however, living a double life. The drama similarly balances his brilliance on the field with his struggles off it. His huge smile and the sports jock tropes of gym, sweat and sweetheart are all waiting to be overturned. He’s hooking up with men young and old on Grindr, hiding this secret, and buckling under the pressure of his father also being his team’s hard-as-nails coach. An understanding girlfriend provides a chink of light for Riley, and it feels like he may have more of his future in his own hands, but don’t expect a convenient coming-out finale, despite the subversion of sports movie tropes.

BFI Flare Festival 2024


If you like the high comedy of European movies like Toni Erdmann, you’ll almost certainly warm to the warmth and improbability of Kat Rohrer’s What A Feeling (above). Set in Vienna, its unlikely, star-crossed lovers are both treated as outsiders – Marie is German and Fariba is Iranian. Their initial encounter is anything but promising, as Marie is driving to a posh anniversary dinner where she’ll discover that her husband is leaving her. En route, she almost runs over handywoman Fariba, who is returning from a jolly, if dangerous liaison with one of her clients. The rest of the film unfolds in their very different family homes, but also in a gay bar into which a drunken Marie accidentally stumbles, and in the hospital where Marie works and, by chance, treats Fariba’s ailing mother. Loads of pushback from family and friends ensues, with Marie’s daughter even labelling her a “fun-free zone”, and there’s generational drama and unexpected acceptance up and down the ages.

Set between Toronto and Karachi and across two different timelines, Fawzia Mirza’s The Queen Of My Dreams always keeps comedy to the fore. Much of it feels like a loving homage to Bollywood, and big set-piece scenes re-enact favourite movie moments with their own spin. Our endearing heroine, Azra, is living in Canada with her girlfriend in 1999, but when a death forces her to go to Pakistan, we flash back to her own mother’s youth and courtship three decades earlier. Memories flood back, sometimes propelled by viewing old VHS tapes, and there’s a culture shock when we see the eye-popping colours in each era and hear the intoxicating qawwali music. Cleverly, Azra in 1999 and her mother back in 1969 are played by the same actress, the excellent Amrit Kaur, while secrets emerge and heady romance seeps through both stories. There’s also a sweet section set in 1989 when the family all become fish out of water when they emigrate to Novia Scotia. But the main thrust is showing the commonalities between mother and daughter as rebels in their own ways and eras.


BFI Flare Festival 2024

Unspoken, from Jeremy Borison, is a sweet coming-of-age story with another layer of exploration just below the surface. Noam is a teenage boy looking within, while digging into his late grandfather’s secret past. Drawn to a schoolfriend, struggling with his own identity, and navigating the expectations of living in an Orthodox Jewish community, as he gets closer to the truth it becomes more uncertain.

Taiwanese director I-Hsuan Su has made a very timely drama in Who’ll Stop The Rain, which shows the power of art, and the pushback from those in power who pretend to support free speech, but in fact suppress it. We are plunged into the world of pagers, protest and post-martial-law Taiwan, providing the framework for a complicated, flowering romance. Impressionable, rebellious art student, Chi-wei, is drawn to Ching, with her appealing, similarly subversive, non-conformist attitude and power as one of the protest organisers. The slices and slivers of detail around these young women somehow increase the tension in their attraction. And the added complications revolving around their class and money make this compelling view of idealism and art even more tumultuous.

Korean filmmaker Yun Su-ik’s Heavy Snow (above) is neatly split into sections, first focusing on teenager Seol, then Suan, and finally The Sea. Awkward, smart Suan is shocked, even jumpstarted, into life when the glamorous teen star Seol joins her school. Little shared intimacies and random moments cement their friendship, as they light fires on the sandy beaches of Gangneung and bunk off school, before it all escalates into passion. Roles and power dynamics seem to reverse between the two young women as they revisit their old haunts, have a chance meeting in a bar, and surf together. Meanwhile the film’s stark visual beauty highlights their duality and isolation, against the snow and harsh outdoors.


BFI Flare Festival 2024

Neatly grouped together, the festival foregrounded a number of Greek movies exploring same-sex relationships. Almost a ‘meta’ film about young filmmakers, Zacharias Mavroeidis’ comedy The Summer With Carmen has a plot around two friends, Demosthenes and Nikitas, aiming to write a gay screenplay while on vacation. They hang out on a sun-soaked, nudist beach and exchange witty barbs amidst the gleaming, naked bodies, all beautifully filmed. Family and old flames flicker around their explicit sexual exploits and longing for love, as the timeframe shifts back and forth.

If you prefer a choreographed, more romantic drama, then Apollo Bakopoulos’ Aligned (above), set in a dance company, might be up your street. It’s all about love and cross cultural connection, again with stunning Greek scenery and big skies, plus good-looking, athletic, young leading men – Aeneas and Alex – who express themselves most freely through dance. Much of the soundtrack is solo piano, and as the music and dance build with the visuals, and the two men are pulled together, it can feel like sensory overload. Even Alex’s break-up with his girlfriend back in NYC seems choreographed. Worth watching for its overarching theme of overcoming fear in dance and in life, then making that leap…


BFI Flare Festival 2024

Some of the best features in this year’s Flare festival were full-length documentaries, packed with loads of content, properly knitted together into insightful explorations of much more than you might expect at first glance.

Full disclosure, I’m already something of a fan of their work, so Stephen Soucy’s film, Merchant Ivory (above) was already on my must-see list. Obviously, I already knew a little of their story, but much more about the movies themselves, yet this doc adds so much to my knowledge of not just producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, but also their screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and composer Richard Robbins. Boasting the most glorious cast-list of talking heads, a veritable who’s who of collaborators, we soon hear Hugh Grant admitting that “in those days film sets crackled with subliminal lust”. Not to mention Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Emma Thompson, Simon Callow, Felicity Kendall – who they moulded into a “family” on each set – plus huge amounts of archive.

We discover that this lust extended to Merchant and Ivory’s own volatility as a couple, yet they kept their own relationship fairly hidden from many of these actors – and neither told their own families. It was never talked about, but “understood”. Luckily James Ivory is still around to tell stories of their beginnings, him soaking up all the filmmaking knowledge, while Merchant used his considerable charm to gather funds as producer. Hearing the view that Remains Of The Day is the highpoint, the climax of their work, and seeing brief glimpses of the understated brilliance of Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in the pivotal roles from Kazuo Ishiguro’s fine novel, immediately makes me want to watch this 1993 masterpiece all over again. Plus Howard’s End, Heat and Dust and Maurice, of course…

On the surface it might seem culturally less important, but Kevin Smith’s source romcom – starring Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams – has now been given way more significance with Sav Rodgers’ film, Chasing Chasing Amy. Rodgers started making this doc in 2008, throwing us back to the original’s 1997 successful release, and forcing us look at Chasing Amy itself in a fresh light. All the talking heads interviewed are frank about their initial reaction back in the day, and the backlash to the idea of a man problematically going all out to court a lesbian. Even though this was viewed as a bisexual indie movie, was this perhaps an inadvertently fluid film?

Viewers are taken back into an era that was more about bigotry and homophobia, and Rodgers’ own movie comes out an initial Ted Talk on their reaction to this. Then… Bingo! Kevin Smith himself reaches out to Rodgers and they meet. Cleverly constructed, the doc layers loads of details on how Smith’s original evolved and was eventually made. There’s also a sidebar reference to Harvey Weinstein and how his involvement now casts a shadow over that era. In exploring the making of the original and this documentary itself, it’s as much about Rodgers’ own self-discovery and revelations.

Finally, a couple of meaningful and very heartfelt documentaries from California that could – and maybe should – be effectively paired together. Jeffrey Schwarz’s Commitment To Life is set in the hellish time of the eighties in Los Angeles, when AIDS descended on the gay community, who were shunned by some hospitals, and even morgues when they passed. But then, among the ignorance, victim-blaming and stigma they found support and solidarity, like a beacon of hope, despite politicians like Ronald Reagan, who totally ignored their plight. “Discrimination killed a lot of us,” is the uncomfortable verdict, as information and research was scarce. So the volunteers stepped up, joined by stars and celebrities with clout, initially Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Rivers, with others like Madonna following later. It’s a must-see and shocking doc.

From Marc Saltarelli comes the possible companion piece, Studio One Forever, which is set in the heart of Hollywood. Here, the first and biggest gay disco exploded onto the scene – running from the mid-1970s to the 1990s. The doc is structured around those who hung out there in their – and the club’s – prime, going back and revisiting it. But the story gets more complex, layered and political once it goes deep inside the club’s history, with archive unearthed from unlikely sources. As the LA Times said in 1982: “Once the playground of celebrities, the place became deserted,” which leads into an apt section entitled ‘Decade From Hell’. Very much a rise and fall film with an obviously glorious soundtrack, of course.

Check out the BFI Flare Festival 2024 website, and more of Helen M Jerome‘s reviews.