BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival 2015

19-29 March 2015

by Joanna Orland

BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival celebrated its 29th edition in 2015.  With over fifty feature films, one hundred shorts, and industry events, the BFI Flare is the UK’s longest running and most popular LGBT film festival.  This year marked a new initiative for BFI Flare – fiveFilms4freedom is the world’s first digital, global LGBT film festival, promoted in more than fifty countries.  This venture has given five short films from BFI Flare a wider audience, giving the public a taster of LGBT cinema and the ability to find out more about emerging LGBT filmmakers.

Opening with the film I am Michael starring James Franco, and closing with homosexuality in sport documentary Out to Win, there was much on offer at this year’s festival.  Below is merely a few of our highlights.

54 director's cut - berlinale 2015
54: The Director’s Cut

Directed by Mark Christopher
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Mike Myers and Salma Hayek

by Joanna Orland

The director’s cut of 1998 film 54 has long been an urban legend. Plagued by studio reshoots and edits, the studio cut of the film failed to be the box office and critical success it should have been. Now seventeen years later, director Mark Christopher brings his long promised director’s cut to BFI Flare.  I interviewed Mark at the 65th Berlinale Film Festival.

Do I Sound Gay?
Directed by David Thorpe

by Joanna Orland

Single and unconfident David Thorpe decides his voice sounds unmasculine and gay.  Determined to break the cultural stereotype of a ‘gay-sounding’ gay man, the director begins a journey to change his voice, and along the way explores the cultural and physical roots of  the ‘gay voice’.

As a documentary, the subject of the culturally stereotyped gay voice is fascinating.  Thorpe interviews speech therapists, linguists, famous gay public figures (George Takei, Margaret Cho, Dan Savage, David Sedaris…) in search of answers on why some gay men have this voice.  An examination of the evolution of the voice within queer cultures and popular media is divulged through clips of everything from Disney to Liberace concerts.  What begins as this exploration of the ‘gay voice’ evolves into a journey of self acceptance as this is Thorpe’s real issue at the heart of Do I Sound Gay?.  An issue that slightly detracts from the more substantial elements of the film.

While it’s important to make a documentary personal, and in this case examine the significance of self-esteem in relation to vocal identity, Do I Sound Gay? takes the personal a step too far to the point of becoming self-indulgent.  There are a tad too many interviews with Thorpe’s friends and family when perhaps a bit more objectivity is needed to get the point across less pretentiously.  This viewpoint gives the film a more light-hearted feel, when in fact, a broader exploration of the issue is far more substantial.

In spite of this overly personal touch, Do I Sound Gay? is an interesting documentary on the cultural and physical roots of the ‘gay voice’.  With a bit more science and sociology, this film would be just that little bit more impactful.

Dressed as a Girl
Directed by Colin Rothbart

Starring Jonny Woo, John Sizzle, Holestar, Scottee, Amber, Pia and Ma Butcher

by Joanna Orland

The East London drag scene is notorious for its fabulosity.  The modern day stars of the scene including head honcho Jonny Woo, gloriously twisted performance artist Scottee, tranny with a fanny Holestar and their crew have made the scene what it is, and anyone living in East London certainly knows who they are.  Finally, there is a documentary about the past six years of their lives, allowing the audience to get to know each as their own unique character and examining not only their backgrounds, but the scene on the whole.

Dressed as a Girl uses self-proclaimed “ringmaster” of the scene Jonny Woo as the main narrative focus and predominant voice of the film.  And rightfully so as Woo’s presence in the East London scene is a key factor in its breakthrough success.  The drag / cabaret / performance artist has often featured in Time Out Magazine as “Pick of the Week” and brought to the mainstream a scene that was previously overlooked and underground.  The documentary explores the darker side of Woo’s life, as well as the lives of his drag comrades.  It transforms what perhaps some people may see as shallow gluttonous entertainers into the human beings that they actually are, revealing their troubled pasts and presents, hopes and fears, trials and tribulations.

What starts off as shallow nostalgia for the East London scene evolves into a moving character piece, helping us East Londoners get insight into these colourful characters we’ve been seeing about town for years.  Now I know the path that Jonny Woo and John Sizzle took to open up their very successful Haggerston “super-pub, performance venue and late night disco haunt that will become the new epicentre of East London’s thriving alternative scene” The Glory which I keep referring to as The Glory Hole, not because I’m a pervert, but because I keep mixing it up with my favourite donut shop.

Dressed as a Girl is a record of THE East London scene of recent times, coupled with a character piece about vulnerable people putting up a helluva front.  It is a triumph.

Drunktown’s Finest

Directed by Sydney Freeland

This coming-of-age tale from director Sydney Freeland has made its way from Sundance to BFI Flare.  I sat down with Sydney for some insight into the making-of Drunktown’s Finest.

The Duke of Burgundy
Directed by Peter Strickland

Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen and  Chiara D’Anna

by Joanna Orland (Reviewed at the 58th BFI London Film Festival)

Director Peter Strickland follows the darkly abstract, critically acclaimed Berberian Sound Studio with the dreamlike, incredibly stylized The Duke of Burgundy.  This film is a visual and aural feast, more so than his previous film which utilizes audio in particular to create its mood.  The Duke of Burgundy is much more palatable and interesting than Strickland’s former work.  Abstractness once again prominent, The Duke of Burgundy however also manages to explore the relationship between two lovers as they test each other to the limit.

Sidse Babett Knudsen is remarkable.  Her portrayal of Cynthia is both cold and dominating, yet sensitive and vulnerable.  Cynthia studies butterflies and moths, Evelyn (D’Anna) is her student and lesbian lover.  Evelyn demands that Cynthia express her love through sado-masochistic role play in which Evelyn is being dominated by Cynthia.  Once the audience realizes that this relationship is merely role-play, words and actions that meant one thing are suddenly meaning something much more sinister.

Their relationship begins to unravel as Cynthia is clearly not comfortable in the dominant role.  There are moments of humour in this otherwise stylized tale as Cynthia practices her routine of dominance.  After much performance, Cynthia begins to tire of this routine and yearns for a relationship with Evelyn which is based in their reality.

This film is anything but based in reality.  The decadent visuals are erotically sensual, even the opening titles imply so as they credit “perfume by Je Suis Gizella”.  Much as Cynthia’s expression of dominance, everything is over the top in this film, and beautifully so.  With a very 1970’s European feel, the film strays into psychedelic territory, Lynchian in nature, but sexualized through and through.  While erotic to the core, it is tastefully so and a masterful work of art.

The Falling
Directed by Carol Morley
Starring Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake and Monica Dolan

by Amanda Farley (Reviewed at the 58th BFI London Film Festival)

Carol Morley’s new film The Falling is an interesting and distinctive piece that transforms the traditionally prim world of a 1960’s all-girls school into a dark and mysterious environment where secrets and mysteries threaten to destroy the thin veneer of youthful innocence.

Lydia (Maisie Williams) is 16 years old and completely inseparable from her best friend Abbie (Florence Pugh). When Abbie reveals that she has lost her virginity an invisible barrier begins to form between the two girls. Unable to understand, Lydia finds herself lost in her own insecurities and discomfort. When it also becomes clear that Abbie is pregnant, the purity of their childhood bond begins to crumble. Lydia can no longer predict her friend’s actions and begins to feel the growing separation.

When tragedy strikes, Lydia is cast into a world of hurt and loss. The break between Abbie and Lydia seems to release a dark energy that affects everyone. Be it an illness, an occult echo from beyond the grave or simply a communal fantasy, it marks the beginnings of womanhood. As Lydia and the other girls begin to suffer the same fainting symptoms, first shown by Abbie, a contagion originates that soon infects the school.

Morley provides plenty of suspense and humor. The headmistress (Monica Dolan) is particularly wonderful and her no nonsense approach to the fainting episodes provides some of the best comedy. One of her cures includes neatly pricking a student with her broach to revive her. But this film is darker than that, sex and longing are very much at its center. Lydia’s dysfunctional relationship with her agoraphobic mother (Maxine Peake) is perhaps the most interesting story. There is a sense of longing in Lydia that is palpable. Her search for a connection and sense of belonging, while displaced to the act of physical intercourse, is really only a shadow of her real desire for maternal love and acceptance.

Tracey Thorn is responsible for the soundtrack, and the end result is eerie, lyrical and beautiful. The music manages to echo the femininity of the story while also enhancing the overall sense of Englishness. The use of colour and nature also adds to this sense of idyllic Englishness that is then shattered by the darkness of events as they unfold. Morley’s artist background is evident in this film and her use of colour and movement create a distinctive style. Some of the choices do not always work but her experimental nature is interesting and means that the audience is always enthralled by the beauty of the world unfolding and dismantling before their eyes.

Exactly where The Falling fits genre wise is less clear. It mixes elements of the occult with a dark psychological drama and then adds some great black comedy into the mix. The one thing that is certain is that this film is an odd but beautiful journey into the darker side of Englishness and femininity. With such a strong female presence both in front of and behind the camera there is a sense of excitement as to what this director will do next and what brave new worlds will open up as more women are inspired, by work like this, to tell the stories they want to tell.

I Am Michael
Directed by Justin Kelly
Starring James Franco, Zachary Quinto and Emma Roberts

by Joanna Orland (Reviewed at the 65th Berlinale Film Festival)

LGBT activist Michael Glatze was a voice of the Queer youth in 1998, San Francisco.  As the magazine editor of a popular LGBT magazine, documentary filmmaker and advocate for gay rights, Michael was seemingly comfortable in his sexuality and openly so.  I am Michael is the true story of how Michael Glatze went on a journey of self-discovery in a struggle to go back in the closet as a heterosexual Christian.

The film begins with Michael (James Franco) preaching to a young gay boy about the sins of homosexuality, how it is a choice, and how he should choose his faith over his sexual desires.  Flashback to 1998 when Glatze is open, free, and romantically involved with Bennett (Zachary Quinto), his partner with whom he chooses to settle down.  They move to Halifax, Nova Scotia for a more domesticated life with their third partner Tyler.  Life is far from domestic bliss as Michael begins to fear his own mortality, having lost both of his parents, feeling alone, obsessing over the lack of meaning in existence.  Through his recurrent panic attacks, he ponders, soul searches, and goes on a journey of self-discovery leading to the ultimate conclusion that he no longer identifies as gay.

Michael hurts not only Bennett and Tyler, but the entire LGBT community, particularly the youth, who viewed him as an inspiration who spoke up for their mutual rights.  This is the ultimate betrayal as not only does Michael no longer identify as gay, but he is claiming the identity of heterosexual, of Christian faith, now an advocate for homosexuality being a choice that we must not make.

For Michael, it is impossible to balance his sexuality and his faith.  He begins his journey exploring the possibility of their mutual exclusivity, but realizing that impossibility, his identity as Christian prevails over his one as part of the LGBT community.  This portrayal of Michael’s story is naturalistic, gradual and frustrating as Michael seems desperate for something to believe in.  The concept of identity is prominent throughout this film, and the idea of reversing a cliche to tell the story of an openly gay man struggling to come out as Christian, is the perfect approach for Michael’s story.

While the real Michael Glatze has stated his approval of this film, it does depict doubt over Michael’s motives, beliefs and relation to his identity.  Director Justin Kelly has stated that Glatze has taken this film as an opportunity to soften his anti-gay preaching as having now had a mirror held up to himself,  he can realize his harsh views are hurting those he once valued as friends and lovers.  The film casts doubt over Glatze’s true state of mind once his transition is complete.  If Glatze is truly happy with his decisions in life, this remains something that no film, but only the real Michael Glatze, can answer.

Jamie Marks Is Dead
Directed by Carter Smith
Starring Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver, Morgan Saylor, Madisen Beaty, Liv Tyler and Judy Greer

by Joanna Orland (Reviewed at the 58th BFI London Film Festival)

Jamie Marks Is Dead – or is he? Adam and Gracie discover the body of Harry Potter Jamie Marks by the river. Jamie’s ghost begins to haunt them, and befriends Adam in this dark supernatural story. It’s a bit of a bizarre premise how easily Adam befriends a creepy sinister ghost, but the themes and tone of the story make it a gripping and eerie watch.

The performances are monotonous and the film score consistently ambient, both to great effect as the audience can’t help but be almost hypnotized by the mood of this film. As Jamie and Adam grow closer as friends, Adam grows closer to the supernatural world, eventually encountering further ghosts. At this point, the story derails slightly as the key focus of this story is, and should, be Jamie’s relationship with Adam.

There is perpetual confusion over why Jamie has returned. He is clearly the victim of bullying, but that is about the extent of what we know about Jamie. In fact, we don’t know all that much about Gracie or Adam either. This is more of a supernatural moodpiece than it is a character study. Overall, this results in Jamie Marks Is Dead being more style over substance, but even so, it is mesmerizing in its delivery.

In a market oversaturated with supernatural teen stories, Jamie Marks is Dead stands out for its artistic merit and eerily haunting tone.

The New Girlfriend
Directed by François Ozon

Starring Anaïs Demoustier, Romain Duris, Raphaël Personnaz and Isild Le Besco

by Amanda Farley (Reviewed at the 58th BFI London Film Festival)

Francois Ozon’s latest offering The New Girlfriend is a sexually charged and wonderfully funny tour de force.

Claire (Anais Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) have been best friends since childhood and are completely inseparable. That is until Laura becomes ill and dies, leaving behind her husband David (Romain Duris) and their new born baby, Lucie.

Struggling to cope with the loss of her friend Claire resolves to honour her promise to Laura that she would look after David and Luice. However when she drops by unannounced she is confronted with an unfamiliar woman. That is until she looks closer, only to find David wearing one of Laura’s old dresses and a wig. Shocked by what she has seen Claire is at first disgusted but as time goes by she becomes intrigued and as David opens up to her about his compulsions, a strange new friendship is created.

With Claire’s acceptance, David begins to grow in confidence but with Laura’s ghost always present things begin to quickly spiral out of control. As Claire becomes more and more embroiled in David’s life, it’s not long until it begins to put a strain on her own relationship with her husband Gilles (Raphael Personnaz). It’s obvious that while this isn’t a typical affair, there certainly something more then friendship on offer.

Ozon offers up a film that has a very Hitchcockian style feel about it. There is an undeniable Norman Bates quality about David. The way he is slowly morphing into the woman he loved is both creepy and touching, while his exploration of his gender is charged with possibility. It’s exciting to see his character evolve.

There is also a lot of humour in this film. Ozon manages to exploit the cracks in these characters to find some great moments of truthful comedy. Always moving forward, the story looks at the subversion of the gender role while constantly coming back to the theme of forbidden passion.

The real heart of this film though is the brilliance of the two leads. Virginia, as the female side of David, is instantly relatable and natural. Duris offers a wonderful performance and harnesses a feminine energy that is beautiful to watch. Meanwhile Claire is no less fascinating. As she confronts her own desires we see a complex inner struggle subtly portrayed. She brings a depth to the film that provides a much needed contrast against Duris’s more manic energy.

Based on a short story Ozon transforms the material into a witty and provocative look at gender and forbidden desire. This is a film which celebrates play and in which we find lovable and relatable characters. Although it veers towards farce at time Ozon manages to balance that with a sense of the melancholic. Definitely a fun and enjoyable journey to go on.

Directed by Matthew Warchus
Starring Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Andrew Scott, Ben Schnetzer, Faye Marsay, George MacKay, Dominic West and Paddy Considine

As part of the Best of year stream, one of 2014’s best – Pride – was shown at BFI Flare.  Watch videos of our cast interviews from the UK premiere.

Leave a Reply