- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (19/3/2021)
(An overview of the 35th BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival running on the BFI Player between 17-28 March)
One of the few plus points of the pandemic has been the emergence of the online film festival. They had existed before lockdown, as MyFrenchFilmFestival has been proving to excellent effect over the last 11 years. But the fact that an events as significant as the BFI's London Film Festival and Flare LGBTIQ+ Films Festival can operate in cyberspace leaves one wondering whether such access will be made available again in the future or whether (Covid permitting) the resumption of cinema-going means that those not fortunate enough to be within commuting distance of a festival locality will once more be excluded from what should be communal celebrations.
The only problem with events like LFF, Flare and the recent Glasgow Film Festival is that prices for individual films have felt a little steep when compared to the value for money offered by streaming sites like MUBI and Netflix. Amazon Prime and others have charged considerably more, but film fans on a reduced budget during this period of furloughs and redundancies have a right to feel frustrated at being priced out of a rare opportunity to participate in a nationwide screen event.
Putting the soapbox back in the cupboard under the stairs, we should be grateful to the BFI for even staging the 35th edition of Flare between 17-28 March. Moreover, we should be applauding not only the many intriguing features on show, but also the fact that the entire shorts programme has been made free to all. The same is true of many of the Q&As and other treats that have been lined up by the truly dedicated team. Thanks to them all.
As in previous years, the Flare roster is themed and the Bodies selection is led off by Ali LeRoi's The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, which takes a different route than Christopher Landon's Happy Death Day (2017) in riffing on the central premise of Harold Ramis's Groundhog Day (1993). For privileged 18 year-old Tunde Johnson (Steven Silver), 28 May 2020 is the fateful day in which he keeps coming out to Nigerian ex-pat parents Ade and Yomi (Sammi Rotibi and Tembi Locke), coming between mean girl Marley (Nicola Peltz) and her jock beau Soren (Spencer Neville) and coming across the LAPD patrolmen who shoot him dead at 21:38 for the most specious of reasons.
The mood lightens for Phil Connell's Jump Darling, as aspiring Canadian actor Russell (Thomas Duplessie) comes to stay with his grandmother, Margaret (Cloris Leachman) on Prince Edward Island after his Toronto debut as drag queen Fishy Falters goes horribly wrong. Keen to keep out of the local old people's home, Margaret welcomes her visitor and provides words of wisdom when he gets the chance to impress bartender Zacahry (Kwaku Adu-Poku) by performing at Hannah’s Hovel. The Canadian border is the target for estranged father Troy (Steve Zahn) and his 11 year-old transitioning son, Joe (Sasha Knight), as they are pursued across the Montana wilderness by Detective Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd) in Anna Kerrigan's debut feature, Cowboys. Flashing back to explain how the pair came to be on a white horse borrowed from Robert Spottedbird (Gary Farmer), the story also touches upon the despair felt by fraught mother Sally (Jillian Bell), who is convinced that Joe based their decision on the lack of respect shown to women in a macho society.
The situation is no better in Brazil, as Cássio Pereira dos Santos explains in Valentina. Having been abandoned by the father who disapproves of her transitioning. Valentina (Thiessa Woinbackk) is keen to start again in a new town with her mother (Guta Stresser). However, the school insists on using the given registration name and, despite having the support of gay classmate, Julio (Ronaldo Bonafro), Valentina is soon subjected to transmisogyny and cyberbullying. Male nurse Marcos (Carlos Portaluppi) thinks he's found a new friend when Gabriel (Ignacio Rogers) arrives on the same palliative care ward in Argentine Martin Kraut's thriller, La Dosis. But, while Marcos has been known to tinker with intravenous drips to relieve suffering, he is appalled to discover that Gabriel gets a kick out of euthanising his more problematic patients.
After we've sifted out the actualities, only three features remain in the Minds section and two of those are biopics. Zaida Bergroth's Tove, which opens in 1944, as Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti) is debating her artistic future with her stern sculptor father, Viktor (Robert Enckell). Opting to earn a living through graphic design when her paintings don't sell, Tove embarks upon an affair with married socialist politician Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney). However, she also falls for upper-class theatre director Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), with whom she collaborates on a stage adaptation of her book, Comet in Moominland.
If this 16mm portrait of the artist as a young woman may surprise those charmed by the adorable residents of Moomin Valley, few will be taken aback by the revelations made in Oskar Roehler's Enfant Terrible, which might have been better titled Why Does Herr F. Run Amok?, as it adopts a stylised approach to the chaotic life and provocative work of Das Neue Kino pioneer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Despite being 14 years older than Fassbinder when he died at the age of 37, Oliver Masucci contributes a bravura performance to show how living fast and dying young was almost inevitable for the wunderkind who stormed the stage of Munich's Anti-Theatre in 1967 before going on to create over 40 features, shorts and TV programmes before his death in 1982. Between the on-set tantrums and drink- and drug-fuelled benders, Fassbinder also found time to romance El Hedi Ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz), Günther Kaufman (Michael Klammer), Kurt Raab (Hary Prinz) and Armin Maier (Jochen Schropp), the first being the leading man in Fear Eats the Soul (1974), which co-starred Brigitte Mira, who is wonderfully played by RWF regular, Eva Mattes. Profound it's not, but spirited and potent it most certainly is.
The good folks at the BFI have curated a mini FassFest on the BFI Player. In addition to Wim Wenders Room 666 (1984), which features Fassbinder among the celebrated film-makers discussing cinema, the selection comprises Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Fear Eats the Soul (1974), Fox and His Friends (1975), Chinese Roulette (1976), The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) and Querelle (1982). Details can be found at https://player.bfi.org.uk/subscription/collection/rainer-werner-fassbinder
Completing the Minds triptych is the debuting Eugen Jebeleanu's Poppy Field, which also has a cinematic connection as it was inspired by the Bucharest protests at the screening of two gay-themed features, Ivana Mladenovic's Soldiers: A Story From Ferentari and Robin Campillo's 120 Beats Per Minute (both 2017). At its heart is Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer), a closeted Romanian cop who is mulling over an unsatisfactory visit from his French boyfriend, Hadi (Radouan Leflahi), when he is recognised during the raid by an ex-lover and threatened with exposure in front of his macho and largely homophobic colleagues.
The Soviet Union of the 1970s provides the backdrop for the first feature in the Hearts selection. Adapted from Sergei Fetisov's memoir, The Story of Roman, but taking its title from Igor Stravinsky's Ballets Russes suite, Peeter Rebane's Firebird reflects upon the relationship that develops on an Estonian air base when conscript Sergei (Tom Prior) realises that his future may not lie with secretary Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) after he pals up with fighter pilot Roman (Oleg Zagordnii) and their nights at the ballet and in a photographic darkroom place them at risk of doing five years' hard labour in a Siberian gulag.
Hopping forward to 1994, debutant Jonathan Wysocki explores the extent to which life is essentially a role-playing game in Dramarama. Rose (Anna Grace Barlow) is preparing to mark the end of high school by hosting a Victorian murder mystery evening for her friends in a Christian drama group, Ally (Danielle Kay), Claire (Megan Suri), Oscar (Nico Greetham) and Gene (Nick Pugliese). However, the latter has plans to come out before everyone goes their separate ways. But Gene's revelation that he's agnostic goes down about as well as the sarcasm of JD (Zak Henri), the pizza delivery guy.
Fiftysomething New York Times travel writer, Michael (John Benjamin Hickey), also has something to get off his chest in Eytan Fox's Sublet. However, a five-day assignment in Tel Aviv delays an adoption discussion with husband David (Peter Spears), while a mix-up over dates means that film student Tomer (Niv Nissim) not only winds up staying in the apartment that Michael has leased, but also becomes his unofficial guide to some hidden delights. Moreover, he also tempts him with a handsome hook-up, forces him to confront a tragic loss and introduces him to his sagacious mother, Malka (Miki Kam), during a visit to the kibbutz on which he was raised. Across the city, another cross-generational saga is unfolding in Shirel Peleg's Kiss Me Before It Blows Up, as Shira Shalev (Moran Rosenblatt) invites German botanist, Maria Müller (Luise Wolfram) to move into her apartment following a whirlwind romance. However, grandmother Berta Posnansky (Rivka Michaeli) puts a spanner in the works when she asks why Shira can't find herself a nice Jewish girl.
The German connection takes us to Berlin for Daniel Sanchez Lopez's debut, Boy Meets Boy. This day in the life romance begins in a club, as dancer Johannes (Alexis Kotsoulis) boogies the night away with British junior doctor, Harry (Matthew James Morrison). He has 15 hours to kill until his flight home and his host agrees to show him around the city, even though it doesn't appear they have much in common beyond a physical attraction. The setting couldn't be more different in New Zealander Max Currie's Rurangi, which started life as a five-part web series. Having spent several years in the city, Caz Davis (Elz Carrad) heads home to the family farm to see his father, Gerald (Kirk Torrance), who is yet to come to terms with Caz transitioning and the fact that he stayed away from his mother's funeral. Ex-boyfriend Jem (Arlo Green) and best pal Anahera (Awahina Rose Ashby) also need to talk. But, with Gerald fighting a land dispute, Anahera being criticised for neglecting her Maori roots and Jem going through a masculinity crisis, Caz has his work cut out patching things up.
Staying in the Antipodes, Thomas Wilson-White invokes the spirits of Ingmar Bergman and Peter Weir in The Greenhouse, a reflection on grief, memory and the need to move on that's set in an Australian suburb around the time of a family reunion. Beth (Jane Watt) is still mourning the loss of her mother, Lillian (Rhondda Findleton), as her other mother, Ruth, Ruth (Camilla Ah Kin) approaches her 60th birthday. As her siblings gather for the celebration, Beth bumps into old flame Lauren (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) just as she discovers a portal in a misty part of the garden that enables her to return to happier times that seem illusorily preferable to the present.
Mother-daughter relationships are also key to the last two titles in the Flare 35 line-up. In Katie Found's debut, My First Summer, 16 year-old Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) remains undiscovered in the house she never leaves after her reclusive writer mother, Veronica (Edwina Wren), commits suicide. However, Grace (Maiah Stewardson) stumbles upon the unworldly adolescent, who knows everything about Virginia Woolf, but nothing about living in the real world. In seeking to protect Claudia, Grace becomes her lover. But they can't hide away forever.
By contrast, Dunstable 17 year-old AJ (Nell Barlow) can't get away fast enough from mother Tina (Jo Hartley) in Marley Morrison's Sweetheart. It's bad enough that she insists on calling her April, but things get worse when Tina drags AJ to a Dorset holiday camp with eight year-old sister Dayna (Tabitha Byron) and their pregnant older sibling Lucy (Sophia Di Martino) and her partner, Steve (Samuel Anderson). Sulking in bucket hat and shades, AJ is determined to have a rotten time. Then, she claps eyes on lifeguard Isla (Ella-Rae Smith).
There's always a hint of nostalgia amongst the pressing issues tackled on the Flare documentary slate and 2021 is no exception. Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt chart the career of American jazz musician Billy Tipton in No Ordinary Man, which reveals how the Oklahoma-born pianist and bandleader managed to hide until after his death the fact that he had transitioned in the 1930s in order to pursue a career.
Around the time that Tipton was recording his first albums, the underground drag scene was thriving in New York and Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera draw on the correspondence sent to radio host Reno Martin and the recollections of performers like James Bidgood (who would go on to direct Pink Narcissus, 1971) in P.S. Burn This Letter Please. The focus falls on the balls staged in the Bronzeville district of Chicago in Luchina Fisher's Mama Gloria, which profiles 73 year-old Gloria Allen, who uses her trans charm school to pass on the tips she received in an era of unchecked racism and homophobia from her showgirl mother Alma, seamstress grandmother Mildred and former `house' slave Great Aunt Fannie.
The campaign waged to have homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973 is recalled in Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer's Cured, while Dante Alencastre celebrates the life and causes of a Texan trans trailblazer and HIV activist in AIDS DIVA: The Legend of Connie Norman. Crossing the pond, Harri Shanahan and Sian Williams use archive material, interviews and animation in Rebel Dykes to explore the parts played by the Greenham Common peace camp and the Chain Reactions fetish club in the emergence of lesbian activism and art in the post-punk London of the 1980s.
The notion of being an outcast is explored in Peter Murimi's I Am Samuel, an intimate account of being in a gay relationship in Kenya that took five years to make. When Samuel left Nairobi in search of greater opportunity, farming parents Redon and Rebecca hoped he would return with a wife to help with the harvest. Instead, he met Alex, with whom he risks both homophobic violence and a 14-year prison sentence under laws that are rooted in the code that was introduced by the British over a century ago. As Alexa Bakony reveals in Colors of Tobi, the lurch to the right in Hungarian politics also impacts upon 16 year-old Tóbiás Benjámin Tuza, who lives in a small country village with their mother, Éva, who is still getting over the loss of her beloved daughter when she realises that Tobi needs her full support after moving towards a non-binary identity after having previously come out as male.
Lastly, but by no means least, Canadian documentarist Shana Myara delves into the issue of body positivity in Well Rounded, which uses interviews with comic Candy Palmater, artist Ivory, model Lydia Okello and activist-cum-storyteller Joanne Tsung and animations by Alexandra Hohner to discover just what the problem is with our fatphobic, racist heteronormative society.