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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (22/3/2024)

Updated: Mar 26

(An overview of the 38th BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival)

Screening 57 features and 81 shorts from 41 countries, the 38th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival is a timely celebration of diversity and inclusivity. The line-up may be a little short of big names in front or behind of the camera, but there's no shortage of innovation and commitment, authenticity and compassion in the various

factual and fictional films on show.

Alongside the gala screenings of Dominic Savage's Close to You (which was written by star Elliot Page), Levan Akin's Crossing, Luke Willis's Lady Like, and Amrou Al-Kadhi's Layla, there's a core selection contained in the Bodies, Hearts, and Minds strands.


I Don't Know Who You Are - Having headlined M.H. Murray's short, Ghost (2020), musician Mark Clennon returns as Benjamin for a feature debut that was based on the director's own harrowing experience.

Reluctant to commit to Malcolm (Anthony Diaz), Benjamin joins best friend Ariel (Nat Manuel) at a party thrown by his much-missed ex, Oscar (Kevin A. Courtney). On the way home, however, he's sexually assaulted and has to find CA$919.19 to pay for post-exposure prevention. Having just sent money to his parents in the Caribbean, Benjamin tries to scrape together the cash, even calling Agnes (Deragh Campbell), an old friend he has barely seen since her marriage.

Shooting guerilla style on a shoestring budget, Murray poignantly captures Benjamin's crippling sense of hurt and shame in a series of insistent indoor close-ups that emphasise his perceived isolation and limited options. Clennon excels, with his confrontations with Chris Wong's jobsworthy pharmacist being particularly effective. Following a contrived robbery after a drunken Benjamin crashes in the park, the denouement feels a little melodramatic. But this sincere and skillfully made film gets its message across.

Life Is Not a Competition, But I'm Winning - Having stuck it to the BMI in the 2018 short, Riot Not Diet, Julia Fuhr Mann now tackles the IOC and other sporting bodies that have sought to ban, marginalise, and airbrush women out of the record books because they were female, intersex, queer, or Black.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, claimed that `female athletes act against the law of nature' and devised the 1896 stadium in Athens to `create male heroes'. It wasn't until 1928 that Lina Radcke won Germany's first track and field gold in the 800m at the Amsterdam Games. However, the race was promptly removed from the schedule and didn't return until 1960.

In the interim, Helen Stephens had become the first athlete to be accused of gender fraud at Berlin in 1936 (where she also had an infamous encounter with Adolf Hitler). However, Mann opts to ignore her - along with Heinrich Ratjen, the high jumper whose story inspired Kaspar Heidelbach's Berlin 36 (2009) - to focus on Polish defending champion Stanisława Walasiewicz (aka Stella Walsh), who was stripped of her records after an autopsy following her accidental death discovered that she had no uterus and ambiguous genitalia.

Sections are also devoted to Wilma Rudolph, the Black sprinter who became the first American woman to win three golds at a single Games (at Rome in 1960); trans marathon runner Amanda Reiter, who describes the hostility she feels when competing in women's races; and intersex Ugandan middle-distance specialist Annet Negesa, whose career was ended when rules relating to levels of naturally occurring testosterone were changed. Mann also poses Caitlin Fisher, Daniel Marin Medina, Chun Mei Tan, and Eva Maria Jost in the stadia in Athens and Berlin and inserts them Zelig-like into archival footage. Such gambits give proceedings an avant-garde aura, but the fascination lies in the way patriarchal hierarchies have sought to distort the history of sport.

Riley - Having racked up 10 shorts since 2015, feature first-timer Benjamin Howard draws on his own experiences as a high school athlete in this sincere, if somewhat predictable rite of passage.

Dakota Riley (Jack Holley) has a lot on his mind. He's the star player of the school gridiron team that is coached by his father, Carson (Rib Hillis), who has been forced to live vicariously through his son after his own career had been wrecked by injury. With colleges lining up to offer the scholarships that could lead to him turning pro, Dakota is also under pressure from longtime gal pal, Skylar Braxton (Riley Quinn Scott), to take things up a romantic notch. So, this is not a good time to start feeling attracted to Jaeden Galloway (Colin McCalla), the Black teammate who is sleeping on Dakota's bedroom floor because of problems at home.

Linking episodes together is a meet that Dakota has arranged online with Liam Hauser (Connor Storrie), an older man who just wants some uncomplicated fun rather than a counselling session with a mixed-up kid questioning his sexuality. The situations are all the more authentic for being so normal and Howard avoids melodrama and tidy resolutions. But, even though he deftly defines the laddish environment and outlines the injustice of the fact that Dakota will be compelled to sacrifice his dream by coming out, the story lacks grit. For all his earnestness, 27 year-old Holley also feels too old for the role and lacks nuance when expressing angst and emotion in key scenes.

Completing the Bodies roster are D.W. Waterson's Backspot; Clare Cooney's Departing Seniors; Kip Andersen and Chris O'Connell's Join the Club; Rose Glass's Love Lies Bleeding; Sacha Polak's Silver Haze; Marija Kavtaradze's Slow; Zacharias Mavroeidis's The Summer With Carmen; and Marek Kozakiewicz's We Are Perfect.


Chasing Chasing Amy - In 2018, Sav Rodgers gave a TED talk entitled, `The romcom that saved my life'. Despite being part of the Criterion Collection, Kevin Smith's third feature, Chasing Amy (1997), is less gratefully recalled within certain quarters of the LGBTQIA+ community, as several critics, programmers, and film-makers inform Rodgers in his debut documentary.

By a quirk of fate, this awestruck fan letter and a straight man's flawed insights into sexual fluidity have at their centre lesbians who fall for men. Well, sort of, as the bisexual woman played by Joey Lauren Adams dates Ben Affleck's cis-het comic-book artist, while Riley Rodgers started out in a lesbian relationship with Sav before marrying him as a trans man. Consequently, this is not just a treatise on Chasing Amy's individual influence and wider cultural legacy, it's also the chronicle of a journey that generates several personal revelations.

Guinevere Turner, whose `romantic friendship' with producer Scott Mosier had prompted Smith to write the screenplay admits that she has struggled to make peace with a film in which she cameos. But she's still frustrated by the fact that Smith found a post-Clerks niche in Hollywood, while she and director Rose Troche were spurned by homophobic and misogynist studio executives after making the equally significant New Queer indie, Go Fish (both 1994).

As the star of Mallrats (1995) and Smith's former partner, Adams also saw aspects of her life on screen that made her feel uncomfortable. Indeed, she shocks Rodgers with both her frank disclosures about the bad associations the film that he adores has for her and her lingering regrets about promoting the film for Miramax at the very Sundance Film Festival that gave rise to Rose McGowan's accusation against Harvey Weinstein (who becomes a convenient villain of the piece almost as an afterthought). It's a powerful exchange, but Rodgers doesn't seem to know what to make of it or do with it.

Ultimately, he forms a bond with the street savvy Smith, who is touched by being entrusted with details of Rodgers's transition and thanks him for giving `me my movie back'. But, in feeling compelled to turn the camera on himself and Riley, Rodgers fails to follow up numerous leads that challenge his fanboy enthusiasm. Consequently, while this retains an endearing sweetness, it never really explains how Chasing Amy shaped Rodgers's identity and fails fully to appreciate the momentousness of the debate it has initiated.

The Queen of My Dreams - Following a number of shorts dating back to 2012, Fawzia Mizra makes her feature debut with this mother-daughter drama that plays out over three timeframes. The title comes from `Meri Sapno Ki Rani', a song in Shakti Samanta's Bollywood classic, Aradhana (1969), in which Rajesh Khanna plays both Sharmila Tagore's lost love and her estranged son. Mizra adopts a similar tactic, but the loose structuring leaves the flashbacks hanging along with the meaningful messages they are supposed to convey.

It's 1999 and Azra (Amrit Kaur) is studying in Toronto, but still hasn't got round to telling her conservative Muslim mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha), that she is living with her girlfriend. Doctor father Hassan (Hamza Haq) is more relaxed. But, when he dies while visiting family in Karachi, Azra has to fly out for the funeral with brother Zahid (Ali A. Kazmi). From the moment she lands, Azra feels resentful towards her mother. But flashbacks to 1969 reveal that the 22 year-old Mariam (played by Kaur) was also often at loggerheads with her own mother, Amira (Gul-e-Rana).

Mariam had fallen for Hassan while Amira was trying to matchmake her. They had pretended to be strangers when formally introduced and fibbed about staying in Pakistan, even though Hassan had already been offered a job in Canada. This sparks a series of flashbacks to 1989, where Mariam (played by Bucha) relies on the tweenage Amira (Gul-e-Rana) to help her sell tupperware in the hope of feeling less alien in her insular community. However, when Mariam almost catches Amira kissing her best friend at the end of her birthday party, their relationship changes forever.

Although offering some fascinating insights into Pakistani society in the Ayub Khan era, this is a standard issue saga, in which a once rebellious daughter turns into a reactionary mother. Nimra Bucha adeptly captures the sadness of a disappointed outsider, while Amrit Kaur plays her twin roles with contrasting spirit and resentment. Ayana Manji also has some nice moments, when she and a Jehovah's Witness classmate are required to push their desks into the corridor during Bible study. But, while the production design and costumes are splendid, the period shifts often feel unmotivated, with the consequence that it's never entirely clear how 1999 Azra is experiencing them and particularly how she comes to learn about her mother's ordeals.

Who'll Stop the Rain - The six-day Wild Lily student protest in March 1990 appears to be the inspiration for Su I-hsuan's debut feature. Arriving at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei, 19 year-old art student Chi-wei (Lily Lee) has been so cosseted by her mother (Huang Jou-min) that she seems a little naive to her classmates. She doesn't have a pager, while her dress sense is somewhat conventional. However, Chien Yung-hsing (Lee Ming-Che), the chair of the Fine Arts Department, takes against her free-spirited style and gives her work bad marks.

Chi-wei is not alone in being discriminated against, as students demanding to know why they must focus on Western Art are also being marked down. Eventually, Kuang (Roy Chang) calls a student strike, which is enthusiastically supported by his girlfriend, Ching (Yeh Hsiao-Fei), even though she's not a member of the Fine Art faculty. Initially, Chi-wei is reluctant to get involved, in case she gets into trouble. But she finds herself being drawn towards the enigmatic Ching, whose prominent role in the protest makes the insecure Kuang feel threatened.

With Chien refusing to compromise and his colleagues backing his right to award marks as he sees fit, Ching goes on hunger strike. However, as she and Chi-wei become tentative lovers, Ching is visited by her domineering politician father (Sean Liu) and Chi-wei is shocked to witness their abrasive confrontation.

Despite being played with earnestness, this is a rather dry treatise on creative freedom and independent thought. While the debates between the demonstrators and the academics might have bristled with social, generational, and cultural tension, the sides become so entrenched that the clashes feel repetitive and worthy rather than impassioned. The fault lies more in Su I-hsuan's screenplay than Chen Pei-ying's measured editing, but it doesn't help that the love triangle is somewhat two-sided because Kuang is such a cipher. The hesitancy between Chi-wei and Ching also saps the romance of any fervour, in spite of the sensitive performances of Lily Lee and Yeh Hsiao-Fei and the intimacy of Chen Chi-wen's 4:3 aspect ratio imagery.

Also showing is Apollo Bakopoulos's Aligned; Marion Pilowsky's Isla's Way; Tzeli Hadjidimitriou's Lesvia; Peter Nickowitz and Bill Oliver's Our Son; Onir's Pine Cone; Matías De Leis Correa's Since the Last Time We Met; Patiparn Boontarig's Solids By the Seashore; Noah Schamus's Summer Solstice; Sally El Hosaini and James Krishna Floyd's Unicorns; Jasmine Johnson's What's Safe, What's Gross, What's Selfish and What's Stupid; Kat Rohrer's What a Feeling; and Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert's Woman of...


Studio One Forever - Memories and emotions jostle with fun facts and fabulous footage in Marc Saltarelli's perfectly pitched documentary. Situated in West Hollywood, the unprepossessing building had been built by William Fox to house the Mitchell Camera Corporation, whose equipment was used by such screen pioneers as Charlie Chaplin and by the makers of the gay classic, The Wizard of Oz (1939).

In 1968, the premises were converted into The Factory, a short-lived nightclub that was acquired in 1974 by Boston optometrist Scott Forbes, who became `the Disco King' in creating a safe haven that became the hottest spot in town for gay men for the next 19 years. Despite African American Ernie Caruthers being a key investor, the venue operated a dismayingly racist door policy that required Black men to produce three forms of ID to gain admittance. A ban on open-toed shoes mean that women were also frowned upon, unless they were celebrities or Carol Taylor DiPietro, an employee at Disneyland who became Forbes's live-in gal pal and ran a concession stall at the club that sold everything from records and coke mirrors to poppers and lubes.

Bartenders Gary Mortimer and Michael Koth have fascinating tales to tell, as do regulars Lloyd Coleman, Gary Mortimer, Gary Steinberg, Ron Hamill, and John Duran who pay a sentimental journey to a structure that the latter is desperate to save from developers in his role as the mayor of West Hollywood. After all, it was the scene of two landmark movies, John Erman's Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn (1977) and Nancy Walker's Can't Stop the Music (1980), which is recalled by Felipe Rose, who was the original Indian in The Village People.

While the focus frequently falls on the reinforced dancefloor that prompted Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager to open Studio 54 in New York, Saltarelli is also rightly fascinated by The Backlot, the cabaret space that attraced the likes of Chita Rivera, Roslyn Kind, Thelma Houston, Sylvester, Divine, and Julie Budd. We hear how legends like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, and James Stewart were regular visitors and learn how Bette Davis was talked into introducing Geraldine Fitzgerald when she made her fabled return to Los Angeles.

Sadly, Studio One also found itself at the forefront of the AIDS crisis, with Melissa Rivers and Bruce Vilanch among those recalling the fundraisers that helped break the taboos surrounding HIV. There are also poignant tributes to those who were lost in the 1980s and beyond, including Forbes. While the commemoration is sincere, this slickly edited chronicle is primarily a celebration, whether it's archivist Natalie Garcia's discovery of thousands of supposedly lost slides of the club in its heyday or the clip of Elton John, Ann-Margret, Pete Townshend, and Diana Ross playing pinball at the party following the premiere of Ken Russell's Tommy (1975).

Rounding off the strand are Markus Stein's Baldiga - Unlocked Heart; Luis Alejandro Yero's Calls From Moscow; Appolain Siewe's Code of Fear; Chloé Robichaud's Days of Happiness; Jules Rosskam's Desire Lines; Stuart Pollitt's Don't Ever Stop; Yun Su-ik's Heavy Snow; Ila Mehrotra's India's 1st Best Trans Model Agency; Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel's Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero; Paul B. Preciado's Orlando, My Political Biography; Lola Arias's Reas; Jim Chuchu's Stories of Our Lives; Carolina Markowicz's Toll; Jeremy Borison's Unspoken; Karen Knox's We Forgot to Break Up; Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu's We Were Dangerous; and You Promised Me the Sea, which was co-directed by Nadir Moknèche, Naïla Guiguet, and Michael Barnes.

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