a celebration of queer cinema

From "Moonlight" winning Best Picture at the Oscars to Netflix releasing important documentaries like "The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson," queerness in film has never been better represented than right now. We spoke with three curators of LGBTQ...

by i-D Staff and Ben Reardon
11 July 2017, 2:05pm

the leather boys

This article was originally published by i-D UK. 

"IT CHANGES EVERYTHING," tweeted the team behind Moonlight following their history making journey to winning the Best Picture Oscar in 2017. The magnificent movie broke barriers as both the first film focused on an LGBTQ character and the first movie with a non-white cast to win the zenith of an accolade. In its wake, big waves are set to follow throughout 2017. These include the heartbreakingly beautiful, cross-generational love story Call Me By Your Name, which stars Armie Hammer and Hedi Slimane's favorite monobrowed actor Timothee Chalamet; the Netflix distributed The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, which tells the tragic tale of the respected transgender legend (considered by many to be the Rosa Parks of the LGBT movement), and the BFI-backed and critically acclaimed God's Own Country, with its no holds barred muddy man-on-man action among the Yorkshire Dales that's already earning itself the astonishing accolade of "the British Brokeback Mountain". But alternative and queer cinema has existed for a long time — you just had to know the signals, read the signs, learn the polari, and dig deep to find where the ground lines laid.

This summer sees the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in Britain, and marks a before and after watershed moment for queerness in film and TV. Before this, people found solace in codes and stolen moments, including the sexy bikers of The Leather Boys or in South, thought to be the earliest surviving British TV drama with a gay theme. Broadcast in 1959, South was screened live over 80 minutes and starred Peter Wyngarde as an exiled Polish soldier in love with a fellow officer. It was subversive and shocking at the time, with Wyngarde receiving a bop on the head from an offended pair of handbag wielding grannies. But it is Victim (1961) that is the iconic movie moment that really helped to change people's opinions of homosexuality. Some might even argue it played an integral part in changing the law. 

The people who made Victim were supportive of the Wolfenden report that recommended homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offense. Gay men were vulnerable to blackmail at the time and Victim took a thriller format as easy access for the public to empathize with the protagonist, played by Dirk Bogarde. Bogarde was a huge star of the times and he put his neck fully on the line by taking the role. Without him, the film may never have been made. So we must be grateful for his bravery, which helped people start discussing the subject (even if in hushed tones).

Just when you think you've seen it all, another gem falls into the LGBTQ canon in the form of David Is Homosexual, recently saved by the archivists at the BFI. David Is Homosexual was made in 1976 by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, essentially crowdfunded at the time by the gay men and lesbians from the Lewisham branch of CHE. Filmed on Super 8 over one summer, it tells a narrative of David's coming out, isolated at work and home, he discovers CHE and soon finds friends, then a lover, before happily marching at one of the earliest pride celebrations. A really important document of the time, the film was found in the attic of the cameraman and is exactly the sort of thing that could've been thrown in a skip and lost forevermore were it not for the brilliant BFI.

In 1991, Channel 4 aired a jolting shock to small screen convention with a season of television called BANNED. The pioneering juncture was a celebration of work previously off limits for cinema and television consumption as it was deemed too offensive. The billing was provocative, subversive, taboo, disgusting, sexy, and completely inspiring, and over the three-week period, the station spat in the face of programing conformity — so much so, the entire event almost never happened. Seen here were works of brutality, bravery, and beauty (which shaped my taste forevermore).  

When I first encountered Un Chant D'Amour, which introduced me to the wonderful worlds of Jean Genet and Jean Cocteau, David Hoyle burst onto screen in a political smudge of makeup and vitriol the next night, followed quite radically by the magical library of Derek Jarman. Since that very moment my tiny mind was blown open and I was forever attuned to "the other," gravitating towards films that equally confounded and amazed. Luckily, this feeling of confusion and excitement that I found at 12-years-old, watching Channel 4 in my pre-teen bedroom, continues thanks to the archivists and curators currently working behind the scenes in your local art house cinema, movie club, or film institute. From Oscar Wilde to Pier Paolo Pasolini, Andy Warhol to Quentin Crisp, John Maybury to Joe Orton, Rainer Werner Fassbinder to John Waters, Gus Van Sant to Xavier Dolan, the lineage is there to trace — but for extra guidance we spoke to those in the know.

Simon McCallum, BFI

Cinema is a transportive experience. When, where, why, and how did you first become aware of the power of film?
There were earlier experiences but one that sticks in my mind is seeing Death Becomes Her when it first came out at the old 30s fleapit round the corner from home. I was a very morbid child, so the combo of very dark humor for a mainstream film and extreme camp was irresistible. Plus Meryl doing comedy is always a treat. When Bruce Willis pushes her down the stairs I was beside myself. I don't remember anyone else laughing as loudly. I still love that film, but then don't we all?

What was the first movie that blew your mind and changed your world?
The Wizard of Oz. Explains a lot.

What has been your career highlight to date?
To lead on the BFI's LGBT50 project and our two month Gross Indecency season at BFI Southbank has been a real privilege, as it's marking a really important anniversary and film and TV were an important part of that slow journey towards equal rights. 

Can cinema be a vehicle for change?
Of course. A classic example is Victim, which was released in 1961 and had a direct impact on the public debate around homosexuality, which had been getting pretty frenzied. The fact a major star like Dirk Bogarde was appearing in a film as a closeted married man was unprecedented. Gay men hadn't seen themselves sympathetically on screen before so it changed lives. The word homosexuality hadn't even been uttered in a mainstream film before — how radical is that! We've got an extended run of the film as part of our season and it's a must see for all young queers who want to learn about their history.

How important is politics in your work?
Every decision you make as a curator is political in some way — whether you're putting together a film season, an art exhibition, or whatever. It's particularly important with the Gross Indecency season as it's a chance to shine a light on how queer lives were represented at a pivotal time in that struggle for equality. Trying to represent more marginalized members of the LGBT community is tricky when we're dealing with films from the 60s and 70s, a time when any depiction of non-straight life was radical. But there are isolated examples from this period that pushed the boundaries in terms of depicting trans and people of color.

Benjamin Collins, The VITO Project

What was the first movie that blew your mind and changed your world?
The Wizard of Oz, of course, on 1950s US TV, and it wasn't even in color. As an aspiring young gay man in 1967 I snuck off Stanford campus, alone, to see my first Andy Warhol movies, The Nude Restaurant and Tub Girls. They blew my mind. Viva Superstar was amazing, sitting in the tub, interviewing people and tearing apart her false eyelashes! In another completely different way Scorsese's Il Mi Viaggio (My Voyage to Italy) did too. All those images from 50s and 60s neorealist films coming back to me. It was quite like the little boy/adult man's experience in Cinema Paradiso.

How did you become involved in working in film?
The VITO project came from a dinner at friends in London where a young, smart queer studies graduate told us elders he'd never seen All About Eve and sneered at the concept of camp. (I'd done quite the same thing with a bunch of older gay men when I was 20 in San Francisco, ha.) VITO was launched that night as a project to encourage dialogue between younger and older LGBTQIs. It's been the funnest project I've ever done, with a group of lesbian and gay men working with films we love.

Day to day, how do you do the things you do?
I surround myself with challenging, brilliant comrades. I've been blessed with great collaborators my entire life. ReShape is an independent, radical London-based think tank formed to respond to the ongoing crisis in sexual health by reinvigorating our community responses to HIV, hepatitis C, and related sexual, and mental health concerns. Our work provides meaning.

What has been your career highlight to date?
I'm still alive. I've been HIV+ since 1981. I've been lucky enough to never have spent an HIV night in hospital. Treatment works. And I've had an amazing husband for 25 years! He loves his art as much as I love politics. Isn't there a linkage?

Can cinema be a vehicle for change?
I think cinema can reflect change. And it's infectious. I think the rest is up to us. Individual film directors can be amazing activists. Look at Asghar Farhadi in Iran.

How important is politics in your work?
Without politics I'd probably be dead now. I "retired" with AIDS in 1998, but went on life-saving treatment. Instead of fading away, I moved to London in 2000. I've never been more politically active in my life.

In 2017, where do you find truth and sincerity in cinema?
On TV long-form series. But also re-watching older queer movies at VITO with people who've never seen them. Moonlight was definitely a 2017 sincerity.

Claire Vaughn, Chapter Arts Center

Cinema is a transportive experience. When, where, why, and how did you first become aware of the power of film?
My first memory was of Star Wars. I had a recurring dream that I was Princess Leia having to choose between Alderaan and Dantooine. I remember waking up in my crib after that dream. I thought it was terrifying.

What was the first movie that blew your mind and changed your world?
I crept downstairs at Christmas when I was seven because I couldn't sleep, turned on the TV, and found Hitchcock's Vertigo. My mom must've heard me as she came down in a bit and we watched the rest of the film together. I was just mesmerized. I'd never seen a film like that and I started seeking out cinema that would make me feel the uneasy, fascinated feeling I had watching that.

Day to day, how do you do the things you do?
Programing is lots of different jobs rolled into one. You have to wear a lot of different hats at the same time. When watching a film you have to think critically about it, think who would want to see it and why — specifically asking if Chapter's audience would enjoy it. If you believe in the film and want people to see it anyway, is it worth developing an audience for the film (which takes some long-term planning and a lot of work).

Can cinema be a vehicle for change?
 I watched Moonlight again only last night, and the final scenes particularly still give me butterflies. The idea that men around the world can watch Moonlight and go through that experience with the character of Chiron gives me such hope that we can start to pick apart toxic masculinity. I don't know how you can watch a film as moving as Moonlight and not come out changed. Even the hardest hearts must melt.

How important is politics in your work?
As programers we have to walk a fine line where we show films that help the audience open their minds to new ideas while at the same time not be preachy. Films like the upcoming Loveless by director Andrey Zvyagintsev is a far more useful and rich look at the malaise of modern day Russia than a straight documentary. But then a documentary like Campaign of Hate is important because it shows real LGBTQ people bravely telling their stories about what it is like to live under Putin — equally powerful, but in a different way. It's important to bring a mix of both approaches so the audience is educated but doesn't feel bashed on the head by political films.

In 2017, where do you find truth and sincerity in cinema?
Truth and sincerity comes in all kinds of guises. I've used Loveless and Campaign of Hate to describe different approaches to getting to an essential truth about an issue. And the wonderful thing about cinema in 2017 is that I could show you countless more examples. It's a rich industry at the moment with all kinds of voices getting their chance to be heard. When I was programing for our LGBT50 season, I was incredibly frustrated that there were not films about the experience of being a lesbian in pre-Wolfenden Britain, but then women (especially queer women) have barely had their voices heard in the history of cinema. Although this is slowly changing. 

Where is your favorite cinema in the world and why?
I have a special place in my heart for the Cinemes Verdi in the Gracia area of Barcelona because it was the first place I went regularly to an non-multiplex cinema, so it feels magical every time I go. They do a great job of keeping film culture alive in an exciting city.


Text Ben Reardon 

queer cinema
Semana do Orgulho 2018
chapel arts centre
the vito project