Films are us – Queer Screen films represent the under-represented
It is not our imagination. Things have changed. You no longer have to wait weeks, even years, to see LGBTQI people on screen. Cinema, video, television, desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile, downloaded or real-time streaming. It does not matter; we’re here, there and everywhere.
Within reason. If a film is to change your view of the world, chances are it will screen at a specialist film festival. The 2017 Queer Screen Film Festival (QSFF) drew over 4,000 people, with 14 features, six shorts, one filmmaker event, nine sold-out sessions, nine Australian premieres, three free screenings, one outdoor screening and five festival guests. QSFF called it “a week of moving, uplifting and diverse queer stories that celebrate our community”.
I saw Desert Hearts in the mid-1980s, a lesbian classic set in Reno Nevada, where a straight-laced university professor falls for the much less inhibited ranch owner’s daughter. They do not stay together but they do not die. I could not forget Patricia Charbonneau for quite some time and was genuinely confused by how much the film moved me.
I have since looked to gay and particularly lesbian films for people I can relate to (not necessarily like), and bemoan the number of times they ended unhappily. One of the women dies, another has misgivings, a husband intervenes, parents thwart any potential relationship, or the couple simply drifts apart.
Queer Screen’s 2017 films, while not rhapsodically happy, at least avoided total angst. There was unrequited love and misunderstanding (Seventeen), reconciliation and regret about the past (Sisterhood), a new and open attraction for a 16- year-old while visiting her famous novelist aunt in Chicago (Princess Cyd) and a rousing documentary about a Mexican diva who perhaps apocryphally was thought to have slept with every woman in her home country (Chavela).
Before they are shown, however, films must be made, and then chosen and programmed. This falls to festival directors, curators of images that tell the stories, open minds, ears and eyes, to our embodied fears and joy. Talking to current Queer Screen director Lisa Rose (appointed May 2017) and her predecessor Paul Struthers you realise how seriously they take their responsibility. (In keeping with City Chronicler, there is a non-exclusive city focus.)
What attracts you to a film and does this include depictions of a city?
Cities have an influence over any range of films I would see but I would not only want urban stories, especially if you have two relatively similar films set in the same environment and even the same city. I would not select films only set in New York, for instance. You’d look for a different environment, say, to Chicago or the country or on the plains. We want diverse films and stories so do not want films just from America or from English-language speaking countries.
But you can only program what gets made. A lot of the European films are not set in an urban environment but in country areas, whereas films from Asian countries are very urban. As are films generally from English-language speaking countries, though Australian films might also have an element of road movie where they go to the outback or a country town.
Does a film sometimes call out to you that you must get that film?
Yes, if it really moves me and is something I find engaging. You watch hundreds of films and they are often repetitive. While there are many stories that people may think are unique, they are not when you are watching as many films as I have done.
I was part of the film festival programming team for several years, watching around 80 to 90 films a year to give feedback to the director and help choose the features. I have only been director since June (2017) and have already watched 74 features (the main interview was in early September with updates since) and that means I am a bit behind hand. I must watch at least 200 features for the Mardi Gras Film Festival. I’m very excited because 2018 marks 25 years of the festival.
Where have you lived and what resonates with you?
I am from Hobart. Water is probably the key thing that links Hobart and Sydney. I am not someone who enjoys going to the beach at all. I’ve often thought I should have moved to Melbourne and not Sydney, but I do like knowing that the ocean and water are nearby. I grew up in a house on the eastern shore of the Derwent River, so I could see the water from my house in high school. Water was always there and that is something I like. When I travelled in America and went inland I felt weird because the ocean was so far away.
Both Hobart and Sydney have quite similar sandstone buildings. Sydney, of course, is a very large city but I do not travel across it that often. I don’t spend much time outside the inner west and inner east. I live in Marrickville, a very particular type of Sydney, so when I do, for some reason, go further out, such as to Auburn, Hurstville or Blacktown, I realise just how different it is from the inner west. Then I think about growing up in Hobart and what a small town it is in comparison. Yet I would rather live in Hobart than in the outskirts of Sydney because the traffic is amazing, not helped by having a giant harbour in the middle. The infrastructure is inadequate, the planning and everything.
I went to Las Vegas once for a night though it is not my cup of tea. I’m glad I went though. I really love New York. It is the city I have wanted to go to more than any other in my life and it took me 37 years to get there (she was almost 40 at the time of our interview). I eventually went by myself for 10 days. There are more films set in New York than any other place in the world, and I have watched so many of them, but New York still exceeded my expectations. People say it is the city that never sleeps and, literally, it is the city that never sleeps. You can do something at any hour of the day or night. It has an energy that is really appealing. I felt safe when I was there. I loved the public transport, just being able to catch the subway and how the lines all connect.
The blocks are so small you can walk 12 blocks and not feel like you are walking. I just loved it and would move there in a second (if I could). Yet friends have moved there and been disappointed. It’s a bit of a hard town. People are friendly, give you a lot of help and answer questions, but I have heard it is difficult to make friendships in New York. So many people move there, trying to get a break, make their life and all that sort of stuff.
Recent films she has liked
At the 2017 festival, I liked After Louis, which was set in New York. It’s about an artist who has a lot of pent up grief about the people he lost during the AIDS crisis. He connects with a younger gay guy who is very open. Although a lot of films have been made about HIV and AIDS, I found this one incredibly engaging because it’s intergenerational, and confronts what young gay men are doing now and asks are they aware of what happened before then. The performances are excellent.
I have been associated with Queen Screen for five years. QSFF17 featured our first mixed gender and sexuality comedy shorts package, which was a lot of fun with much laughter and positive feedback. I am really pleased, from a curatorial aspect, with how that and the whole festival was received.
We had been asked about comedies more than anything else. People could do with more laughter, so I sought out films for the package.
I also thought Sisterhood was an interesting film, a contrast of cities seen through the eyes of two women, good friends, former masseuses who drift apart. The film is funded by Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. It starts in Taiwan, then has flashbacks to Macau and its return to China from Portuguese control in 1999. “This is no longer the Macau I know,” says one of the characters as she visits the city after nearly two decades away, and sees it in its new status as the Las Vegas of Asia.
Of the 2017 Festival films, Dream Boat about a cruise for gay men was a conversation starter. Our programming team loved it. It covers a gamut of men with different backgrounds, races and abilities. A few of the team said they found it entertaining and it made them think about who they find attractive, who they want to pick up in a room. It made them think about things at a deeper level and I hope it started some conversations with themselves, internal and external conversations.
(Though not in the Festival), I adore Moonlight, which won best film at the Oscars. It’s a perfectly realised film about a guy growing up in the ‘hood in Miami, told in three different chapters, where he is at ages 8, 17 and 24. It is about internalised homophobia and hyper masculinity.
Paul (Struthers) was pleased we had more Asian films in 2016 and I was consciously looking for Asian films in 2017. For a film festival that exists in a predominantly Anglo-Saxon country, we probably show more Asian films than any other queer festival. For instance, they do not get shown as often in America, but with our proximity to Asia and a large Asian population, it is good to see Asian films and faces on our screens. We absolutely seek them out. We also had a panel session with directors from the Asia Pacific Queer Film Festival Alliance (APQFFA), and it was packed.
APQFFA is a collective of regional film festivals. It was founded in 2015 in Taipei, and aims to support and promote films and filmmakers from across the region and push for greater international visibility for Asia-Pacific queer cinema. Its members are:
Love Queer Cinema Week (China) ShanghaiPRIDE Film Festival (China) Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (HKLGFF) Taiwan International Queer Film Festival (TIQFF) Mardi Gras Film Festival (Australia) &Proud Yangon Queer Film Festival (Myanmar) Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (Japan) Bangkok Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (Thailand) Q! Film Festival (Indonesia) Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival (USA) and Korea Queer Film Festival)
Film study at the customer coalface
I have always been very into film. I was not sure what type of film I wanted to study or exactly how to go about it. Instead, I worked in video stores for nearly 10 years along with various other jobs. I started the first gay section (“pink-shelved” as Queer Screen calls it) in a Blockbuster store. I have always been very dedicated to queer stories being told on screen. It’s how I got, and still get, my entertainment so having had five years of thousands and thousands of hours of watching film, to be able to do that for a living and making that happen as a career is a dream come true.
Next year is the 25th of the Mardi Gras Film Festival and we are polling the top 25 films of all time. You will be able to do it online at queerscreen.com.au. You may have a film that helped you come out. So many people do. Mine probably is When Night Is Falling. (Patricia Rozema’s film has an uptight woman, working on tenure as a literacy professor at a large urban university, attracted to a free-spirited woman who works at a local carnival that comes to town.)
I watched the film with my boyfriend at the time when I was working at the video store. We rented the video, watched it, he left for the night and I watched it again. We broke up not long afterwards and I did not have another boyfriend. So that is quite an important film to me.
Heritage of the films influential to her
I thought Love and Other Catastrophes with Radha Mitchell and Frances O’Connor as two film-school students trying to find love, was a great film.
It makes me feel good and I could watch it again and again because it was a rom com. So many people want a rom com and yet there are so few good queer rom coms. I remember Saving Face 2004 (a Chinese-American lesbian and her traditionalist mother have secret loves that transgress their culture). Joan Chen was the mother and she was popular here at the time.
Another film I like is It’s in the Water. It’s a low-budget film (from 1997), set in Azalea Springs, a small town somewhere in Texas. It’s ultra-daggy and hilarious. A camp gay guy gets drunk at some Republican gathering and says to some people that gayness is in the water. It then becomes a big scandal with people shipping their water in and not drinking tap water.
I also like it that one of the lead characters is a lesbian and the other is a gay man. There’s also a subgroup of bisexual women and another gay man. It’s rare that narrative films are made that feature gay men and lesbians. They are very much separated, yet I know that is not what my life is like. I’ve lived with a gay man. It does not get explored enough.
Better than Chocolate was daggy too. (Set in Vancouver, two young lesbians have a passionate romance, move in together but things get complicated when the recently divorced mother of one of them stays with them.)
What most pleases her about the 2018 program?
We have the most played lesbian film on the LGBQI Film Festival circuit 2017, Signature Move, (a 30-something Pakistani, Muslim, lesbian in Chicago who takes care of her TV-obsessed mother falls in love with a lively Mexican woman, leading to some important soul-searching), and a Sundance Award Winner in Beach Rats. We also have the debut screening of Australian supernatural web series, Jade of Death, which was a previous recipient of the Queer Screen Completion Fund, and the National Film and Sound Archive restoration of Witches and Faggots, Poofters and Dykes, which is arguably the most important queer documentary in Australian history and a testament to the strength of the 78ers in the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras.
More background on Lisa Rose: The Queer Screen website states: Lisa is a “passionate believer in giving voice to all forms of queer entertainment, and is focused on showcasing and championing diversity. She increased the number of women on the Queer Screen Board, the volunteers, members and audiences, the lesbian content and has hosted and participated in panels and forums including the Lesbian Filmmakers Forum, Trends in LGBTQI Cinema and for popular web-based lesbian drama, Starting From… Now!
On her appointment as director, Lisa said: “I am deeply passionate about realising Queer Screen’s mission to transform and engage individuals and communities through queer storytelling on screen and am thoroughly motivated to continue to build on the fantastic growth, success, direction and sustainability that former Festival Director Paul Struthers, the Queer Screen Board and greater team have achieved over recent years”.
I had heard Paul many times introducing films and their directors and cast at festival screenings but first interviewed him in 2016 in the rambunctious Queen Screen office. A year later, we chatted again over his home-made, Tupperware-packed, salad, in the more sedate Sydney Film Festival offices. Exhausted from back-to-back festivals, he was set to move on with his younger, Australian-Chinese partner, who was wanting to live somewhere else.
Having connections that click for you
In London, I was a marketing executive for four years. I also worked at film distribution, which I found quite stressful in the UK. Films open on a Friday, so I would always be nervous on Mondays about whether the sales campaign was a success.
I looked after a mixture of films, not all commercial; there were some Aussie films. I particularly loved Jindabyne.
I quit and came to Australia. I had studied media arts at Royal Holloway University in London. I am not a career person. I find office jobs quite stifling. I just came to Sydney. My brother lives here and people from school and university, and from my time in London.
I’ve always been very good at networking though I hate that term. I don’t care what the job is; I just care that they have values. Because I’ve always been good at talking to people, I met up with a guy soon after I arrived here, and had about 10 contacts I was supposed to meet with, given to me by people in London. I contacted them. My friend had gone to the Cook Islands, so I went there expecting to spend a month.
But when I got there and checked my email, one of the people I was supposed to be having a meeting with said the head of transmission films had had lunch with the director of the Sydney Film Festival and there was a job going in marketing. I sent my CV the next day, had an interview and two days later I started. So, my work history in London was important. (He was 28 when he got here; 35 at the time of the interview with me).
My job was as a marketing assistant and that suited me as I did not want any accountability. However, after a few weeks they changed my title, and I became marketing manager promotions, which helped me build up a marketing reputation. Someone then approached me, saying ‘queer screen needs help’, so I joined them, doing marketing and programming. Then the job came up (in 2014) as Queer Screen director and I applied for it, and got it. So that’s the history.
Building on a film legacy
I came for a change of scene. I had always wanted to live somewhere else and wanted blue skies and beaches. I did not come here particularly for the arts and culture, because I had had my fill of that in London. But Sydney is a place that’s grown on me. You can’t beat the lifestyle. I live in the city and also love to live by the sea. All my friends are nearby. I’ve lived in South Newtown and Enmore. When I first came to Sydney I lived in Surry Hills and Redfern. At university I lived in Egham, Surry, where my university was (Paul has a Bachelor of Arts from Royal Holloway University) but I then lived in across London, in New Cross in the South-East, and then north in Tufnell Park and Stoke Newington.
It is important that there is something for everyone at the festival. Diversity is so important, with quality films with people from different walks of life, from different countries. Showing films from Asia-Pacific is very important. Often, we feel the oppressor, and are very racist. We have our type, what we are fed by the media about what’s good looking. There’s too much of a hierarchy but we keep on fighting, keep going. I want to give back to society and have been fortunate enough to be able to do that. (Paul is Scottish. His mum works in hospitals and his dad is a professor of economics.)
How important was his sexuality to the Queen Screen role?
It’s so funny because before doing that job, although I’m a gay man, sexuality was such a small part of who I am. My life changed a bit after I got the Queer Screen job because I had to go to LGBTQI events and you’re representing an LGBTQI organisation. That became important because with Queen Screen you can make a difference especially with younger people who need support. They need to see stuff that shows gay life in a positive light, so they feel comfortable coming out.
Films that have stood out for me include Reaching for the Moon, a love story of an American poet (played by Miranda Otto) and a Brazilian architect, and Pride, a wonderful film about a group of gay activists in London in the 1980s who end up raising money for miners who initially don’t want to be associated with gays. But the two groups of minorities come together and it’s a beautiful story.
And where to now?
I did not manage to speak with Paul again. He flew out at the end of November for his latest job, the newly appointed director of exhibition and programming of Frameline, which includes the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, which celebrates its 42nd anniversary. June 14-24, 2018. Back in 2014, Queer-Screen sponsored his attendance at Frameline so it is almost like a homecoming.Screendaily.com reported Frameline board president Michael Colaneri praising Paul’s “collaborative skills to link audiences and partners alike in building support for the exhibition of queer media across multiples platforms. Paul is an authentic communicator.”
“I’m thrilled to be joining Frameline,” Paul said. “(It) is an organisation that has always inspired me in their world-leading approach to showcasing queer cinema.”
Mardi Gras Film Festival, Feb 15 – Mar 1, 2018 and Queer Screen Film Fest, Sept 2018.