Emily Maskell


Looking back to move forward at BFI Flare 2022

This year’s BFI Flare Film Festival encouraged the LGBTQIA+ community to reflect on the past in order to build a better future.

The BFI Flare LGBTQIA+ Film Festival is back in-person for the first time since the pandemic halted cinemagoing. In its 36th iteration, the festival is keen to re-establish a queer togetherness through a programme of LGBTQIA+ high-profile and indie-budget titles that arrive after months of isolation. Bridging the context of current viewership with the arrival of new queer cinema releases, the theme of reflection is omnipresent through this year’s Flare programme.

The reflexive nature of this year’s documentaries, biopics and narrative features is multifaceted. Although they coalesce with a yearning to pause and reconsider ourselves, those around us and the communities we are a part of, the result of both recalibration and discovery is not homogenous. While some of these films were made pre-Covid, they take on new, pertinent meaning viewed in the current post-pandemic climate.

In isolation, the reflexive cinematic language that unites these festival titles is a direct response to the shared experience of pandemic-forced separation and contemplation as the future was uncertain. “A recurring theme in BFI Flare 2022 is the rediscovery of forgotten queer histories, and recognition of the LGBTQIA+ trailblazers whose pioneering work has so often gone overlooked,” Michael Blyth, BFI Flare’s Senior Programmer said about this year’s programme. “In reflecting on the past, we can better understand the present, appreciating how far we have come, whilst acknowledging how much is still left to do.”

Situated with the more prominent festival titles, like Alone Together and Girl Picture, is Terrence Davies’ exquisite biopic Benediction, a poetic portrait of famed British poet Siegfried Sassoon navigating love that dare not speak its name. As the film moves into its final act of sorrowful anguish, an older Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) lays down his pen to articulate a sentiment of lost acknowledgement. “I would have liked to have been recognised for my work, though. For some significant way for my work,” he tells his son in a sombre moment of deliberation. While the wartime poetry of Sassoon is a staple in British classrooms, knowledge of his sexuality (an important context) is not. It is this notion of forgotten queerness that is fundamental to this year’s programme.

Benediction is one of BFI Flare’s portraits of LGBTQIA+ historical figures that recontextualise the place queer individuals hold in cultural history. Esther Newton Made Me Gay, a documentary on the life and times study of the pioneering American cultural anthropologist known for her ethnography work on feminist and LGBTQIA+ communities, and Framing Agnes, a cast of trans actors use a talk show format to explore the legacy of a young trans woman’s experience in the 1950s UCLA gender clinic, both work to reassemble the past to contextualise the present. In centring the erased histories of LGBTQIA+ stories, these documentaries and archive material prove enriching formats for queer storytellers to explore histories of their own.

Esther Newton Made Me Gay and Framing Agnes reach into the past to illuminate forgotten stories and resonate on a personal level. This preservation of the LGBTQIA+ community are not only through individual figures, important places (Jacquie Lawrence’s Gateway Grind) and movements (Kevin Hegge’s TRAMPS!) are also the subjects of documentary work that recognises little-known queer history.

Ultraviolette and the Blood-Spitters Gang sees a similar act of unearthing a disintegrating archive. Robin Hunzinger’s documentary uncovers a long-hidden family secret: his grandmother’s lesbian lover, Marcelle. Over black and white grainy footage and photographs, the contents of the lovers’ letters are shared and a clandestine relationship is pieced together as Hunzinger makes sense of his family history. It is inescapable that this film arrives at a time when where viewers have experienced months absent of events resulting in flicking through old photo albums and digging through boxes of treasured family possessions to pass time, so these ruminations of self feel particularly timely.

No film captures this focused self-inquiry more than It Runs in the Family. The genesis of Victoria Linares’ film revolves around the discovery she is related to political pioneer filmmaker Oscar Torres. ​​“My childhood memories are disappearing. Photos. Videos. Stuffed toys,” Linares’ begins. Then comes the line that shatters this calmness: “My family, or the one I knew up until now, erased my cousin Oscar.” The deeper she delves into the life of the queer filmmaker the more self-reflective Linares becomes. In re-evaluating the past of her family she begins to question her own place in the unit. Inward-looking with metatextual resolve, It Runs in the Family is an account of identity meditation that is resoundingly profound, even for its personal specificity.

These ponderings of self-identification are also present in narrative features that revisit childhood (Bretten Hannam’s Wildhood) and mourn the multifaceted identities that went unknown (Elene Naveriani’s Wet Sand). The latter, in particular, draws on the emotional weight of reflecting in the time-pausing state of mourning. Wet Sand renders a catharsis through loss when Moe (Bebe Sesitashvili) returns to her native Georgian village to arrange her grandfather’s funeral to find he had a lover of twenty-two years, unbeknownst to her. A heartstring-tugging tale of loss and remembrance told with mesmerisingly poetic visuals, this film is led by performances that are restricted with the tautness of bottled up emotion. In learning more about a man she did not fully know, Moe keeps her grandfather alive in memory.

Like sunlight that shines through a prism and refracts into a rainbow of colours, this collection of queer storytellers, narratives and histories culminate in a cinematic trend of reflection that is far from homogenous, but united in the endeavours of dwelling on the past to make sense of the present. Looking back doesn’t always feel like the most productive step to take, yet this year’s Flare programme demonstrates the necessity of reflection for progression. Time (and the cinematic release schedule) will tell if this pandemic-forged consideration of recounting history in such a natural manner will continue to be a prevalent theme for LGBTQIA+ filmmakers and stories emerging from isolation.

Published 23 Mar 2022

Tags: BFI Flare

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