Articles - 4th April 2019

BFI Flare stands out as a resoundingly important celebration of queerness

Words by Jack King

Who would’ve thought that the next big eighties throwback would be Section 28? This is hyperbole to an extent, but the recent events in Birmingham and Manchester – where thousands of narrow-minded parents have pressured schools to cease LGBT-inclusive education – have served only to dismantle the ridiculous idea that the LGBT community have entered an age of post-liberation. You might argue that it’s a tiny minority with a big, gross mouth; after all, MPs recently voted in favour of LGBT-inclusive education from primary school onwards, with only twenty-one votes against.

But as made evident by the toxic climate in the north, homophobia still bubbles at the surface of our heteronormative society. So, as tragic as the impetus may be, it’s as urgent as ever to celebrate queerness. When I attended BFI Flare, Britain’s longest-running film festival, Birmingham took precedence in my mind, as with the many other attendees I spoke to.

The tour began with Halston: the third part in a trilogy of fashion documentaries directed by Frédéric Tcheng, the prior two being acclaimed looks at Christian Dior and Diana Vreeland.

The film jousts with the erasure of memory as much as it scrutinises tailors. By all rights, Roy Halston Frowick – an American fashion designer known for high-end, minimalist couture – should now be as famous as Gianni Versace, Calvin Klein or Coco Chanel. So why has his name never echoed past the dusty corridors of Mid-Atlantic fashion schools? Who born after the fall of the Berlin Wall has felt the spectre of his garments? Where is his retrospective exhibition, his iconic museum piece, his lasting totem?

Using a fictional narrator as his needle and thread, Tcheng interweaves scenes of narrative fiction with conventional talking heads to explore and expose the near-erased career of the man who designed Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, frequented New York City’s Studio 54 with Liza Minelli, and, at the height of his career, signed a $1-Billion-dollar contract with J.C. Penny. The end result is a fascinating, if somewhat solemn, celebration of an inspiring queer icon.

Another favourite was more of a ‘festival’ offering: Greta, a debutant at this year’s Berlinale, is a shining example of first-time filmmaking from Brazilian Armando Praca. Pedro (Marco Nanini), a seventy-year-old gay nurse, is brimming with aspiration, hopes and dreams. When not at the hospital, he nakedly navigates the dark rooms of gay bars. “Call me Greta Garbo,” he moans under a lusty, arduous breath to his much younger partners, his fetish evocative of the Golden Age starlet he so desires to be.

When Jean (Demick Lopes), an attractive young vagabond, is stabbed in a brawl and subsequently handcuffed to his hospital bed, Pedro smuggles him out to care for him at his apartment. What begins as an exploitative sexual exchange develops into a tender, passionate relationship.

The film’s ultimate proposition is that age does not dissolve aspiration or love by default – getting older is an unavoidable reality for us all, but the yearn to be wanted, to be necessary, and to be seen, continues to be ubiquitous. Praca’s compassionate, unabashedly queer lens breaks new ground and encourages us all to be a bit more considerate.

Unfortunately, not all was great. Knife + Heart, a Palme d’Or-nominated b-horror flick about a troupe of gay porn actors grisly offed one-by-one by a gimp-masked, dildo-knife wielding slasher reads fantastically on paper: it’s stylistically gorgeous (reminiscent of Dario Argento and the great pulp Giallo films) and has a great electro-synth soundtrack, but is paced so poorly that by the time of the deflated climax the spectacle feels laborious.

And Mapplethorpe, a biopic contending with the eponymous New York photographer who was iconic for his daring, provocative, phallic imagery, feels awfully inauthentic; the writing and direction coalescing into a concoction of dullness so strong that even a valiant Matt Smith performance can’t rescue the final product.

In many ways, it felt bizarre to rush from screening to screening, in typical festival fashion, given the worrying events up north. After all, as much as the film industry is an industry, and watching films constitutes my career, it’s still bloody fun – and how can you have fun when your rights are at risk?

But that’s where Flare is vital; as an unbridled, unashamed celebration of the diversity inherent to our queer identities, of same-sex love, and of our LGBT heroes who’ve shaped our very society and culture. By teaching us who have come before, and who is yet to come, the queer cinema heralded by Flare drowns out the noise of prejudice.

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