This year’s Iris Prize, Cardiff’s LGBT+ international film festival, took place over October 8th to 12th. And while circumstances meant that the festival felt very different to other years, there was still an extremely strong offering of British and international film.
Here are a few highlights from the short films, from both the British and the International shortlists. And while the winners—Better in the British Category, and Iris Prize winner Short Calf Muscle—are important, brilliant examples of the genre, this year’s festival, as with every year, has an array of short and feature length film sharing LGBTQ+ stories from around the world. And it is one bonus of the circumstances we find ourselves in that these films are available online in the UK until 31st October.
The Passing ★★★★, written and directed by Nichola Wong, is a moving look at a mortician having the most difficult of days when someone she knows is on her table. A beautiful fusing of the professional process and her emotional processing; we watch her move through the preparation of the body, dressing her, preparing her clothes, while mourning for the person she knew. Seen in flashbacks, Wong creates an intimate portrait of a life not lived and the reunion in death. What this film, which is beautifully and sensitively shot, also depicts is an honest, but not graphic, look at the behind-closed doors moments of death. For that alone is it a powerful piece, but Wong infuses it with a far deeper emotional resonance.
Queens ★★★, directed by Nick Bechman, is a slow burn with a beautiful emotional payoff. We follow Michael from his place of work, taking the journey on the bus and across town, to a small club. There we see him preparing for a performance. Following him learning how to apply drag make up, and ready himself for performance in a quietly intimate scene. The film concludes with a powerful message about family, chosen and otherwise.
Wings ★★★★★, directed and co-written by Jamie Weston and co-writer Carla Fraser, is a love story spanning several decades. Beginning in World War II, we see two women working as Land Girls form a bond. Evolving into something more while one woman’s husband is away, and ending in a devastating moment where he returns and the other is (quite literally) shut out. Stunningly shot and evocative of the era, with beautiful period costumes and sets it’s a sad lament for a different time. The second half of the film picks up decades later, with the women finding themselves in the same retirement home. And as marriage becomes legal for same-sex couples in the UK, they finally get the ending to their story they had waited for. The film reminds an audience of the real weight of Civil Partnerships, and same-sex marriage and what it meant to those who had waited so long.
Better ★★★★, directed by Michael J Fearns and written by Lucy Heath, explores the choices of a parent when her child is bullied for exploring his gender identity. While at home she embraces Max’s explorations of gender; they watch a RuPaul’s Drag Race-esque show together, she paints his nails, defends his haircut to her mum, she also becomes increasingly concerned about the bullying Max faces. And when offered the chance to ‘fix’ him with a medical procedure his mother confronts the ethical dilemma of whether ‘fixing’ him is the best choice. A dark, and ultimately sad look at the idea of conformity, fitting in and the question of what is ‘better’, this is as much a warning in a film as it is unsettlingly and depressing an outlook.
In Iris’ International selection, Victoria ★★★★, directed by Daniel Toldeo Saura, is a beautiful—in every sense of the word—meeting between a married couple after one of them has transitioned. Shot in a flower shop, with exquisitely framed shots that are rich and opulent to look at, and against which the subtle but powerful exchanges between the couple take place. Named for the Victoria Amazónica, which is the only plant capable of changing shape and sex, this film is an important but accessible work likely to spark vital conversations about the impact and emotions around transitioning told in a slice of one couple’s life.
On My Way ★★★, written and directed by Sonam Larcin, perfectly illustrates how much ground can be covered in short film. It combines elements of politics, local and personal discrimination alongside a deconstruction of a relationship. The unexpected arrival of a Nigerian migrant in the Belgian countryside shakes up the fragile daily life of two men in a secret relationship. While one young man reaches out to care for the visitor who is injured, his boyfriend—who also has a wife—reaches a breaking point in their relationship. It’s a hard watch, and one that bumps up the politics of the Nigerian gay man with the relative freedom of the young man in Belgium whom he meets. Meanwhile the destructive feeling, and ultimately doomed relationship as a backdrop, add a poignant emotional dimension.
Boys (Banim) ★★★★, written and directed by Lior Soroka, is a coming of age exploration that focuses on a mother-son relationship. While 17 year-old Nadav wants to serve in a combat regiment for his army service, his mother disapproves. He explores a relationship with one of the instructors connected to his military training, and this exploration becomes an apt metaphor for his bushing boundaries and attempting to find out who he is away from his family. His mother letting him go, and signing the forms for the combat unit represent an embracing of that element from her also. A quiet and unassuming film, with equally quiet and assured performances. An engaging and ultimately affirming watch.
Short Calf Muscle (Korte Kuitspier) ★★★★★, written and directed by Victoria Warmerdam, was this year’s Iris Prize winner. It is a surreal, slightly unsettling, dark comedy from the Netherlands. Anders is very at home with his gay identity, as is everyone else around him. But as his parents say when he sits down with them, ‘We knew this day would come’, because also…Anders is a gnome and he’s having a hard time accepting it. It’s a absurdist comedy with a dash of dry humour mixed in. Once you lean into the premise it’s both hilarious and unsettling in equal measure. A great metaphor for acceptance, with a plethora of jokes about ‘getting additional funding’ for Anders, and the idea that his partner finds his other minority status attractive. The engaging performances make for a compelling watch and the humour—apparently fairly particular to the region—really lands even in translation.
Credit should be given to the festival organisers who managed to do such amazing things by taking Iris online and making the films accessible to anyone in the UK with an Internet connection, while also continuing to provide Q&As and a daily Interval programme. With a bit of innovation and a lot of hard work in these trying times, Iris kept this incredibly important festival going as the LGBTQ+ community continues to need representation and to be heard.
By Dr. Emily Garside
For more details on how to watch these films online in the UK until October 31st head to the Iris Prize website.