BFI Flare made a roaring return with first in-person fest in 3 years

The 36th BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival came to a close last weekend with the world premiere of Kevin Hegge’s vibrant and immersive celebration of the creative spirit of the New Romantics, Tramps! The high-spirited, sold out event, attended by Hegge and many of the film’s subjects, marked the end of a thrilling edition of one of the world’s most long-standing queer film events, held in-person at BFI Southbank for the first time since 2019.

A still from Kevin Hegge’s vibrant and immersive celebration of the creative spirit of the New Romantics, Tramps! Courtesy of BFI Flare.

Back in March 2020, like so many of my fellow queer cinema lovers, I was all packed up and ready to fly to London when the reality slowly dawned on me that I wasn’t going much further than my own NYC apartment for the foreseeable future. Then it was finally confirmed that that year’s Flare had been cancelled, with some elements moving to the BFI Player. It was of course the right thing to do, and the only option available to the festival organizers, but that didn’t make it any less disappointing for the filmmakers, programmers, and ticket holders. So, two years on, as I settled down into my plush seat on opening night on March 16th in the gorgeously renovated NFT1 and BFI Festivals Director Tricia Tuttle took to the stage alongside BFI Flare’s Senior Programmer Michael Blyth, it felt exhilarating and rather moving. Having attended pretty much every Flare over the past 25 years, it also felt like coming home.

Eleonoora Kauhanen, Aamu Milonoff, and Linnea Leino in Girl Picture by Alli Haapasalo. Photo by Ilkka Saastamoinen. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

One of the queer highlights at this year’s Sundance—and the winner of that festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award—Finnish filmmaker Alli Haapasalo’s coming of age drama Girl Picture/Tytöt tytöt tytöt was selected to kick off this year’s Flare. I’d already caught the film sitting alone in my living room (as the omicron surge had moved January’s Sundance online), but I was grateful of the chance to rewatch those three consecutive consequential Fridays filled with heightened teenage feelings of first love and self-discovery unfold all over again, this time on the big screen and in fine company. With plenty of humour along with the angst and a kinetic Euro-pop soundtrack, at the heart of the film is a trio of committed and captivating central performances by Aamu Milonoff, Eleonoora Kauhanen, and Linnea Leino. Then it was off to the swanky May Fair Hotel for the opening night party and some long overdue reunions with London’s queer film community.

Matt Carter’s steamy and romantic gay rugby flick In From The Side which received its world premiere at BFI Flare 2022 features a fantastic lead turn by Alexander Lincoln (centre). Courtesy of BFI Flare.

Blyth and his team of programmers—Grace Barber-Plentie (in her first year), Jay Bernard, Zorian Clayton, Brian Robinson, and Emma Smart (in her final year)—assembled a rich, expansive 2022 lineup. There were surefire crowd-pleasers like the world premiere of Matt Carter’s hometurf steamy romantic gay rugby flick In From The Side featuring a fantastic lead turn by Alexander Lincoln (which sold out three screenings in NFT1), as well as more experimental work like Robin Hunzinger’s mesmerizingly meditative black and white archive collage piece Ultraviolette and the Blood-spitters Gang, uncovering the history of the filmmaker’s own grandmother’s rebellious teenage sweetheart Marcelle in 1920s France.

A still from Robin Hunzinger’s mesmerizingly meditative archive piece Ultraviolette and the Blood-spitters Gang. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

Also in the mix were some excellent features and shorts which The Queer Review has been lucky enough to catch at recent international festivals, such as Chase Joynt’s exhilarating Sundance award-winner Framing Agnes, co-written with Morgan M Page, both of whom were present at Flare for Q&As and to make valuable contributions to various industry panels. Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, the latest documentary by BFI Flare favourite Jeffrey Schwarz (I Am DivineTab Hunter Confidential), received its European premiere, playing alongside hits from other festivals like Bretten Hannam’s majestic Wildhood; Lyle Kash’s surprising, surreal comedy Death and Bowling; Emily Branham’s insightful and inspiring Being BeBe; Broderick Fox’s enlightening Manscaping; C.B. Yi’s compelling, bittersweet Moneyboys; Lauren Hadaway‘s exceptional feature debut as writer-director The Novice (now on general release in the UK) featuring a tour-de-force by Isabelle Fuhrman as a rowing obsessed queer college freshman; Felipe Gómez Aparicio’s brooding The Perfect David; and Angelo Madsen Minax‘s extraordinary North by Current.

Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi in Sirens by Rita Baghdadi. Photo by Rita Baghdadi. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

There was a focus on queer women in music, including screenings of Rita Baghdadi’s feature documentary Sirens, a nuanced, intimate, and upbeat portrait of Lebanon’s only all-female thrash metal band, Slave to Sirens; Bradley & Pablo’s powerful DIY doc Charli XCX: Alone Together; T. J. Parsell’s eye-opening and moving Invisible, exploring the unsung voices behind some of Country music’s biggest hits; and Fanny: The Right to Rock, an overdue, lovingly-crafted celebration of the pioneering all-female rock band.

BFI Flare 2022 | Shorts Trailer

Among the shorts showcased was Justice Jamal Jones‘ lyrical debut How to Raise a Black Boy that reframes J.M. Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird within a queer Black narrative; Érica Sarmet’s captivating and sexy Sundance award-winning intergenerational tale of queer women A Wild Patience Has Taken Me Here; Harris Doran’s F^¢K ‘€M R!GHT B@¢K with a frisky soundtrack, written and performed by the film’s charismatic star DDm; Olive Nwosu’s poignant Egúngún (Masquerade) about a Nigerian woman living with her wife in London who reluctantly returns to Lagos for her mother’s funeral; Jess X. Snow‘s beautifully uplifting Little Sky that follows a Asian American drag sensation as they reunite with their estranged father; Khozy Rizal’s sensitive character study of a young queer man feigning a passion for football in order to fit in, Makassar is a City for Football Fans; and Dania Bdeir’s breathtaking work that made my heart soar, Warsha, another Sundance award-winner.

Charles Lum in Death Race directed by Charles Lum and Todd Verow, which received its World Premiere at BFI Flare 2022. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

Filmmaker Charles Lum, who died in November 2021, had shown work at Flare many times over the years and was honoured at this year’s edition with the world premieres of two shorts, both posthumous collaborations with his friend and longtime collaborator Todd Verow (they co-directed feature doc Age of Consent about the London leather club The Hoist, which premiered at Flare in 2014). The first of the new films, Death Race, is a raw, intimate, and contemplative video diary chronicling Lum’s months of self-isolation and treatment following an HIV-related cancer diagnosis. Lum was a longterm AIDS survivor and the opening crawl quips that he hopes that he, and the rest of us in the midst of a global pandemic, make it until World AIDS Day. Arresting and deeply affecting, there’s also characteristic warmth and humour in the work, as Lum raises the question of how to make a self-portrait about such dire health struggles funny. Verow was present to introduce the screening, along with Charles’ niece Jo Lum and nephew Ian Lum. The film was paired with Austen McCowan and Will Hewitt’s feature doc, Long Live My Happy Head, focused on queer Scottish comic book illustrator Gordon Shaw and his adoring long distance American boyfriend, Shawn, as they cope with the reality of living with Gordon’s inoperable brain tumor (which he refers to as Rick). As the diagnosis fuels the artist’s creativity, spending time with him is a life-affirming experience, and the tender romance at the centre of the film is truly touching. Still wiping away the tears, our hearts were stirred further as we came out of the auditorium into the BFI foyer to be greeted by the London Gay Men’s Chorus preforming a rousing a cappella rendition of Seasons of Love from Rent.

My Almost First Time directed by Charles Lum and Todd Verow, which received its World Premiere at BFI Flare 2022. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

The second Lum and Verow collaboration to play this year’s Flare, My Almost First Time, uses captivating archive Super 8 footage shot by Lum on a gay cruising beach in the Caribbean in the early 1970s as a wistful voice over recalls the day he hoped he’d lose his virginity to an older man. It’s a nostalgic, lyrical, almost spiritual homage to sacred gay cruising grounds, as the narrator reminisces about longing to become part of the gay sexual fraternity. The film opened a fantastic Saturday morning programme of shorts selected by veteran Flare programmer Brian Robinson entitled Paths to Love. With a disclaimer that read, “Contains scenes of graphic sex, strictly over 18s only”, unsurprisingly it was a sold out 450-seat house at 10:30am.

Nicky Miller’s sensual, visually stunning mythical tale of a bearded Fisherman seduced by a school of daddy Tritons played BFI Flare’s Paths to Love shorts programme. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

Alongside My Almost First Time, was Nicky Miller’s sensual, visually stunning mythical tale of a bearded Fisherman (Jorge The Obscene) who is seduced by a school of daddy Tritons, with their bubble butts bobbing out of the lake as their hairy catch of the day drifts out into the water with them. There was comedy in writer-director Adar Sigler’s Virgin My Ass starring the brilliant double act of Tom Chodorov and Avi Sarussi, as an inexperienced gay man asks his friend for some very hands-on sex education, while It Is Not the Brazilian Homosexuals Who Are Perverse But the Situation in Which They Live In was a total hoot, featuring two Berlin-dwelling Brazilian men have a wide-ranging, uninhibited conversation about their lives in the city as queer immigrants, while frolicking and relaxing outdoors in the nude, starring the filmmakers themselves, Eduardo Mamede and Paulo Menezes.

David Shi and Kelvin Ta in Jesse Ung’s heartfelt and touching Firsts.

Also on the Paths to Love bill, was writer-director Tom Wright’s Stockholm, strikingly lensed by cinematographer and producer Darius Shu, showcasing a brilliant, fearless performance by lead actor Alex Britt as he struggles to come to terms with a sexual assault in this anxious, non-linear work. While Jesse Ung’s heartfelt and touching Firsts centres on a Chinese student living in New Zealand as he nervously plans to have sex for the first time with a man he’s met online, while struggling with the oppressive, heteronormative expectations of his family from afar. As an unanticipated intimacy arises between the two young guys in Firsts, David Moragas’ delicate and nuanced Tomorrow Then/Demà ho deixem explores the end of intimacy between two lovers living together in Amsterdam, when one returns from a weekend away and admits to an infidelity.

Vincent Le Port’s troubling, graphic portrait of a child killer, Bruno Reidal, Confession of a Murderer. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

My first Friday night of screenings at the festival started with Vincent Le Port’s troubling, unflinchingly graphic portrait of a child killer, Bruno Reidal, Confession of a Murderer, which was part of Cannes 2021 Critics’ Week, and is based on the real testimony of a teenage peasant seminarian from rural France. With an unremorseful Reidal (a brooding, compellingly understated Dimitri Doré) found guilty of a brutal decapitation, Le Port recreates the scene and what led up to it with a calm detachment that places us uncomfortably close to the killer’s perspective. Things are made more complex and uncomfortable by the killer’s description of the sexual gratification just the thought of murdering those he was attracted to gave him. It’s a chilling, memorable work that’s not for the faint of heart.

A still from Jean Carlomusto’s delightful Esther Newton Made Me Gay. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

That evening’s next feature on my schedule, Jean Carlomusto’s delightful Esther Newton Made Me Gay, proved to be the perfect antidote to counteract the suitably traumatic cinematic experience of Bruno. Carlomusto, who directed 2015’s Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, takes another LGBTQ+ elder as her subject with Newton, a butch-identifying pioneering anthropologist. Newton’s areas of interest and research—including LGBTQ+ folks and gender identity, with an early focus on drag, leading to her 1972 book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America—saw her studies dismissed by many of her peers, seen as unworthy of academic attention. Through the frank recollections of Newton, now in her early 80s, Carlomusto takes in the dawn of gay liberation, infighting within the feminist movement, AIDS activism, and the history of the formation of the idyllic queer community of Fire Island’s Cherry Grove. Newtown’s story is of a life well-lived, full of love affairs with interesting women, and away from academia and activism, a devotion to training dogs and competing in the agility section of dog shows. Ironically, as the film progresses, Newtown faces a series of health issues that restrict her own agility, but she’s characteristically determined to get back to her full speed and competing with her adorable canine.

Among the feature doc highlights at BFI Flare, Peter McDowell’s Jimmy in Saigon. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

Among the other doc highlights I caught over the fest was Peter McDowell’s Jimmy in Saigon, executive produced by Dan Savage. When the full Flare lineup was announced, I’d been immediately intrigued by the accompanying still for the film (shown above) of an enigmatic, sunglassed, shirtless young man, with a peace symbol necklace, casually smoking. It’s the kind of image that one could spend hours studying, looking for clues about who this man was and his state of mind. That’s the starting point for McDowell who was just five years old when his brother Jimmy, the man in the photograph, passed away in Vietnam in the 70s, though not during active service. Jimmy had been in the US military, returned to the States and then voluntarily gone back Vietnam as a civilian as the war raged on. The film tracks McDowell’s journey as he attempts to investigate the circumstances of his brother’s untimely death, uncovering a relationship between Jimmy a young man he’d apparently returned to Vietnam to live with. There are some particularly poignant moments as McDowell speaks with his own mother who is reluctant to retread the pain of losing a son. It’s a moving, deeply personal film that builds to something beautifully profound.

Gateways Grind. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

Flare’s lineup also featured the premiere of Jacquie Lawrence’s vital piece of queer British herstory, Gateways Grind, that makes a compelling case for the King’s Road Gateways club to be placed alongside the world’s most significant LGBTQ+ landmarks like New York’s Stonewall and San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria. It might not have been the site of a riot like those two queer nightspots, but what was happening behind that green door was quietly revolutionary and important in its own way. Sandi Toksvig makes for a genial and engaging host, who recalls her own visits to the Gateways which closed in 1985 after five decades serving as a nightlife hub for London’s lesbian community, through the many years when women had to keep their sexuality private for fear of losing their jobs and families in the outside world. As with last year’s Rebel Dykes, Lawrence proves that queer history can be a lot of fun. By placing the women who were there (and those who wish they had been) and their stories at the centre of the film, Lawrence paints a vivid and evocative portrait of the venue and what it meant to its patrons, with plenty of fascinating details along with way, including the club’s signature dance that gives the film its name.

The eclectic Flare 2022 selection of Five Films For Freedom included For Love by British-Nigerian fillmmaker Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

Flare 2022 marked the eighth year of Five Films For Freedom, the world’s largest digital LGBTQ+ campaign which sees the festival collaborate with the British Council to make five international shorts available online for free in over 200 countries, including those where homosexuality is criminalized and in some cases punishable by death. The eclectic 2022 selection included For Love by British-Nigerian fillmmaker Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor, Croatian comic artist Marko Dješka’s animated film All Those Sensations In My Belly, Indian filmmaker Arun Fulura’s Sunday, Panamanian writer-director Judith Corro’s debut film Birthday Boy (Vuelta al Sol), and Chinese director Hao Zhou’s experimental Frozen Out.

Tara Emory, subject of Laurence Turcotte-Fraser’s feature doc The End of Wonderland. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

To celebrate the launch of this year’s Five Films for Freedom, the British Council hosted a lunchtime reception at the Houses of Parliament, with many of the filmmakers present. It was my first time inside the walls of Parliament and it was a joy to see such a large group of talented LGBTQ+ folks bringing some big queer energy to those ancient halls. It was also great to catch up with a few old friends, like presenter and London Night Czar Amy Lamé, as well as making some new ones such as Tara Emory, subject of Laurence Turcotte-Fraser’s feature doc The End of Wonderland, which I caught at Flare later than evening. With an unhurried pace and an observational Grey Gardens vibe, we’re immersed in Emory’s day-to-day life at her expansive rural Massachusetts property, Wonderland. Emory uses the space to design and construct elaborate sets and props for her still unfinished trans sci-fi porn epic, Up Uranus, which we see tantalizing glimpses of throughout. Turcotte-Fraser’s warm, nonjudgmental lens never mocks or sensationalizes her subject’s life, but rather allows us to get to know her as a comic-book writer who takes after her father as a skilled mechanic and voracious hoarder of old cars and anything that might come in useful one day, as well as an innovative adult performer navigating the massive shifts in the monetization of the business, and a beloved member of the fetish community.

Claire Simon’s captivating I Want to Talk About Duras. starring Swann Arlaud and Emmanuelle Devos. Courtesy of BFI Flare.

Away from the big screen action, Flare’s free club night’s were throbbing. Though my favourite evening on the dancefloor was actually the quietest, on the second Thursday of the fest, with plenty of space to bop around to a fantastic playlist thanks to DJ Lavender Nights on the decks, throwing down tracks from the likes of Sylvester and Diana Ross, to Olivia Newton John, Robyn and Cardi B. While Michael Blyth took a break from head programming duties on Tuesday 22nd to take his place as LGBTQ+ movie and TV quizmaster. My team, Foxy and Friendly, got a not too shabby 38 out of 50 in the hugely enjoyable first round (the anagram and word puzzle section let us down), before skipping out ahead of the second round to watch Claire Simon’s captivating I Want to Talk About Duras. The elegantly restrained documentary recreates an interview given by Yann Andréa (Swann Arlaud) to journalist Michèle Manceaux (Emmanuelle Devos) about how his obsession as a fan of the French writer, filmmaker, and intellectual Marguerite Duras, led to him becoming involved in an intense, co-dependent relationship with her despite him being gay. Amidst the beautifully acted and shot recreations are glimpses of real footage of Duras, including her building frustration with Andréa as she directs him in a scene on a film set.

I look forward to revisiting many of the films I saw, including those I didn’t get chance to mention here, to review in full and speak with some of the creators over the coming months, and of course heading back to London next year for BFI Flare 37. I hope to see you there!

By James Kleinmann

The 36th BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival ran at BFI Southbank from March 16th until March 27th 2022. You can find the full lineup here.

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