Notes from the queerest TIFF ever

Compiling a list of LGBTQ+ highlights ahead of the 47th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, I was struck by the sheer number of queer films that had been selected, a powerful enough statement from the festival’s programmers in itself. But actually being there at TIFF in-person—for the first time in three years—to catch as many of them as I could, was a cumulatively emotional experience.

Bros. Courtesy of TIFF.

Far from the usual handful of titles at most mainstream festivals, there was a wealth of wide-ranging LGBTQ-related work to discover. From splashy US studio titles like Universal’s Bros, Amazon’s My Policeman, and Netflix’s Wendell and Wild; to US arthouse distributor A24’s The Whale and The Inspection; the community-crafted—and now legendary—The People’s Joker (which only screened once), and Canadian indies like Rosie, Something You Said Last Night, and Soft (formerly known as Pussy). Acclaimed films from other festivals, like the Cannes Queer Palm and Un Certain Regard Jury-winning Joyland and the Venice Golden Lion-winning All the Beauty and the Bloodshed—the Nan Goldin portrait that delves into New York’s downtown art scene of the 70s and 80s—were also among the more than thirty LGBTQ+ features on offer, alongside Casa Susanna, which revisits the Caskills house that was a place of sanctuary and celebration for trans women and cross-dressing men in the 50s and 60s.

Casa Susanna. Courtesy of TIFF.

Seeing so many films that examine our history and contemporary lives being given a platform at one of the world’s most prominent festivals, and sitting in a room with hundreds—sometimes thousands—of fellow film lovers to watch them, felt affirming and pretty thrilling. Given the regressive agenda of politicians on the right in the US and in many other parts of the world, and their hateful anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, not only is it particularly empowering to see ourselves on screen at this time, but sharing queer narratives with as broad an audience as possible feels urgent.

The Inspection. Courtesy of TIFF.

One common thread connecting many of the queer-related films I caught at TIFF, was the contrast between acceptance and the destruction wreaked by individual and societal homophobia and transphobia. In the Discovery section opening-nighter, writer-director Elegance Bratton’s emotionally potent narrative feature debut The Inspection, the young Black queer lead character, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), has been living in housing insecurity for nearly ten years following his religious mother Inez’s (Gabrielle Union) rejection of him because of his sexuality. Based on Bratton’s own experiences, French enlists as a trainee US Marine in the hopes of winning back his mother’s affection and respect, but instead encounters further prejudice from some his fellow recruits and trainers. There’s an overriding sense of hope running through the film though, in French’s resilience and acceptance of his own queerness, buoyed by the unexpected tenderness shown to him by one of the drill instructor’s assistants (Raúl Castillo). French finds the strength to succeed despite his mother’s inability to embrace her son for who he is, but so much struggle and pain could have been averted if he’d been given her unconditional love.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Courtesy of TIFF.

While in Aitch Alberto’s powerful adaption of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s 1980s El Paso, Texas set coming-of-ager Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, the parents of two Mexican-American teens Ari (Max Pelayo) and Dante’s (Reese Gonzales) encourage their kids to be true to themselves. All the more heartening given the machismo culture and that it’s in the midst of heightened homophobia due to HIV/AIDS. Ari’s family has been torn apart following the violent actions of his brother, but there’s hope that things will be different for Ari and Dante.

My Policeman. Courtesy of TIFF. Courtesy of TIFF.

Entire lives are irrecoverably wrecked as a result of prejudice in the 1950s segments of director Michael Grandage’s My Policeman, adapted from Bethan Roberts’ novel by Oscar-nominated Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner. The stigmatization and criminalization of gay men in Britain at that time results in internalized homophobia that leads to Tom (Harry Styles) marrying a woman, Marion (Emma Corrin), despite being in love with Patrick (David Dawson). A decision, among others, that we see the painful consequences of still being felt decades later in the 90s, with the same characters played by Linus Roache, Gina McKee, and Rupert Everett. (Their performances were honoured with a TIFF Tribute Award for the ensemble cast.) Despite the conservatism of the era though, we see examples of queer resistance and everyday existence; Marion’s school teacher colleague is happily living with her girlfriend, Patrick is comfortable with who he is, as are the men who frequent Brighton’s queer bar, the Argyle. Although once outside the privacy of the bar, we see one patron beaten by policemen, echoing the homophobic beatings of The Inspection and Aristotle and Dante.

Joyland. Courtesy of TIFF.

Tragedy could have been averted in Saim Sadiq’s present-day Lahore set Joyland if patriarchal expectation hadn’t forced Haider (Ali Junejo) into an arranged marriage with Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq). Contrastingly, we see Biba (Alina Khan), whom Haider gets a job with as a backup dancer, living openly and bravely as a trans woman, embracing who she is as she navigates a disapproving and threatening society. Although Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is struggling with life in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale—adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own play—being gay doesn’t seem to be something that troubles him, but we learn that his late boyfriend was indoctrinated by a local church to reject his own queerness, with heartbreaking repercussions.

Wendell and Wild. Courtesy of TIFF.

In a matinee public festival screening of Henry Selick and Jordan Peele’s wonderfully macabre stop-motion animation collaboration, Wendell and Wild, I sat next to a child who was about six or seven years old. Throughly engaged with the film, they regularly asked their mother questions about what was happening. They had no questions at all though when it came to a trans masculine character, Raul (voiced by Sam Zelaya), likely because the character’s transness is made explicit but introduced with very little fanfare. We see him accepted by the nuns and the students at the Catholic school that he’s enrolled in, not othered or defined by his transness by the characters or the filmmakers, we get to know him through his artistic skills and loyalty as friend to Kat orphaned goth teen (Lyric Ross).

Rosie. Courtesy of TIFF.

In the winner of the Shawn Mendes Foundation TIFF 2022 Changemaker Award, Luis De Filippis’ feature debut, Something You Said Last Night, the love that a twenty-something trans woman, Ren (Carmen Madonia), is shown by her off-screen grandmother, and parents (Ramona Milano and Joe Parro) empowers her to stand up for herself when a young cis man (Augustus Oicle) only wants to be with her on the down-low. While in Toronto filmmaker Joseph Amenta’s visceral Soft, queer adolescent Julian (Matteus Lunot) might not have found acceptance from his birth mother, but he has found it from his chosen family of fellow queer kids, and the alternative mother who has taken him in, a Black trans woman, Dawn (Miyoko Anderson). In Rosie, a 1980s-set Québécois queer take on Auntie Mame, we see a young, recently orphaned Indigenous girl (Keris Hope Hill), taken in—initially reluctantly—by her struggling artist aunt Fred (Melanie Bray) and embraced by her besequinned gender nonconforming sex worker best friends Flo (Constant Bernard) and Mo (Alex Trahan).

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Courtesy of TIFF.

Of the LGBTQ-related work I got to see at this year’s TIFF, the standout was Laura Poitras’ exceptional All The Beauty and the Bloodshed. Woven into the rich, self-reflective portrait of artist Nan Goldin in her own words, we see how governmental neglect and right-wing anti-gay bigotry necessitated and energized ACT UP in 80s, and the defiance and rage of figures like David Wojnarowicz, which not only resulted in saving lives, but decades on served as an effective model of activism for Goldin to take on the Sackler family and their company Purdue Pharma. I look forward to revisiting these TIFF films, and many others over, the coming weeks and months with full reviews and interviews. Thank you to everyone at TIFF for making it an incredible experience that I’m still taking in.

By James Kleinmann

The very queer 47th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival ran September 8th-18th 2022. For a fuller list of LGBTQ+ titles at this year’s festival, take a read of our highlights article.

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