As part of this month’s 30th anniversary Mardi Gras Film Festival, coinciding with Sydney WorldPride, Queer Screen will be hosting a retrospective of gay Australian filmmaker and Queer Screen co-founder, Stephen Cummins. Cummins was a leading light in the Australian queer cinema scene of the 1980s and 90s, with his work shown in festivals around the world before he died of HIV-related lymphoma in 1994. His nine short films mark a key moment in the New Queer Cinema movement.
Ahead of the festival, The Queer Review‘s Chad Armstrong spoke with Cummins’ frequent collaborator Simon Hunt—known to many as activist Pauline Pantsdown—about his recent restoration of Cummins’ work, Cummins’ impact on Australian queer cinema and beyond, and the filmmaker’s continuing legacy.
Chad Armstrong, The Queer Review: How did you get to know Stephen and come to work with him?
Simon Hunt: “I was living in West Berlin in the mid-1980s, back when the wall was still up and Stephen was visiting the city from Australia. At that stage, he’d made three or four Super 8 films and he was developing programs of Australian shorts that he’d take around independent film festivals. Some mutual friends in Berlin introduced us and we went on a late night adventure trying to find some gay bars in East Berlin—before Berlin had become the queer capital that it is now—and became friends. When I came back to Australia in the late 80s, I started working with him as a composer.”
So even back then, he wasn’t just focused on his own work but was really out there bolstering the visibility of Australian cinema?
“Oh, absolutely. I think that’s one of the keys to Stephen’s work; he was a collaborative person. He was always drawing on independent queer theatre. He was working in the photography world and the performance art world. It was always a team of people, there was always a community of artists who were expressing stuff around him.”
Was that political side always part of Stephen’s viewpoint as a filmmaker and as a photographer?
“I think you see real shifts through the ten years of his output that reflect a politicization of queer culture. Homosexuality was decriminalized in New South Wales in 1984 when Stephen was 23. Before that men had been facing 14 years in jail for having sex.”
“Stephen was drawn to beauty and at that stage he was also sorting out his own sexuality. You see it in his work. He was using art to express things that he maybe wasn’t quite ready or comfortable to express in real life. Then over the next ten years, as being gay became more mainstream, we started demanding more space. Then there was the backlash attached to the height of the AIDS epidemic. So there is a gradual politicization through his work.”
How is that evident in his films?
“First of all, you’ve just got diagonals of slightly eroticized bodies, and then you have the performers in a film like Le Corps Image in 1987 reclaiming those images, projecting them onto their bodies and twisting them into other forms, playing with gender and sexuality. Then you get Elevation in 1989, which is two men kissing in a lift while the crowds and people outside observe. Which is really taking things into a more narrative space. Leading to his major work, Resonance in 1991, which is looking at the dangers in public, recreating the actual violence that’s happening against queer bodies. It begins with an attack on a Sydney side street that was inspired by a similar incident in Stephen’s own life.”
“So it’s really all based around the body in that way, but over time it becomes more overtly political. Shorts like Taste The Difference in 1989 which was made for television but were actually banned from broadcast. The AIDS crisis drove a lot of it. Our lives were being snuffed out, we weren’t being seen, all of our friends were dying around us. It was about bringing the safety, security, and the well-being of queer people to the fore. Stephen died in 1994 just before the treatments that enabled people to stay alive came out.”
Resonance was a major success for Stephen and queer Australian cinema wasn’t it?
“Yes, it is probably the peak of Stephen’s career which led to him being on the Barbed-Wire Kisses panel at Sundance in 1992 alongside a lot of people who would become major directors later. Sundance was really quite fascinating that year because there was so much queer stuff there. It was just after the success of Paris is Burning and Todd Haynes’ Poison. Derek Jarman had his Edward II which had studio backing and a larger budget.
“It was a very particular moment. In that two week festival it was like every queer person in Hollywood was there, and everybody was out. From filmmakers to the buyers. There was the Sundance queer party thrown by one of those Hollywood type people and everyone was there including stars like Brad Pitt. It demonstrated the breadth of practice at the time, everyone from the little independents, all the way up to the Hollywood majors, were working with queer issues. It was a real moment of openness that had broken out. Everyone found it quite extraordinary and there was a hope that this was actually going to change cinema.”
“At the time the barriers to access in film had lowered and experimental forms were working their way into mainstream cinema. I think a lot of the success of those queer films had an influence on the mainstream in the incorporation of queer people into what was considered mainstream topics. These days you have people developing new forms of storytelling, using formats and platforms like TikTok. Now everything has changed, we have all of those things we were demanding. You have characters who are gay or lesbian or transgender within mainstream culture and it’s not just enjoyed by LGBTQ+ audiences, which I think is a great thing.”
What was the mood of Australian cinema at the time Stephen was working? This was a couple of years before Australia would have its own wave of queer movies in 1994 like Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, The Sum of Us, and Muriel’s Wedding.
“There wasn’t any government funding for gay and lesbian filmmakers at the time. It was hard work and we were part of that process of breaking through the Australian Film Commission, which was the peak film body at that time. But the queer creative community really came together. AIDS was really driving the community. The team that worked on Resonance, for example, came from the creative groups around Sydney; performance artists and the dance sector.
“At that moment there was a sense of, ‘I only have a certain amount of time on this Earth to achieve something’. Whether you were HIV positive or not you were thinking, ‘what am I actually gonna do with my life? What am I going to do right now? What can I get done by next year?’ So there was a certain creative drive that was based around all these factors that we saw stacked against us.”
I can’t help notice how things have changed when you look at Stephen’s Taste The Difference, which is a 30 second kiss between two men that was banned from broadcast for being “too explicit”, rather than because of its gay content apparently, in 1989. Then ten years later, the video for DEMON’s You Are My High got a lot of airplay on Australian music television, and that’s a 2 minute 30 second androgynous kiss. Then in 2013 Disclosure released a similar video which looks positively tame in comparison.
“Well, that’s been my experience with the music industry when it comes to gender politics. When I started, behind the scenes it was about 10 years behind the rest of society, but now I get emails from APRA, the Australian Performing Rights Association, and they’re having a special funding competition for queer musicians, so the culture is changing and Stephen’s work was part of that.”
You’ve been working to restore Stephen’s work for posterity and the retrospective at this year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival. How has that work been going?
“There’s a range of different issues with them all because the sources are Super 8, 16mm, 35mm, and video. So we’ve sorted through everything, gone back to the negative and regraded them. For some we had to recreate the look and feel, superimposing text over again. It’s been a case of hunting through rushes to find the right take and digging through the backs of cabinets for original cinema slides. I remastered all the soundtracks too and that meant going back and finding the original cassette tapes and completely rebaking the degraded tape to reattach the magnetic particles to the plastic, then digitizing and remixing all nine soundtracks. So it’s been a busy few months!”
How instrumental was Stephen in the founding of Queer Screen?
“Back in 1992, the Mardi Gras Film Festival was a commercial operation between Mardi Gras and a cinema chain. There was a falling out over money, so Mardi Gras cancelled the festival. That was a catalyst for a group of filmmakers, including myself, Stephen, and others to say, ‘What about the artists?’ So we decided to form our own organisation to run the festival.”
“At first, Mardi Gras were a bit iffy about the use of the word queer and there was a slight ideological fight over the use of the term “Queer Screen”, rather than calling ourselves something like, The Gay and Lesbian Film Organisation. But eventually they turned around and funded us. It took a bit of time to get it all sorted, but it was enormously successful and then it went on its merry way and, thankfully, it’s still out there. Stephen was always about helping other filmmakers and the community.”
By Chad Armstrong
Simon Hunt will introduce a screening of all nine of Stephen Cummins’ newly restored short films at a special Retrospective Gala at Queer Screen’s 30th annual Mardi Gras Film Festival, followed by a panel discussion featuring Cummins’ key creatives and collaborators Hunt and Mathew Bergan, moderated by National Film & Sound Archive Curator Nick Henderson on Tuesday, February 21st, 2023. Click here to purchase tickets and for more information.