Between the range of topics, the variety of genres, and the new modes of approaching gender and sexuality, the contemporary queer cinema represented in the IDFA 2021 selection provides an exciting, thought-provoking, defiant, and often funny look at the ordinary dimensions of extraordinary queer lives.
Contemporary queer cinema offers exciting new viewing experiences for audiences, by exposing them to new trends in the representation of gender and sexuality, while intersecting these concerns with other dimensions including race, class, and ethnicity. The queer films at IDFA 2021 exemplify this excitement in many respects.
The repertoire of images of the tortured gay, the serial killer lesbian, and the queer victim (most strongly visible with the onset of AIDS) have been increasingly replaced with queer self-representations. These register, express, and defiantly celebrate all the dimensions of queer life—from poverty and homophobia, exclusion and defiance, to exuberant forms of joy, humorous ripostes to prejudice, and the creativity of artistic and community practices which continue to sustain queer subjectivities.
Firstly, some of the films, like the Chilean Travesti Odyssey by Nicolás Videla place the drag community and its history the subject and maker of images rather than the object of the camera—“we need to tell our own stories”, as drag performer Anastasia Maria Benavente insists. The film revolves around a group of drag performers, revealing their everyday ordinary and extraordinary circumstances from the inside out, as the film reflects on the social situations which they find themselves in and seek to change. Weaving together the personal and the political, the film also highlights the endemic violence against trans people, and connects it to the broader social revolution that swept through Chile in 2019. Offering a fascinating insider’s perspective—through Videla’s use of archival footage of the famous TV drag performer, Munique Fonguebertt—the film also undertakes a recovery of lost histories of popular culture icons who were formative for queer culture.
The history of queer cultures, and the role of archival film in revealing those cultures is exemplified in the films too. Barbara Hammer’s now classic Nitrate Kisses exposes the hidden history of lesbian and gay culture through film, and the difficulties and opportunities the archive offers for rewriting the history of queer subjects. The archive comes alive in an engrossing and fascinating way in Robin Hunzinger’s Ultraviolette and the Blood-Spitters Gang. Composed purely from archival footage, the film uses the letters of Marcelle to Emma to illuminate the absorbing story of love between two young women who meet as girls in a school in Dijon, France in the 1920s. Moving between the letters and a poetic commentary on this relationship, the film situates this love in the sanatorium of Sainte Fèyre where Marcelle will recount her erotic and romantic attachment with a group of rebellious girls, in the shadow of impending death from tuberculosis. Superbly edited, the photographs and archival film forms the basis for a viewing experience which exposes the intensity, humor, and struggles of this gang of “blood spitters” as they form a community of love, support, and desire in the extraordinary circumstances and unusual context of a sanatorium. Ultraviolette stands out as a brilliant example of how archives can bring forgotten histories to life and powerfully expose forms of queer living in extraordinary times of crisis.
The “New Gender Politics” of the 1990s played a rightly important role in rethinking queer identity, not just from the perspective of sexual desire but by problematizing gender identity. Gabi, Between 8 and 13 by Engeli Broberg is a touching, illuminating documentary which gives the viewer a valuable opportunity to follow the growing awareness of Gabi/Gabrielle that the boy/girl dichotomy fails to capture her sense of who she is, as she grows up and rejects the norms of girlhood. Gabi’s unfolding trans identity is beautifully captured in the transition between the ages of 8 and 13, and the growing awareness that the expectations for what boys and girls should do and be are simply nonsensical to a child. What makes the film particularly fascinating is how it illuminates that gender fluidity is not an adult, intellectually sophisticated “ideology”, but rather that living a non-binary life is a reality that children can reflect on and embody from a very young age. Two-Spirit by Mónica Taboada-Tapia, a short from Colombia expands on the issue of trans identity by focusing on the life of an indigenous transwoman.
Another dimension of contemporary queer filmmaking is the mode of approaching gender and sexual identity by emphasizing the ordinariness, perhaps even an attitude of “indifference” to making queer lives an “issue”—a problem to be explained or a form of living that needs to be justified. Ivan Mora Manzano’s The Beach of Enchaquirados, set in Ecuador, focuses on the everyday life of a trans fisherwoman who runs a restaurant. We are privy to the mundane ordinary activities she is involved in including fishing, running her restaurant, engaging with the clients in her restaurant—all of which expose how her trans identity is simply there, acknowledged as a part of who she is rather than a problem, a “topic”, an issue that must be reckoned with. Through conversations she has with others, other characters in the film also emerge which offer a perspective on how sexuality, gender, desire, and identity are lived queerly, in an ordinary way.
How the Room Felt by Ketevan Kapanadze further exemplifies film as a medium to record the ordinary and expose how queer lives are lived in sometimes extraordinary circumstances, focusing on the everyday lives of a girls’ football team in a safe space in Georgia. Without explicitly focusing on the necessity for protecting young lesbians in a homophobic society, the film gives viewers the opportunity to simply follow how these young women spend their days and nights in training, partying, talking, and engaging in romantic relationships, like any other group of teenagers. In a similar fashion, Close to You by Cássio Kelm documents the evolving relationship between a transmasculine Brazilian and his father, in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic, which forces them to share the same closed space of their apartment. In addition to the genre of documentary film, Seek Bromance by Samira Elagoz and [Posthuman Wombs] by Anna Fries and Malu Peeters are performance pieces and interactive media experiences that approach questions of trans identity, sexuality, and gender.
Living ordinary lives in the context of extraordinary contexts is an apt description for two feature-length films in the IDFA 2021 selection, The Last Chapter by Gianluca Matarrese and The End of Wonderland by Laurence Turcotte-Fraser. For very different reasons, both films provide fascinating, touching, and often funny insights into the ways in which queer lives are lived. The Last Chapter records the relationship between a couple, whose S/M relationship is treated in a non-sensational and touching way. The eroticism of S/M provide something of a backdrop against which the older man in the couple reflects on his past, including his experience of the onset of the AIDS crisis, the loss of his partners to AIDS, his move to Paris, and living with a sense that one is writing “the last chapter” (of the title) of one’s life. The film performs an act of recovery of the past, in the present, like archival film—but this time using his reflections and images (photographs) of the past.
God Has AIDS by Gustavo Vinagre and Fábio Leal (Brazil) also addresses the topic of (impending) loss, and the health crisis (in relation to homophobia) by offering multiple perspectives on how artists, activists, and HIV-positive persons live with AIDS and critically respond to a hostile social climate. The End of Wonderland explores the ordinary life of the extraordinary character of trans porn star and aspiring film director of sci-fi porn, Tracy Emory. The film explores her fascination with science fiction, hoarding, and pornography while following her as she formulates and makes concrete her desire to make a sci-fi porn film. Peppered with touching and funny conversations with others, including her elderly mother and a fellow actor in the porn film, The End of Wonderland provides a fascinating glimpse into queer individuals who do not model themselves on others, like pop culture icons, but want to be them. This obsessive desire to be rather than be like someone else, is the focus of Gangnam Beauty by Yan Tomaszewski, in which Korean mythology and the journey of Oli London to look exactly like his K-Pop idol intersect. London’s desire to transform himself into his K-pop idol through plastic surgery takes him on a journey to Poland and Armenia, while his transformation desires are folded into a story of Korean mythology.
Between the range of topics, the variety of genres, and the new modes of approaching gender and sexuality, the contemporary queer cinema represented in the IDFA 2021 selection provide an exciting, thought-provoking, defiant, and often funny look at the ordinary dimensions of extraordinary queer lives.