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Remove Your Monocle, Please! – Resisting Monosexual Readings of Queer Film


Von Hannah Congdon

The last decade, and in particular the last few years, have witnessed the unprecedented breakout of queer films into the commercial mainstream. The likes of Brokeback Mountain, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Moonlight and Carol are now household names. And it has become almost a given that several TEDDY AWARD contenders each year will be picked up by major film distributors, as evidenced by the success of Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country and A Fantastic Woman. Whatever you might think of the respective merits and failings of those films, the growing appetite for LGBTQ+ film among distributors and audiences is undeniably a step in the right direction.

But there is a further pattern emerging that constrains the potential of these box-office hits (aside from the majority of those films containing white-only casts, and the poor representation of trans people – topics requiring their own discussions): the commercial template for a number of the films is to market them as monosexual, homosexual love stories. As a result, there is a seeming invisibility of bi-, pan- and poly-sexual love stories which disrupt the straight/gay binary. Where the New Queer Cinema of the ‘90s used queering techniques and narratives that exploded notions of gender and sexual classification, exploring the identities of LGBT as well as the spaces between those letters, the current trend seems to be to read queer romance narratives as monosexual love stories. In some instances, that reading is fair, but in many cases it over-simplifies the spectrum of the romances and sexualities depicted. If queer film is now making it to the mainstream, it’s about time critics and audiences alike learn to remove their monocles, and start viewing these films with the plurality from which they’re made.

Film critics play a crucial role in shaping popular conceptions and readings of publicly available films. Whilst labelling has a crucial and empowering role within the LGBTQ+ movement, it’s frustrating that so many critics stubbornly insist on branding films only ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’, with little examination of the rest of the spectrum in queer narratives. Sticking, for now, with our big-hitting examples above: in Brokeback Mountain, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Carol and Call Me By Your Name, the central characters have not only same-sex romantic and sexual relationships, but also heterosexual relationships. In each case the heterosexual relationships have, for various reasons, become unsatisfying, paling into insignificance when compared with their newfound love interests. Nonetheless, these relationships are often depicted as real, loving and sexual, are pivotal aspects of the characters’ emotional development, and it is rarely made clear that they broke down simply because the character’s previous partner was of the “wrong” gender identity. Critics and audiences alike often fail to recognise the possibility that individuals can be attracted to people rather than genders, and in a number of reviews for these films the heterosexual relationships aren’t so much as mentioned.

Call Me By Your Name is perhaps the best example of this. Hailed as a ‘gorgeous gay love story’, the film and its source material reveal a far more complex story of sexual awakening than is typically addressed. The differing relationships Elio has with Marzia and Oliver arguably has more to do with the fact that the latter is far more mature than the first, than it has to do with their genders. The original text is more explicit still about Elio’s sexual fluidity:  

“How strange, I thought, how each shadowed and screened the other, without precluding the other. Barely half an hour ago I was asking Oliver to fuck me and now here I was about to make love to Marzia, and yet neither had anything to do with the other except through Elio, who happened to be one and the same person.”

© Sony Pictures Classics/Berlinale
© Sony Pictures Classics/Berlinale

That so few commentators have pointed to the significance of Elio’s multiple sexual relations is a wearisome reminder of the continuing elision of bi- and pan- sexuality within film criticism, and indeed in society. It should be unnecessary in the current context of sexual politics to focus so heavily on categories and labels of sexuality, but the fact that openly bisexual director Desiree Arkhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) chose the somewhat ‘in-your-face’ title of The Bisexual for her recent Channel 4 series is telling of how often the liminal space between gay and straight is overlooked, as well as the on-going reticence in screen industries and elsewhere to use the terms bi- and pan-sexual.  

It’s interesting, too, that the criticism levelled at more obviously bisexual films and series is that they lack clean structure. The Bisexual was smeared as ‘inconsistent’, while Arkhavan’s 2015 film Appropriate Behaviour, about an American-Iranian bisexual woman going through a break-up, was called ‘temporally disoriented’ and full of ‘clutter’. Israeli-born director Tom Shkolnik’s ‘The Comedian’ used radically long cuts of improv to tell the story of a stand-up comedian torn between a romantic but largely asexual relationship with his female flatmate and his affair with an openly gay painter. Though receiving increasingly more positive receptions since its release in 2012, the film’s early critics said it lacked ‘shaping’ and ‘form’, describing it as ‘non-committal’. Christophe Honore’s French-language musical ‘Les Chansons D’Amour’, used song to narrate the four-way love affairs between its sexually fluid central characters, but was shunned for its ‘randomness’ and lack of ‘coherence’. What critics seem to miss is that all three filmmakers use narrative techniques that resist the standard structure typically used for monosexual romance films precisely because that structural messiness is far better suited to capturing the non-linearity of polysexual relationships. Maria Pramaggiore summarises this phenomenon succinctly in her essay ‘Representing Bisexualities’. She refers to the ‘compulsory monosexuality’ of many Hollywood films, arguing that “conventional coupled romance narratives, whether concerned with gay, lesbian or heterosexual scenarios, make it difficult to recognise or to imagine bisexuality other than as a developmental stage prior to “mature” monogamous monosexuality”. She goes on to point out that:

“chronological narrative structures that assign more weight and import to the conclusion…may be less compatible with bisexual reading strategies, which focus on the episodic quality of a nonteleological temporal continuum across which a number of sexual acts, desire and identities might be expressed”.

Rather than criticising the tangled story-telling of the afore-mentioned films, then, we might praise the filmmakers for finding fitting methods of conveying what are inherently tangled narratives.

It’s in keeping with the topic of non-linearity that I’d like to finish by turning back to what is rapidly being recognised as a classic of the New Queer Wave at the end of the 20th century. In Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock musical drama Velvet Goldmine, the film’s hallucinatory structure is as sprawling and fluid as its characters’ sexualities. Despite being a bit of a flop on its release, it’s been undergoing a critical renaissance over the past few years. I recently came across a review of the film that provides a rare and refreshing example of a critic engaging with the binary-breaking methodologies of the film, and of queer film theory itself:

Velvet Goldmine is often called a gay film, but that obscures the universal resonance of its queer coming-of-age narrative. Better to think of it as a bisexual film that uses non-binary sexuality as a metaphor for the boundless possibilities of youth”.

Judy Berman’s assessment captures the whirling complexity of the film’s transgressive narrative and techniques, and is an exemplary contrast with the determinedly monosexual readings of more contemporary queer films. Many of the films listed in this article do, indeed, contain lesbian and gay relationships, and it’s important to use those terms to denote them. But, as film theorist Maria San Filippo astutely puts it, “human sexuality and desire are irreducible to and always already in excess of binary ways of thinking”. These films are lesbian, gay, and more. To collapse them into easily marketable boxes of sexuality is to diminish the work that they do in exploring liminal spaces between binaries. And as long as we continue to be mired by an attitude that someone is either ‘this’ or ‘that’, there’s little hope for greater progress in the representation of trans and non-binary people, too. No doubt the TEDDY Films of this year will continue to dismantle such barriers, as well as tackling the need for diversity and intersectionality within queer film. As an audience, let’s do credit to the complexity of their stories by bearing in mind Haynes’ cheeky intertitle in Velvet Goldmine:

“Meaning is not in things but in between them.”
― Norman O. Brown

No One Stands Alone – Precarious Queer Film Festivals

By Zsombor Bobák

2018 has been a year full of political turmoil on a global level. Walls have been erected along borders between countries, right-wing populism polluted the public discourse widely, people with different skin colour, ethnic background, and religion than any given majority have been demonized, women have been repeatedly mansplained where their place within society is, and the queer community had to face aggression and violence worldwide. And while many positive changes have occured (think about the nascent of the Time’s Up movement or the continuous recognition of LGBTQI* rights in more and more societies), with current trends of hateful and divisional politics gaining larger and larger support globally it sometimes proves to be difficult to stay hopeful. Looking at the programme of the 69th Berlinale, and within that, the 33rd TEDDY, I think we have a reason to stay on the positive side.

For me, cinema and films always represented hope. As a teenager coming to terms with my sexuality in a vastly homophobic country I found refuge in the film theaters of Budapest. Immersing myself in the films of François Ozon, Pedro Almodóvar, Gregg Araki, Lee Daniels, Bruce LaBruce, Maryam Keshavarz and Dee Rees, or the classics of Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Derek Jarman and Pier Paolo Pasolini, I felt like it is fine what I feel and I might just find my place one day or another in this world. Later on, as queer cinema became the subject of my academic inquiries, I truly came to understand the power that lies within these moving images and their potential to bring about actual change.

Queer film festivals, these often utopian events, have significant power in particular. They have the means to represent, embrace, celebrate, and  to provide visibility and give voice to individuals and communities associated with the LGBTQI* family. They have the power to foster dialogue with the wider, hegemonic society and to build bridges between different communities through their often international profile. By their very existence they complicate dominant discourses within society and they also emerge as spaces that enable resistance and a (re)negotiation of power in general. Throughout the years queer film festivals became sites for cultural debate not only about LGBTQI* rights and experiences but, more panoramically, about general human rights, nationalist politics, and global and cultural integrity. They shape the cinematic landscape greatly, and they mobilize audiences in ever growing numbers. It is safe to argue: queer film festivals are bastions of social power and hope.

Today a global network of queer film festivals exists which has a long and rich history. Rooted in the social movements concentrating on identity and representational politics and with a prominent grassroots background, queer film festivals, historically speaking, are acts of community activism and social resistance in the face of a repressive and intolerant hegemony. These festivals to this day carry this socially engaged heritage and aim to push the queer agenda further. While many of the aims of queer film festivals are shared, they are also dependent on their respective contexts. Although having the tendency of lamenting the future, queer film festivals are always very much in conversation with the here and now. This urgency fuels the drive of queer film festivals to connect with each other. Rather than focusing on separate issues and realms of queer(ed) existence, an intersectional approach to organisation and expression seem to dominate the queer film festival landscape in recent years which allows for the distribution of knowledge, experience, and expertise between the different communities and creates a space for acknowledging dissimilarities and imbalances while staying united. The intersectionality characterizing many of the queer film festivals is remarkable for its capacity to shed light on LGBTQI* politics through a solidarity across different identities.

This is of crucial importance to queer film festivals that face continuous oppression and both legal and physical violence. Their existence is precarious just as the hope for the communities they would cater for. The past few years we witnessed many violent attacks on queer film festivals across the globe: the Side by Side Festival in St.Petersburg is repeatedly being threatened by Russian authorities and anti-LGBTQI* groups; the 2010 edition of Q! Festival in Jakarta has been attacked by anti-gay protestors; in 2014 during a gay festival screening Kiev’s oldest cinema was firebombed; the 2008 edition of Merlinka International Queer Festival had to be cancelled due to large numbers of threats from anti-gay protestors; and the opening of the Queer Sarajevo Film Festival of the same year reached a bloody end. In Covered, John Greyson’s poignant film about the incident, one interviewee says desperately: “Festivals are turning into massacres!” And indeed, too many queer film festivals are facing similarly severe issues. Thus, importantly, attention is needed from this global network of queer film festivals formed over the past decades. Events, such as the Queer Academy Summit 2019 are great opportunities to strengthen already existing ties, to build new ones, and to work together by sharing. Strategies to safeguard the crucial cultural work of queer film festivals can be shared, re-evaluated, and re-configured. Surely, a strong network and a dedication to collaboration can secure the existence of a festival.

The geographically and culturally uneven distribution of festivals presents a further problematic of inclusivity, visibility, and diversity. The model of networking and collaboration could provide some solutions for this issue perhaps, and in this the Queer Academy Summit 2019 can play a huge role. With the involvement of audiences, the summit proposes an outstanding opportunity to ensure that no one stands alone. Every contribution matters and all steps taken shape a brighter and more inclusive future for LGBTQI* communities globally. After all, the greatest power queer film festivals bear is that they do not simply reflect on the world through their specifically queer lenses, but that they vigorously and effectively shape the world through their queer activism.

In our highlight there are three precarious queer film festivals from across the globe with a passion and dedication that must be celebrated:

Out Film Festival Nairobi (Kenya)

This festival is organised since 2011 with the support of local queer organisations and Goethe-Institut Nairobi. Out Film Festival does a remarkable job in making Kenya’s queer community visible for the hegemonic society. The festival is not a mere celebration of queer cinema, but also an important instrument in the fight for legal recognition, protection, and general acceptance of the LGBTQI* community in the country.

  In Kenya same-sex sexual activity (labeled as “against the order of nature”) is illegal and could lead to imprisonment up to 14 years according to section 162 of the penal code, while intercourse between men (labeled as “gross indecency”) could lead to an additional 5 years of imprisonment according to section 165. Homosexuality is considered as taboo by the majority of society and is deeply condemned. The LGBTQI* community commonly faces aggression and violence.

At the same time, Kenya has a strong queer cinematic output that certainly helps to keep LGBTQI* voices to surface under the oppression of the hegemony. Stories of Our Lives, a film made by Nairobi based arts collective The Nest Collective is an anthology film on LGBTQI* lives in Kenya. The Kenya Film Classification Board banned the film in Kenya arguing that it “promotes homosexuality, which is contrary to national norms and values”. Internationally the film garnered very positive reviews, won the Jury Prize of the TEDDY in 2015, and is widely celebrated ever since. Similarly, in 2018 the feature film Rafiki, a tender love story between two women, was also banned by the same board claiming: “The Board notes with great concern that Rafiki […] contains homosexual scenes that run counter to the law, the culture, and the moral values of the Kenyan people”. Later this ban has been lifted due to the positive reception of the film abroad and in order to make it eligible for the 91st Academy Awards. The film was screened for 7 consecutive days in Kenya, many screenings being fully sold out. In the end, Rafiki has not been selected as Kenya’s foreign language Oscar contestant.

As these examples signal as well, queer cinema is lively in Kenya but it struggles immensely to find its way to local audiences.Out Film Festival Nairobi plays a crucial role in changing this. The festival has been successfully organised for 7 consecutive years now and screened many queer movies from Kenya and from abroad. Screenings are accompanied by panel discussions and talks, and the programme often includes free HIV testing and counselling as well. The festival is a key player in raising awareness and prompting for social change on the African continent. Out Film Festival Nairobi is a true celebration of love and diversity.

More information: https://nairobinow.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/out-film-festival-nairobi-2018-we-do-not-have-the-luxury-of-shame-nov-7-10-2018-goethe-institut-auditorium/

Aks International Minorities Festival (Pakistan)

In Pakistan, due to colonial laws, same sex sexual acts can be punished by imprisonment. However, this is rarely enforced. Social stigma on LGBTQI* culture and expressions is strong, mainly stemming from religious concerns. In a social landscape like this the great success and the educational value of Aks International Minorities Festival is astonishing. The festival is also remarkable for its great ties with other international queer film festivals in the world.

The word Aks means mirror in the Urdu language and as the organisers claim, their goal is “…to hold up a metaphorical mirror to trans and queer minorities with the aim of improving their visibility”. Established in 2014 in Pakistan, the festival built strong ties with other organisations, and now they also hold an annual festival in Copenhagen, but they also presented the exhibition titled “Thirdness – Gender and Sexuality in Pakistan in the Schwules* Museum as a joint collaboration of Aks, the museum, and Transformation – trans* film festival, and they also travelled to Vienna with their programme. Their collaborative efforts and them being part of an international network of queer film festivals is key in their success.

The festival has a special focus on the indigenous Khwaja Sira (trans*) community and are determined to improve the representation of queer and trans* people of colour. Besides the screenings, the festival also consists of discussions and debates, educational workshops, and art exhibitions.The festival’s operation tries to remain on grassroots level and encourages the contribution of local community members and other non-profit organisations. Importantly, the festival is organised in several cities of Pakistan, therefore making an attempt for decentralisation and making a wider national outreach possible.

The festival is a great example of how networking and collaboration can lead to fruitful transnational results and also shows queer film festivals’ dedication to an intersectional approach.

Website: http://www.aksfestival.com/

Beijing Queer Film Festival (China)

There is a troubled past behind this festival, which managed to stay alive and foster a more inclusive cinematic environment within China for more than a decade now. Beijing Queer Film Festival is the only queer film festival in mainland China and it faces continuous harassment from Chinese authorities.

The first festival was organised by university students in 2001 under the name China Homosexual Film Festival. Due to social and political conditions of China, it was impossible for the film festival to be organised every year, and in the beginning it took place sporadically, under various names. The current name, Beijing Queer Film Festival has been adopted in 2009.

In the beginning, the festival only screened films from mainland China, but today it is a great forum of Chinese language films (including productions from Taiwan and Hong Kong as well) and international titles as well. According to their official website, the festival invested a lot of energy into networking, and built strong ties with many foreign queer film festivals successfully.

This must have been an important tool of survival for the festival that faced many challenges and was often forced to come up with some guerilla methods in order to make the festival happen. After being repeatedly shut down by Chinese authorities, in 2014 the organisers decided against social media campaigns and the use of any public cinema in China, instead, shortly before the beginning of the festival, they sent an e-mail to possible attendees to go to the central train station of Beijing, buy a ticket for a certain train, and go to a certain carriage on it. They also asked for visitors to bring their laptops with them. At the end, the films were provided on pendrives and the audience watched the films on their laptops in the fully cramped wagons. Using shared laptops and USB sticks in unusual spaces does not only reflect on the multifacetedness of cinema and the creativity of the organisers, but also on the festival’s outstanding dedication and passion. The rhapsodic past of the festival seemed to fuel the drive of organisers for ensuring that the festival will happen again.

As such, the Beijing Queer Film Festival is an astute example of what should be at the core of each and every queer film festival: love, dedication, passion, and commitment.

Website: https://www.bjqff.com/