All posts by Oscar M Holzwart

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:

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.


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.


New Visions and fluid Identities in the Focus

Zsombor Bobák in conversationwith Paz Lázaro and Michael Stütz, curators of Panorama

Last year marked a significant change in the Panorama team with Wieland Speck giving the floor to a new generation of curators after 25 years. This year the Panorama section of the Berlinale turns 40 years old providing the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at the section’s inspiring past, and in light of that, it’s invigorating presence.
I have sat down with curators Paz Lázaro and Michael Stütz to discuss the rich history of the arthouse section, their conclusions from last year, their approaches to this year, and their views on the tactics to safeguard the queer film heritage and the global network of queer film festivals built over the past decades. Our lively discussion illuminated the driving forces of the Panorama and provided a sneak peek into this year’s exciting programme.

Normal by Adele Tulli © FilmAffair

This is your second year of leading the Panorama section. How was it different than last year and what conclusions were you able to draw from 2018 that helped you preparing for this edition

Michael: I think last year was very successful. I was really excited about the programme because it was very specific. Also, we had a very prominent and radical queer programme which I am immensely proud of. We had a great pool of films to choose from.
Paz: Yes, and that’s very important because everything starts with the films. We can never have a preconceived concept, first we have to find the films – or the films have to find us. But the first thing is always the movies themselves. That was our starting point last year just like this time.
Michael: Last year was very interesting, because there was such a great diversity regarding the representation of people of colour, for instance. Films like Bixa Travesty, Shakedown, Game Girls, or Tinta Bruta proposed new visions and focused on lives and environments that are not so often portrayed on film. I think we were able to draw a new audience in as well, partly because of the programme’s diversity. We received many positive reactions.
Paz: Yes, and that was very encouraging and reaffirming. We weren’t wrong with our instincts, after all. This is very important for a curator, to have good instincts. Because you can never know how the films or your programme will resonate with the industry and the audience. You cannot predict it, you can only have an intuition for it.  So it was also very important to us to follow the life of the films after the festival and we are very proud because they did extremely well.
Michael: The TEDDY winner Tinta Bruta for instance really travelled a lot around the world’s film festivals and it won many awards, ending up on many “Top 10” lists at the end of the year. It was very good to see that the film was so well received. But in general, films stayed visible throughout the year, which is not a given. Many different factors play a role in that. I think it really speaks for their quality and their commentary on social and political issues. It had to do with the intersectional approaches they took. It wasn’t just identity-driven material, but other topics were brought in too that widened the spectrum. That was very important and it certainly was a goal we had and that we still have. But every year changes. You never know what you are going to discover, and what ends up in the programme.
Paz: Exactly. And in this sense, this year was very different than last year, simply because the films were very distinctive. For example, last year we had many lesbian themed films to choose from – this year not so many.
Michael: Because they almost all ended up in the Competition programme!
Paz (laughs): Yes, we are a bit jealous. But of course we are very happy for them.
Michael: And that’s the beauty of the TEDDY. There are films from all sections and we are very happy that there is so much queer content this year in the festival.

Searching Eva by Pia Hellenthal © Janis Mazuch / CORSO Film

What was your approach for selecting the films this year and what are the most prominent themes of the queer programme?

Michael: We are interested in films that push boundaries. We are looking for films with a distinctive individual voice, and with a unique vision. The intersectional way of storytelling and structuring is also very important for us.
Paz: Part of the job is also to look at different films because there is a lot to learn from what is happening in filmmaking in general in a given year. All the films we selected this year have their brothers and sisters out there who did not make it in our programme for various reasons. This is what we call taking the pulse of filmmaking of the year. And this pulse is definitely very different than last year. Regarding the queer materials, sexual and gender fluidity really shifted into the focus, especially with younger generations. It is all very exciting.
Michael: Yes, bisexuality is also more widely discussed in this year’s films, which is quite rare in cinema. It’s becoming a bigger topic. Also the fluidity that Paz mentioned. And they do so because they reflect the reality of things. Things are not as determined as they used to be for our generation or the generations before. There is a completely different approach to identity and sexual fluidity, and it all reflects in this year’s queer films.
Paz: Absolutely. The films ask very important and urgent questions. Why do I have to define myself? A lot of films are dealing with this question this year. It was very refreshing to see this. Especially that geographically these films come from very different places. It seems to be an overarching theme and I am very happy about this trend.
Michael: Also the critique and questioning of the norm is very prominent this year. We always had that, but this year specifically there is a focus on this. Like in Normal, for instance. It’s not a classical, typical queer film, not at all.  It’s a film that deconstructs gender binary issues and binary stereotypes by looking at rituals we perform all over again in society and that are considered as normal gender behaviour. It investigates how there is no space between hypermasculinity and hyperfemininity in society, how you have to be either clearly one or the other. This film is very interested in this strained binary.
Paz: It’s really fun to watch. Especially because the only comment it makes is the title: Normal. Otherwise the camera just observes and it is the audience who have to make up their minds about what to make out of it. And then we have the complete opposite of that. It’s a documentary called Searching Eva. Eva is an absolute free spirit. She refuses to define herself in any way. She invents herself everyday, the way she wants. Identity appears as something that is moldable, and that you can play with and shape it the way you would want to shape it. She really made the world her place. This film, for example, very openly plays with the ideas of fluidity. It’s very fluid, and not just Eva, the main character, but also the world around her. So these films are the two opposite sides of the spectrum. And what’s in between comes from the other films.

Breve historia del planeta verde by Santiago Loza © Eduardo Crespo

Were you able to identify any particular queer way of filmmaking in this year’s programme?

Michael: When we talk about form I think Searching Eva is again a perfect example because it plays with different kinds of forms, it is a hybrid. It’s not a straightforward documentary, not at all. There are scripted scenes, but then there is a lot of traditional documentary material in it, where it’s almost diary-like. These forms are very fluid with each other. Visualization of the topic and the portrayal of the protagonist alike.
Paz: Importantly, queer content is not just narrative. It’s many other things. It can come from form, from the gaze of the film, from a certain logic that underlies the movie. Many, many things can make a film queer.
Michael: Yes, I think the formal approach is just as important as the topicality of a film. The way the camera operates, the way bodies are depicted and how corporeality is conveyed in a film all add to their queer content and queer readings.
Paz: This year we have quite a lot of queer films in this sense. Acid, for instance. It is more queer than it looks.
Michael: It has a love for masculinity. And for the broken masculinity that it depicts. There is a fluid sexuality in it too, but it’s not emphasized, it’s not in the focal point.
Paz: And the Russian context also matters there. Systems of oppression come to the front, but queer sexuality and queer sexual tensions remain in the background, however they are being omnipresent in a very delicate way. It’s not the main problem the characters have to deal with, it’s not a problem at all. It is depicted very naturally, but in the gaze of the camera it is very strongly present. Similarly, we could mention Family Members. It has a very unique way of telling a story. No one else could tell this story this way. It’s very humorous and very loving, and even though the sexuality and the physical desires of the main character are not the most emphasized elements of the narrative, in a magical way it is very crucial and very present throughout the whole film. And these are first and second films of the directors which is very promising.

Kislota by Alexander Gorchilin © Studio SLON / Kislota

This year Panorama is turning 40 years old. How did the Panorama change over the years? What are its core values and legacy?

Michael: The landscapes of cinema and film culture have drastically changed in these 40 years, and with that the section changed somewhat too. Digitisation, internet, TV, distribution, how people access films – it all changed. For a huge amount of films film festivals are the only means of distribution. The cinematic output is also much bigger and much more diverse. Of course there were so many iconic films made throughout these 40 years, like many movies from the New Queer Cinema movement, but still, there is a bigger plurality now. The core values are there since the beginning. Regarding the TEDDY the first and foremost thing is the need to give a space for queer film within an A category film festival.
Paz: In the beginning it all functioned more as a safe net. If the other sections would not have enough queer content than we would help out with that. In the meantime it became an organic process. Panorama isn’t a watchdog over queer content anymore. Berlinale has been emancipated from this thing for a very long time now.
Michael: Yes, we are very privileged. These films are coming organically and find their way in the programme. This is of course also because Wieland Speck and Manfred Salzgeber created this stage and voice and attention for the films. They didn’t just create a market for these films, but also an audience which is an immensely important thing. They knew the audience is out there. We are in such a huge urban landscape like Berlin, and diversity is of course out there, but you have to make people aware.
Paz: It was always a long-term project for them. They knew that for this to come time is needed and they vigorously built this up which is amazing and unique. I don’t know any other festival where this would happen so smoothly like here at the Berlinale.
Michael: Another great thing about this is the diversity that comes with it. I mean, films in the Forum and Forum Expanded sections are completely different than those in Competition, Generation, or here, in Panorama. There is a truly wide range of queer films each year and that it all just happens organically is an enormous achievement. There is a variety in narratives, but also aesthetics and visual approaches. This is also something that makes the TEDDY extremely relevant.
Paz: The pioneering vision of Manfred and Wieland just grows every year and is being adopted at other festivals, which is absolutely wonderful.

A Dog Barking At The Moon by Zi Xiang © Acorn Studio

Due to the anniversary of the section, there is a specific Panorama 40 programme curated this year that looks into the history of Panorama. What can a film festival like the Berlinale do to safeguard the queer film heritage that the Panorama gave platform to over these four decades?

Michael: It is a very important question, but it is also a difficult one. The festival takes place only once a year, which is already a problem. In the world, there are different models. Some festivals have their own cinema and they programme their films throughout the year and bring back old films too, or book them later for a theatrical run. We do not have this option, so we do other things. We curate programmes for other queer film festivals and initiatives, for instance.
Paz: The TEDDY has been asking this question for itself for a long time. How to establish an archive for queer film? How do you make sure these films have a space and they are safeguarded? How do they find their way back to the audiences? And actually this is how the Queer Academy has started, that was the main idea behind it.
Michael: Yes, and the idea and the plan are all there for the Queer Academy, it is just not an easy task without any financial support to build a living and breathing archive. The Arsenal for example does a beautiful job regarding archiving and curating, and they have a lot of queer materials in their archive.
Paz: Being able to offer a meeting point for queer film festival programmers within one of the biggest A category film festivals is crucial, I think. It’s a good basis for building something like this. There is a lot of work to be done, but the basic structure is there and it’s very solid.
Michael: Yes, importantly, we always wanted to include all the queer film festivals because – and this is also exceptional in the case of the Berlinale – the network that has been established between the queer film festivals and the industry and all those who are interested in these kinds of content is a super important part of taking care of queer heritage on a global level. It is a meeting point for programmers and the industry and the audience, basically. That’s a very important part. It is a big advantage. But if you don’t have the financial means, then it’s difficult. You need the people who actually do it, and in the end, it’s a luxury. It’s very hard to get the financial support. We tried many times, and so far it didn’t work. But we won’t give up. This needs a lot of attention, a lot of time, a lot of focus.
Paz: Also, if you look at the European Film Market (EFM), queer cinema is embraced there. It’s a big feature for the Berlinale itself. The industry that comes for the market and its queer films alone is huge. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. What Matthijs Wouter Knol did for the EFM is very remarkable. There is no other film market in the world where there is a person working specifically on diversity and inclusion, as Themba Bhebhe does at the EFM. What the EFM did on this level is historic!
Michael: And I think there is no other festival where the market is working so closely with the programming team. We are really working shoulder to shoulder. Of course, the EFM plays a crucial role in the lively circulation of queer films which is also part of the job when it comes to safeguarding heritage and queer cinema culture.

The uneven distribution of queer film festivals in the world and queer titles across the globe is still a prevalent issue. The Queer Academy Summit 2019 is a good initiative to discuss this problematic as well. Networking and collaboration seem to be key for some kind of solution. Do you think it is the future of queer cinema?

Michael: A different kind of network and a model for equal distribution is very important. We try to bring together programmers with the industry. But it’s also very complex. And as a programmer there is a limit to what you can do. Somebody needs to take over at a certain step. This is a big topic in film festival theory, but somehow it doesn’t come into practice. Which is strongly tied to economic difficulties. The creativity, the ideas, the passion is all there, but something is needed to catalyse it. And at the moment the dictation of the film market also poses some difficulties. It is very rigid, probably more rigid than ever. If you look at which films make the most money…it’s just franchises. Independent queer voices are in a difficult situation in this environment.
Paz: The distribution landscape has also changed immensely. New players like Netflix or Amazon have really changed the game and we have to be aware of that and we have to react to that. We have to somehow keep up with this rapidly transforming field. This year when we were scouting for films in Toronto and we had discussions with members of the industry everybody agreed that the game has completely changed. This is not necessarily bad or good, it is just that we are finding ourselves in a new situation which poses new challenges of course. We are all curious where all this is going, but surely it will have an effect on the distribution of queer titles as well. Our task is to ensure that it would be a positive one.

Greta by Armando Praça © Aline Belfort

Last year a friend of mine said that she particularly likes Panorama and within that the TEDDY, because it is a section with personality and it is very engaging. What is the key behind the success of audiences connecting so well with Panorama?

Michael: It’s also historic. Manfred and Wieland created an audience for these films and that’s the key, first of all.
Paz: We have an audience award, audiences feel very visible and integrated. We have Q&As, which are very long, but people like to stay. And that’s a big thing! During a festival everybody has very tight schedules, people always have to run to the next screening, or to grab food, or whatever. But people stay for Q&As and they participate and I think this is very powerful. We are also very present.
Michael: Yes, people want to participate. And it has to do a lot with the programme. Different kind of visions, narratives, places, and perspectives can be discovered here. Your own perspective is often challenged, which is very engaging for audiences. The Berlin audience is generally very educated and political, they are very active. They don’t want to see redundant stuff all the time. They want to learn and they want to see. So that’s why we have this mix, that new visions and challenging materials would be presented, but somehow they would still be accessible.
Paz: We are very palpable. We are there. We don’t hide in the glam. It’s a festival where everybody is present on an equal level: programmers, the industry, the press, the audience, everybody.
Michael: Certainly. It’s just all very accessible. To all people – well, that would be a lie. You have to pay for the tickets, you have to understand English, but still, especially in comparison with other festivals, it’s very accessible for audiences.
Paz: Filmmakers are also very open and they want to get to know their audiences. They like to engage with them and they look forward to it! Our budget is very limited in this sense, too. But still, the team does an amazing job and the filmmakers are always partners in it too. It’s just part of the Panorama DNA. Everybody gets out of their way to make things happen. It’s a passion we share, and that helps to go beyond our boundaries. This is actually what we have learnt from the beginning, and again, it all goes back to the fantastic work of Manfred and Wieland and the enormous job of the Panorama Team. Somehow it is just never a question. This is how Panorama works.

A Very Fantastic Woman Gets an Oscar

During the celebration of the 90th Academy Award last Sunday, ‘Una Mujer Fantástica’ (‘A Fantastic Woman’), was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The film, which won the 31st TEDDY AWARD for best feature in 2017, is the work of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio. The Academy Award for a non-English speaking film has been given away since 1956 and ‘A Fantastic Woman’ is a landmark recipient in a number of respects; it’s the first first Chilean film to win the foreign-language Oscar, the first film with a trans themed plot to take home the prize, and lead actor Daniela Vega is the first openly transgender person to present an award on stage at the ceremony. Sebastián Lelio praised Daniela Vega as “the inspiration for this movie”. The story follows Marina (Daniela Vega), a transgender woman working as a waitress, who has a loving relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a divorced man 30 years her senior. Their affectionate love is brought to an abrupt end on the day of Orlando’s sudden death. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Marina is faced with the hatred of Orlando’s ex-wife and children. She fights simultaneously for her right to mourn her beloved one and against the prejudices and harassment from her late lover’s family. The film not only gives a sensitive portrayal of the universal right to grieve but also tells the intimate story of a trans women in today’s conservative Chile. On a broader level, the film highlights the transphobia and ignorance constituting every-day life for many transgender people around the world. Few would be able to leave the cinema unmoved by this touching story of love and loss. To learn more about the film, have a look at our interview with director Sebastián Lelio and lead actors Daniela Vega and FranciscoReyes: