We’re past halfway through the 2018 Brisbane Queer Film Festival, and so far I’ve been lucky enough to see three films from the program (in addition to opening night film Freak Show). These three films – one disappointing, one decent, one exceptional – each represent three modes of queer filmmaking.
Let’s begin with the rotten one in the carton, Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrists. Full disclosure: on my way into the film, I knew essentially nothing about the Canadian director. As such, the film’s off-putting, provocative style – which traffics in porno-meets-sexploitation aesthetics, from purposefully stilted dialogue to hardcore rimming scenes – came as a surprise to my virgin eyes; I suspect an aficionado of LaBruce’s work would’ve been less surprised.
Said style – here put to work depicting a silo of radical lesbian feminists in the late ‘90s – isn’t really my thing. I’ll certainly concede it paid dividends in The Misandrists’ provocative third act, where dreamy fantasy sequences, actual surgical footage and lesbian orgies intertwine in a formally and ideologically confronting climax. But that doesn’t forgive the thumb-twiddling tedium of the first act, in which LaBruce seems to be struggling to get the film to a reasonable runtime (he ends up just clearing 90 minutes).
Nor, upon reflection, do I find the film’s politics especially interesting. Yes, there are fascinating morsels that can be construed as challenging the gender essentialism of earlier eras of feminism, but it all struck me as incoherent. Still, I’m impressed to see a film as challenging – if ultimately successful – as The Misandrists gracing BQFF’s program with its presence. It’s the perfect sort of film to challenge cinephile’s aesthetic boundaries, even if that boundary-breaching might result in more of a disappointed shrug than anything else.
Far more successful – and just as provocative – was Sunday’s night screening of rarely-seen 1980 documentary Witches, Faggots, Dykes & Poofters. A chronicle of the first Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras – and the ensuing protests, arrests and political shitstorm – the documentary from the One in Seven Collective and Digby Duncan was recently restored to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the festival. Playing to a packed audience at New Farm Cinemas, the film proved a vital activist document as much as an historical document.
The importance of Witches, Faggots, Dykes & Poofters is obvious. It provides a necessary factual context erased by the simplified narratives proffered four decades later, reminding audiences both that the arrests were not solely relegated to the Mardi Gras and emphasising the ideological arguments taking place within the LGBTIQ movement of the time. But it’s also an incredibly well-crafted film, recording the suffering caused by discrimination of the era and allowing the heart-breaking facts to speak for themselves without resorting to overly-emotive emphasis.
The film is a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t; interviews with a teacher nervous about losing their job for their sexuality underlines that religious schools in Australia are still legally permitted to fire gay staff members. That resonance was emphasised by the presence of a pair of guests at the screening. Nicky Follett – who appears as a teenager in the film – and ‘78er Laurie Steele introduced the screening and held a Q&A afterwards, and their presences alone clarified that activism like theirs is unending. Steele, in particular, was still engaged in his own activism, stridently emphasising that it was the court case he brought against police at the time that ensured the ultimate release of the hundreds arrested.
The third film I’ve seen at the festival this week was Tali Shalom-Ezer’s My Days of Mercy, a politically-charged lesbian romance. Well, ‘politically-charged’ is an overstatement, and not just when compared to overtly inflammatory films like The Misandrists and Witches, Faggots, Dykes & Poofters. The premise is certainly political, offering a sort of neo-Romeo & Juliet – more Juliet & Juliet – where the lovers are either side of an activist divide. Lucy (Ellen Page) protests the death penalty while her own father awaits his death sentence, and soon falls for the ironically-named Mercy (Kate Mara), who protests the other side of the issue with her police officer father.
If you’re looking for a meaningful commentary on capital punishment, you’ve come to the wrong place. Joe Barton’s screenplay dances around the issues, but ultimately lands on a conclusion that obviates one of the largest issues with capital punishment: that guilt is never certain. It’s a frustrating cheat, but easily forgiven by the incandescent chemistry shared between Mara and Page. The courtship between the two is brilliantly flirtatious, and the two characters are distinct and memorable. Lucy is a smouldering cigarette in a greasy old town; Mercy a shimmering summer cocktail in a high-class airport bar. Shalom-Ezer has pitched this film to queer audiences, and she understands that audience is looking for flirtatious repartee and copious sex scenes; she delivers.
In all honesty there’s a lot to quibble about in My Days of Mercy, particularly its insistence on answering questions when it would better off humming in uncertainty. But both Mara and Page do such good work that I couldn’t help but be won over despite its clumsily-scripted conflicts.