Film festivals as cultural activism: a report from the ‘Queer Film Festivals as Activism’ Symposium at MMU, Manchester.
At the start of this month I attended a two-day Queer Film Festival Symposium held at Manchester Metropolitan University, organised by Jon Binnie and Christian Klesse, both academics at MMU. That this event was open to everyone is thanks to the innovative approach of MMU’s HiP Festival which for three years has been enticing the public into the academy and putting the things that go on inside the university ‘out there’ in a form that everyone can take part in. It doesn’t matter whether you have any prior knowledge of the subject or not, these events are usually free and offer a range of experiences, from lectures and film screenings to walks and exhibitions.
The range of international perspectives put together for this Symposium was impressive, we were treated to first-hand, organiser and director accounts of LGBT / Queer film festivals in the UK, China, Italy, Ireland, Germany, Scotland, Serbia and the Czech Republic. Yes, in China, let that sink in. In many parts of the world, queer culture clashes with officially sanctioned culture, Hongwei Bao explained that after some serious run-ins with state security, organisers of the Beijing Queer Film Festival had resorted to ‘guerrilla’ tactics to prevent the Government from closing them down. These have included USB screenings, where the audience buys train tickets and then is issued at the station with USB sticks with the film on, to watch on their own devices as they travel out of the city to a destination where the film can then be discussed. Dr Karl Schoonover presented work from his forthcoming book ‘Queer Cinema and the World’ that tackles religious oppression of the Q! Film Festival organisers in Jakarta, Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, and reveals how the Batho Ba Lorato Film Festival in Botswana is part of a cultural mission organised by the gay and lesbian LEGABIBO group to educate people about equality that has contributed to what might just be a recent, positive change in the legal status of homosexuals in Southern Africa.
This simple map designed by notable film festivals researcher Skadi Loist shows us how just the distribution of queer film festivals can show up some of these global political inequalities.
Her talk, or ‘keynote’ (a word that really belongs to the academic world) was about the Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage in Hamburg, which is currently gearing up for its 27th Edition this October. The festival has its origins in ad hoc, self-organised university group screenings in Hamburg in 1988 and 89, the festival’s website puts these origins in context:
“1990, the year the world changed: Gorbachev was elected head of state in the USSR, the WHO decided homosexuality should no longer be classified as an illness, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and Hamburg witnessed the birth of its first Lesbian and Gay Film Festival”.
The festival’s organisers operate from a squatted building and most of the work is done on a voluntary basis. Their motivation is their activism, members of the group are involved in many other political campaigns in the city and the festival seeks to challenge the neo-liberal assumptions that dominate in city development strategies. One of these is the discourse around the ‘creative industries’. The LSF is one amongst many annual film festivals in Hamburg, it attracts huge audiences but the industry-focussed short film festival gets a bigger share of the public money. This can be a source of frustration across the cultural sector, where grassroots cultural organisations repeatedly demonstrate their value to the social groups they represent, but miss out on funding because their aims don’t accord with economic growth agendas. LSF came up with their own, innovative response to this, the Push-up Club, which actively engages with loyal LSF audiences to help in making up the shortfall in funding and this has allowed the festival to keep on getting bigger. The festival can now be more independent and free to promote cinema experiences aimed at an under-represented film audience.
Skadi talked about protests that happened within the opening night ceremony of the 25th anniversary edition, when the Burgermeister (the mayor of Hamburg) attended the event launch to speak. This sparked outrage from some groups because of the way he had handled other city matters, from gentrification and a bid for the 2024 Olympics to his treatment of refugees (‘refugees welcome’ banners were held up during previous year’s opening event).
That his endorsement was not welcome surprised some of the festival’s other guests, such as organisers from St Petersburg, where the often-banned Side By Side film festival would probably welcome this kind of civic recognition. A big highlight of the LSF festival is the after party or Nachtbar which is re-invented in a different secret location every year, clips from some of its legendary parties were included in ACTING OUT. 25 Years of Queer Film and Community in Hamburg a feature-length documentary on the festival’s history that was also screened at this symposium and is well worth tracking down.
Many of the presenters at this symposium reported that when research is carried out, a higher than expected percentage of their audiences identify as straight, but when mainstream cinema often mindlessly presents a white, straight and male-dominated view of the world, then it isn’t surprising that queer cinema appeals as much to cinephiles as to members of communities it represents. It’s a refreshing break from hegemonic programming and a chance to see rare films from all over the world that challenge the viewer. Jayne Graham-Cummings, organiser of Queer Vision film festival at Bristol Pride also stressed how important it was for friend groups and family members of LGBT people to feel able share cultural interests and have social experiences together. One of the best presentations of the whole event was from Predrag Azdejkovic, director of the Merlinka International Queer Film Festival in Serbia. He said that just attending the festival in Belgrade was “tricky” - the act in itself was like coming out. When the festival started, there was only one drag queen in the whole of Belgrade, now there are four and he thinks this has a lot to do with the festival providing a space for this. That film festivals act as public spheres is a common theme in a lot of festival research, all festivals are communal experiences and can be sites of self-identification and community building, but queer film festivals form a kind of counter-public sphere at an intriguing intersection of the film distribution circuit and human rights based activism. Often, their programming is collaborative and consensus-based, shaped by the way they have emerged from grassroots organisations and community praxis. They also offer a distinctive challenge, I think, to the rest of the exhibition sector which can learn much from the way they create spaces for the recognition of identity of marginalised people all over the world.
Further sources of info from the sessions:
The Iris Prize (International gay and lesbian short film prize)