Queerama – Docfest 2017

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Thoughts on Queerama as Queer History.

The history of queer representation in film is sometimes the history of not being easily seen. It can be the history of having to work really hard to find yourself represented. It can be the history of having to work really hard with what you are given, when you are represented as the freak, the pervert, the duplicitous spy, the blackmailer.

Queerama for me, was the story of how people have negotiated the identities that have been imposed on them.  As a history Queerama shows us a series of outside definitions of queer identities that have had to be negotiated;  homosexuality, for example, has been seen as a sin,  an illness, to an act of dissidence.  Sexualities and their identities have been legislated and defined from above, diagnosed by sexologists,  feared for contagion, dissected like a guinea pig,  but they have also been squeezed through the cracks.

Queerstories and queer representation in film is more than an illustration of context. Representation was a driving force for change.Queer stories put us in our place, on Kinsey’s spectrum, on Freud’s couch or Adrianne Rich’s Continuum or Crenshaw’s intersections.  Queer stories do something. Queer stories build spaces, landscapes, safe havens and publics.  The story of Queer Britain is the story of stories. Stories that show how important representation is, historically.

If we take the moment between the Wolfenden Report in 1957 and the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 , filmic representation of homosexuality was at the forefront of political change.  There were important popular books around the debate, like Peter Wildeblood’s account of his time in prison Against the Law and the Wolfenden Report itself was a big seller.  But being seen  had a politics of its own.

Audience attitudes were taken as an indicator of public opinion. For example, John Geilgud was arrested for cottaging just a few months after he was knighted in 1953. When he returned to the stage he was met with standing ovations, and criticisms, not of him, but of the cruelty of the law.  Films were seen as part of the public debate.  Two separate films about Oscar Wilde in the same year used his life story as a commentary on the vulnerabilities that the law inflicted of men who have sex with men. Bogarde’s Victim, from 1961 intersected directly with discussions of law reform. Victim is a story about a nice middle class boy, married to a nice blonde teacher – he’s blackmailed over photographic evidence of his homosexuality by a nasty working class boy and a bitter old woman.  As well as emphasising the vulnerability of homosexual men ‘who couldn’t help who they were’ to blackmail, Victim was also a campaigning and educational force.  There is an long involved, rather preachy, discussion about law reform that is taken straight from Wolfenden.

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Queerama weaves together the different stories, jostling against each other, building on each other, sometimes in synch, sometimes on the edges and corners. It also takes a wide view of the voices involved; actively engaging with the popular narratives on a serious level, measuring the voices of the outside expert against the interior of personal experience, and understanding the academic research on queer stories and queer representation in its own historical context.  Through its archival maneovers we can catch Vito Russo’s queer glimpses into the Celluloid Closet (itself refiltered through Epstein and Friedman’s film)

Queerama also gives us the Andy Medhurst’s powerful reading of Victim’s text as context.  Victim’s storyline is not its most significant point – the point is what work did that story do for people? and the stories that were told about the story?

These queer films might not do a perfect job.  They often reproduced rather than challenges wider societal attitudes. It is predominantly white, male and middle class world that we are offered. In some ways why wouldn’t it be? film and media cultures reproduce the existing power structures around them.  The law isn’t the only way that inequality and discrimination work.  Culture can silence and well as give voice to marginalised stories. But of course living in the straight world isn’t just a negotiation of formal criminalisation before the law. Invisibility in the law does not mean equality. The invisibility of lesbians in the law, except around child endangerment and in divorce and custody law, was not a freedom. It made the collectivising of lesbian experiences potentially harder.

Beyond victimhood is queer disruption. That’s why the DIY scene matters as a way of doing your own representation and telling your own story. The demand for self representation can shift the dynamic between what it means to show and what it means to see queer stories on screen.  In Homocore: How to Punk A Revolution for example, experimental narratives, forms and approaches, challenged the settled for reformist world of gay politics in the 80s.  What happens when the representation you need is not the representation you get? When queer activists built ‘a circus not a church’  they tackled the politics of representation head on.  Instead they turned being seen into an analytical framework that meant visibility could still be indigestible. But let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t a simple happy ending where we have all moved away from our history of repression and exclusion, as documentaries shown at Docfest this year on Justin Fashanu  Forbidden Games Offline reminds us.

I think if we take note of CampbellX’s manifesto for radical film making then we might be able to genuinely weave together the relationship between the stories we tell about our selves and the stories that are told to us and about us.

  • Learn about your personal histories. Talk to your family. What are their stories?
  • Forget mainstream celebrity culture, use the people from your own subculture.
  • Look beneath the collective lies from your own culture and background and don’t be afraid to be true to your own reality.

The queer story of Britain, really is a struggle, to be seen, to be recognised,  and to signify something more and sometimes to just stay alive.  A queer history of Britain is a history of the glimpses and of the refusal to be policed or silenced.

In response to Queerama I have produced three Open Educational Resources inspired by Queerama that will be further developed as the film tours incorporating audience responses and a series of Q&A sessions.  You can open each module by clicking on the images below. Feedback would be very much appreciated.

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