BFI Flare LGBTQ film festival has rolled to a close for another year. Returning to premiere more queer short films and feature-lengths in 2023, here’s a remedy if you’ve got withdrawal already: a selection of some of the best films from across this year’s festival.
First up, read our feature on the festival, where we speak with BFI programmer Michael Blyth, and film-makers Jacquie Lawrence of Gateways Grind and Matt Carter of In From The Side, both of which played at this year’s event.
It was touching that film-maker Emily Branham said she might not have made this project if she’d come aboard more recently, following conversations around whether or not people should tell stories which don’t reflect their own background. Being Bebe is an astonishingly dedicated film by Branham, who spent 16 years documenting the first RuPaul’s Drag Race winner in order to make this feature.
The film follows the highs and lows of Bebe’s career, getting into the grit of what it’s like to work day-to-day as a drag performer, especially in the years before drag went mainstream. We see how mentally and financially challenging it is to have a show pulled, even though the critics loved it. There could have been more exploration about why Bebe experienced some of her knock-backs, but nevertheless, Being Bebe is a joyous portrait of an early icon of drag’s rise to the mainstream, with plenty of fascinating detail.
Jimmy in Saigon
This touching feature-documentary is astonishingly tightly edited given the personal topic could have easily produced something way more self-indulgent. Queer writer-director Peter McDowell wonders whether his eldest brother Jimmy, who tragically passed away aged 24 in Saigon in 1972, might have been queer too. He goes on a nail-biting hunt through Vietnam, but without a hard lead, to find out more. Will he discover any clues 44 years later? McDowell spent 15 years researching, and every minute of his quest is felt in this film, which has pace, style and an incredibly large heart.
Camila Comes out Tonight
51 or 15, everyone can relate to a good coming of age story. Camila Director Inés María Barrionuev said in a post-screening talk at Flare that her portrait of young protagonist, Camille, was the sort of story she wishes she’d seen growing up.
Coming of age tales are timeless, but also Camila feels distinctly 2022. The titular protagonist isn’t fussed by her sexuality – by how she likes both men and women – she’s only aggravated by injustices, like being treated badly by her peers. Her journey is sometimes tough, but Barrionuev has made sure we see plenty of a young girl simply having fun with her pals too, as well as all the introspection. Everything’s shot naturalistically, with minimal dialogue, which leaves extra time for gawping at the cinematography. Camila’s school environment in particular feels so hostile – cold-looking locker rooms with battered wooden doors lead to the a freezing-looking old-fashioned swimming pool – because at times it can be. But then again frenetic club scenes evoke the pure ecstasy of youth.
One of the best short films I saw at BFI Flare, Snuff avoids the tendency of many short films to make a super worthy point in a short amount of time. Instead, it’s just completely balls-to-the-wall silly, in the best possible way. A female partner in a lesbian relationship is engaging in BDSM knife play with a male client when her girlfriend walks into their shared flat, about to have an affair with another woman. It’s classic four-strangers-meet-in-a-room type stuff; the framing could be inspired by an Agatha Christie play. Wait until they all slowly start melting into the floors, either boiling over with anger or embarrassment at one another as they try to handle their shock. By the end I was gasping for air – truly hilarious and gruesome stuff.
Make Me A King
Some of the best short films evoke the experience of having watched a whole feature in under 20 minutes. That is exactly what this touching, artistic short manages. Ari is queer and works as a successful drag king, doing shows in a massive venue. It’s not clear where she is, though I’d like to move there, as the drag scene looks spectacular: even in London it’s rare to find queer venues that huge, especially ones which programme drag king nights.
Anyway, when her Jewish mother comes to see her perform, the two argue and the mother says she regrets trying to engage with queer culture to support her daughter. But a touching final scene involving a fantastic choreographed street dance sequence, which exists in some sort of halfway house between reality and fiction, suggesting performance and art really can unify even the most differing of mindsets.
This romantic short gets so much across without needing any complex messaging or much storytelling at all. Successful illustrator Mana is visiting Japan from America, and local amateur Haru followers her – somewhat creepily – around town. The two share their similarities and differences, and director Jenn Ravenna Tran studiously conveys how two people who seem to be worlds apart – one successful, one struggling – can share mutual admiration even though both women cannot see why the other feels the way they do.
Their dalliance is set against some of the most gorgeous scenescapes of rural Japan I’ve seen; could there be a more romantic setting to fall in love than laying in a traditional ryokan house with those ornate sliding wooden doors? An intense tale about chemistry and spontaneity and the glee of those two things spurring the other along.
Michaela Coel’s breakthrough TV series on consent, I May Destroy You, was bound to inspire more work in a similar vein. This short, featuring high profile actor Rikki Beadle-Blair, is almost as visually rich as Coel’s series. A similarly stylistic exploration of consent and sexual abuse, it displays the emotions left in the wake of abuse, rather than bothering with much narrative (which feels right.) Alex Britt, who plays the young male victim, and film-maker Tom Wright, convey how trauma – or any significant disturbing life event – can be briefly forgotten but can pop back up in intrusive thoughts, taking you back to an intensely dark place again and again. There’s also a lovely soundtrack by singer-songwriter, Benedict Cork.
BFI Flare festival returns to the BFI in March 2023, with more queer films from around the world, as well as late-night events and panel discussions. Many films are followed by post-screening Q&A discussions with the film-makers