Growing queer screen culture

Olivia Khoo

Pink Sheep

Pink Sheep

Although the annual Mardi Gras Film Festival is the largest lesbian and gay film festival in Australia, like most community arts organisations, Queer Screen (which runs the festival) has gone through its share of crises and transformations over the last decade. Queer Screen’s landmark 10th anniversary celebration last year coincided with the birth of the ‘New’ Mardi Gras, which saw the event returning to its protest roots after massive financial problems. Spending cutbacks have meant that since last year Queer Screen has operated without the substantial financial support it once received from Mardi Gras. Enthusiasm for the festival was not dampened, however, with several sell-out sessions and ticket sales up from last year.

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Fresh’, reflecting the wider changes in Mardi Gras and in community expectations regarding the organisation. Using the cross-section of a watermelon as its logo, festival publicity offered “12 Juicy Days of Sex, Seduction, Comedy, Thrills, Tears, Tantrums and Drama.” Despite commercial imperatives accounting for some fairly conservative (ie ‘crowd-pleasing’) films in the program, there were several welcome new initiatives rejuvenating the festival this year. For the first time, a series of youth sessions were programmed, which were a great success. The festival also displayed a greater commitment to Australian film than ever before, in an attempt to reach out to the local queer community. Another refreshing innovation was Queer_pixels, an initiative by board member Debs McCann, which showcased short works by digital media artists prior to the feature films. These ‘byte-sized’ offerings were funny, quirky and often politically engaged

A centerpiece of the festival was a 2-part retrospective from the ScreenSound archives, “Imagining Queer: Historical Views on Australian Film and Television”, curated by Barry McKay and Marilyn Dooley. The first part covered the period 1910-1950, prior to the arrival of television in Australia. Part 2 covered 1950 to 1980 and was dominated by clips from 1970s Australian television. It also included a specially-created selection of scenes from Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), in which the protagonist’s decline into drinking, gambling and the culture of homoerotic mateship was edited into a remarkable sequence just a few minutes long. Dooley, in introducing both sessions, reminded audiences to watch the clips with a “camp sensibility” (as if this were necessary!). While this ‘sensibility’ was sometimes stretched to the limit (many of the clips were more about vague issues of gender than sexuality), the retrospectives were engaging and also held interest for those outside the queer community. Programmer David Pearce noted that the 4 bio-pics featured in the festival—The Life and Times of Count Luchino Visconti, Phooey Rosa (on Rosa Von Praunheim), A World of Love (on Pier Paolo Pasolini) and The Legend of Leigh Bowery—were also interesting to a wider audience.

In terms of Australian features, we were also treated to a screening of The Set (Frank Brittain, 1969), arguably the first gay movie made in Australia. The film was introduced by one of the film’s writers, Roger Ward, and 2 of the stars, Hazel Phillips and Ken “Kandy” Johnson. One of the pleasures of attending the screenings of Australian films was the Q & A’s with casts and crews. Also of note among the Australian features was Max: A Cautionary Tale (2003), an allegorical coming out tale by young director Nicholas Verso, who was also present at the festival. Described by Verso as “The Breakfast Club meets Carrie,” Max tells the story of teenager Damien Wilson. After moving house with his family, the boy comes to believe there is something lurking at the end of the corridor in their new home. Considering the film was shot in 12 days on a budget of $3000, it was quite an achievement.

Four sessions curated by programmer Megan Carrigy tackled issues aimed specifically at younger audiences, aged 15 and over. A youth program was certainly overdue (the Melbourne Queer Film Festival has had such a program for several years now), and this initiative in particular demonstrated that the festival is truly committed to meeting the diverse needs of the gay and lesbian community.

The stand-out film of the youth program and indeed the whole festival was Straight Out: Stories from Iceland, a documentary about queer youth that claims to be the first queer film to come out of Iceland. The films’ interviewees were honest and articulate in discussing issues such as first love, drugs, suicide attempts and coming out. The emotions expressed in the film were very direct and reduced some in the audience to tears.

Also well received was Pink Sheep, a collaboration between the youth at Twenty10 (a support organisation for young gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders) and Channel Free at MetroScreen. The youth sessions were well supported by audiences of diverse ages, but Carrigy stressed the importance of working to reach a youth audience from outside metropolitan Sydney and finding ways of making the festival more accessible to them. Carrigy put on an impressive program in her first year in this newly created position. It was wonderful to see queer youth having some control over the festival and enjoying a dedicated space where they were able to see themselves represented on screen.

Overall, the film festival had an optimistic vibe this year. Hearing queer youth cheer their own sessions, seeing lines of boys queue up outside the Academy Twin on Oxford Street and experiencing a truly collective viewing experience with a theatre full of vocal women at the sold-out session of the lesbian erotic film Madam and Eve, it was clear that the festival is doing its job of catering for the diverse queer audience. In ‘going local’, giving a voice to its youth and showing a commitment to embracing and promoting alternative screen cultures, Queer Screen proved that it is moving with the times. Hopefully this momentum will see the organisation sustain itself in coming years and retain the support of its growing audience.

11th Mardi Gras Film Festival, Academy Twin and Dendy Newtown, Sydney, February 11-22

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 21

© Olivia Khoo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2004