By Josh Bullin

24 March 2023 - 11:35

A still from the film Wet Sand

A still from the film Wet Sand

What are the challenges of making queer films in countries where LGBTQIA+ rights are restricted? As Five Films for Freedom 2023 comes to a close, National Film and Television School (NFTS) student Josh Bullin shares learnings from creating a queer film season as part of his studies, which screened at London’s Rio Cinema in November 2022.

It can be easy to look at queer stories and characters we see across Western media today and think about how much film and television have progressed in giving queer people a visibility that barely existed just decades ago. However, when you look a little further at countries where LGBTQI+ rights are restricted, things are not quite as rosy. Queer stories from around the world continue to be inaccessible and difficult to find.  

Bringing attention to these stories when we can, using the best possible means we have, not only exposes audiences to the realities facing queer people in countries they know less about, but also grants a vital platform to filmmakers whose work can easily fall by the wayside and go largely undiscovered. For a queer film programmer as me, these were two objectives I wanted to achieve with my own work, which are also a part of what makes a larger project like Five Films for Freedom so vital.

When given the opportunity to programme a project as part of my studies at the NFTS (National Film and Television School), I created a queer film season, ‘Unsilenced: The Resilience of Queer Cinema’. My thinking originated with a desire to examine queer cinema and censorship, which then developed into exploring contemporary queer cinema in countries where legislation and censorship still discriminated against LGBTQI+ identities.

The end result was a short season of four features from four countries – Georgia, Tonga, Indonesia and Iran. I was most drawn to this idea as I found in my research that queer cinema’s notable history was dominated by USA/UK films, while international films premiering at festivals were struggling to gain any traction outside of that circuit. It also adds a strange pressure to attend film festival screenings where you know this may be your one and only chance to see a specific film.

Here are some key lessons I learnt about telling queer stories while curating 'Unsilenced: The Resilience of Queer Cinema':

1. Producing queer films in countries under repressive regimes is an incredibly difficult task at every step. This goes from finding funding when financial or government support is unavailable, to putting together a cast and crew who could face discrimination or abuse in their personal and professional lives for being involved in a film with explicitly queer content. Many films set in these countries could only be produced with the assistance of international co-funding, as was the case with one of the films in my programme, Wet Sand, a Georgian film made possible by funding from Swiss production companies. The same is true of short films from Cyprus and Nigeria featured in this year’s Five Films for Freedom, which have production contexts linked to the UK and US respectively.

2. When a queer film secures external funding in a country where LGBTQIA+ rights are restricted, opponents then may raise questions of so-called ‘Western propaganda’ making their way into these co-productions. To a great extent, this serves to belittle and remove the agency of the filmmakers who set out to tell queer stories. Wet Sand’s director, Elene Naveriani, affirmed that her spirit and passions as a filmmaker remained firmly placed in Georgia, and I believe that the film speaks for itself as being both defiantly Georgian and queer. This co-existence was perhaps the most crucial connection between the films I found for my programme and that I feel is equally felt in the Five Films for Freedom selection.  

3. Most queer films made under repressive regimes carry a complex relationship to nationhood, as the characters and subjects grapple with their connections to their culture and home in spite of dominant forces that threaten their well-being. The focus, instead, is on the queer communities who live in these countries and deal with this dichotomy, rather than painting the entire nation with a broad bigoted brush that needs to be condemned by us. For example, another of the films in the season, Leitis in Waiting, is a documentary focusing on the Leitis community in Tonga who seek to reclaim their home as a safe space where their native culture and trans identities can co-exist. In doing so, queer films like these fight against a western-centric conception of ‘freeing’ queer communities, which often erases the real people who still exist and fight against the injustice in their home countries while maintaining their culture. 

4. When curating films for Unsilenced, I realised that most of the films had not been released in their country of origin or had faced bans and/or potential censorship. The other two films in my season faced the latter two, with the Iranian documentary, Gracefully – which follows an elderly drag performer – being banned outright in Iran, while the Indonesian feature, Memories of My Body, faced bans in multiple provinces and mass protests for including “LGBT elements”. This gives even greater importance to screening the films where they can safely be shown and finally be heard by the world. This lack of reach rings even truer for short films, which get an even smaller reach outside of festivals and so the reach of a project like Five Films for Freedom firmly places these stories in the spotlight and gives them a stage for the whole world to see. 

In putting these films together, I hoped that I could help bring to light the stories and filmmakers of my selected films to a wider audience, and therefore get them some of the appreciation they deserve. All of them had not had much more than a couple of festival screenings in theatrical venues, while also being inaccessible via any streaming platforms – now with the exception of Wet Sand, which is well worth a watch on MUBI. 

I also hoped to bring greater attention to the real-life issues surrounding queer identities in the countries that the films are emerging from. This remains crucial when western media coverage of LGBTQI+ issues in these countries remains very scarce despite the ongoing discriminatory legislation, violence and bigotry that continue to occur. Through the screenings, I hoped that I could help equip audiences with knowledge about these communities and hopefully the desire to learn more and even support them.

As festivals like BFI Flare and projects like Five Films for Freedom demonstrate, the variety and global spread of these communities via film is only growing wider, and so it is key to continue to provide access to queer stories. Not only will it help queer filmmakers flourish, but also ensure the resilient voices of the communities featured do not get silenced.


A still from the film Leitis in Waiting. It shows members of Leitis community from Tonga dancing to a song in elaborate colourful clothing and garlands.

A still from the film Leitis in Waiting