Voices

Can film change how we see same-sex relationships?

By Briony Hanson

17 March 2016 - 11:14

Briony Hanson, the British Council's director of film, talks about how film can challenge and educate, and how she selected #fiveFilms4freedom for the world's biggest online lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) film festival, which launched yesterday.

How did you pick the five short films?

Selecting films for this project was a real challenge. It was possibly even harder than selecting films for the British Film Institute (BFI)'s broader LGBT Flare festival, which I did as a programmer back in the '90s.

The concept sounds simple: just pick five short films based on LGBT issues, and make them available to the world. But in practice, it's not so straightforward. When preparing the wider festival programme, you start by watching the full-length feature films that have already been chosen, and then figure out how to attract an audience. But with fiveFilms, you start by thinking about the audience – in this case, the whole world - and work backwards to decide which films they might appreciate most.

There are some basic considerations to take into account: the sheer accessibility of the films, as we're putting them all online where everyone can see them, means we have to find options suitable for audiences of any age. This means keeping them clean: no sex, no drugs, no violence, and no explicit language. You’d be amazed at how many that wipes out straight away.

We also need to try to filter out any overt politics. Given the broad span of countries in which the films will be seen, it's political enough to suggest that LGBT relationships are acceptable, healthy and positive.

Finally, we have to keep a weather eye on cultural specificities. For example, we were desperate to find a comedy and found several we loved, but we realised that each relied on very local knowledge for its humour – there’s only so far that some jokes will travel.

So that’s what we’re trying not to do with the selection. But in terms of what we are trying to do, it’s very simple. We’re looking for the best possible films that give a snapshot of new LGBT cinema. We want the films to reveal the lives of people with different sexual orientations or gender identities; to demonstrate the range of what you can do with a short film; and to have a broad geographical reach.

Can you tell us about the films?

The five films we finally chose this year do all these things and more. Xavier, from Brazil, is an endearing story about a father concerned to support his sexually questioning son. The Orchid, from Spain, takes just three minutes to tell a heart-warming story about an older gay man’s coming out. Swirl, a music-driven debut short from the Philippines with no dialogue, is the definition of homemade, no-budget simplicity, yet packs a sweet emotional punch as it follows two girls at large in the city. Both Take Your Partners, a beautiful gender-questioning drama by a Scottish lesbian director, and Breathe, which is about the pressures of a travelling community from a young Irish director, could almost be miniature feature films. They signal real directing talents to watch out for.

I regret that, despite a major hunt, we didn’t find a film from Africa this year. We had really wanted the continent to be represented. And of course, it would also have been great to have a wider lesbian representation, and to include a ‘bi’ story - but this just gives us incentive for next year.

Do you believe that film is truly capable of changing the way people think?

Yes. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t. Film is part of the British Council’s programme because it is a brilliant tool for our cultural relations work. Film is an art form in its own right. But you can also use it to educate, inform, debate, illustrate and challenge. Even better, film has an effect in situations where people don’t realise they are being challenged or educated.

Everyone ‘does’ film. Everyone consumes film and has an opinion on it, even if they don’t see themselves as a consumer of art or education. This is true whether people watch films on a big screen or a mobile phone, in a movie theatre or on a pirate video: whoever, and wherever they are.

Should these films be educational, or is it enough for them to just be art?

They can be anything the film-makers want them to be; some will educate, some will challenge; some will purely entertain, same as any film on any issue. It’s all valid.

Why is it important to see diversity on screen?

The recent furore over the lack of black representation in Hollywood (which led to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trending on social media) could be seen as a mirror for the value of LGBT diversity. The arguments in both cases are remarkably similar. Those of us who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are still under-represented in mainstream cinema, even in the West, and are desperate to see ourselves on screen for affirmation. But it's also important for people across cultures that might otherwise resist the normalising of LGBT lives. Every same-sex relationship on a television soap opera, every queer character on screen in a multiplex cinema; each of these will be another baby step towards eroding a lifetime of prejudice, distrust and invisibility.

How do the films you've chosen reflect issues that LGBT people are dealing with today?

The film-makers we’ve chosen have all tackled taboo in some way. Just as it’s not fashionable to see older people on screen in any romantic relationships, The Orchid’s older gay man coming out to his son is a rarely seen occurrence.

Trans issues are finally coming to the fore after a lifetime underground, with a handful of on-screen depictions (such as the US television series Transparent and the film The Danish Girl and some radicalisation of laws in favour of trans people. But it will take another lifetime for these public moments to filter down to real people living real lives. For the young girl in Take Your Partners, it's a huge challenge to struggle to slot in to fixed gender roles, even in liberal Scotland.

Brazil, Ireland and even the Philippines (which has a reputation as one of the most gay-friendly nations in Asia), three countries represented by the films, have all made huge strides in equality on paper. But traditional mainstream culture in these countries means that the reality for LGBT people is starkly different from the acceptance one might hope for.

Is the experience of seeing these films different from watching mainstream films that deal with LGBT issues?

There's no difference in the depiction of the issues, but any festival allows film-makers and audiences to experiment, so you’re going to get a broader range on display. One of the great things about Flare, and the many LGBT film festivals across the world, is that it assumes a queer or queer-friendly audience will be seeing the work on show. So you often have the delicious extra layer of not just enjoying a film on its own merits, but of seeing a film with an LGBT theme, among an audience that shares some of its sensibilities. This can be affirming, emotional – and good plain fun. With fiveFilms, as we have made the films accessible online, we imagine that people will take the chance to watch them as a solitary experience. But we also revel in the fact that people may watch them collectively, enjoying them and talking about them online as a virtual community.

What's changed about how gay people are portrayed on screen?

As society has changed, representations of gay people on screen have changed too. Some of that is chicken, and some egg. In the UK and US, there have been huge strides towards true equality, and that has definitely led to a proliferation of gay characters, and audiences embracing those depictions.

Once, although gay relationships were shown as valid and emotional, they often ended in tears, with a gay lifestyle ‘choice’ shown as incompatible with a happy healthy life. Now you have a film like Carol, Todd Haynes’s beautiful adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel. Despite its '50s setting and fair share of heartbreak, the movie ends with the possibility that its lesbian heroines live happily ever after. That’s progress – but then again, one can't help but wonder why the film was more or less excluded from the awards ceremonies this season, despite universal acclaim by the critics.

The singer Sam Smith alluded to the lack of gay actors in his Oscar acceptance speech. Is this a problem with the film industry, or with audiences' expectations? 

Actually, Sam Smith said he believed that no gay man had ever won – rather than no gay actor – and has felt the wrath of social media ever since for not knowing his history. Either way, it’s probably both. The industry and the money men (and it usually is men) are in the business of supplying what the public wants, and as per the example of Carol above, the public seems somehow slow to catch on.

What has this project meant to you as a gay woman?

On a personal level, as a lesbian, I feel this has been an eye-opening project to be involved in on some surprising levels. I am out, proud, happy and confident, and luckily, my sexuality has never been a barrier for me in any place I've ever worked. However, I did wonder, when we first mooted the programme here at the British Council, if it might be problematic. We are not, after all, a political organisation, nor do we have a history of campaigning. Given the sensitivities (and sometimes danger) associated with LGBT rights in many of the countries in our network, I was expecting some resistance.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. It seems that championing human rights is neither a political move nor a campaigning one. It’s simply the just and right thing to do – and as a result, our organisation has embraced fiveFilms in a way that’s made me feel humbled for even imagining the project would be viewed with anything less than enthusiasm. Aside from that, it's also been thrilling to see the organisation at its best, mobilising its vast global network to such great effect.

But it’s also been a sobering experience. Last year, the most memorable moment for me was during a wonderful morning spent on a series of phone calls here in London. The fiveFilms team and some of our film-makers had telephoned British Council offices around the globe to hear from partners about their responses to the films. One of the calls was to Bangladesh, a country where same-sex relationships can be punishable with life imprisonment. After a lively and jolly exchange with an enthusiastic LGBT-friendly gathering on the end of the phone line, I asked if the assembled group was not taking a risk in coming to the British Council office to see LGBT films. The response took my breath away: 'When I left the house today to come here, I knew that there was a bounty on my head,' said a young woman. 'But I came anyway. It was too important not to.'

Nothing could have brought it home with more power. If seeing LGBT films is a big deal to me, even today in the UK, just imagine how much more of a bigger deal it must be in so many other parts of the world.

From 16 to 27 March 2016, join the world’s biggest online LGBT film festival from the British Council and the British Film Institute (BFI), and watch #fiveFilms4freedom for free.

Find the top 30 LGBT films of all time, as voted by more than 100 film professionals.

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