By Emma Gilbertson

29 March 2019 - 08:40

Two men dancing in a still from the film Crashing Waves
'The two dancers have been told all of their lives that being a man means being tough and not showing emotion, vulnerability and weakness.' Photo

Emma Gilbertson's short film Crashing Waves, inspired by her story of childhood bullying and understanding her identity, tells the story of two gay men.

This article includes a word that has been used to stigmatise lesbians, which readers may find offensive. 

How has language affected your identity? 

When I was at school, people called me 'dyke', which I now see as an attack on my femininity. 

From a young age, I received specific ideas of what it means to be feminine and masculine. When I was about ten or 11 years old, someone asked my mum why I always played football with the boys. My mum made the point that being a girl didn't define my interests.

When I was 12 or 13, I was bullied by other children, and learned that my differences wouldn't always be accepted. That made me think less about who I am as a person, and more about what it means to be acceptably feminine.

Toxic masculinity is just as damaging, which is one of the reasons I made Crashing Waves about two men. The two dancers have been told all of their lives that being a man means being tough and not showing emotion or vulnerability. I challenge that by telling the story through dance, which is an intimate art form. 

There's also a push-and-pull in the film; the dancers frequently switch from aggression to intimacy. Why did you make that choice?

They want each other, but they're in an environment that doesn't allow them to be together. And, they're an obstacle to each other, because they worry about the people in their environment. 

They reject each other, then they come together. Then, just as they're about to kiss, we see an observer shout a derogatory word for a gay man. It's the only word in the film. 

The dancers are noticing the gap between who they are, and the narrative they have about what it means to be a man. This ultimately changes the picture they had of their lives. 

This is a journey I went on; the discovery that socially constructed ideas of femininity do not define my value as a woman. I am sad that is has taken me so long in life to realise that I was always worthy of respect and love. 

A big part of this film was understanding my own fear, which effected the way I interacted with others and the way I expressed myself. 

I don't think I am the only person who has experienced this. But no matter who you are, you deserve love. We should all feel valid for being ourselves. 

You filmed Crashing Waves in a courtyard surrounded by high-rise flats, where the two dancers are open to observation. Why did you make that choice?

When I was in my first, secret relationship with a girl, I felt like I was being watched all the time. It wasn't true, but I had experienced so much homophobia that it felt like I was under constant observation.

I chose a location that felt like it had an audience. It felt like a stage to me; it has a raised platform, where we see the dancers, and the windows around them are like the audience.

Being observed makes us hide who we are. It's a survival technique. If we're different, we'll get a lot of attention, so I think a lot of people change who they are in order to avoid being observed.

What does it do for you to have a word to describe your sexual orientation?

I use the terms queer or pansexual because I don't think there's a word that fully describes me. But those come close. 

I think it's a testament of my own growth and self-acceptance over the years. There was a time when I felt that I couldn't say that aloud. There was a time when it wasn't even a thing to me; I knew I was having queer feelings, but I thought it was hormones, or a weird day. 

To go from that, to saying that I can be attracted to women, or trans people, or people who identify differently, is a privilege. Some people are never able to define themselves in that way. 

The right to identify yourself is a human right. But my sexuality isn't my identity. My attraction to women doesn't define who I am or how I behave. 

When I was growing up, people called me 'dyke' because that's what they believed lesbians are like. With Crashing Waves, I was trying to challenge these ideas. 

Some viewers have seen the setting and the clothing of the film as representative of a particular social class in the UK. If the dancers' clothes and location were different, would Crashing Waves have been a different story?


I'm not trying to say 'this is what it means to be a working-class gay man'. It's meant to show two people who want to be together, and to challenge ideas about what that means. 

However, people have presumptions about what it means to be working-class, like linking council housing (public housing in the UK) with violence. I have several films, like This is England, Selfish Giant and Fish Tank, set in working-class areas of the UK. Violence is a common theme in all of those stories. That's one reason viewers might think that the two men are about to fight when the film begins, rather than to dance. 

Narratives like that divide people. We all want to be accepted, and we all want love. That is what people from every social class, and regardless of how we identify, need. 

Crashing Waves challenges that narrative. Knowing a person's social class or sexual orientation is not the same as knowing the person. 

#FiveFilms4Freedom, the world’s widest-reaching LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) digital short-film programme returns from 21 to 31 March 2019. 

You might also be interested in