Do young people need to see gay characters on screen? Absolutely, says Irish film-maker Kate Dolan.
Can you tell us about your film?
Little Doll is about a ten-year-old girl having her first crush on a slightly older girl from her school. The older girl invites her to a sleepover, where our protagonist comes under scrutiny because of her feelings. The film is autobiographical in many ways. I also interviewed a lot of my friends about their first same-sex crushes, and incorporated some of their experiences in the script.
Why did you make the film?
As a child, I remember being quite confused and isolated when it came to my sexuality. I had an experience like the one depicted in the film, which made me feel as though something was wrong with me. I wanted to highlight that first moment when you're really young, when you start trying to make sense of your sexuality. I hope that people who watch the film will be a bit more careful about how they deal with children and teenagers, so that young people going through this feel less like they are the only person dealing with this issue.
Did you always want to be a film director?
I bought my first camera when I was 11 with my confirmation money. Before that, I had been always making movies in my head, so yeah, I don’t think there was anything else I could do. I have no idea why I was so drawn to it. I loved watching films as a kid, and creating bizarre scenarios to play with my friends, so I suppose it always just made sense. I set my sights on going to college to study for a bachelor's degree in film, and the rest is history.
Do you feel you have a responsibility to examine lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (LGBT) issues on screen?
When I first started film school, I never thought about my sexuality or gender, and they had very little impact on my work. But then, as I got a bit older, I realised that being an LGBT woman actually gives me a unique point of view that not many other people have, so why not take advantage of that?
In the past few years, I've become much more political in the content I create. I feel like, what’s the point in making something if it’s not saying something meaningful, or has the potential to improve people’s lives? As filmmakers, we can tell any story we could possibly want. So why not use that opportunity to change the world for the better?
When was the first time you saw LGBT characters on television or film?
The first time I saw lesbians on screen was probably when I was 14 or 15. I remember, late one night, a film called All Over Me was on TV while my mum was out. I only got to watch a bit of it before she came home and I promptly turned it off. I remember it being pretty thrilling to see two girls kiss on screen for the first time, and also that seeing it helped me make sense of how I was feeling at the time. Around that time, there were two other television shows, The L Word (on the graveyard slot on an Irish TV station once a week) and Sugar Rush, which aired in 2005. These were watched very much in secret, only when my mother wasn’t home, with my hand always on the TV remote ready to turn it off at any moment. There was a sense of shame in watching them, but also great excitement.
Is it important to see gay characters on screen?
Most definitely, yes. As I said, I only really saw lesbians on screen for the first time when I was 14 or 15 - despite my first same-sex crush being when I was eight years old. That meant six years of feeling completely alone. I thought I was the only person in the whole world feeling like that, and also, that what I was feeling was wrong, because it did not fit in with the norm. There were no points of reference for me to identify with.
I still don't think there is enough LGBT representation in pop culture for young people. Almost all popular films and TV shows show only heteronormative romantic storylines. Our screens are littered with the boy-meets-girl, happily-ever-after narrative.
When we do see LGBT characters on film and TV, they are often struggling with their sexuality in a very negative way. Their sexuality defines them, and their lives are often shown to be hard. We need more complex content and characters. Their stories do not need to revolve around their sexuality, and they can have happy endings, too.
Sometimes you can forget that other people's experiences can be vastly different from your own. Film gives you the chance to experience the point of view of somebody who has a totally different perspective.
Can you give an example of a film that gets it right?
I always have been a big fan of the romantic comedy But I’m A Cheerleader. I think it is one LGBT film that is truly fun and unapologetic. The characters get their happily-ever-after, and are never really ashamed about who they are.
It was also nice to see The Imitation Game: a film about an LGBT person (the mathematician Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) in which their sexuality is part of them but it doesn’t in any way define them or what they can accomplish.
You're from Ireland, which voted yes to same-sex marriage in 2015. What was the reaction like?
Ireland’s population is very small, 4.5 million people in total. I think the main reason the same-sex marriage referendum passed is that, when it comes down to it, almost every person in Ireland had someone in their life who was gay or lesbian, be it a family member, or colleague, or a friend. We are a very empathetic nation, and once people heard the human stories behind this referendum, the majority of people couldn't really say no.
The day it was voted in was the best day of my life. I don’t think there will ever be a day like it again. The city was euphoric: strangers were hugging each other and people were dancing in the streets. I don’t think I saw one unhappy face the entire day.
Since the referendum, daily life for LGBT people has definitely changed. I personally never would have held someone’s hand in public. Now I would have no qualms about doing that. When meeting new people in the past, I would often conceal the fact I was gay for as long as possible, for fear that they would change their opinion about me, whereas now I definitely wouldn't worry about it as much.
What’s the experience of being gay in Ireland like today?
I think since the referendum, it has become much easier. However, there are still people attacked on the street because they’re gay. Approaching the topic of sexuality in the presence of young people is still considered taboo a lot of the time, and there is still a ban on gay men donating blood. Considering that homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993, yet in 2015 same-sex marriage was made legal, our country has come on in leaps and bounds. But there is still a lot to be done.
What would you say to young LGBT artists around the world who might read this?
Don’t necessarily let your sexuality define your work, but do let it inform your work. It gives you a unique viewpoint, and you can use that perspective to change other people’s lives.
Also, never take 'no' for an answer. If you want to make something, find a way to do it. We had a lot of trouble finding the money to make our film in Ireland. We unsuccessfully applied to many different Irish funding bodies over the course of a year. Eventually, we decided that if we wanted to make the film, we had to stop waiting around, and take matters into our own hands. So we crowd-funded the project.
Finally, ask yourself why you’re making content. I made Little Doll hoping that LGBT young people will see it and feel less like they are the only person in the world struggling with their sexuality. When there is meaning in your work, it makes it more fulfilling, and makes you a happier person.
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Kate Dolan has been included in the fiveFilms4freedom 2016 Global List - 33 inspiring people promoting freedom, equality and LGBT rights.
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