"Often made a separate genre, for now LGBT+ characters remain an indie phenomenon of sexually explicit movies"Inflammable Films

In its eighth year, the Watersprite Film Festival endeavours to pioneer the future of film, and with several events dedicated to LGBT+ representation, it seems equality is on the horizon. Yet, as always, the cinematic world remains behind a tinted lens, and the stories being told are not ones of positivity, but prejudice and fear. Often made a separate genre, for now LGBT+ characters remain an indie phenomenon of sexually explicit movies. The question then remains as to how, and when, they will enter the mainstream.

“Films are dominated by corporations that aren’t that interested in being sensitive”, BAFTA-nominated screenwriter Islay Bell-Webb tells me. As a proud nerd and lesbian, the indie status of LGBT+ cinema fails to satisfy her cinematic appetite, claiming that while she loved 2015’s Carol, “it would have been cool if Rooney Mara had magic or something.” With the superhero genre being among the most popular for audiences today, she recognises this to be an obvious choice for bringing queer characters to the big screen, but she is worried they would be stereotyped or made a joke of. Relating this to the latest controversy around presenting Le Fou as gay in the remake of Beauty and the Beast, Bell-Webb says this is “indicative of the problem. You couldn’t have made Lumiere gay?!” she exclaimed. There is certainly a distinction between representing people for the sake of representation, and for the promotion of human rights and equality.

“There is certainly a distinction between representing people for the sake of representation, and for the promotion of human rights and equality”

After all, the role of the film industry is to tell the stories of the forgotten, of the lives of people that otherwise feel they do not have a voice. Director and screenwriter Stephen Poliakoff in the festival’s opening keynote claimed he has devoted much of his career to uncovering the past we overlook. Indeed, in his Dancing on the Edge, he brought to the screen the tales of black jazz musicians in royal courts, and examined the racism of the upper classes in the first half of the 20th century. These ideas recall the powerful acceptance speeches of Viola Davis during the 2017 awards season for her role in Fences, of looking at everyday lives and giving them the attention they deserve. Perhaps then Moonlight’s Best Picture win will again bring LGBT+ themes to the foreground, as Brokeback Mountain might have done had it not been snubbed by Crash in 2006.

Another opening event of the festival was a screening of queer shorts from around the world. The first of these, Spilt Milk, dealt with the confusion of trans teens at their school prom, and used parallel shots to present alternate versions of the night. This created a realistic image of the abuse young people with gender dysphoria experience, benefiting from a lack of the glamour of The Danish Girl. Upon mentioning the name of this controversial Tom Hooper film to Josh O’Connor, star of ITV’s The Durrells, the actor told me the issue was “that an opportunity has been taken away from trans actors.” Expanding on this, he pointed out that “Eddie Redmayne is hardly short of work. I think Eddie will be fine.” The casting of cis actors may once have been necessary for want of decent trans actors, but both he and Bell-Webb were keen to stress that this is far from true today.

“This highlights a difference between dealing with sexuality and gender onscreen, and questions the legitimacy of putting them both in the same category”

O’Connor’s latest film, God’s Own Country, which recently premiered at Sundance, moves beyond the typical urban setting for gay love stories to rural farmland. “When I was asked to play Johnny,” he told me, “I wasn’t sure because I am a heterosexual male and I wasn’t sure if it was right for me to play a queer character.” The conclusion he came to was that the experience of love is universal, and therefore his own experience could not be so different from that. Indeed, if we were to deny homosexual actors the right to play straight characters, most would be out of work. This highlights a difference between dealing with sexuality and gender onscreen, and questions the legitimacy of putting them both in the same category.

There is no denying the Watersprite Festival’s representation of LGBT+ people, and it should certainly be seen as encouraging that the filmmakers of tomorrow are tackling these issues today. But in a world of increasingly narrow-minded politics, and a foreign market that is even more hesitant to embrace equality, the journey there may not be as smooth as we hope. Nevertheless, it has been made apparent that those that care will never cease in creating greater visibility for people that matter just as much as everyone else

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