The success of queer movies is 'a little earthquake' in the film world — and this festival proves it
This year's Inside Out festival shows that queer storytelling is as vital as ever
In this golden age of reboots and remakes, it's tough to imagine our well of untold stories hasn't run completely dry — but just take a look at contemporary queer cinema, which is arguably peaking, and you'll realize this couldn't be further from the truth. 2016 was eclipsed by Moonlight, the tender coming-of-age tale of a gay black boy in Miami, which played for 23 weeks straight at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and just surpassed Ex Machina as the highest-grossing release for red-hot distributor A24. Its happy ending — both within the film and for the team on Oscar night — was a little earthquake both unto itself and the film industry at large.
Last year, CBC Arts' Peter Knegt made a case for the continued relevance of LGBTQ-centric film festivals. The largest one in all of Canada, brimful with 11 days of screenings, networking events, parties and panel conversations, kicks off tonight with the 27th annual instalment of Toronto's Inside Out. Having evolved past its roots as a crucial community space in the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the lineup no longer wholly reflects a population marked by tragedy or traditional coming out narratives. The stories showcased at Inside Out are a peek into the multifaceted lives of LGBTQ individuals of today, faced with an all-new set of obstacles and opportunities.
This year's opening night gala is shepherded by God's Own Country, the feature debut by British filmmaker Francis Lee. A pastoral romance between a disengaged rancher's son and the Romanian migrant who takes up work as his farmhand, the film earned a coveted directing award and was acquired for worldwide theatrical release all following its Sundance premiere. I asked Lee if he'd developed his narrative conscious that first-time filmmakers only get one chance to make a first impression — but he was intent on telling his own story, whether it would garner significant attention or not. "I am obsessional with truth and authenticity in every detail," he tells me. "The only story I can tell is one I am incredibly passionate about."
Another first-timer about to take that plunge is James Fanizza. His short film "Sebastian" played at Inside Out and over 15 international fests in 2014 — and the audience responses were so heartening that the writer-director-actor invested his life savings into fleshing the story out as a full-length movie. The Toronto-set finished product will have its public unveiling Friday night, and Fanizza is thrilled that Inside Out can be the platform where he gets to taste the fruits of all that labour. "LGBT film festivals are so important," the multi-hyphenate says. "They give a voice and outlet for a marginalized group of filmmakers that might not get the traction, or even a showing, at a non-LGBT oriented film festival."
To make a love story where two people fall in love and those two people happen to be men is a conscious choice to stray from the norm.- James Fanizza, filmmaker
Not all filmmakers echo this conviction, however. Openly gay Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman once declared that she would never permit a film of hers to be shown in a gay film festival. When an emerging talent bursts onto the scene, the scramble to define their work often results in a whole lot of pigeonholing. When audiences first laid eyes on God's Own Country, there arose an instant chorus of those christening it "the British Brokeback Mountain." But Lee confesses he didn't have that classic — which he loves, by the way — or any other on his mind at all. "I just wanted to tell a resonant, heartfelt story that didn't exclude any audience," he says. "A story that people could feel ownership over personally."
Telling deeply personal stories is also what drives Bobbi Jo Hart's documentary Rebels on Pointe, a vérité-style backstage pass into the ingenious efforts of the globetrotting, all-male drag ballerina troupe known as Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo. Hart explains she seeks out stories that touch her personally as well as tap into "the universal human threads that connect us all — dreams, love, family, loss, success, failure and the elusive alchemy of finding our purpose in life." She's also willing to acknowledge that her film can't not make some sort of statement, given that it "celebrates being queer, being an immigrant to the USA, being a man in drag dancing ballet on pointe." Artists have a responsibility, says Hart, to help fill in the gaps missed by the mainstream media.
It's a task that takes on a new resonance with Donald Trump as the newly appointed spokesperson of the U.S. Hart, who was born and raised in the States but now resides in Canada, claims her work is equal parts informed by her Canadian tolerance and American confidence: "I am thankful for how the States taught me to stand up for what I believe in no matter what — how one voice is vital and we have a civic responsibility to make a difference."
Fanizza hates to say it, but we're not quite there yet: in 2017, queer art is still intrinsically political. "To make a love story where two people fall in love and those two people happen to be men is a conscious choice to stray from the norm," he says. "I'm proud of who I am and it's always been my calling to create unabashedly queer content."
Upon making his grand entrance at this year's Inside Out, expect to see more of James Fanizza around town as he hunts for funding and moves forward with his next project. The same goes for his fellow filmmakers: Bobbi Jo Hart has already begun crafting her next documentary about the pioneering all-girl rock group Fanny. And for Francis Lee? The unforeseeable success of God's Own Country has underpinned his faith in truthful, authentic storytelling, he says. His next film will be setting out in pursuit of just that once again.
Although these rising filmmakers have assumed a different shape than that of the generations who preceded them, Inside Out is placing them in the limelight to prove that their visions are as vibrant as ever.
Inside Out. May 25-June 4. Various locations. Toronto. www.insideout.ca