Queer life in the reel world

A still from Australian film "My First Summer", one of the highlights of this year's Mardi Gras Film Festival.

The Mardi Gras Film Festival is about to launch. The Sentinel’s arts editor, Rita Bratovich, profiles a small selection of highlights for wherever you are on the rainbow. 

In the 28 years since it first began, Queer Screen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival (MGFF) has been one of the centrepieces of Sydney’s annual Mardi Gras. This year, despite the fact the international film industry is in slo-mo and many releases have been shelved due to Covid, the 2021 MGFF has managed to put together an international selection of almost 100 queer-themed flicks, including narrative features, documentaries, shorts and episodic films. 

“This year specifically, it’s probably been the unknown,” says Festival Director, Lisa Rose, describing the challenges in putting the program together. 

“There’s no limit to the number of things you can do to make an event bigger and better and more, but year on year you kind of see things that work, you see things that don’t, you tweak, you change things, you add, you might do a focus. But I can only program what gets made … and I can invite films and they may not necessarily say yes; so it can be quite stressful at the point of trying to lock everything in and trying to create the best program that you can.

“It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle – and I really enjoy that,” she says.

Festival Director Lisa Rose. Photo: Ann-Marie Calilhanna.

The ‘create your own experience’ style program is being offered in a combination of in cinema and online screenings, with around 70 per cent of the films being available on demand. There are also two shorts packages which can be accessed for free: the Asia Pacific Alliance package and QueerDoc package. 

Virtually every film genre and dozens of cultures are represented. Asked about some of her highlights, Rose begins with a noir thriller from the US, Through The Glass Darkly. The protagonist is a lesbian whose daughter goes missing and who receives lacklustre assistance from local authorities. When a second child disappears under similar circumstances, this tough mamma-bear decides to do some unwelcome investigating of her own. It’s a tightly wound nail-biter. 

Suk Suk is a film from Hong Kong that has played many festivals around the world. It’s a heartwarmer about two older closeted gay men who find love and each other, and try to hold onto both while a noisy, complex city swirls around them. 

From Romania comes an intriguing film based on true events. 5 Minutes Too Late examines the circumstances surrounding a man who is left in a coma after a protest against the screening of a gay film turns violent. It’s one for those who like investigative journalism style dramas. 

One of the notable things about how queer cinema has developed is the way the themes have matured and broadened. While storylines of coming out and queer polititics are still vital, narratives now also embrace all facets of life, which is, of course, a truer depiction of the LGBTQI+ experience. Two films Rose mentions look at refugees who are queer. 

La Leyenda Negra is about a young girl who lives in the US and fears being deported back to El Salvador. It’s a film that directly addresses Trump era politics and racial issues, as well as a young girl discovering her sexuality. 

La Leyenda Negra film still.

I Carry You With Me is a docu-drama about two Mexican men who try to cross US border.

“It’s a really beautiful film – by far, one of my favourites in the program,” says Rose. “It’s made by an award-winning documentary film maker and it’s her first narrative feature … and then the last 20 minutes of the film is a documentary. So you actually get to see the people that this film is inspired by, living their life later.”

Using the unusual device of having four very different non-binary actors play the same role alternately, Under My Skin tries to convey what it’s like for a non-binary person in a binary world. It’s a simple plot but has some interesting insights. 

Looking at youth culture and sexuality mixed in with racial tensions is a film from Germany called No Hard Feelings. Brash and unapologetic, it depicts young adults trying to enjoy life but being forced to deal with it instead. 

No Hard Feelings film still.

Naturally, we will always need stories about coming of age/discovering new love, and Australian feature My First Summer is a sweet, tender look at two young girls doing just that. Set in a quiet bush town, the film juxtaposes tragedy and grimness with innocence and honesty. 

Speaking of Australian, while Milkwater – which is being presented by the Sydney Sentinel – is a US movie, the film has strong links to Australia, with no less than three Aussie characters. Hailed by The Hollywood Reporter as “a small-scale well acted indie” with “sensitive consideration of the complexities of surrogacy and non-traditional family models”, Milkwater stars Younger‘s Molly Bernard as a rudderless 20-something trying to give her life meaning by helping an older gay man have a child. The film, which has its world premiere at the Brooklyn Film Festival, will have its Australian premiere at the MGFF.

Trailer for Milkwater, which will have its Australian premiere at the Mardi Gras Flm Festival 2021. Video: queerscreen/YouTube.

Among some of the shorts to keep an eye out for are Julka and Julie, a German film about a couple who reconnect 59 years after their youthful love affair, which is revisited in flashback; The Fabric Of You, a UK stop-motion animation about a tailor (portrayed as a mouse) recalling a past relationship, which is surprisingly moving; Sole Mio from France shows a son caught between knowledge of his father’s impending sex-change operation and his mother being  completely unaware; while My Aunties is an animation made up of still illustrations that accompany a heartwarming narration by a man who grew up with gay parents and male ‘Aunties’. 

MGFF 2021 will involve screenings in five cinemas around Sydney, with films available on-demand around Australia.

Trailer for the Mardi Gras Film Festival 2021. Video: queerscreen/YouTube.

The 28th annual Mardi Gras Film Festival commences Thursday, 18 February and runs until Thursday, 4 March. For the full program, more information and to purchase tickets, visit queerscreen.org.au.