Field Trip #19: Fringe Film Fest, London

Paul Forster goes in search of a Queer Film Fest sans identity crisis, and finds it in Fringe!…

I had originally intended to cover the Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, which took place at the BFI Southbank last month, but thought better of it. They don’t need me for critique or promotion, they’re the behemoth of queer film festivals. Yet, they don’t brand it as queer, merely ‘gay & lesbian’; this identity crisis resulted in their ‘What’s in a name?’ campaign.

Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Fest don’t have this identity crisis, they have a beautifully anarchic DIY sensibility that allowed them to squat in an old Catholic school in Victoria Park, where I watched It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse But The Society in Which He Lives. An inadvertently hilarious German film from 1971, hilarious because the dubbing and German accents continued when those on screen were silent, maybe you had to be there. A challenging and political work questioning the self loathing society imparts on the male homosexual, it provides stereotypes and clichés for your disavowal and a truly forward thinking proto-queer theory discussion at the end alerting you to the real aim of the film.

Arriving in the plush Hackney Picturehouse is a world away from the collapsing chairs in The Old School, a platter of antipasti and a box of amazing popcorn sated us for the screening of Satan’s Angel: Queen of the Fire Tassles. This warts and all documentary follows lesbian burlesque star, Angel Walker (AKA Satan’s Angel) who has been performing since the early 1960s, and shows you a touching side of the seedy underbelly. Her single mother’s early acceptance of her sexuality and support of her burlesque work were heartwarming and Angel’s tenacity, humour and honesty really shine through this well edited if badly lit film. Her ability to twirl flaming nipple tassels is shown and passed on to the younger generation, while her burlesque show often comprises of other pension-age stars. Frequently hilarious and never afraid to confront the ugly truth of sex as currency, drug addiction or fading beauty.

“It is the optimism of the film that bolsters a kind of HIV/AIDS awareness that hasn’t been seen since the ’90s”

No queer film festival is complete without a diatribe or two around HIV/AIDS and Fringe is no exception. Deepsouth looks at the appalling treatment the south-western states of the USA receive when it comes to preventative education and medical funding. The three-pronged documentary shows a lobbyist, two women running a support group and a young man looking for acceptance, struggling but never losing hope. It is the optimism of the film that bolsters a kind of HIV/AIDS awareness that hasn’t been seen since the ’90s.

MTV played a big part in safe sex promotion and the encouragement of tolerance and acceptance of people living with the illness, so Evan Romero’s Viral was almost inevitable. A collection of music videos that tackle the issues on a less clinical, more emotional level, Neneh Cherry and Michael Franti & Spearhead were exceptional picks, but also a reminder that a good song and strong video won’t always get shown on prime time.

Despite the melancholy themes, a lot of hope is present in the Fringe programme. However, One Zero One – The Story of Cybersissy and Baybjane, following a mentally ill drag queen (Cybersissy) and his/her one-eyed dwarf companion (Baybjane) is a little too much to bear. A documentary with some interesting performance art set-pieces and fantastically made costumes starts off as a rallying call for freaks to express themselves, but quickly descends into a search for acceptance in Ibiza and America. There should have been humour in this film, yet a hollow yearning for understanding is depicted as misguided and soulless.

“Have you been wondering where all the sex is? It’s here”

Have you been wondering where all the sex is? It’s here – Travis Matthews, most widely known for the patronising Interior: Leather Bar, premiers his new docushort In Their Room, an intimate look at 8 gay men getting ready to go out and hook up. There is a lot of grooming, preening, masturbation and naval gazing. The 35 min film was made during Fringe 2012 and 2 participants got up to speak and introduce; they mainly talked about wanking.

The short preceding In Their Room, called Bankers, is wonderfully subversive. Filmed covertly in the London stock exchange toilets, one man chronicles the cottaging that takes place. There is a certain schadenfreude element, duplicitous bankers are queer wankers. The film emasculates expertly while keeping all subjects anonymous. I’m sure they know who they are. I am enthused by the use of illicit sex as a kind of anti-capitalist activism. Other charming shorts played on the Sunday afternoon, Aquaporko, the tale of a fat-femme synchronised swimming team in Sydney  and The Bitchhiker, a Brazilian telenovela-esque story about a lesbian hitchhiker who always seems to get what she wants.

Riot grrrl sensibility comes in to play with the Hollywood indie Itty Bitty Titty Committee, a soundtrack of Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Sleater-Kinney and The Need frame a young lesbian’s feminist awakening after a chance meeting with a vandal at the plastic surgery clinic she works in. It is the kind of film I’d show my niece or young second cousins, a humorous tale of feminist terrorists that puts the politics front and centre with a love story, sugaring the pill to whip-smart effect. Likeable characters and a simple story arc make this, the only feature film I watched, a welcome contrast to the reality doled out in documentary format.

Closing the festival was And You Belong, a documentary following Scream Club: laughable queer electro/hip hop group that aren’t in on the joke. The only insight into their well-crafted veneer is when rapper, Cindy, muses about wanting to be able to play instruments and make music properly. I wonder if Fringe decided to show this to illustrate there is a bad way of doing DIY, the Fringe team know the good way, I’ll be returning next year.

Paul Forster

Read more about Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Fest, London, here

Posted on 19/04/2013 by thedoublenegative