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Yony Leyser: Queer to the Core

Exploring a striking but marginalised facet of LGBTQI+ culture, the new documentary Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution looks at how, in the mid '80s and ‘90s, a group of queer outsiders turned the punk scene on its head by putting butch-dykes and gay skinheads centre stage. We spoke to director Yony Leyser.  
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Rift (Rökkur) (Mardi Gras Film Festival)

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The complexity of LGBTQI characters in modern cinema still has a ways to go. Too often, we still see the stereotypical (and offensively two-dimensional) gay-bestie or flamboyant supporting character with all the emotional range and substance of a pop-tart. There are however, glimmers of hope that represent the gay community with intelligence and honesty, cleverly (and with no BS) depicting the realities of LGBTQI relationships.

Rift (Rökkur in the original Icelandic) is absolutely one of these films. Written and directed by Icelandic Erlingur Thoroddsen (Child Eater, 2016 and The Banishing, 2013), Rift is an Icelandic thriller, telling the story of two men in a secluded cabin who are haunted by their dead relationship.

It begins when Gunner (Bjorn Stefansson) receives a strange phone call from his ex-boyfriend, Einar (Sigurdur Thor Oskarsson), months after their unresolved break-up. Einar sounds distraught, like he’s about to do something terrible to himself, so Gunnar drives up to the secluded cabin where Einar is holed-up and soon discovers that there’s more going on than he anticipated. As the two men come to terms with their broken relationship and reminisce about their traumatic childhood experiences, they gradually realise that there may be someone else in this seemingly lonely region. Threatening noises outside the house grow in intensity, and the looming presence of a mysterious figure in red forces the pair to question their reality.

Having both written and directed the film, Erlingur Thoroddsen knows the world he has constructed inside and out, and as a result the complexity of the narrative is sewn into every facet of the writing and direction in a highly obscure and layered way. In fact, it’s one of those films you can watch over and over and find something new every time.

To this end, Thoroddsen is very clever with his tropes here, using a delicate blend of symbolism and distortion to create this fractured, hyper-real environment. The characters – and therefore the audience – are kept in a constant state of questioning what’s real and what isn’t, which keeps the intrigue-factor strong right through to the very end. To give a local comparison, Rift communicates about sexual trauma in much the same way as Aussie smash-hit The Babadook does with mental illness.

If you’re a cinematography nut, Rift is definitely for you. The brutal and vast landscape play a large role in the film’s symbolic value, sure, but if nothing else, it is damn breathtaking to look at.

Likewise, the performances of Bjorn Stefansson and Sigurdur Thor Oskarsson should be commended, as the film is essentially a two-man gig. The pair have very little to rely on; with nothing else but each other and their reactions to what the other is experiencing. It was a tall order, and the pair do a magnificent job in expressing the strange relationship between love and pain.

What’s really – and perhaps most – exciting about this film is that the characters’ sexuality is a complete non-issue. Gunner and Einar are at complete ease with their sexuality, and are represented with the same complexities as a straight couple. The fact that they are gay is never really pointed out, rather they just *are* gay, as much as a straight couple is straight. It’s a significant benchmark for how a mainstream thriller/horror film should be dealing with representations of LGBTQI life.

Rift is terrifying, thrilling, highly-nuanced, a pivotal moment in queer cinema, and one hell of a ride!

 
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They (Mardi Gras Film Festival)

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Progress may be slow to some, but hope springs eternal that, as a society, we are shifting further in the direction of people being unafraid to identify themselves by whatever gender they wish. Iranian filmmaker Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s film, They, circles around the idea of identity with the centre of her hypothesis being a young 14-year-old teen, J (Rhys Fehrenbacher).

 

J is currently on hormone blockers in order to give them more time to decide on whether they want to be a boy or a girl. Living with their sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), and her Iranian boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hoesseini), whilst their parents are away, J goes from day to day choosing a different gender in order to see where they feel most comfortable. There’s a wonderful inversion of expectations in the beginning as, despite their turmoil, we never see J treated out of hand by those around them.

Ghazvinizadeh’s direction gives J’s days a dreamlike quality, made up as it is of still shots, close-ups and dialogue apparently deliberately re-recorded after the fact. As beautiful as these scenes come across they also, sadly, act as a barrier to J’s world. We never truly feel like we’re being allowed into J’s thoughts and feelings unless they’re vocalising them to their sister in sunkissed fields of long grass. In a sense, that’s perhaps the point. As patient as Lauren and their parents are, they can never truly understand the identity issues the young teen is having.

That said, having made progress laying out J’s day to day routine, Ghazvinizadeh makes the mistake of pushing them into the shadows of their own tale when Araz’s relatives arrive for a meal. This B-plot,which sees Araz’s family fighting, laughing and dancing to the bemusement of Lauren goes nowhere. Whilst we can draw a line from J’s life experience to Araz’s, in that the latter wishes to be American, but yearns for home, it effectively blocks out the young lead’s story and never really recovers its pacing.

And it really is a shame to lose sight of J, as Fehrenbacher – who identifies closely in real life with J – stands heads and shoulders above his co-stars. His performance is so haunting and detailed he steals every scene he’s in. Overall, Ghazvinizadeh’s They is a well-meaning piece of work that suffers from an unfocused story.

 
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In Between (Bar Bahar) (Mardi Gras Film Festival)

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In this sparky, captivating slice-of-life dramedy from Hungarian-born Arab-Israeli filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud, we follow a group of three Palestinian-Israeli women living in the centre of modern day Tel Aviv. They kick against the drag of religious and cultural expectations from their respective familial backgrounds and struggle to maintain control over their own destinies.

Layla (Mouna Hawa) is a lawyer who chain-smokes her way through her busy days, her gay flat-mate Salma (Sana Jammelieh) DJs frequently at venues around the city and tends bar to subsidise it. Both women party regularly with a close-knit group of Palestinian friends.

Salma’s visits to her oblivious conservative Christian family inevitably result in awkward and unintended ‘drop-in’ visits from prospective husbands and Layla’s boyfriend reveals his embarrassment at introducing her to his own conservative family because Layla smokes heavily and dresses ‘sexily’.

So, while these women have forged their own path in life, the patriarchal traditions of their cultural roots slowly seep into the modern, independent existences that they’ve carved out for themselves.

When wide-eyed Muslim girl, Nour (Shaden Kanboura) arrives from her small rural village with a suitcase in hand, to occupy the third room in the flat, it seems to prefigure a combative triangle forming. However, Nour’s impending arranged marriage to an abusive fiancé soon gives rise to a close friendship forming between the three, as each woman informs aspects of the other’s life.

In Between’s spotlighting of such a little-seen aspect of Palestinian life and culture through such a universally relatable prism, is precisely what cinema is best at. It’s captured with a fundamental vibrancy, aided by an eclectic soundtrack that vacillates between moody instrumental solos, dub beats and electronica and most significantly, with its uniformly strong lead performances, which make for captivating viewing and signal Maysaloun Hamoud as a filmmaker to watch.

 
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Boys For Sale (Mardi Gras Film Festival)

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In Tokyo’s Shinjuku 2-chome gay district, predominantly straight male sex workers known as urisen ply their trade with male and female clientele. It’s an area of Tokyo that’s been associated with a largely clandestine sex trade since the 17th century. In Japan, it’s legal for a woman to be paid for sex; however if a man is paid for sex, it’s still illegal.

Boys for Sale, directed by Japanese filmmaker Itako, features warts-and-all conversations with the male sex workers themselves; some masking their faces and several others who willingly reveal themselves. The subjects were ‘on the clock’ during filming, meaning the filmmakers paid the men their hourly rate in order to gain access and interview them. Filming took place in a ‘sex room’ no bigger than a single bed at one of the urisen bars and the documentarians had only an hour to set up, conduct the interview, and leave without being noticed.

Japanese culture is steeped in family honour and an inbuilt sense of propriety, so the honesty and forthrightness on show amidst the threat of being revealed gives these young men’s accounts, immediacy and muscularity. Their stories (interspersed with starkly explicit animation by N Tani Studio and Jeremy Yamamura) are all profoundly similar, amounting to what is essentially a severe lack of options.

The tsunami that decimated Fukushima saw several of the men lose their homes and their jobs in the devastation. Another young man took on his deceased father’s debt and now struggles to earn the money to repay it. The job, they believed, was to be an escort for women and sometimes men. It reportedly paid well. In reality, it requires mainly gay sex, at times unprotected. STIs are part of the daily concerns that go along with those risky activities, given that they would mean an end to the work. The small amount of money that they are left with barely covers living costs and to earn it, many of them compromise their own sense of self as heterosexual men and go ‘gay for pay’. Coupled with this bizarre dichotomy, they also live with the fear of being revealed to the judging eye of their friends and family, living a lifestyle that’s still considered taboo in Japan as well as working in a profession that’s illegal.