As the UK’s largest celebration of contemporary queer cinema returns, we highlight some of this year's most essential viewing...
Spring has sprung, which means it's time for another edition of the UK’s largest celebration of contemporary queer cinema. Adapting to these continually strange times, 2021’s installment of “gay Christmas” is now more accessible than ever, with a fabulous array of features, shorts, and events available to watch digitally across the UK.
Returning are BFI Flare’s three signature feature strands: Hearts, Bodies and Minds. And, in each, viewers can expect everything from tender teen romance to genre-bending queer thrillers. As always, the festival’s line-up works to encapsulate the complex spectrum of the LGBTQ+ experience; noticeable this year is a strong documentary presence and a distinct focus on intersections of queer identity, race, and politics.
Of course, devouring the entire feature programme is the ultimate goal, but if you can only squeeze in a few films, we’ve selected some of the most essential watches. For the full list of titles, check out our dedicated festival page…
My First Summer
Two young girls tip-toe between the boundaries of friendship and love in Katie Found’s exquisite feature debut My First Summer. When Claudia is left alone after her mother’s suicide, it is the bright and easy-going Grace who provides emotional solace and the opportunity to explore untapped desires. With sensual fruit-picking and sun-dappled landscapes to rival those in Call Me by Your Name, this Aussie coming-of-ager looks set to become a staple amongst queer, adolescent cinephiles and beyond.
This isn’t Cowboys’ first rodeo (and by rodeo we mean “queer-centric film festival”). Anna Kerrigan’s tender drama about a well-intentioned father running off to the wilderness with his transgender son quietly made its mark at a few LGBTQ+ festivals last year before coming to the UK circuit in 2021. Set against the sprawling landscape of rural America, it traces the generic lines of the thriller as it explores matters of parental love, mental health and gender dysphoria, resulting in a complex and compelling tale of identity.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson
Utilising sci-fi elements, Ali LeRoi’s searing drama The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is a gruelling story of sexuality, race, and police brutality. After a wealthy Nigerian-American teen is shot in a racially motivated attack, he is forced to relive the events of the heart-shattering day as he repeatedly undergoes reincarnation. Can he do things differently and avoid his tragic death once and for all? The Obituary of Tunde Johnson certainly seems ambitious, not only traversing generic boundaries, but tackling a multitude of harrowing and uncomfortably relevant socio-political themes.
AIDS DIVA: The Legend of Connie Norman
Bold, brash, and unapologetic as the woman herself, AIDS DIVA: The Legend of Connie Norman is the electrifying tale of one of queer history’s most fierce activists. Dante Alencastre’s documentary paints a vivid portrait of a political figure who refused to be silenced; interviews with friends and peers mix with archival footage to pay beautiful homage to this ACT UP member who fought so vigorously against transphobia and the AIDS pandemic. This retrospective doc feels timely and vital for young queer audiences to learn about their history – as one interviewee states, if Norman were around today, she would likely have “millions of Twitter followers.”
Cured looks set to stand as a testament to what Flare always gets right, expertly balancing the celebration and education of queer stories, old and new. In amongst the festival programme’s spread of giddy romance and modern-day stories comes this rich documentary exploring the work of activists to remove homosexuality from American Psychiatric Association’s definition of mental illness. Comprised of archival footage and moving interviews with some of the original campaigners, this is essential viewing for anyone looking to deepen their understanding of queer history.
Moomins are positioned as unlikely queer icons in this touching biopic of their creator, Tove Jansson, c entred around her early years as a struggling artist. Tove sees Jansson navigate artistic and feminine expectations, as she attempts to live up to the legacy of her sculptor father whilst also succumbing to secret sapphic desires. Alma Pöysti stars as the titular Tove – a fitting casting choice, given her work as a voice actor in a number of Moomin animations in Finland. This biopic looks as warm and inviting as Moominvalley itself – we can’t wait to get lost in its whirlwind romance.
Dark and twisted perhaps isn’t the first thing you think of at a festival that’s known for queer joy, but Martín Kraut’s The Dose looks like the perfect shot of macabre for any genre fans out there. This psychological thriller sees Marcos, an experienced nurse at a private clinic, have his career threatened due to a sudden new arrival on the ward. Though well-intentioned, Marcos harbours a dark secret: he euthanises patients with no chance of recovery in order to relieve them of their suffering. What ensues is a chilling and ultimately homoerotic game of cat and mouse between the two nurses, as they grapple with morals, motives, and menacing sexual desire.
Nothing compares to the all encompassing embarrassment of being a teen and Nell Barlow’s AJ knows it better than most. She can think of nothing worse than being dragged along on a seaside camping trip by her mum. But the family holiday starts to look up when AJ crosses paths with the alluringly cool lifeguard, Isla. Suddenly faced with the uninterrupted opportunity to explore the excitement of first love (the campsite boasts no WiFi and is located in the middle of nowhere), AJ begins to blossom. Marking Marley Morrison’s debut feature, Sweetheart won the Audience Award at Glasgow Film Festival 2021 and looks to be an utter delight.
Jump, Darling sees the late, great Cloris Leachman play an elderly woman desperate to avoid the looming threat of the local nursing home. At a plateau in life, her rookie drag queen grandson moves into her rural Canadian home in order to become her carer, whilst also confronting the realities of his own existence. Based on director Phil Connell’s relationship with his own grandmother, this offbeat drama of generational differences and millennial crises looks like a perfect send-off for Leachman, who stood as both an icon and an ally to LGBTQ+ people around the world.
As a young trans activist and YouTube star, Thiessa Woinbackk is already a sensation. Now she’s making her mark on the film industry in this debut feature from director Cássio Pereira dos Santos. Woinbackk stars as Valentina, a transgender teen whose mother moves them to a new town in the hope that the young girl can live a normal life without social stigma. Valentina becomes fast friends with two teen misfits, together navigating the minefield of adolescence, until an incident at a party threatens her new life. This looks set to be a vital coming-of-age film that positions the raw experience of a trans teen front and centre.
BFI Flare 2021 runs between 17-28 March. Tickets for the festival film programme are still on sale, while all shorts and events will be free to watch via BFI Player, BFI on YouTube, and BFI on Facebook.