How British queer cinema is entering a new era

New Queer Visions film project curates a new selection of shorts that stay well away from well-trodden tropes and cliché

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Spilt MilkCourtesy of University of the Creative Arts/James Dunstan

In 1987, the gay novelist and essayist Edmund White sought to explore the role of sex in gay culture at a moment of crisis. As AIDS tore its way through queer communities and sex was reconfigured as a lethal threat, he lamented the centrifugal role sex had once played in uniting disparate queer culture and the increasing interaction between aesthetics and loss. Sex, he wrote, was a “principle of adhesiveness”, it was “a force binding familiar atoms into new polymers of affinity.” Queer sex, for White, collides the familiar in new configurations, an endless chain reaction of splitting and recombination that unsettles categories, forges new composites and revels in unexpected new discoveries.

That power to rupture and recombine lies at the heart of queer culture’s allure to the mainstream. It renews tired forms and disrupts rigid classifications. Clichéd romance narratives explode when queered; the question of will-they-won't-they no longer applies exclusively to the (traditionally handsome) male and (conventionally beautiful) female lead, it fractures into infinite possible combinations of genders, practices, performances, love-stories or one-night-tricks. Predictability gives way to possibility, and new forms of being, loving and fucking coalesce, separate and reform. 

New Queer Visions, a London-based queer film curation project, offers a platform for precisely those queer experiments. In carving a space for marginalised forms — shorts and queer cinema are as underappreciated as they are underfunded —it offers a rare snapshot into the cinematic future, giving pride of place to young queer directors. As a collaborator of the London Short Film Festival, a new set of shorts entered the spotlight and new paths for British queer cinema were uncovered.  

Jamie (directed by Christopher Manning) trod fairly familiar ground. A young gay man temporarily escapes family life to meet a guy from Grindr. They walk, talk, and divulge intimate details of their lives. With an enchanting innocence — hardly Grindr’s modus operandi — the film offers a snapshot of spontaneous affection that is as endearing as it is fleeting. Raphael Verrion’s performance as the eponymous character’s brief encounter is exceptional, and the film bristles with warmth before an icy close. 

The queer women’s films were somewhat more experimental, or at least rather more surreal. We Were Waves Once (directed by Asli Umut) chronicles an encounter between two black queer women who ultimately connect over a shared interest in writing. As a short glimpse into the redemptive power of queer love—writer’s block and the loss of a father simmer under the surface—it has a curious magnetism that belies its gentle form. Marina and Adrienne (directed by Lucy Campbell) offers a more mystical vision of queerness, following two women who head off on a fishing trawler disguised as men. Almost wordless — and luxuriously well-produced, no mean feat for a queer short — it explores identity disclosure, birth and death, and superstitious sacrifice with polish and finesse.

“Sex is decisively not centre stage. In its place is a kind of wholesome emotional connection that definitively avoids titillation. Feeling, not fucking, reigns”

The stand-out of the British offering, however, was Spilt Milk (directed by James Dunstan.) While nominally tracing two teens’ coming-of-age story — a narrative often overused in queer cinema more broadly — it was the most formally experimental short of the selection. With threads of abuse and potential incest, nascent sexuality and gender non-conformity, and desire and abandonment coverging and diverging with dizzying speed, the film teeters on the brink of being over-ambitious. That said, it evokes real emotions, a weighty sense of what queerness means to kids still trying to work themselves out, and stood testament to the fact that British queer cinema, despite crippling underfunding, remains in rude health. Taken as a whole, the shorts offered a glimpse of where both British cinema and British queer culture might be headed. 

One tentative conclusion to take away from the showcase is the shift away from urban space. Spilt Milk and Marina and Adrienne both forged a kind of new queer pastoral, decisively shifting away from hackneyed club scenes and cheap coke—the most tired trope of queer hedonism—setting queer protagonists in nature and affording them a singular focus without the distractions of the city. 

Another notable move was the relative scarcity of comedy among the Brit selection, and an almost complete absence of camp. From flat irony to hapless slapstick, British cinema seems inexorably attracted to comedy, as though we still fear the Americanness of schmaltz. The latest batch steered well clear. Perhaps we aren’t hiding behind the same old jokes anymore, perhaps we’re gaining the belief that our stories matter without flashes and bangs. A new sincerity seems to be taking root.

“That power to rupture and recombine lies at the heart of queer culture’s allure to the mainstream. It renews tired forms and disrupts rigid classifications”

Finally, there’s the question of sex. If sex has been the glue uniting “polymers of affinity”, the latest batch of British shorts signal a decisive break. Bar Spilt Milk, which features only one fairly brief and tame sex scene whose eroticism is undercut by an interspersed tale of abandonment, sex is decisively not centre stage. In its place is a kind of wholesome emotional connection that definitively avoids titillation. Feeling, not fucking, reigns.

The decentring of sex in queer culture is, perhaps, one way to parse the future of not just queer cinema, but queer culture at large. Perhaps the breakthrough of gender is unseating the hegemony that sex has long enjoyed in queer representation; perhaps we’re all turning vanilla and buying lime-rendered bungalows in the hollow and uneven age of equality. A few shorts do not a revolution make. But in the space they carve for full-bodied feeling, whether platonic or erotic, they offer a vision of queerness that is subtle, holistic and recognisable. Queerness is entering a new age; its new polymers are yet to be formed.

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