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Justice Jamal Jones, Pearls in the Spotlight
Justice Jamal Jones, Pearls in the Spotlight

4 original short films that explore the meaning of queer chosen family

Young, visionary filmmakers have shared their unique takes on chosen family for Queer Lens, a new film series from Dazed and Calvin Klein

As an art form, queer filmmaking is filled with depictions of chosen family, from the real underground community of the Harlem ballroom scene of the late 80s in Paris is Burning, to the casts of queer misfits in Pedro Almodóvar melodramas, to the caring coterie of friends in Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin. They could be made up of friends, lovers, biological family, ancestors, allies, or idols – what binds these families together is a sense of belonging that allows each individual to express themselves freely, and to be seen on their own terms.

In recognition of cinema’s role in promoting visibility within LGBTQ+ communities, Calvin Klein recently partnered with Dazed to present Queer Lens, a series of short films that respond to the theme of “chosen family”. With a diverse range of films from Monica Lek, Adam Munnings, Justice Jamal Jones, and the filmmaking partners Heather Glazzard and Nora Nord, the series spans documentary, narrative, and experimental filmmaking to explore this theme from every angle.

Below, we take a deep dive into each of the films and unpack some of their highlights. Watch all of the Queer Lens films in full here.

JUSTICE JAMAL JONES, PEARLS IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Justice Jamal Jones’ mockumentary-style offering, Pearls in the Spotlight, makes a case that “family” is impossible to define, and all the better for it. Largely unfolding over the course of an intimate post-shoot wrap party, the film opens in a photography studio, with Jones casting themselves behind the camera. As the filmmaker takes a phone call, however, we follow their subject, the Black trans actor Yasha Lelonek, through the studio, where she regroups with the rest of Jones’ inner circle.

In a series of informal interviews, they proceed to speak on their individual definitions of family, love, and spirituality. In the meantime, Jones (born in Nebraska and based in New York) shares a heartfelt conversation with their father over the phone, reconciling their difficulties to accept that their biological family got them where they are today. “I guess I might be the daughter of my mother and the son of my father,” they say. On returning to their circle of friends, the wrap party turns into an impromptu dance session, as they vogue together and play a game of truth or dare, which acts as a portal into deeper truths and shines a spotlight on the beauty and joy of their relationships

What makes Pearls in the Spotlight so affecting is that the definition of chosen family isn’t exactly the same for any two members of the cast – it’s all relative, dependent on where they grew up, the people around them, and the complex inner lives they lead. “Family’s hard, even chosen family,” narrates the voiceover. “Family is sacred, and it’s not something you come by very easily or very often.” However, Justice Jamal Jones’ film offers hope, urging viewers, and the creatives that will surely follow in their wake, to fully embrace their family when they find it, and to hold on tight.

ADAM MUNNINGS, OASIS

The Tasmania-born, Berlin-based filmmaker Adam Munnings is known for his hyper-stylised, expressive, and unmistakably queer filmmaking, lifting inspiration from the likes of Xavier Dolan. His new short film for Queer Lens, titled Oasis, is no exception, taking us on a powerful emotional journey, spanning loneliness, hope, and finally the joy of acceptance among Berlin’s LGBTQ+ community.

The four-minute short film opens with lines of a poem by Daniel Marin Medina that recount a tale of alienation, spoken in the dislocated voice of Riley Davidson. “There was no joy there, not for me,” they say. “You’re too much, you’re not enough. Stand up, bend, but don’t break.” Solo dancers, meanwhile, tell their own stories through the medium of their bodies – captured in monochrome, their contorted movements speak of restriction, repression, and discomfort in their own skin. 

Oasis, however, is a film of two halves. “I loosened the grip of calloused hands, unstuck myself from your illusory concessions, and set out to find a real home,” says the narrator. “And there you all were.” You, in this case, refers to a diverse community built on care and solidarity: “All genders, no genders, our bodies gifts to explore.” At this point, the film seems to burst into life, transitioning to a colourful, strobe-filled group performance with a pulsing electronic score by Thor Rixon.

For Munnings, it’s about highlighting the power of finding your people and place in the world – the titular Oasis – and how queer cinema can help to open these doors. “It’s an ongoing journey of understanding what it is to be queer,” he says. “As we progress we’re learning that queerness is so much more than sexuality: it’s deeper than that. I think queerness is beautiful.” Watching his film, it’s impossible to disagree.

HEATHER GLAZZARD AND NORA NORD, IN THE PRESENCE OF ARTISTS

The title of In the Presence of Artists – a film by photographer and director Heather Glazzard, and the cinematographer and editor Nora Nord, who are also real-life partners – pretty much tells us everything we need to know about the filmmakers’ chosen family. In just under five minutes, the documentary takes us into the lives of the pair’s fellow queer creatives, including the drag king Prinx Silver, and artists Jade O’Belle and Ebun Sodipo, to reflect on their individual practices and how they uplift each other as a group.

“I wanted to capture my friends who are making amazing work,” Glazzard says, hinting at an inherent generosity at the heart of queer filmmaking, a form so often concerned with shining a spotlight on other creatives or figures in the filmmaker’s orbit.

In Glazzard and Nord’s film, this mainly takes the form of insightful interviews conducted in the respective studios of the featured artists. Think: mixed media artist O’Belle lighting candles as they reflect on their ancestry and spirituality, or Sodipo exploring their relationship with the body and voice against a backdrop of their collages, or Silver dancing around their living room in leather chaps, discussing how humour helped shape their conception of gender.

Perhaps the most touching part of In the Presence of Artists, though, situates the three creatives in a lush park, accompanied by the people that make their work possible – lovers, friends, or other queer creatives such as Sinead O’Dwyer. “I love working with friends,” says O’Belle. “I feel like you have so many ideas going around, and when you share those thoughts with people, then they grow and you find new possibilities, you learn so much. You create family.”

MONICA LEK, MAR DE DIRAC

Mar de Cirac (or Cirac’s Sea) – a film by the Spanish-born, New York and LA-based artist Monica Lek – opens with a sensual take on quantum entanglement. “If two systems interact with each other, for a certain period of time, and then separate,” whispers the narrator, they are, “in some subtle way, converted into a single system. One of them continues to influence the other, despite kilometres of distance, or light years.” It’s a beautiful idea, especially when applied to two young people whose “entanglement” amounts to a summer spent in each others’ arms, as it does in Lek’s short film.

Taking inspiration from the likes of Ingmar Bergman’s seminal Persona, and evoking the sultry summer nights of more recent gay romances such as Call Me By Your Name, Mar de Dirac follows two young woman, Vega and Lethe. The latter is visiting for the summer, and she brings a sunrise-tinged light to the moody blues of Vega’s life, as the pair take in fairground rides and impulsive swims in the local lake. These moments, Lek assures us, will change Vega forever.

Of all the Queer Lens films, Mar de Cirac is perhaps least concerned with the formation of a lasting community. Instead, it explores the importance of queer chosen family through the depiction of its absence – the sense of isolation and nostalgia-tinged loss that lingers in the wake of a whirlwind romance. In this sense, it’s no less effective as a reminder of the importance of finding the people that allow you to experience and express your truest self. The universal beauty that Lek draws out of Vega and Lethe’s brief but complex connection establishes her as a filmmaker who is on track to join the likes of Bergman, Guadagnino, or Jarman in the pantheon of queer filmmakers in years to come.