Featured image: Till Kleinert, 2010 winner of the Iris Prize, whose new short film, Boys Village, made with last year’s prize money, opened this year’s festival. Photograph courtesy of Iris Prize 2011.
Someone asked us an interesting question recently: are LGBT film festivals still relevant? Such events can appear insular: LGBT people making films about LGBT people for an audience of LGBT people. While this is true in some cases, there are festivals like the Iris Prize, which delivers something not only highly regarded and very much talked about, but breaks free from this cliquey tendency.
The festival, the largest competitive LGBT short film festival in the world, involves 30 short films vying for a £25,000 prize to be spent towards the winning filmmaker’s next short. The quality of entries was exceptionally high, and you can judge for yourself with all shorts being streamed on Blinkbox for free courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures.
But there were several standout films for us. Tsuyako was a heartbreaking story of lesbian love in post-war Japan. Fourplay San Francisco teased an utterly surprising sincerity and touching intimacy from the most unexpected of scenarios. Ishihara, the festival’s only animated short, was an excellent piece of storytelling with an original approach and inspired visuals. Spring was a tense and smouldering portrait of S&M that grabbed the audience by the gullet. And Bald Guy was a joyous and infectiously funny musical.
There was also a refreshing diversity across the programme. Some films dealt with disability, including the winner of the prize, I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone, whose wholly original story followed a young blind boy’s coming out with heart and a captivating cuteness. James Dean and Thinking Straight were two well constructed and entertaining shorts that were led by trans characters dealing with trans issues: great to see crop up in a genre that is usually dominated by gay and lesbian themes.
The festival itself also includes several feature length films, either world or European premieres of works by previous winners, or championing the good and the great of the up-and-coming. Harvest was a mesmerising film of a slow unfolding beauty set on a farming college in Germany. And August, created by previous Iris Prize winner Eldar Rapaport, was an incredibly well observed and beautifully shot film, winning the Best Feature award.
What further marks Iris out from the crowd is the involvement of people outside of the LGBT community.
‘The fact that 30 per cent of our audience is straight is a key thing for me,’ says Berwyn Rowlands, founder and director of the festival. ‘The idea of gays talking to gays is not for me. I wholly understand why you have conventional lesbian and gay film festivals, which is to do with representation and making sure communities are put up on the screen. But we really push excellence in storytelling. If it’s not good enough, it’s not part of Iris.’
Indeed, some of the creatives involved in the films are straight. Mitsuyo Miyazaki, writer and director of Tsuyako is straight, as are Amarjeet Singh and Jody Medland, co-director and screenwriter respectively of The Adored. There are even straight actors involved in the films, like Rhys Howells, who plays the lead in Vampires: Brighter in Darkness. Some of the Friends of Iris, who host festival guests in their own home, are straight families with young children.
But while there are many things that the festival gets right, some things do slip through the net. A few of the shorts fell well below the standard of everything else. Please Love initially had the premise of being incredibly visceral and interesting, but turned into a protracted and woefully self-indulgent affair, unanimously slated by the festival’s audience. Manhunt, with the interesting premise of a French soldier being seduced by a jihadi terrorist, ended up laboured with a sense of trying too hard to be edgy, and indulged in an overt and cliché military fetishism.
Sessions like the ‘LGBT Families and Children on Film’ forum were interesting and invaluable in helping to define an ethos and direction to LGBT filmmaking. But it was a shame that this year the forum was the only event of its type. We would love to see more of these in the future.
But the festival is set to grow even stronger next year with the announcement that Lord Glendonbrook, instrumental in the set-up of Film4 (which gave us LGBT classics such as Beautiful Thing and My Beautiful Laundrette) is supporting next year’s festival and the making of a short by last year’s winner, Magnus Mork.
‘This is wonderful news for everybody who wants to see the Iris Prize continue to support LGBT filmmakers,’ says Rowlands. ‘Lord Glendonbrook is a much respected figure with a wealth of experience in business including film. As a former Chairman of Channel 4 he has seen the film industry close up through the work of Film4.’
As to whether LGBT film festivals are still relevant: they certainly still are. As confidently agreed on in the ‘LGBT Families and Children on Film’ forum, LGBT film is instrumental in how the community is represented in popular culture, and has the power to change public opinion. But what Iris does is stress the quality of the films rather than their subject matter, opening up the genre outside the community in which it’s already established and no longer making it the exclusive pleasure of LGBT people. The Iris Prize is probably one of the best kept secrets of the international LGBT film community, but it really shouldn’t be. It is an incredible festival that deserves to be celebrated.
The Iris Prize Festival 2011 took place in Cardiff between 5 – 8 October 2011. For more information about the Iris Prize visit www.irisprize.org.