As the Mardi Gras Film Festival kicks off in bigger digs, festival director Lex Lindsay shares his observations on current themes in Queer cinema. 
16 Feb 2011 - 3:00 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

As the Festival Director of the Mardi Gras Film Festival (MGFF), Lex Lindsay programs films that embrace the notion of tolerance, acceptance and celebration; his efforts continue the founding principles of an event whose first controversial incarnation was in 1978. Today, the event is one of the largest gay-themed film gatherings in the world. Recently shortlisted by leading gay lifestyle website as one of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians, a frantic Lindsay took some time out on the eve of the Festival's opening night to speak to SBS Film.

How are Australian filmmakers addressing homosexuality onscreen?

Our annual competition for Australian queer short films, My Queer Career, had such an eclectic and accomplished host of entries this year. It's great to see the diversity of narratives. Gone are the days of the standard “school yard coming out” story; we're now seeing much broader issues being addressed and more complexity in the approach to what it means to be young and gay or lesbian in Australia today.

We have films that address the difficulty for first generation Australians to reconcile their parents' culture with their own and their differing ideas about sexuality and what is and isn't socially acceptable. This is becoming quite a common theme in multicultural queer-friendly Australia. And as always, we have the refreshingly kooky and playful Australian comedies, whether it's a Lesbian Zombie Musical, or a High School Musical, sexually progressive aliens or killer wedding dresses, Australians do often exhibit the most no-nonsense, nostalgia-and-earnestness-free examples of gay and lesbian films. I guess, in the same ways we don't take ourselves too seriously, we don't always take the differences between gay and straight that seriously either.

Is there a specific gay archetype that has formed, for better or for worse, over the history of Australian film?

Well, there are very, very few commercial release Australian films with which we can base any argument for an Aussie gay archetype. But I guess if we are to look at the small handful of feature films with leading gay characters, the television shows and the wealth of short films our community has been represented in, Australia is particularly pre-occupied with making its queer characters seem like regular good-ol' Aussies. When you think about it, Priscilla... was about as camp as Australia has ever let itself be with a commercial release, and even then, it all came down to “Hey, we're just like everyone else”.

Head On, The Sum of Us, the gay characters in The Secret Life of Us or Love My Way – they are all explicitly composed characters to mirror the average Aussie. You could call this countering the stereotypes about our community and engendering tolerance, but on another level, you could see it as homophobic. Personally, I am of the belief that the term 'straight acting', especially when being spoken by a homosexual in defining themself, is intrinsically homophobic. How straight are you acting in the bedroom? No, what you mean is – I'm not like one of those poofy fairies. I would suggest Australia's queer films are verging on 'straight acting'.

Is there a universal theme or concern arising out of homosexual cinema at the moment that is present both overseas and in Aust/NZ?

The US and Europe are exhibiting a glut of gay and lesbian titles at the moment which, of course, we are loving! If we were to analyse a common theme amongst them, it would have to be ideas and images of modern families, gay and lesbian parenting scenarios and relationships worthy of state and federal recognition. This is, of course, the current battle for most (progressive), First World, middle-class LGBT people at this time – to end those last vestiges of discrimination and allow our relationships and families the equality they deserve. So, of course, we see this in the cinema too.

This year, thankfully, we have some completely divergent, tangential, wonderful comedies, thrillers and biopics to enjoy as well, which has really added a richness to the palate. So right now, as different film cultures around the world are experiencing different levels of maturity and sophistication with how they tackle queer stories and characters, we're actually seeing more variety in narrative trends than usual, which is very exciting for us.

Does the increase in the Festival's screen numbers suggest a confidence that you'll secure a wider, mainstream audience? Have you had to compromise any aspects of your programming to appease the growth of the Festival?

Well, in absolute truth, the festival is bigger this year because there is more strong queer content out there than we are used to seeing in just one year. We, as a festival, are always beholden to what queer tales are being told, and it's been a very good year for our stories. The move to our new central hub at Hoyts Entertainment Quarter made it possible for us to give all of these films some screen time this festival, for which we are very grateful.

In terms of choosing films that are palatable to a non-gay festival audience – I've never done it once. It's a false economy. This festival is all about providing a space where members of our community can come together and enjoy a deluge of screen content that speaks to us and about us – compared to the comparable drought that we experience through the rest of the year. We live and breathe on the support of our audience; they provide us with 80 percent of our annual income, so this festival is not just for them but also because of them. If in this program some queer-friendly non GLBTI people join our audience, then that is a great bonus, they are most welcome and I dare say they'll enjoy what they see.

What do you see as being the next direction in gay cinema?

There is a breed of exceptional gay and lesbian filmmakers in their 30s right now in Australia, who are poised and ready to break into making features. We just need to see what kind of support they will receive in getting their films made. But the talent, we absolutely have. We should hold great hope and confidence for our current generation of queer filmmakers.

Having said that, I guess my observation, which is completely subjective, would be that Australia has lost interest in telling a gay or lesbian story for the sake of telling a gay or lesbian story. Australia now expects a little more from a narrative than just “It's ok to be gay”, which, let's be honest, is the primary message of a large number of gay films. The problem in Australia is, when you're not creating a character as gay for the express personal politics of it, you're just letting them be gay as happenstance, someone's always going to ask, 'Wouldn't this film do better if the lead wasn't gay?' And in a market where so few films are made and real box office success is so very rare, isn't it fair to ask this? The Australian film industry is very conservative in its approach to the 'story = box office' paradigm. So I think we are in a limbo in Australia, which is why we haven't seen a truly gay or queer feature in commercial cinemas for so very long. We've moved beyond the 'coming out' story but we don't think we can afford to let gay characters lead our other storytelling. Australia doesn't have tens of millions of homosexuals, like the USA, who can support a gay film market with exclusively gay content, so our biggest challenge isn't whether we've made our definitive LGBT film yet, but rather, whether we will just let LGBT characters and stories into our film culture.

The Mardi Gras Film Festival is now running in Sydney. Full program details here.