As the Mardi Gras Film Festival gets underway, we canvass the highlights and emerging trends in LGBT storytelling.
15 Feb 2012 - 12:45 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:10 PM

In 2011, world cinema saw LGBT themes emerge from a number unlikely sources – countries where 'gay stories' have a history of being sidelined, if they get told at all.

Indian director Onir, one of the few openly gay artists in a country that still considers homosexuality a taboo, released I Am, a bold anthology of the efforts of India's various fringewellers to confront prejudice and triumph over adversity. Onir secured backers for the film through crowdsourcing (he appealed for donations from a Facebook page) and I Am received positive reviews on release in India. Oliver Hermanus' South African drama Skoonheid (Beauty), a chronicle of a middle-aged man's battle with repressed desire, won Cannes' Queer Palm best film award (the first Afrikaan film to be bestowed the honour). Asian cinema also enjoyed a landmark year for gay-themed works. Thailand's first mainstream lesbian film, Saratsawadee Wongsomphet's Yes or No was a box-office hit; Khir Rahman's gender-reassignment drama Dalam Botol was front page news in Malaysia; Indonesia's lady-man superhero spoof, Lucky Kuswandi's Madame X, became a cult hit; and Vietnamese audiences were captivated by Ngoc Dang Vu's gay love story, Lost Paradise (pictured). MGFF will be screening mature-age lesbian romance dramas from Canada (Thom Fitzgerald's Cloudburst) and Israel (Jonathan Sagall's Lipstikka), as well as Turkey's first cinematic examination of a gay-related honour killing, Caner Alper's and Mehmet Binay's Zenne Dancer. In addition, 2011 saw the launch of Kenya's inaugural OUT Gay Film Festival, one of the African continent's largest celebrations of gay culture.

In the English-language mainstream, fully-developed LGBT characters are all-too rare, but in 2011, a number of characters in films aimed at wider audiences bucked this depressing trend. The highest profile performance is Christopher Plummer's 'Hal Fields' in Mike Mill's Beginners (interview below). As an ageing father who declares his long-latent homosexuality to his son (Ewan McGregor), Plummer gives arguably the finest performance of his career as a changed man living life to the fullest with the burden of secrecy lifted from his shoulders.

Other noteworthy examples include: Lesbian love and cross-dressing being explored in Rodrigo Garcia's Albert Nobbs, with Glenn Close in full drag; the 'gay best-friend' caricature as reinvented – splendidly – by openly-gay actor Jeremy Dozier in Abe Sylvia's Dirty Girl (opening night film at Mardi Gras Film Festiival 2012).Clint Eastwood didn't shy away from exploring the torment of hidden homosexual longing and the effect it had upon his title character in J. Edgar. David Fincher jettisoned gay support characters for his take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but openly portrayed his heroine's bisexual lifestyle. LGBT characters were central to the plotting and afforded multi-dimensional representation (to varying degrees, admittedly) in other such works as Hanna, Our Idiot Brother, Red State and The Mechanic.

In the indie sphere, audiences appreciated a number of frank and honest depictions of LGBT experiences. At the forefront of this neo-realism movement is Andrew Haigh's simple yet profound all-male love story, Weekend (trailer below). Other examples include: Dee Rees' Pariah, which explores the all-but-ignored world of the urban, African-American lesbian; Kaboom, one the most acclaimed films from indie veteran Gregg Araki, took on college-age homosexual awakening; and screening at MGFF, Rashaad Ernesto Green's Gun Hill Road, explored an inner-city teenager's complex, secret life as a cross-dresser. And the LGBT filmmaking community is enjoying a good ol' fashioned piss-take in the form of Madeleine Olnek's monochromatic oddity Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.

The 2012 Mardi Gras Film Festival, launching in Sydney on February 16 before undertaking an extensive tour of regional and interstate centres, has programmed many of the most influential works from a year which saw bold talents release remarkably assured projects. The MGFF is screening Heather Corkhill's heart-breaking documentary The Cure, in which she examines, through first-person recollection and irrefutable evidence, the efforts of Australia's established religious hierarchy to brutalise homosexual urges out of young men and women over the last half-century. Along with the all-Australian shorts programs 'My Queer Career' and 'Something in the Water', MGFF presents a collection of works that suggest a shift away from the 'pooftah' persona that has dogged Australian cinema since Ken G. Hall introduced 'Entwistle', a mincing owner of a ladies fashion boutique, in Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938).

One of the most moving Australian films of the last 12 months was the 60-second short It's Time, created to encourage acceptance of proposed same-sex marriage initiatives. Starring straight actor/filmmaker Julian Shaw (director of the 2007 documentary on South Africa's most famous drag-queen performer, Darling! The Pieter-Dirk Uys Story) as the embodiment of romantic love for a largely-unseen gay partner, it was a global viral sensation, clocking 3.5million YouTube hits within a week of its launch. The short has done much to reposition Australia as a leader in the fight for LGBT acceptance and stands as a milestone moment in a year of positive cinematic transition for the LGBT community.

The Mardi Gras Film Festival runs from February 16 – March 1. For more information visit the official website.