• Reef Ireland and Charles Ground in 'Downriver'. (Happening Films)Source: Happening Films
Grant Scicluna’s 'Downriver' is part of a new wave of queer cinema successfully making the transition from the gay festival circuit to wide release.
By
Tim Hunter

26 Apr 2016 - 1:51 PM  UPDATED 26 Apr 2016 - 1:36 PM

There's been an explosion of queer characters on Australian cinema screens of late – and not just within the gay and lesbian film festival circuit.

Last year the film adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s much-loved memoir and gay love story Holding The Man made its presence felt in cinemas around the country, alongside documentary Remembering The Man, which had a theatrical release shortly after. Tony Ayres’ Cut Snake also featured gay characters.

In June this year, two films with gay characters that had their premieres in festivals will have theatrical seasons: Dean Francis’ lifesaver drama Drown, and Grant Scicluna’s moody rural mystery Downriver.

Scicluna’s film premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival with four sold-out screenings, and has screened at international film festivals including Toronto, San Diego, Fort Lauderdale, and a screening at this year’s Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. It's also secured a distribution deal in the US.

For a low-budget first feature with same sex-attracted characters, that’s quite an accomplishment. “It had to be,” explains Scicluna, “because we were a Screen Australia-funded project. In order to get the funding, you have to have a distributor that will commit to a theatrical release."

That said, Scicluna was never expecting to see his film go out to 400 cinemas.

"I honestly expected it would only be a Melbourne and Sydney release and then go onto streaming and DVD, but it seems it’s bigger than that: Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and possibly Perth, on single screens in all cities except Melbourne.”

 

Promoting and marketing Downriver with few resources, Scicluna utilised social media to get the word out, and he’s using the story as its primary selling point - not the sexuality of its characters. “It’s not sold as a gay film because that conjures for people an idea of queer films as a genre. It’s certainly not that kind of film; it’s not about issues or coming out. We’ve been selling it as a mystery film, but not shying away from the queer content."

While the trailer doesn’t appear overtly queer, Scicluna says the stills and marketing are "very gay".

"So it’s a two-pronged approach, and not putting anyone off. We know we have a queer audience, but we also have an arthouse audience and another audience that likes dark cinema. So we have to find those audiences and appeal to them all at the same time. They’re small niches crossing over.”

Recommended
Downriver review: Murky memories of a murder
‘Downriver’ is excellent at asking questions and portraying the ripple effects of juvenile trauma.

So is there a reluctance to label a film ‘gay’? Well, yes and no.

“There are people trying to come from the right place and say ‘we don’t want your film to be seen as just a gay film’. I understand where they’re coming from, [but] I find that hideous and patronising at the same time.

“There’s no real reluctance from funding agencies, but when you’re trying to get distributors and sales agents on at an early stage in order to finance your film, gay content can be a huge deterrent. But there other agents and distributors who champion queer stuff and make it their niche, and you get extra bonus points for having queer content.

"We were in a situation where some agents were saying ‘we love that it’s queer, but it’s not queer enough!’. They were pushing the queer genre. It does depend on who you deal with.”

"We were in a situation where some agents were saying ‘we love that it’s queer, but it’s not queer enough!’. They were pushing the queer genre. It does depend on who you deal with.”

And as for the increase of gay stories on screen, Scicluna has a theory about that. “All of the films are very different, and really only share having ‘gay’ content. It may have something to do with the politics of the time,” he offers. “With marriage equality and the Safe Schools program very visible, it’s created a groundswell in public awareness, and that makes it feel like a Zeitgeist thing. Will it always be like that? I’m not sure.”

Scicluna is interested in films where queerness is normalised rather than stories that directly address the issues of sexuality. “I made all the characters in Downriver gay – good and bad,” he says. “I was even accused of making the country town completely gay, but what I was doing was showing that queer characters come in all shapes and colours.”

 

He also admits that there is a danger, when depicting gay people as normal, of 'whitewashing' them, and making them pale imitations of heterosexuals. “What I’m interested in is our definition of normal, not the general public’s. I think representing gender-queer, trans and pansexual characters is the new frontier – the queer community isn’t just white gay guys.

“We need to unsettle people, and show them that we are diverse. The problem is we’ve been told to play it safe, because ‘we don’t want to upset people’. That’s tainted us in a way, and so we end up not wanting to show that diversity.”

Downriver is set for an Australian cinema release on June 23.