One year shy of its silver anniversary, the Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival returns to treat Sydney audiences to a cornucopia of queer cinema including one world premiere and 31 Australian premieres, as curated by festival director Paul Struthers.
Opening with Irish writer/director Darren Thornton’s A Date for Mad Mary, starring Seána Kerslake as a young woman fresh out of juvenile detention frantically trying to find a suitable plus one for her best friend’s wedding, it closes just over two weeks later with another Irish offering, John Butler’s boys’ school comedy Handsome Devil.
In between, there will be Australian coming-of-age films Teenage Kicks and Bad Girl, a sneak peek at the first episode of Dustin Lance Black’s LGBTIQ rights drama series When We Rise, directed by Gus Van Sant, as well as powerful trans stories like Jessica Dimmock and Christopher LaMarca’s documentary The Pearl, and a focus on films from the Asia-Pacific region, including a look back at Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee’s 1993 movie The Wedding Banquet.
Rightly lauded by critics the world over and attracting serious awards season buzz, writer/director Barry Jenkins’ soulful, Miami-set Moonlight - depicting three formative chapters in a young black man’s life - is a thing of rare cinematic magic.
Played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and then Trevante Rhodes, Chiron’s complex relationship with his sexuality unfurls slowly in a tough world of violence and addiction. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris excel in supporting roles, with James Laxton’s woozy cinematography incandescent.
“Not only is the story of Moonlight stunning, and the cinematography exceptional, but every single actor is mesmerisingly real and honest in their performance,” Struthers says.
2. The Pass
If you’re still smarting from the cancellation of Andrew Haigh’s HBO series Looking, and particularly if you’re missing the delightful jugged ear presence of English star Russell Tovey, then cop a load of Ben A Williams’ debut feature The Pass. Adapted by John Donnelly from his original stage show, Tovey stars as a closeted soccer player drawn to fellow player Ade (Arinze Kene) and the consequences of a stolen kiss in a hyper-masculine world that’s nonetheless tinged with homoeroticism.
“Russell is very, very good in it and convincing as a football player,” Struthers says. “It’s an important story. How many gay footballers are there? I can’t think of many, but they must exist.”
3. Irrawaddy Mon Amour / The Priestess Walks Alone
Part of the festival's 'Focus on Asia' program, these two compelling documentaries screen together. Nicola Grignani, Valeria Testagrossa and Andrea Zambelli’s Irrawaddy Mon Amour follows a young gay couple in a remote Myanmar village who dream of marrying despite the laws of the military regime. Taiwanese director Hui-chen Huang’s The Priestess Walks Alone is an intense doco of raw, emotional honesty between the filmmaker and her older lesbian mother that’s intertwined with religious belief. “They are both really good films,” Struthers says.
The debut feature from Chilean director Pepe San Martin, Rara is a strong take on the coming-of-age genre that features an incredible Julia Lübbert as 13-year-old Sara, caught in familial drama when her happy life with her mother Paula, her same-sex partner Lia and her younger sister Catalina is threatened by her father’s attempt to regain custody. “It’s just really beautiful,” Struthers says. “It played at the Berlin International Film Festival and it’s interesting to see the rainbow family from the perspective of the child.
5. Brothers of the Night
Another Berlin International Film Festival highlight, Patric Chiha’s provocative doco Brothers of the Night follows the antics of a group of young ‘gay for pay’ sex workers who left behind their homes in Bulgaria for the promise of a better life in Vienna. Their fascinating bond drew Struthers in, with their upfront revelations gripping. “The possibilities of hybrid documentary are explored to the full in this beautifully captured film,” Struthers says.
6. The Revival: Women and the Word
Documentary-maker Sekiya Dorsett’s The Revival: Women and the Word features five queer women of colour—Jade Foster, Be Steadwell, Jonquille Rice, T'ai Freedom Ford and Eli Turner—as they spread their stories across the US and Canada through spoken word performance and poetry. “It’s a pretty unbeatable recipe for success,” Struthers says.
7. Out of Iraq
Oscar-wining Australian director Eva Orner and Chris McKim’s incredible documentary Out of Iraq was shot over a 13-year period, following the love story between Nayyef Hrebid, a translator working for the US military in war-torn Iraq and fellow soldier Btoo Allami and their attempt to find safe haven. Not only do they face danger at home, but also interminable bureaucracy as they attempt to gain refugee status during of a prolonged separation from each other. “Love can be found even in the darkest of places and this film really pits its lead romance against all the odds,” Struthers says. “Hopeful and heart-wrenching.”
8. Being 17
Revered French auteur André Téchiné follows up his 1994 seminal queer coming-of-age story Wild Reeds with another instant classic in Being 17, which scooped the International Grand Jury Prize at Outfest 2016. Co-written by Girlhood and Tomboy director Céline Sciamma, it stars Kacey Mottet Klein and Corentin Fila as two teenage boys locked in an aggressive school feud.
“It’s such a different look at a gay coming-of-age story, about these two young men who have a strong dislike for each other, essentially masking their love,” Struthers says. “I love it. The boys’ performances, the way it’s shot, the Pyrenees, Sandrine Kiberlain as the mother. Sciamma is outstanding.”
9. Don’t Call Me Son
Winning the Jury Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival’s LGBTIQ-focused Teddy Awards, Brazilian director Anna Muylaert’s beautifully nuanced Don’t Call Me Son features a stunning central turn from Naomi Nero as Pierre, a gender-queer teen whose life is turned upside down when it’s revealed his mother stole him at birth. Returned to his biological and far more conservative family, with little tolerance for his habit of wearing female clothing, the situation sparks an identity crisis with an unpredictable ally in his newfound brother. “The young guy is exceptional and it’s just a really, really strong drama,” says Struthers.
10. Seat in Shadow
Hailing from Struthers home nation of Scotland, Henry Coombes’ beautifully shot Seat in Shadow features an unusual, platonic bond between an older, weary psychologist Albert (David Sillars) and the troubled grandson of a good friend, Ben (Jonathan Leslie), who’s coping with depression while embracing his newfound gay identity. They find strength in one another. “It’s just really cool to see a Scottish queer film,” Struthers admits. “It’s also really nice to see a queer film about friendship.”
11. Me, Myself and Her
Italian cinema isn’t bursting at the seams with lesbian rom coms, but Struthers says director Maria Sole Tognazzi’s addition to the slim pickings, Me, Myself and Her, is “very funny, quality cinema.” Starring Margherita Buy as successful architect Federica and Sabrina Ferilli as a former actor turned restaurateur, they’ve been happily settled together or five years when temptation comes in the shape of an old flame of Federica’s. A male one. “It’s good to see some middle-aged lesbians on screen,” adds Struthers.
Struthers says Austrian director Händl Klaus’ Tomcat - which took home the Best Feature Teddy Award at Berlin - is not for the faint of heart, especially not if you’re a cat lover. Starring Lukas Turtur and Philipp Hochmair as lovers living in perfect bliss with their cat Moses in Vienna, things suddenly take an awful, shocking turn, shaking their relationship to its very foundation. “It starts off as quite a vanilla drama then something happens that changes the course of the film and it’s edged of your seat stuff after that. It’s excellent.”
The Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival runs from February 15 to March 2. For more information, tickets, and the full line up of films, you can check out their site here.
SBS will be streaming the 2017 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade live on Saturday, March 4 on SBS On Demand, and will then air our Mardi Gras special event - with commentary from our hosts, behind-the-scenes action and exclusive interviews - on Sunday March 5. In the meantime, you can keep up with all our Mardi Gras content here.