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A look back at another year of BFI Flare, London LGBTQIA+ Festival

Updated: May 17

The Festival

It's the single most exciting LGBTQ+ event that I look forward to every year. Yes folks, I said it, more than Pride! In London they refer to it as 'Gay Christmas'. 

As a North American, this was surprising for me. I’m used to Halloween being referred to as 'Gay Christmas', a day where everyone in the community comes together to walk around and compliment each other on their creativity. Unfortunately, as there is no Halloween Parade in London, here Halloween is more of a commercial celebration. 

After almost 10 years in London, I finally understand why BFI Flare holds such a special place in the LGBTQ+ calendar: for the 10 days that the festival is running, the Southbank Centre becomes a massive community/chosen family reunion. 

People come and hang out in the space (even if they were not lucky enough to score a ticket in the few minutes they take to sell out), just so they can enjoy the ambience and run into the people they may have not seen all year.

In many ways, it has replaced Pride for some, as London Pride has become so busy that it has more similarities to a massive street party than a community event, where it's impossible to find others and have that community reunion. Whilst it’s always great to see so many of our LGBTQ+ siblings celebrating in the streets while being themselves, London Pride has changed so much and is not accessible for everyone. 

In Toronto, away from the madness of the street partying, the main street in the gay village, Church street, would be lined with community stalls, where you can walk up and down the street to get free swag, run into folks from the community and learn more about the services available to support our lovely ever changing diverse community. Afterwards, you can head to one of the “Beer Gardens”, my favourite being behind the LGBTQ+ Centre, where you could arrange to meet up with friends you wanted to celebrate with. NYC has a very similar set up and I know that London has community stalls around Soho Square too now, so it’s definitely moving in the right direction. 

BFI Flare Festival has its own massive following. A friend of mine travelled from Glasgow just so she could catch up with friends and her industry contacts. Another friend took a week off work to watch 25 films she had scored through her membership early access to tickets.

Folks of all ages and backgrounds come to support films that represent them, and also to experience new stories that they may have never come across in their lives. 

This year, one of my favourite parts of the festival was the trailer (above). I would find myself rushing to each screening just so I could catch it before the film. The editing was just perfect and in sync with the music and scenes from the films in the festival. The song selected this year was Romy & Fred Again: Strong with chorus: 

You've been strong for so long

You learned to carry this on your own

Let me be someone

You can lean on

I'm right here, I'm right here

I'm right here

This is a perfect reminder to the community of how strong we have been, carrying the weight of being different in a heteronormative society. But it also encourages us to let our guards down at times and rely on others.

I have been so obsessed with this song that I have been listening to it on repeat, everyday on my cycle in and out of Southbank (my other favourite part of the festival), and it still makes me feel warm inside. I feel super lucky to live in a city like London where I get to be a part of something bigger than me. 

The Programme

In this year’s programme, I was pleasantly surprised to find lots of films by and about queer women and non binary people. What I look forward to most have always been the short programmes, as those are the ones that are hard to come across afterwards.

Unfortunately they are normally only scheduled for one viewing and as they are very popular, you might miss them all together. 

Just like any professional festival cruiser, I go through the programme page by page and plan each day accordingly, to make sure I can catch all my favourites. 

Thankfully, the last day of the festival is reserved for ‘Best of the Festival’ films which are announced after the initial ticket sale so you can get a chance to catch films you’ve missed.

The festival is really popular and so even folks who plan, and are on standby, for ticket release, don't always get all the tickets they want. If you are a couple or have a friend that is as keen as you, it’s worth considering membership so you get priority booking.

What many people don’t realise is that there are almost always rush tickets at the box office where you can queue for a ticket prior to film screening. Although it’s less likely you’ll be successful if the film is in the studio as there are a limited number of seats. I have also heard that at times they release more tickets online the day before. 

The Films

This year there were some big blockbuster films which we have all been waiting for, like Kristen Stewart’s Love Lies Bleeding. Even though you could watch this at your local high street cinemas, it’s definitely a different experience watching it in a theatre full of queers.

Right before Kristen Steward and Katy O’Brian shared their first kiss, someone in the audience sighed and the whole cinema exploded with laughter, probably because deep down inside we all felt it.

You could hear the giggles when there were queer references in the film, which made the experience all the more special.

Photo credit: Still from Love Lies Bleeding

When scanning the programme, I was immediately drawn to What a Feeling as the poster represented pure queer joy to me. After reading the description, I was excited to see that it was about a queer character navigating the relationship with her Iranian mother. 

The film shows how everyone’s coming out journey, and its various stages, are different and layered with complexity. We all know that coming out is not something we only experience once in our lifetime, but a constant daily battle that we face everyday in the heteronormative world today. 

What i really appreciated about the film was that, even though its a light hearted romcom, they made a point of showing the importance of the Women Life Freedom movement in Iran, featuring a demonstration in Vienna where the community living in exile, stand along with others in supporting the Women Of Iran who were selected as the Times 2022 HEROES OF THE YEAR: WOMEN OF IRAN

To my surprise, there were other Queer Iranian representations in this year’s festival, including a documentary about trans experience and a short film about a girl’s message to her gay friend who passed away in Iran.

I also enjoyed Split which was a French series, screened as a feature film in the festival. It showed the story from the perspective of the various characters in the film, which I found fascinating. There was a documentary in the festival which was centred around the making of this series and using an Intimacy coordinator, which is slowly becoming more popular in the filmmaking industry. 

My favourite short film in this year’s programme - which initially premiered at the London Film Festival - was Dope Feid screened as part of the Say What You Mean collection. It’s about the experience of living with ADHD and I must say, I was really blown away by what a great job the filmmakers had done in making the audience experience what was happening for the lead actress. It left me very emotional and overwhelmed.

I wish this short was used as an educational piece for schools and offices to bring awareness on what goes on for people with neurodiverse conditions. The film will soon be available on Channel 4 and I really hope that it gets seen by a wide audience so they can get a better understanding of the condition.

I also loved the short film Totems in the Queer Platonic short series which was about a group of queer friends losing one of their own. It was an emotional piece which navigated loss within a chosen family. I think anyone who has experienced a loss in their chosen family would naturally know intimate details about their life that perhaps their blood family would not be aware of. Many of which would make you laugh and celebrate their beautifully queer life as part of your mourning process.

This year I was able to catch the screening of Five Films for Freedom that I would normally watch at home. I was quite impressed to get introduced to the series by two women; one being Kristy Matheson, Director of BFI Festivals and Briony Hanson, Director of Film at the British Council. This year marked the 10-year anniversary of the series which for a decade have made five selected shorts accessible to everyone internationally to see and experience the festival all over the world. After the screening, Briony mentioned that as they track where these films are streamed from, they have observed a high percentage of viewers accessing them from regions where being LGBTQ+ is not legal. 

Photo credit: Still from Little One

One of their selected shorts was Little One, an animation piece from the Philippines, where an older gay father records a message to his adopted daughter while they are at the hospital caring for his ill partner. The script was so beautifully written, along with the animation and the voice over, it overwhelmed me with tears. This is one of the main reasons I love BFI Flare so much: you never know which film is going to be the one that surprises you. 

At times I have found myself in films that I wouldn't normally select, but then turned out to be a really enjoyable experience that opened my eyes and heart to the beauty of other queer stories. After each screening, as you walk out the theatre, everyone talks to each other about how they experienced the film. Friends share personal stories on how it related to their own queer journeys. 

I feel super fortunate to be experiencing Flare every year, to have access to so many films, and I hope to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. 

I’m already looking forward to seeing and meeting more of my queer siblings at next year’s festival!

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