Gay cinema steps into the limelight

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London's Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has grown from a marginal event to a major showcase for some of the best movies made today, writes Geoffrey Macnab

Welcome to the world of the 23rd London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Highlights include I Can't Think Straight, a British film about lesbian Muslims, while John Hurt is expected to attend the British premiere of An Englishman In New York, the long awaited follow-up to The Naked Civil Servant, with Hurt again coifing up as Quentin Crisp. Over 27,000 cinemagoers will attend screenings. Bill Clinton has recorded an introduction to one short film. Out In India tells the story of David Gere, Richard Gere's brother, an activist working to raise awareness of Aids in India. Comedian Matt Lucas will be hosting a discussion to mark the 30th anniversary of Nighthawks, the first British feature to deal unapologetically with homosexuality.

The old stereotype of a marginal festival with tiny audiences watching agit-prop films no longer applies. In the festival's early years, grumblings emanated from local councillors that public money was being spent on such an event. It was – its critics claimed – "pornography on the rates". Such a charge would never be made today, with the festival now regarded by cinemagoers gay and straight alike as a chance to see some of the best new movies around.

"It's an index of how the world has changed that, when the festival was founded in 1986, it was still almost a political act to go to a gay festival. Sometimes, one wasn't just there for the quality of the films," suggests Brian Robinson, senior programmer at the festival. "You were desperate for any contemporary account of homosexuality."

Robinson adds that you only need to look at the sponsors of the British Film Institute-backed event to see how far the festival has moved toward the mainstream. Twenty years ago, the notion that car companies, big banks, airlines, beer brands and even the Metropolitan Police might support a lesbian and gay film festival "would have seemed an impossible dream".

Certain films in this year's programme are bound to stoke up controversy. For example, in Fairytale of Kathmandu, Neasa Ni Chianain follows a celebrated Irish poet to Nepal to chronicle his activities helping young people. For Ni Chianain, the poet was an inspirational figure: a talented gay writer who was frank about his sexuality. However, as she spent time with him in Nepal, she began to suspect that he was exploiting the boys he was there to help.

Fairytale of Kathmandu is provocative but very uncomfortable viewing. On the one hand, it's a chronicle of its director's growing disillusionment with a poet she had formerly revered. On the other hand, it is an exposé of a Westerner using his power and status to take advantage of poor Nepalese boys.

The film explores the nature of relationships between older men and younger boys. Another documentary, Chris & Don. A Love Story has a similar theme, but a very different slant. It is about the love affair between artist Don Bachardy and writer Christopher Isherwood. At the time they met on a beach in California, Isherwood was in his late 40s and Bachardy was only 18. In the Hollywood of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the 30 year gap between the lovers was considered scandalous. Nonetheless, the two stayed together until Isherwood's death. Robinson describes them as "one of the 20th century's great gay couples".

A strong nostalgic undertow runs through this year's event. One figure whose life and works will be prominently showcased is the flamboyant and eccentric Quentin Crisp. Not only will the festival host the British premiere of Richard Laxton's An Englishman In New York, in which we see Crisp (Hurt) in 1980s Manhattan, falling foul of the gay community for not being "on message" about Aids. There will also be screenings of Hurt as the young Crisp in Jack Gold's 1975 classic, The Naked Civil Servant. Meanwhile, a 1970 World In Action portrait of Crisp will be screened, as will the 1990 documentary Resident Alien. Intriguingly, the festival has also dug up a previously unseen Bernard Braden interview with Crisp from 1967. Rounding off the tribute is Uncle Denis? a short documentary by Crisp's great nephew Adrian Goycoolea which features home movies of Crisp and interviews with relatives.

The gay rights campaigner Cleve Jones, a close associate of Harvey Milk and one of the characters featured in Gus Van Sant's recent biopic Milk, will be in town. Festival audiences will also see the special introduction recorded by Bill Clinton for Pedro, a biopic about Pedro Zamora, the gay, HIV-positive Cuban, who appeared on The Real World.

The festival was able to rifle through the BFI archives for titles to showcase. One sidebar, Out of the Shadows: Queer Film Noir, will include Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The American Soldier, Bob Rafelson's Black Widow and Joseph H Lewis' classic, The Big Combo.

The first festival showed nine films. In those early days, gay cinema was poorly funded. Movies would often have (in Brian Robinson's words) "very poor sound and a lot of dodgy camerawork". Even a decade ago, programmers were so short of films to screen that they would be thankful for what they called "the lesbian at a bus stop film." This was the kind of movie that would have only a token gay character.

Thanks to technology and increasing ambition, production values have shot up. So has the range of countries making gay and lesbian movies. The festival will be screening films from 25 countries. Meanwhile, film-makers are moving away from the clichés of old-fashioned "coming out" stories: Robinson argues that gay films are becoming ever more sophisticated: "People don't live in a gay bubble. They come from families. They have complex sexualities. They interact with the straight world. It's a much richer world we're in."

Relatively few UK films are screening. Robinson points out that the history of lesbian and gay film-makers in Britain is littered with directors who've made well-received shorts then gone on to try to make features only to disappear without trace. There is nobody to match Gus Van Sant in the US, Pedro Almodovar in Spain or François Ozon in France. Nor are there experimental film-makers with the stature of the late Derek Jarman. The irony is that, while the festival seems to be booming, the local film-making talent isn't there to take advantage of the showcase it provides.

25 March to 8 April (www.bfi.org.uk/llgff)

THE FESTIVAL'S TOP FIVE

1. 'An Englishman
In New York' 34 years after 'The Naked Civil Servant', John Hurt is back as the great British eccentric, Quentin Crisp.

2. 'Cecil Beaton: The Beaton Image'
Adam Low's documentary profile of the photographer, aesthete and society figure.

3. 'The Devil's Cleavage'
Cult 1975 film from George Kuchar parodying 1940s and 1950s Hollywood melodrama

4. Experimental Visions
A sidebar celebrating avant garde work. Titles include 'A Horse Is Not A Metaphor' by Barbara Hammer and John Di Stefano's '(tell me why): The Epistemology of Disco'.

5. 'I Could Go On Singing'
Judy Garland's final film in which she plays a brilliant, emotionally vulnerable singer.

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