Nowt so queer as blokes

This year's Lesbian and Gay Film Festival is bigger than ever before. David Benedict inspects the form and checks the balance
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The Independent Culture
Dirk Shafer was voted the 1992 Playgirl Centrefold of the Year, the "Ideal Man For All Women", and was on the Joan Rivers show to tell the world what men crave in a woman. Trouble was, he didn't have a clue. His live-in lover wasn't Margaret or Mary, but Mark.

He also happens to be a film-maker armed with an Academy award nomination, and his subsequent autobiographical mock-documentary Man of the Year blurs fact and fiction using members of his family and "real actors" to create a delicious portrait of the myths of heterosexuality. It's one of the tantalising treats on offer in the 10th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival which opens today.

Anyone snubbing the event as being a "mere minority interest" should wake up to the fact that after the London Film Festival this is the biggest film festival in Britain. Attendances rise every year and far from being a hermetically sealed series of screenings for chic Londoners, it has the world's largest film tour attached, taking in nearly 30 cities across Britain. The good citizens of Kirkaldy will get to see features and shorts, mainstream and more experimental, the type of film unlikely to cross the desks of industry money-men.

A significant number of films were bought for distribution at last year's festival and although, like Sundance, it is not set up as a market, it operates as one. This year, FilmFour, Metro and even US giant UIP (Randal Kleiser's It's My Party) all have product on show.

Finance rears its head in every area of the festival. Looking at the diversity of work on display - there are films from as far afield as Taiwan, Kajastan and New Zealand - there's a huge dominance of features by gay men. "The boys have been given the money, the girls haven't," observes co-curator Robin Baker. "People think that because Go Fish had such a high profile it was some kind of blockbuster, but it never made that much money. Partly because of that, lesbian film-makers haven't been given the budgets."

One could be forgiven for thinking he and Cherry Smyth might be artificially balancing the programme, but Baker is insistent about the festival's quality threshold. Places like the San Francisco festival have an open-access policy. Not here. "Just because you're a queer film-maker in Britain doesn't mean you can expect to see your film up there at the NFT."

Baker has sat through 250 films from the good to the "absolutely terrible" which have been whittled to 15 days of screening. So what governs his choice? "Neither of us has specific rules. A lot of the rejected material is downright amateurish, or I look at it and recognise that it's well made but I'm not convinced it belongs in a cinema. You get endless documentaries on `how to be a homosexual', which are probably best viewed on tape."

This year has an unusually large number of British films on show, including Hettie Macdonald's delirious version of Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing. Snapped up by Baker, it was rejected by the Berlin Film Festival, which ended up looking extremely shame-faced when a bidding war broke out afterout- of-festival market screenings for trade insiders only. Events like this only strengthen his view that gay film-makers are becoming increasingly interested in crossover potential. Playing safe for commercial gain? Baker briskly waves the notion aside. "I reject those films where people play totally safe. Good film-makers are aware of the wider audience but aren't prepared to compromise." Baker is loth to pick his favourites, but beneath his appropriately professional air of generosity you can detect a distinct fondness for Bruce Weber's Gentle Giants, an enchanting 15-minute scrapbook of his childhood spent falling in love with movie icons and Newfoundland dogs and a sweet oblique discovery of sexuality. Then there's Todd Haynes's Safe, a mesmerising feature starring the luminous Julianne Moore, for the thoroughly queer sensibility undercutting its utterly heterosexual content.

"People forget that queer audiences have as diverse tastes as straight audiences. They don't all want to sit there and watch experimental work which to a large extent they've had to do in the past. Suddenly, we have big movies that appeal across a much wider range. For almost the first time there are films that aren't 16mm black-and-white. They're full-length, colour films which will be playing in a multiplex near you. That's a remarkable step forward."

n The Lesbian and Gay Film Festival starts today at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 3232)

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