Gay and lesbian meet on queer celluloid

Now in its 12th year, the London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival is getting larger and pinker. From Thursday until 26 March at the National Film Theatre there's a feast of more than 180 screenings that takes in features, documentaries and shorts from around the world.

The gala screenings that bookend the festival look particularly strong. Canadian Thom Fitzgerald's The Hanging Garden (this Thursday) opens proceedings with a surreal tale of hothouse emotions brewing during a family wedding, a young gay man returning home and a foul-mouthed Kerry Fox as the female lead. It closes with the cool and muted kitsch of Hilary Brougher's The Sticky Fingers of Time on the last Thursday, a film about desire and betrayal, pulp novelists and time-travelling lesbians, amongst other things.

As Briony Hanson, the festival's co-programmer with Robin Baker, explains, London's two-week jamboree is the second largest of its kind after the San Francisco festival, with audience figures attending last year's festival reaching 20,000. Hanson happily concedes that the festival's present scale is "beyond our wildest dreams".

The two principal themes this year are of the "girls on top" variety and an increased focus on "mixed" programming for male and female audiences. With ever-mounting confidence, lesbian subculture is making its presence felt in the mainstream. The American singer and "dykon" Sophie B. Hawkins is the subject of tyro-director Gigi Gaston's The Cream Will Rise (Sat 14/Mon 16). In part a road-based rockumentary that turns into a film of personal revelation for the star, the film co-exists with a preview of k.d.Lang's live concert film k.d.Lang - Live in Sydney (Thurs 19).

Documentary and fiction overlap nicely in two films that take on the US "queercore" culture of dyke rock-bands and underground fanzines. This provides the backdrop to Kristine Peterson's Seattle-based trawl through twentysomething girl-band angst, Slaves to the Underground (Fri 13).

Catherine Deneuve crops up as a lesbian philosophy professor in Andre Techine's Les Voleurs (Tues 24, Thurs 26), an example of what Briony Hanson describes as the burgeoning genre of "lesbian at a bus stop" films. The phrase was coined at last year's festival to describe a type of film that may be about a heist but features an incidental character "which makes us rush to claim the films as `lesbian features'."

One of the most impressive films is Francois Ozon's medium-length feature Regarde la mer (Sun 22/Wed 25). Deftly observational and with a mutedly sinister atmosphere that turns spectacularly nasty, the film charts the dangerous relationship between a young mother, her baby and a feral hitchhiker.

Hanson sees this year's festival as responding to real shifts in the wider politics of the gay world. "Traditionally, it's been quite separatist," Hanson explains. "With the move from the terms `lesbian' and `gay' to `queer' I think things have become much more rich. I'm glad to see that happening in gay politics generally and it impacts well on the festival." This is reflected in the increasingly "mixed" programming, especially in the wide programme of short films supported by the award of a Channel Four TX prize in which an award-winning short gets a TV screening. With its wealth of features, as well as its panels, shorts and experimental sidebar, this year "queer" means all-inclusive.

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