Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival 2019 Festival Highlights

Now in its thirteenth year, the Iris Prize Film Festival returned to Cardiff earlier this October, and is the world’s largest LGBT+ short film award. International and inclusive, unapologetic and eclectic, Iris provides a platform for a staggeringly diverse range of voices and stories that remain underrepresented and underserved by mainstream cinema. Here are a few highlights.

Cubby (2019, Mark Blane & Ben Mankoff)

Cubby was a personal favourite of the festival. It follows twenty-six-year-old Mark (director and writer Mark Blane) as he moves to New York from Indiana. The film, as we’re informed at the outset, is “based on a lie”. Having untruthfully told his mother (Patricia Richardson) that he’s going to be taking up a position in an art gallery, Mark turns instead to babysitting and quickly befriends the six-year-old Milo (Joseph Seuffert).

Shot on 16mm film, Cubby is visually nostalgic and thematically contemporary. Mark is described by his mother as “somewhat unbearable”, and while this is true Blane’s performance and direction is resoundingly empathetic. Mark is socially awkward and consistently at odds with the various adults around him, but in Milo he seems to find a kindred spirit. As Mark increasingly struggles to take care of himself amidst the uncertainties and responsibilities of his new life in the city, he seeks solace by drawing sexually explicit scenes that are, on the surface, incompatible with his child-like persona.

Conjured from his fantasies, and aided along the way by a psychedelic cupcake, Mark encounters Leather-Man (Christian Patrick) — most accurately described as a BDSM superhero who looks after Mark and allows him to feel safe. Mark’s animated illustrations are scattered throughout the film; Cubby’s greatest strength lies in how it treats this reliance on imagination. Rather than serving as a form of escapism, both his art and interactions with Leather-Man are the catalysts for Mark’s self-initiation into the adult world, allowing him to unashamedly step into his kinky, quirky self when the time is right. A lighthearted but gloriously honest and darkly comedic film that’s well worth seeking out.

Sequin in a Blue Room (2019, Samuel Van Grinsven)

Sequin in a Blue Room is the tale of sixteen year old Sequin (Conor Leach) as he pursues no-strings-attached sexual encounters with older men through a hook-up app. Both the film’s title and the protagonists’s name are derived from the shimmering crop top that he wears as something like a suit of armour during sex, while the Blue Room is the site of an anonymous sex party that becomes a nexus of obsession and fixation. 

Sequin lives in Sydney with his supportive and accepting father (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor). He spends his school days scrolling through the profiles of his next potential match. The ever-present and infinite world of text and images, of transgression and temptation, that Sequin traverses through his phone appear seamlessly alongside him on the screen. As Sequin is chased across the digital landscape of the app and then a succession of city nights by a married middle-aged man, known from his profile only as B (Ed Wightman), the film develops into a genuinely intense erotic thriller that queers the genre’s familiar tropes.

The sequence that takes place in the labyrinthine Blue Room is dreamlike, and hypnotising. Tinted corners seem to unfold endlessly so that Sequin is entirely submerged in the limitless possibilities that reside within the blue room’s strangely translucent walls. The film dispassionately observes rather than judges the modern mediation of desire by technology, and contrasts Sequin’s self-assurance and detachment with the more awkward and traditionally romantic motivations of his classmate, Tommy (Simon Crocker).

Sequin in a Blue Room is a coming-of-age tale for the internet-era that sees Sequin explore and test the boundaries of his sexuality rather than attempt to acknowledge it. The latter is a given; refreshingly, Sequin’s sexuality is never questioned or othered and this sets up an interesting generational divide between the young protagonist and the older men that he encounters. Leach’s performance in the main role is captivating despite the fact that Sequin has little dialogue in the film, offering a compelling blend of maturity and vulnerability.

Short Films

Black Hat, directed by Sarah Smith, was the winner of this year’s international short film award, the Iris Prize, which comes with £30,000 going towards the director’s next film. At its centre is Shmuel (Adam Silver), a Hasidic Jewish man who hides his sexuality from the community in which he lives. Left alone without his wife and daughter for a couple of days, Shmuel spends the night-time hours in a Los Angeles gay bar. His frequently misplaced black hat symbolises his internal attempt at navigating between two equally important dimensions of his life.

Black Hat speaks of the importance of being able to tell the truth about yourself even if there may be times when the only person to bear witness to that truth is yourself. Arguably this is an idea that runs through all of the films at Iris, but here it finds a quietly complex expression. The film offers a hopeful snapshot of the collision of Shmuel’s faith and his exploration of his sexuality, all the more powerful for its favouring of visual rather than dialogue-based storytelling.

Of the short films at this year’s Iris, My Brother is a Mermaid is the one that’s lingered most persistently and hauntingly in this writer’s mind. It wasn’t at all surprising that it proceeded to win three of the festival’s awards: the Youth Jury Award, Audience Award, and Best British Short (the latter of which also comes with a £20,000 credit note from Pinewood Studios). Directed by Alfie Dale, it features highly sensitive performances from its two young actors — Cameron Maydale and Aidan Broderick as Kye and Kuda respectively.

My Brother is a Mermaid is a beguiling magical realist fairytale set in a bleak coastal town. The vast, wild sea itself contributes to its mythic resonance, and the waves often seem to be on the verge of dragging Kye and Kuda down into the depths of the dark water and claiming them for its own. The film is filtered through seven-year-old Kuda’s perspective; in contrast to the misunderstanding and outright hostility of many of the adults around them, Kuda unconditionally accepts and admires their transgender older sibling, and it’s Kuda’s love that saves Kye. 

Inspiring and uplifting, Joy Boy, directed by Stef Smith, runs for a mere nine minutes and leaves you wanting more. Based on a true story, it revolves around Jonny (Jonny Hawkins), and comprises of a collection of fragments of his journey from flamboyant child in a conservative Christian family to self-confessed queen via his time as an enthusiastic leader of an evangelical church and participant in group conversion therapy. 

Jonny is resilient despite attempts at suppression and reclaims the innate integrity that he possessed in his younger years. Joy Boy quite literally succeeds in giving a voice to its central character by operating on an aural as well as visual level; there’s an especially enjoyable deployment of a strikingly incongruous but emotionally revealing use of Marilyn Monroe’s rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr President” by the young Jonny (George Holahan-Cantwell).

Christian Hödl and Lene Pottgießer’s FAME offers a fascinating consideration of the tension between glamour and reality. It focuses on the friendship between two teenagers, Ferdi (Christian Hödl) and Jacky (Michaela Fembacher), who live in a remote Bavarian village but dream of moving to the city to find fame as models. The film questions the extent to which they are willing to go to achieve this. 

For both Ferdi and Jacky, an audition for a top model type reality television show represents a chance to change their lives. The narrative of FAME is effectively interrupted by archival fashion footage, and regularly interspersed with fonts and images borrowed from high-fashion magazines. The film deliberately and potently juxtaposes the aspirational connotations of these glossy surfaces with the murkier, more complicated truth that lies beneath. For Ferdi specifically, fashion is not only an ambition but a possible escape route from a community in which he finds little kindness or acceptance. 

At the heart of Jamieson Pearce’s Strangers is a delicately realised and beautifully portrayed glimpse of a relationship between two women residing in a nursing home. Adrienne (Angie Milliken) and Stewart (Jo Turner) are called in to discuss what must be done after their mother (Melissa Jaffer) is discovered in the bed of another female resident. 

It’s with this encounter that the film opens, and amidst subsequent attempts to remove the agency of the two older women in the name of providing the correct care it emerges that Adrienne and Stewart’s mother is remembering and reliving a secret affair that she had many years earlier. By mirroring the relationship of the past with that of the present, Strangers serves as a much needed reminder that love and desire are not only the domain of the young.

How to Live Your Life Correctly, directed by Xindi Lou, is the vibrant and surreal tale of a Chinese teenager, Ming (Qingge Gao). We learn that despite being a cheerful child, Ming was gradually overcome by an all-consuming sadness when a “gloomy seed … fell from the sky”. After Ming’s overwhelming existential thoughts disrupt a patriotic school play, she finds herself hospitalised and in the care of a doctor who doodles cartoons on a clipboard as Ming speaks of the futility of life in the face of the inevitability of death. 

Confined to the ward, she encounters Ace (Shudan Wang), and the two manage to escape from questionable treatments and the relentless false optimism broadcast by an enormous television set that can’t be turned off. As Ming and Ace attempt to build a life together, it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle reality from Ming’s imagination. How to Live Your Life Correctly hinges on this confusion of inner and outer worlds to viscerally convey the constant threats to Ming’s authentic self by societal expectation and convention. 

Closing Thoughts

Iris runs an amazingly varied programme alongside its film screenings, including industry events, after-parties, a documentary day, and an education day. The festival concludes in suitably celebratory style with the Iris Carnival where the winners are announced; of those not discussed here, the award for Best Feature went to Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced, Best Performance in a Female Role was awarded to Linda Caridi for Mom + Mom (Mamma + Mamma), and Monsoon’s Henry Golding took the award for Best Performance in a Male Role.

Writing as a first time attendee at Iris, the festival is a blessing to both Cardiff as a city and queer film more broadly, and is a testament to the rare and precious magic of being able to find yourself and your desires reflected back at you on a cinema screen.