BFI Flare Review: Short Films That Showcase A Diversity of Lives

“Testaments to the value of short form storytelling”

Short films don’t generally get an enormous amount of recognition, as long gone are the days when they’d be the starter course before a feature film. BFI Flare this year provided a number of shorts to choose from, and the ones below have been selected because of the variety of ways that they explore being LGBT+. Like most queer stories, they are partly about how queerness and society intersect, but these particular tales shed a light on queer experiences that are rarely brought to the screen. Regardless of quality, these works act as testaments to the value of short form storytelling, and are driven by heart and purpose.

Birthday Boy

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Birthday Boy is a take on the trans experience that many people will recognise their own lives in, as it’s a tale with universality and compassion. It’s worth noting that it’s a film from Panama, a country that has been very unsupportive of LGBT+ rights, but this story doesn’t linger on the social context. It’s instead a more personal portrayal of a trans man, César (Anthony Chersia), on his birthday, and reflects on how he’s reached a crisis point where hiding his gender identity is taking an unbearable toll on him. The film structurally zig-zags around because there’s simply too much that it’s trying to portray, but its heart is driven by empathy and hope.

It presents a few key moments in César’s life that manage to highlight the challenges he faces. There is the odd misstep of indulging surreality and metaphor, and this takes away from the reality of these situations. Much more meaningful are the quieter moments, as they manage to show – at different life stages – the increasing gap between society’s expectations and where César is wanting to take himself. This all builds up to some impactful, similarly small-scale scenes. It’s a shame that the film only pulls together at the end, but everything merges into a powerful message of trans identity surviving, no matter the odds.

César stands in a darkened room, wearing only a binder on his upper half. He stares at the camera with a serious look on his face
Image courtesy of BFI

Cast: Anthony Chersia, Antonio Andrés Rosello, Mariela Aragón, Aquilino Arias
Director: Judith Corro
Producer: Luis Alfaro
Release Date: 2020

And Then

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Lesbian romance and urban ennui are at the centre of And Then, a story that delivers more than its start suggests. Its lead is Mana (Erika Ishii), a female Japanese-American artist travelling to Tokyo in an attempt to deal with her creative burnout. She ends up fixating on Haru (Rina Hoshino), a woman who she keeps encountering amidst her lonely days. Everything takes a little while to build convincing momentum, and this is largely the result of trying to be a bit too minimalistic. However, as Mana begins to become a bit more part of the world, the story comes to life in a surprising, touching manner.

Having a woman experience dissatisfaction with life is something that doesn’t happen enough on the screen, being normally the arena of moping middle-aged men. Similarly, too, is it rare to have lesbian romance that isn’t challenged by social mores or massively overwrought. There’s definitely room for the story to be lengthened, as sometimes it feels like its fast-forwarding of the romance leaves it close to cliché or feeling like a well-directed advertisement. Ultimately, though, sadness, loneliness, and romance mix well enough to bring the importance of human connection to life, and to do it in a way likely to bring out tears.

Cast: Erika Ishii, Rina Hoshino
Director: Jenn Ravenna Tran
Producers: Jenn Ravenna Tran, Hamish Campbell
Release Date: 2021

Noor & Layla

Rating: 3 out of 5.

There aren’t many films about gay Muslim women, and Noor & Layla is a sweet romance embedded in a shared culture. It’s got an interesting concept, too, of taking viewers through five specific chapters in Noor (Nicole Nwokolo) and Layla’s (Sahar B. Agustin-Maleki) relationship – and starting later in it before moving to the very beginning. This approach definitely isn’t used to its fullest potential, the five scenes not feeling of equal significance. Nevertheless, it’s bold in the attempt it makes to weave love and faith together.

The more unscripted-seeming interactions are unfortunately broken up by plenty of distractions. The inconsistent acting is an immediate issue, and so too is the fact that much time is spent on simply trying to create a sense of chemistry. A more compelling take on this relationship would dig deeper into the balance of love and faith, showing how these concepts interact with each other instead of just expressing that they do. However, even in limited form the idea of love being formed by shared faith and shared culture is still interesting, especially so in the underrepresented religion of Islam. The combination of those ideas and a decent dose of charm makes for an enjoyable watch, and one that feels almost necessary.

Noor and Layla sit in a bathtub together surrounded by plants
Image Courtesy of BFI

Cast: Sahar B. Agustin-Maleki, Nicole Nwokolo
Director: Fawzia Mirza
Producer: Andria Wilson
Release Date: 2021

Coin Slot

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rarely are there explorations of being disabled that aren’t about showcasing the “inspiring” nature of disabled people. Coin Slot does not take that tack, and instead looks at a musician and writer called Matt (Scott Jones) who happens to be disabled. He’s no saintly figure, being instead a guy with average interests of friendship, wine, weed, and creative pursuits. The story is particularly interested, though, in the aftermath of Matt discovering his attacker, someone who flashbacks hint as being at least a sexual partner, is being released from prison. It takes a somewhat successful social realist view of the trauma reawakened by the reveal.

It’s a pretty simply structured film, and one that is largely quite compelling because of its abandonment of clichés. It doesn’t have particularly strong performances unfortunately, but it’s not really the acting that sells the story as viewers learn the most from Matt’s experiences. The contrast of Matt’s average life with the impacts of trauma and accessibility put forward a reminder that’s essential for justice: disability is not an obstacle but society’s response to it is. There’s a crucial and clear message here that could hit harder with a more declarative style of filmmaking, something unsubtle like the work of Ken Loach. However, regardless of imperfections, this film is very well-made and informative, essential viewing.

Cast: Scott Jones, Jessica Chapman, Mary Fay Coady
Director: Scott Jones
Producer: Alyson Kelly
Release Date: 2021