Sometimes as a reviewer I’m not sure if I should be writing up an event or its content. A book-launch review, for example, needn’t be about the book itself, but what the writer has to say about the writing process (see, for example, my review of Alan Hollinghurst).
A similar case ensued when I saw an event at the Filmhouse titled Written on the Body. I immediately thought of Jeanette Winterson’s 1992 book… possibly for the right reasons. This selection of short films was presented in response to Scotland’s LGBT History Month. The titles of the films alone drew me in; who could resist names like Spermwhore and Mamihlapinatapai! This sort of fare has, perhaps, a niche market – and therefore just what Filmhouse does best.
Equally significant was what happened before the films. Not being fond of adverts or trailers, I tend to take my seat fairly late. On this occasion I saw only one advert, for a brand of fabric softener. It had all the trappings of the heteronormative bullshit pedalled by advertisers: ‘beautiful’ woman gets to kiss ‘dishy’ bloke just because her clothes smell nice. When a single voice called out “Booo!” at the end of the ad, and the audience laughed, I knew this was going to be a well-received event.
The screening was introduced by Lydia Beilby, the Short Film Programmer for Edinburgh International Film Festival which premiered all the films we were about to see. We learned that this selection was about exploding boundaries, was a testimony to the LGBT community, and was a celebration of the queer body. Her promise of varied tone and texture proved to be true, but before I come onto the films, let me consider the word ‘curated.’
This was a carefully structured selection of films, varied also in length, which took the audience through a journey of exploration. As Beilby told me later, the idea was to offer a “celebration of some of the ways that queer bodies and minds are radically reinventing the language and thinking around gender, identity and sensuality.” In terms of film, the language was more-than challenging – at least in the earlier pieces – and if the aim was to “upset the heterocentric narrative that runs through most popular culture,” then this programme was the perfect response to that ridiculous advert.
But I’m not going to lie, the first four films left me pretty bewildered, yet fascinated too. First we were treated to a museum of amphibious phalluses in Shelley Silver’s The Lamps, a surreal four minutes that made me wonder, ‘am I going to have to use the critic’s cliché ‘visceral’ in this review?’ Well there, I did. I’m sorry.
The following two films were equalling challenging aesthetically. Beilby told me they were both shot “on 8mm film that is hand-processed and then further manipulated, the filmstrip is immersed in various abrasive liquids, thus marbling, patterning and texturing the image to beautiful effect.”
Far from what you might think from the title, Anna Lindner’s Spermwhore is a highly experimental examination of heteronormative parenting. Again, I want to use the word visceral, but the imagery was far more beautiful and engaging than that. As Lindner herself says, it’s more about the artists, the practice, and the process than just the academic. Then, in Maya Borg’s Man, the challenge is to learn how to combine new words with an old order. A pregnant woman engaging in ‘macho’ pursuits suggests this is about the semantics of image as well as language.
The fourth film, L’Oiseau de la Nuit by Marie Losier, is perhaps the most playful but no less surreal, with bird-masks, mermaids, and taxidermist imagery asking more questions than giving answers. The internet told me this is “A fascinating portrait of Fernando, a Portuguese performer who has been performing for more than thirty years in Lisbon,” although elsewhere it is described as “a blisteringly incomprehensible portrait.” Quite.
Beilby’s intention to address both the queer perspective and the queer gaze was clear in this carefully curated programme, and the last two shorts pulled together many of the ideas of the first four. The fifth was the longest and, for me, most satisfying since it blended drama, documentary, and surreal footage in a more meaningful way. Sam Ashby’s The Colour of His Hair not only re-created part of an un-realised 1950s script, but also gave it historical and contemporary context.
We are living now in a more tolerant society, willing to address or understand these changing perspectives. It’s hard to know what it was like for people who, at the time of the Woolfenden Report, were victims of blackmail and hate-speech. But this stuff is archived, as the documentary section showed, in The Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive (LAGNA) based at Bishopsgate Institute in London.
While this archive houses over 200,000 cuttings taken from the non-gay press on all LGBT matters since the late Nineteenth Century, and is a fascinating resource (which I urge people to investigate), Ashby’s film asked some challenging questions. It seems that gay activism and subversion is archived, but what else? What about those people who are the ‘unseen’ part of a heteronormative society; those who have simply existed without having to sing that they were ‘glad to be gay’ – or worry about what the police or the papers might say?
This question was, I believe, answered in the last film. Mamihlapinatapai by Joanne Mony Park was the least comprehensible title, but closest to a ‘straight’ drama of all the films, even if it used docu-style dialogue. The premise was simple: a dance student finds herself attracted to a female teacher, and discusses it dismissively with her friends, with the killer-line, “I came straight back to wanting dick.” But it’s clear that her curiosity, self-identity, and exploration were challenged.
With her friends, she puts it down to insecurity, or about “the whole ‘want what you can’t have’ kind of thing, I think.” Then she adds, “I feel.” Thought and feeling dealt with, we are left only with her visceral response, which is played out in subtle sexual fantasy. Yet when the point of the kiss occurs (and we all know what that is shorthand for in cinema) that is not the climax, the money-shot, the selling-point of the drama. After all, this film isn’t selling fabric softener, nor is it suggesting that attraction, sexuality, or identity are easily navigated – even in today’s ‘permissive’ society.
The crux of the evening’s film-selection is summarised in the explanation of this film’s title which comes after the kiss: “Mamihlapinatapai: a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.” And to top it off, the final piece on the soundtrack was To Love Somebody. Whether or not you “know what it’s like to love somebody,” this event would have made you think about it in a different way.
Whether their gaze or perception was visceral, emotional, or thoughtful, these films event left the audience asking lots of questions (I heard them as I left the cinema – trying to work out what it all ‘meant.’) But more important was that the questions had been asked. One of the lines I remember most clearly from of Winterson’s book Written on the Body is, “Why is the measure of love loss?” After this screening of fascinating films, my question was not, what have we lost, but: what have we gained?
The films included in this programme were:
The Lamps (Shelly Silver, 2015)
Spermwhore (Anna Linder, 2016) • 12m • Digital • Swedish with English subtitles
Man (Maja Borg, 2016)
L’Oiseau de la Nuit (O Pássaro da Noite) (Marie Losier, 2015)
The Colour of His Hair (Sam Ashby, 2017)
Mamihlapinatapai (Joanne Mony Park, 2014)
For more on the Filmhouse’s programme, click here.