The ‘gay short film Oscars’, the Iris Prize, is happening in Cardiff, Wales as I post this. The six-day celebration of LGBT+ film is centred around its justly prestigious Iris International Prize. This is the most valuable LGBT short film prize in the world, worth £30,000, which allows the recipient to make another short. The first of the 35 films in competition have now screened, and once more it’s an eclectic and fascinating bunch, covering a range of themes concerning sexuality, gender and more.
This year the screenings of the shorts have been brought together into thematic groups, so take a look below to see our thoughts on the Iris Prize International Shorts from Day 1 of the fest.
Click here to read Iris Prize Festival LGBT+ International Short Films 2018 – Part 2
With Friends Like These
The first screening brought together a collection of films centring on ideas of friendship, taking in both the positive and the negative.
Wild Beasts (Villdyr)
Director: Sverre Kamme
In the snowy isolation of rural Scandinavia, a group of young teens are hanging out, figuring out their lives and trying to find something to do. However, one of the boys may have feeling for his male friend that he doesn’t quite fully understand and isn’t sure how to express. Wild Beasts is an intriguing and nicely shot film that manages to capture the uncertainties and destructive impulses of adolescence, where young people often look for a feeling of control in the wrong places. However, while nicely observed, the film could have done with digging a little deeper into what’s really going on between these people. That said, it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome and has a couple of emotionally resonant moments.
3.5 out of 5
Director: Xiaoshan Xie
China has a strange and difficult to work out attitude to gay content. In recent years some Chinese films have been banned or cut before release in their homeland to remove LGBT-themed scenes, while others have been allowed out unscathed. Similarly, there have been gay-themed films that Chinese authorities have permitted to be screened at international festivals but not at home, while conversely some films (and filmmakers) have been pulled from foreign festival line-ups. I say this not because it happened to Pink Pill, but because I think it says something about the context of how something like this film can get made and the world it comes from.
In it, a teenage girl’s life is upended when a homophobic classmate publicly reveals a page from her diary, which shows she has feeling for another girl. One of her male classmates still shows interest in her, and he may be willing to go to extreme lengths to make her ‘normal’. Inspired by true events, Pink Pill is a provocative and complex film, where its possible to read things in multiple ways that give a different spin to events. For example, you could see the main boy in the film as wrestling with his own sexuality, or just as a quiet but decidedly straight young man. Indeed, different viewers at the Iris screening took it different ways. It ensures that even when it goes to some dark places it never feels gratuitous.
4 out of 5
Director: Lara Zaeidan
Last year a one-shot film won the main Iris Prize. Three Centimetre is also just a single shot but takes on different subject matter and a different, perhaps unexpected, venue. The whole thing takes place in the gondola of a ferris wheel in a decaying fun park in Beirut. Four young female friends go for a ride, with one particularly loud, mouthy woman dominating the conversation with talk about how you don’t lose your virginity if its only in three centimetres. When the conversation turns to getting over an ex by thinking of them being gay, it causes one of the women, Marwan, to come out. This revelation gets an array of reactions, from concern to anger to dismissal.
Smartly made, the one-shot nature of the short film could have come across as an affectation, but quickly becomes integral to the short and less distracting than it might have been. The Lebanese setting also adds to the film, so that as a western viewer it challenges perceptions of the middle-east and also make you reflect on the similarities and difference between reactions to someone coming out in different countries.
3.5 out of 5
Don’t Call Me Bro (Nenn Mich Nicht Bruder)
Director: Gina Wenzel
A female football team is confused when a boy shows up for practice, until Cheyenne discovers that new boy Dany is actually transgender. Dany begins to befriend some of the male football players, including Cheyenne’s boyfriend, Josh, and he hopes that Cheyenne will keep his secret. While he quickly starts to find acceptance in this ragtag, chaotic and rather violent crew, a sense of danger hangs in the air due to what the other boys don’t know, and the power Cheyenne has over that. This German short successfully creates a sense of menace that grows as it goes on.
Some may take issue with whether it’s somewhat stereotyping young ‘chavs’, or indeed whether its shocking and rather disturbing moments border on exploitative, but it certainly has an impact. It also does a good job of looking at the reckless and destructive impulses of youth, and the danger of power imbalances amongst those who don’t understand responsibility.
3.5 out of 5
Gender & Family
The second screening focussed on gender issues and films featuring transgender characters, and more particularly their relationship with family.
There You Are
Director: Lisa Donato
Jessica needs to go home to see her dying grandmother. However, while she is now living as a trans woman, her family have mainly known her as Jason. In order to try to blend in during this difficult occasion, Jessica tries to figure out how to pass for a boy again. When she gets home her mother is as difficult as always, but others may have unexpected reactions. Written by and starring trans actress Jen Richards, I found There You Are most fascinating for reasons that really shouldn’t be fascinating at all. Within the film the way the emotional character beats and shifts work is done in a relatively mainstream style, to the point where the most cynical viewer might see it as a little sentimental. However, it’s still incredibly rare to see this done with trans stories, which tend to be dominated by arthouse outlooks and a focus on the negative sides of the trans experience. There You Are shows that perhaps just as important are the stories that show a little more hope, not least that in contexts like this it helps underline that trans people are part of ‘us’ and not just a ‘them’.
4 out of 5
Profane Cow (Vaca Profana)
Director: Rene Guerra
This is one of those films that I can imagine causing massive arguments between viewers who could look at it in radically different ways. Nadia is a trans woman who’s been largely accepted by her community in a poor part of Brazil. One of her friends has a small child she wants to adopt out, so Nadia agrees to take the child, fulfilling her long held dream of motherhood. However, things get complicated when the birth mother has second thoughts. It’s certainly an intriguing and at times provocative film, while delves into the idea that the longing for motherhood far transcends the physical ability to have a child, as well as the fact that the physical ability alone does not make you a good mother. However, the way it does it is potentially problematic.
Although I don’t think it is trying to suggest that trans people are essentially performing the role of someone who’s a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth or that they are ‘weirdoes’, but the film does play into those stereotypes at times, not least when Nadia decides to wear a fake baby belly. This and a couple of other issues mean that while the film’s surface is trans-positive, underneath it could be seen as far more problematic.
2.5 out of 5
Directors: Severine be Streyker, Maxime Feyers
Middle-aged couple France and Lucien return from a break to unexpectedly find their son Romain and his new girlfriend Cleo in their house. France insists they stay for dinner, as she wants to meet her son’s new love interest. What none of Romain’s family know though, and what he hadn’t wanted to tell them yet, is that Cleo is a trans woman in the early days of her ‘treatment’. When they realise this the family doesn’t know what to do, as it’s a situation none of them has ever even contemplated.
Calamity is a short that’s close to brilliant. The decision to focus on the mother and to flesh her character out so that we know she is unhappy and stuck in an unfulfilling status quo ensures the film avoids the melodramatic. Similarly, the short’s humour helps to bring the viewer into the characters’ experience. It also nicely contrasts the love and happiness of the young lovers with the emotional desert of the parents, so that France’s desire for things to go back to normal isn’t just about transphobia but also about validating the staid decisions she’s made in her life. However, there are a few too many moments where Calamity can’t quite balance its family story with its self-consciously filmic moments and an unevenness in its approach to a heightened reality. Although its still a good film, I did feel that it could have been more.
3.5 out of 5
The final screening of Iris Prize Shorts on Day 1 of the festival focused on issues surrounding masculinity.
Director: Emma Gilbertson
A very short short, Crashing Waves immediately stands out because most of it is expressed through dance. Two young men (who, for want of a better word would be classed by some as ‘chavs’) meet just outside some high-rise tower blocks on an inner-city housing estate. The tensions and possible connections between them come out through dance, which initially looks like it may explode into violence or instead could erupt into passion. But even while dancing the men cannot escape the world they live in. The film is only four-minutes long, but it lingers in your mind partly because it’s so unexpected and partly because it’s very well done. Dance is often filmed badly on screen, but Crashing Waves realises that the camera is also a dancer and not just a window/lens. As a result, it pulls the viewer into this sensual pas de deux.
3.5 out of 5
The War Room
Director: Ben Hantkant
Every year at Iris there’s at least one film that completely flummoxes me and I feel like everything about it has flown over my head. The War Room is one of those movies. I’m not even 100% sure I can properly describe what it’s about, but it sees a young man dealing with life in the Israeli Army and the pressures and ideas of masculinity and bravado it places on conscripts, especially if that sort of machismo doesn’t reflect who they are inside. However, the whole thing takes places in a kind of dark, dreamlike fantasy of projections and video installations, as well as toy army men and performance art.
It’s the sort of film that will speak to some and get their brains working, while others will be left completely cold. Unfortunately for me it’s the latter. I also wonder whether Israeli military service is one of those things that’s difficult for outsiders to properly understand without having lived in the country and understanding the cultural and societal context of national service. As this is a film about it that is so open and experimental, it leaves few openings to allow outsider to properly get inside. Although maybe I just need to watch it a few more times.
1.5 out of 5
Michael Joseph Jason Scott
A man hooks up with a guy online and invites him round to his New York apartment. The visitor seems keen to keep things anonymous and get to the bedroom right away. However, each man may have different ideas about what they want to get from the meet, with one thinking about their future and another contemplating something far darker. Michael Joseph Jason Scott
(titled after the names one of the men guesses might be the other’s) is a more straightforward and easier watch than many of the other Iris Prize shorts.
That’s not to say it’s simple though, just that it is more easily accessible. Many audience members will be able to relate to worries about who you’re inviting into your house, as well as the hope and sensation of possibilities when you think you’ve made a connection with somebody. Although there are a couple of moments, particularly towards the end, that might have benefitted from a little more subtlety, it’s still an enjoyable watch.
3 out of 5
I’ve seen Wren Boys a couple of times now and every time I really want to like it. This is, after all, a film that received a Best Short Film BAFTA nomination and a British Independent Film Awards Best British Short nomination, as well as screening at the likes of Sundance, the BFI London Film Festival and SXSX. However, each time I’ve seen it, it’s felt to me unfinished and a little too pleased with itself, and that’s not because of its open ending. I can understand why many do like it though, as the theory behind it and how it attempts to unpack that are interesting. The basic setup is that it’s Boxing Day, and an Irish priest in County Cork is driving his nephew to prison to see one of the inmates. I won’t say much more as part of the way the film works is a slow unravelling of the assumptions the viewer makes about who these people are, as well what other characters are thinking and assuming about them. It also tries to deal with a country trapped between an old, rigid, Catholic, dogmatic way of being, and a new, enlightened country that has gay marriage (and indeed now has a gay leader). Even so, for me it works better in theory than practice, especially as a couple of its ‘twists’ feel like rather convenient sleight of hand.
2 out of 5
Something About Alex (Anders)
Director: Reinout Hellenthal
Something About Alex is a difficult one to talk about just because the main thing any viewer is going to want to discuss about it is also a major spoiler. Alex has grown up on a farm but is upset when he discovers his sister and her boyfriend are moving away to the city. Realising that everything will change, Alex finds it increasingly difficult to hide his true feelings. The film works well just as what initially appears like it might be a coming out story, but towards the end it turns things on its head with a major twist, so that while we’ve been viewing the ‘truth’ it may not be as others view it.
Something About Alex is based around what’s actually a relatively simple idea, but it’s a difficult one to pull off. It is though a very smart way to come at the issues it’s dealing with from a different angle, in ways that may be easier for the audience to empathise with than more typical ways of doing it. Even better is that it’s done in an easily accessible and well put together way, helped by a good performance from the young lead. For me it was the best film of Day 1 of Iris.
4.5 out of 5
Reviewer: Tim Isaac
Click here to read Iris Prize Festival LGBT+ International Short Films 2018 – Part 2