The final three programmes of short films in competition at the Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival were certainly an intriguing bunch, ranging from the complex and somewhat sinister to the very silly. 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.
Lost and Found
This collection is loosely based around people dealing with life-changing circumstances, but somewhat felt like the place for films that didn’t quite fit elsewhere. That’s certainly not to say they were bad though!
Director: Mahaliyah Ayla O
The day after a mass shooting at a gay nightclub two Iranian born parents living in America don’t know where their daughter is, but are certain she would have had no reason to be at the club. The film then jumps back in time 14-hours, to introduce us to their daughter, Saba, who has a secret girlfriend.
There have been a few short films in the last couple of years that have tried to grapple with the issues stemming from the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, that resulted in the deaths of 49 people. However, it’s such a big topic that it’s a tightrope to walk to ensure it doesn’t come across as either exploitative or trivialising its subject. Masks does a pretty good job of walking that tightrope by focussing on its story and ensuring its themes and characters expand beyond just mass shooting. A couple of moments do hit with a tone-deaf thud (normally when it butts up against the melodramatic), but it’s largely a well-made and affecting short.
3.5 out of 5
For The Good Times
Director: Andres Daniel Sainz
Sometimes you watch a short where all the ideas are there for something truly special, but it doesn’t 100% work in the execution. For The Good Times is one of those films. It’s a father’s birthday, so his wife and children have arranged a family meal for them all. His son, Xabier, announces that he will be bringing his partner. This results in a flurry of phone calls and discussions, as while he’s never said anything, many in the family assume Xabier is gay. But is there more to it than that?
Despite having completely the right intentions and issues that ought to be discussed far more (both on film and off), the way For The Good Times addresses them sometimes feels a little cheap. Even the way it all leads up to the big reveal feels like it’s underlining the weirdness as much as it’s trying to say it shouldn’t be seen that way. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact it is dealing with topics that are rarely discussed it would feel slightly old-fashioned and perhaps even a little shrill. It’s not a bad film, but it had the potential to be far more than it is.
2.5 out of 5
How I Got To The Moon By Subway
Director: Tyler Rabinowitz
Just a year after his acclaimed The Mess He Made was in competition at Iris, Tyler Rabinowitz’s How I Got To The Moon By Subway makes an appearance. As with his earlier film, what really stands out is the strength and subtlety of the performances, with much of the story told through what the characters don’t say. Sol has been diagnosed with ALS/Motor Neurone Disease, which will cause him to lose his voice. To prepare for that time, he has gone to the hospital with his partner, Ben, to record a voice bank of phrases and things he might want to later hear.
Although exactly what it’s trying to say is a little muddy (and I’d question whether its special effects/title conceit is a darling that should have been killed), the central relationship between Sol and Ben pulls the viewer in. There’s an easy and incredibly sweet intimacy between the men, with the film deliberately playing with exactly what these people are to one another, as well as the role communication plays.
3.5 out of 5
It’s A New Day
These shorts were loosely brought together under the theme of new beginnings and the possibilities of LGBT+ life in the 21st Century. However, what they also shared was a good sense of humour.
Director: JP Horstmann
Sometimes with a documentary the thing that hooks you in initially is wondering how something works in practice? That’s true with Rick, but what is perhaps most interesting is how it manages to show how little that question matters and that there are many more important ones. The film looks at the titular Rick, who’s deaf and works in gay porn. So, how does that work in practice? However, if you’re interested in the mechanics of a deaf man on a gay porn set, look elsewhere, as Rick is smartly far more focused on him as a person and how he has made the decision to be in porn and has gone for it. It’s also a film that knows disability and difference are not synonymous, and that people are far more than how they differ from the typical. It’s doesn’t hurt either that Rick himself is pretty hot and a bit of a charmer (and perhaps unsurprisingly not averse to taking his clothes off)!
3.5 out of 5
The Shit! An Opera
Director: Kevin Rios
It’s peculiarly rare to find a decent gay-themed short film that’s also unabashedly comic. However, The Shit! An Opera abounds in sexual and scatological humour, even to the point of featuring a talking, stop-motion turd. Frankie has just taken the biggest shit of his life – a dump so big that he’s decided that despite his previous bottoming problems, if something that big can come out of his ass a dick can go in. He calls on a local stud to help him become the power bottom he’s decided he should be. It may not have the deep, dark, emotional themes of some of the other shorts, but in the sheer amount of laughter it provoked, The Shit! An Opera is a winner. It’s silly and may not add up to an awful lot, but it’s certainly entertaining and unlike anything in the competition. And to be honest, there are plenty of us who’ve had bottoming issues they’ll be able to relate to in this.
3.5 out of 5
Director: Nick Neon
This is a sequel to Nick Neon’s earlier short film, the semi-autobiographical Ultra Bleu. However, you don’t need to have watched that to view Zero One, which follows the same character, Jimmy Park (played by Neon), as he returns from Seoul to visit his family in New York. Jim finds himself at a crossroads, unsure of his way forward and plagued by feeling of inadequacy and shame, as if he should have made more of his life somehow. Unsure what his Korean-American father thinks of him but knowing his sister’s toxic opinions, Jimmy also flirts with the possibilities of love.
As with Ultra Bleu, there are a couple of moments where Zero One looks like it may tip into heavy-handed melodrama but its always pulls itself back from the brink thanks to its commitment to finding its own truth. That’s partially thanks to the self-awareness that writer, director and star Nick Neon possesses. In different hands it could easily have just turned into a self-pitying, yet oddly egotistical mess. Instead it’s an involving and committed film. It also fits into what seems to be a growing theme in LGBT films and documentaries, which is the realisation that internalised homophobia isn’t just a personal failing but often the result of deep-seated shame that society and circumstances have left embedded in many LGBT+ people, even those from the younger, supposedly liberated generations.
4 out of 5
Director: Rikke Krogshave Planeta
It was certainly quite refreshing to have an animated short, especially one that’s so beautiful to look at. In it a woman is living a staid, boring life, where even when out with her friends everyone just looks at their own little phone screen and doesn’t connect with those around them. However, following a mysterious figure she is suddenly drawn into a colourful world of bacchanalian excess, where she can explore her deepest desires. The best way I can describe Bacchus is that it’s like the ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’ sequence from Dumbo had a baby with an orgy. It’s incredible to look at and almost mesmeric in its colours and ideas. There are moments when it’s difficult to follow what it’s actually trying to say is happening, but that doesn’t really matter as the explosion of colour, pacing and evolving levels of the surreal keep things on track.
3.5 out of 5
The Things You Think I’m Thinking
Director: Sherren Lee
Sean has recovered from severe injuries that have left him with severe scarring and no hands. Shortly after his 30th birthday he heads out on a date with a young man called Caleb. While things seem to be going well at first, problems arise when it becomes clear one of them thinks the other has ulterior motives. Dealing with disability on film can sometimes be tricky, as there’s a danger of seeming exploitative or pitying. The Things You Think I’m Thinking could easily have descended into both of those, but it doesn’t thanks to some sure-footed direction and a very strong performance from Prince Amponsah as Sean. The point it’s trying to make is also an interesting one, trying to show how situations can be both more and less complex than we think, just due to how we view them.
3 out of 5
Where Are We Now?
The final selection of Iris Prize short films featured films that show the changes LGBT people have experienced over the last few decades and the issues they still face in may parts of the world.
The Other Side (Al otro lado)
Director: Rodrigo Alvarez Flores
Young Mexican men Felipe and Claudio fall in love, but their happiness is ripped apart when their romance is discovered. The furious families send Claudio off to America. Felipe is determined to follow him, heading off into the desert to attempt the dangerous crossing and enter the US illegally. Tapping into powerful themes of homophobia, love and immigration, The Other Side certainly has passion and commitment. However, there are a few too many moments when, in trying to drive its point home, it becomes a little melodramatic and excessive. In trying to get the audience to empathise it sometimes uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut, while nevertheless dealing with some very prescient issues.
2.5 out of 5
Director: Vikrant Dhote
A ‘serious mockumentary’, Ajay follows an NGO in India that is investigating accusations that a boy was raped by one of his classmates in a high school. The victim then committed suicide when details of the crime were reported, in lurid detail, in a newspaper. It’s certainly a powerful subject and one that Ajay commits to wholeheartedly. It also delves into a lot of the issues of modern India, such of sexuality, corruption, the power and entitlement of the wealthy, and police inaction. However, while the faux-documentary set-up is an interesting way to look at these things, it’s also somewhat distracting, drawing focus away from the issues to the potential artifice of the situation. Although this way of constructing a film can work well, here the seriousness of the subject and the time constraints of the film itself mean it doesn’t work as well at it might have.
3 out of 5
The World is Round so that Nobody Can Hide in the Corners: Part 1 – Refuge
Director: Leandro Goddinho
In documentary voiceover, a Nigerian man tells his story of finding love with a boyfriend in his home country. However, as homosexuality is illegal in Nigeria, when their relationship is discovered, their only choice is to flee or face prison. That starts a long trip to seek refuge in Germany, as well as fear and uncertainty when the men are forced to separate. It’s a powerful story backed by well-chosen and nicely shot footage of the man himself, set amidst a decaying yet modern Germany that offers both hope and uneasiness. It also successfully manages to find the balance between taking us into the story of a single person, while ensuring we’re aware his is just one of millions of similar tales of heartbreak, pain – and yet hope – of millions of people around the world who’ve had to flee persecution.
4.5 out of 5
Losing Sight Of A Longed Place
Director: Ka Chun Shek, Chun Long Wong
Watching a film with subtitles is always a compromise, as in order to read what’s being said you can’t fully pay attention to the visuals. Normally a film isn’t too hindered by that, but Losing Sight Of A Longed Place’s style of animation means its tough not to feel like you’re missing something intrinsic by not being able to fully watch and listen/comprehend simultaneously. It doesn’t help either that I have a feeling the English translation is accurate to the literal meaning of the Cantonese words but not necessarily what those words are trying to express. These technical issues are a shame, as the animation is beautiful and while sometimes difficult to comprehend, the narration, which is based on an interview with a young LGBT activist in Hong Kong and the social and familial difficulties he’s faced, is interesting. Ultimately though, I don’t think I can give it a score as I don’t think it was quite possible for me to meet it on its terms.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac