The British Film Institute’s Flare festival provides an annual opportunity to take the pulse of LGBTQI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex) cinema, including new works that extend the tradition of queer experimental film. This year, an hour-long screening, programmed by Michael Blyth, showcased contemporary artists’ film and video, presenting a combination of animation, works that used archive or found footage, and works that used new footage. The title, ‘In Place of the Real’, implied ‘abstractions of queerness’; the compilation mostly stayed away from direct representation of queer bodies, sex or relationships, focusing instead on the personal histories of LGBT people from both the past and the present.
This proved most fruitful in the found-footage works – including four by Japanese American artist/academic Tina Takemoto. In two five-minute shorts, Wayward Emulsions (2018) and Sworded Love (2018), Takemoto takes ‘stray’ 35mm footage (from Chinese director Lu Yüe’s 2003 romance The Foliage and John Woo’s 1979 kung-fu flick Last Hurrah for Chivalry respectively) and treats the emulsion. Over the material, Takemoto lays a combination of colour and shadows that resemble the decay that frequently affects old silent film stock – as well as invoking Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), made by painting or scratching onto the film – defamiliarizing the images of femininity in Lu Yüe’s film and masculinity in Woo’s. Takemoto replaced both of the films’ soundtracks with the whirring noise of a projector to remind us that we are watching representations of gender roles. This technique is more effective in Wayward Emulsions, where the female actor’s face emerges only gradually from the visual morass, betraying an anxious expression that suggests that being the object of a heterosexual male gaze is not as desirable as many romantic movies would have us believe.
The other two films deal more directly with Japanese American queer heritage, although not Takemoto’s own. The projector sound is even more pronounced in Lift Little Tokyo (2018), emphasizing the historical nature of the footage. It begins with maps of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo district, which in 1941 had a population of 30,000 Japanese Americans, before most of them were evacuated, imprisoned or placed in the internment camps set up for Japanese Americans on President Roosevelt’s orders after the Pearl Harbor attack. Now, it is more a heritage site than a place where Japanese Americans live, and Takemoto’s camera lingers first on old maps and then street views, bringing in people near the end of its seven minutes, with the noise building up as the audience is urged, too late, to ‘save Little Tokyo’. It’s a striking piece, formally drawing on the aesthetics of 16mm filmmakers from the 1970s such as Lis Rhodes with its dot-printed black-and-white imagery. However, its connection to the programme’s theme is not clear: if there was a vibrant queer community in Little Tokyo, we see little of it here.
Takemoto’s final film, On the Line (2018), epitomizes the idea of the abstraction of a queer life. It is inspired by Isa Shimoda, a butch, gender-nonconforming immigrant who served meals to Japanese America tuna cannery workers in the restaurant she ran on the docks of San Diego in the 1930s, and who had two sets of wartime records from the incarceration camps – one identifying her as female, the other as male. On the Line uses hand-painted and processed Super-8 and 16mm film combined with archive footage from the Center for Asian American Media to document the homosocial culture around the factory and restaurant, and naginata – a sword-based martial art practised by Japanese women, and notably by Shimoda. The double-exposures and sepia-tinted shots of seagulls and water establish the time and place with real economy, and the unflashy cuts keep the mood contemplative, almost dream-like: it’s the most evocative of Takemoto’s works here, and the most visually compelling.
Timothy Smith’s Queer Babel (2018) is a homage to Alan Turing (1912-54), about whom so much has been said in recent years. Wisely, Smith does not focus directly on Turing. Instead, he mixes archival footage of 1960s computers and telescopes (their military functions implied but not shown here) with digital representations of the human body that recall the techno-utopianism of the early 1990s. The images are well chosen and skilfully edited – reminiscent of Adam Curtis at his best – but the voiceover is too oblique: the stereotypical AI voice makes the dialogue feel algorithmic, which is perhaps the point, but it never quite lives up to the visuals.
Of the animated films, Linnéa Haviland’s Turning (2018), made with the Gendered Intelligence organisation for young trans and non-binary people, lays beautiful hand drawings over images of queer bodies. Wei Keong Tan’s Between Us Two (2017) also uses animation and film to recreate, or re-imagine, a conversation between Tan and his deceased mother. Both are touching and could have been sustained for longer – Haviland’s film lasts for two minutes, Tan’s for five – but none of the pieces here outstay their welcome, which is rare for such a showcase.
The final entry, The Bed and the Street (2018) by Canadian filmmakers Heather Frise and Mike Hoolboom, is the most explicitly political, documenting a love affair born out of a protest in favour of Palestinian rights. Like many of these films, it makes liberal use of double-exposure as a means of intertwining two different places, as its title promises. The tenderness of the love story clashes with the footage of riot police attacking people with water cannon, and brings out the central message of the film: for many LGBT+ individuals and communities in hostile societies, ‘we are a demonstration’. For all the abstraction of the films chosen here, including the ones I’ve not had space to write about, the real – the all-too-real – cannot help but break back into the picture.
Main image: Tina Takemoto, Wayward Emulsions, 2018, film still. Courtesy: the artist and British Film Institute
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.