Scannain Talks the Gaze International LGBTQ+ Film Festival with programmer Sean McGovern
Its 28th edition postponed from the traditional August weekend in light of the pandemic, the GAZE International LGBTQ+ Film Festival looked set to make a belated return to cinema screens this weekend until Dublin’s latest restrictions saw cinemas closed and presentation moved entirely online via IFI@Home. But that last-minute change hasn’t dented the enthusiasm of programmer Seán McGovern, who recently joined Scannain for a virtual chat on pandemic planning and his top tips for another bulging year of the best in queer cinema.
I can guess the answer to this one, but I’ll ask anyway: what’s planning and programming a festival in a pandemic been like?
It’s been quite drawn-out, because it should have happened two months ago and even though I’ve seen all these films and programmed them, I feel a little bit removed from them. And there are certain films that I’m not removed from just yet, I have a real investment in, that I’m really happy are included in the festival for an Irish audience. I’m so passionate about If It Were Love, which is screening on Thursday, because I saw that in Berlin in a pre-Covid haze—it’s a film about rave culture and losing it on a dance floor with your endorphins and the incredible high and the passion you feel for total strangers—and knowing that we can’t go out and do that, and that clubs have been taken away, it just makes it feel like a real longing for something that we don’t have. So I think in many ways that’s the most profoundly affecting film of the festival.
So for you, in your first edition of Gaze as head programmer, almost all of the festival cycle has been in this context, seeing films online?
Well Berlin was in cinemas, in February. Everything was normal: we all got tanked at the Teddy party, it was a little bit of a last hurrah. I don’t think any of us expected that it was so close to the end of something. I’m wondering what it’s going to be like when Berlin 2021 rolls out, when we officially begin our cycle. It’s going to be an in-person festival as normal, but how normal I’m not quite sure. It’ll be interesting cos that’ll officially be the start and the finish for me, a whole trip around the sun. It’s weird to be fed up of the pandemic, but I know we’re all thinking about the things that matter to us, the things that are important, and they are as simple as being in a room full of people.
Are you more the kind then to lament what’s been taken away from the festival or to relish the prospects, what you can do with presenting it entirely online?
I think we will keep a certain online element for years to come because it means we democratize the festival a little bit. But I am a bit devastated that we’re not in the cinemas, not gonna lie. Assuming that everything is back to “normal” in 2021, having an aspect of the festival that is accessible for people across Ireland will make a difference. I don’t know if the entire festival will be online and in cinemas, but I do think that certain things like shorts programmes absolutely should be available to everybody. They’re really what filmmaking is all about, you have a theme or an idea or a vision or a mood and within five to fifteen minutes you can do something entirely original. Not having the shorts in a cinema is very sad. I think a lot of people, if they’re taking a punt on anything they’ll think “how often do I get to see short queer films in the cinema?”
One of the things in the programme I’m most excited about is Tras, an Irish-language trans doc, not something you might usually expect to see. It’s great to see how far along Irish queer cinema itself has come.
I think some of the Irish shorts in particular have a kind of melancholy about them, because yes the law may change and people’s perceptions may change but some of the stories do tend to have an element of melancholy. Tras in particular is a bit different. I described it in the programme notes as being quietly radical because the two protagonists, Max and Victoria, they’re ordinary people. They’re young people in a relationship, they’re studying, they’re going through this transformation in their lives, an affirmation of who they are, but they’re also just getting on with things. I think what’s really heartening about that doc is that it’s not set in Dublin or Cork, most of the action takes place in Sligo. I think part of the documentary is not thinking that LGBT people exist in some kind of metropolitan bubble, we are everywhere. Victoria is from Cavan, Max is from Leitrim, I’m from Longford, we’re not all metropolitan elites, we’re just people trying to get on with our lives. That has a lovely extended Q&A with the director and the protagonists, that’s a lovely one to check out.
You’ve put a Black Lives Matter strand in there this year, last year you had the Marlon Riggs programme. Do you see in your programming more of a swing to activism than escapism?
You could argue that queer cinema is always activism in some way. But I don’t necessarily think these are presented to be activist, just to affirm there are many types of intersectional lives for queer people. Even just The Watermelon Woman in particular, it’s not a new film but you watch it with 2020 vision so to speak, and many of the themes and terminologies and ways of expression, they still feel—at least to my white eyes—they feel new and fresh. I don’t present these films to make overtures between certain communities, but because they’re worth seeing. You’re ultimately programming for a whole range of people. We all deserve a place at the table, and so my attitude to programming in a queer context is why not have a little bit of everything, why does it have to be one thing or another, why cant it be everything? By doing that you set your goal, this is for everybody and this is of everybody. I think anybody who takes time to engage with an LGBTQ film festival wants to take a risk. Yes, you want to see a little bit of yourself on screen, but you also want to see a little bit of someone else at the same time.
I’m glad you brought up The Watermelon Woman. One of the key things about festivals like this is to revive films that may not have been seen by the most receptive audience at the time and may now have an opportunity to find that audience. Bloodsisters is one pick this year that stands out to me, that reading about just made me think: how have I not come across this before?
That film is just worth seeing. Descriptions of it really just don’t do it justice. I am not part of the leather dyke community. However I was completely enthralled from start to finish. We also had a really wonderful conversation with the director of that, Michelle Handelman, she made that film 25 years ago and now it’s being reassessed. Bloodsisters is great, it begins with an exploration into what this community does and gets off on, and then it becomes a story about why it’s always the outcasts who have to do the hardest work, because they say by us fighting for our right to be here, we’re actually fighting for your right as well. It’s just that you might be a but more palatable to the general population. By virtue of us making ourselves heard and getting our seat at the table, you’ll also get yours. It’s a really great film about community. It’s also really sexy, and for anyone with a taste for, or an interest even in BDSM, regardless of what your own preferences may be, you’ll definitely get something out of it and I would encourage people to check that one out.
We’ve got a new experimental shorts strand this year, how did that come about?
I just felt that Gaze was lacking that in previous years. It comes back to what I said, that all forms of expression are valid. Experimental film is not my area of expertise, that’s why with aemi we put that together, a little bit from submissions that came in and some submissions that they sought out. I’m so glad that this is here, because it taps into a particular interest and demographic that until a certain point wasn’t represented.
And it’s not something we often get a chance to see. It’s almost as if to attract a wider audience a lot of queer film programming will shy away from the experimental, maybe even more explicit stuff, to find some level of comfort for an audience.
Well comfort levels differ from person to person. There are people who just want to see beautiful love stories in which they see themselves represented onscreen, and that’s totally valid. And then there are some who like to see a bit of flesh onscreen, and I’m not opposed to that at all. It’s our responsibility to present things that are gratifying and pleasurable, we know that’s a big part of people’s expression. When it comes to depictions of gratifying queer sex on-screen, we still don’t get that in the same way. Obviously there’s a lot of economic reasons behind that. I just think queer cinema has the right to depict these things on screen. You think of a film like Taxi zum Klo, one of my highlights. It’s forty years old—forty years old!—and it shows you that AIDS was a cultural reset. The film is ultimately a young man in his 30s in West Berlin, he’s a teacher, outside of work he likes parties, he likes sex, he likes plenty of it, and he gets what he wants which is a boyfriend and suddenly he’s like “now what do I do?” It might seem kind of quotidian but actually it’s kind of radical, because it’s not a story about someone deeply unhappy, or the threat of violence. It’s “how do I have it all?” That’s a story that gets to be told in straight cinema quite regularly, but we don’t really get that in queer narratives. When I say AIDS was a cultural reset, that story was then eliminated from queer film for years because there was a reflection of the time people were living in. The idea of just living a happy, sexually-fulfilled life came with the threat of death and danger.
In terms of the evolution of queer cinema, and the kind of cinema that Taxi zum Klo gestured to but that we never got to because of that particular pandemic: are some of the emergent films we see now starting to fulfil that promise?
I would say very often Latin American cinema can do that. There’s a film called Dry Wind which we’re screening this year, and that is cinema for a queer audience, there’s no overtures toward heterosexual audiences there. It’s an erotic melodrama, as the director describes it in the Q&A, and it’s very explicit. We have two Brazilian films this year, Alice Junior and Dry Wind, very different in terms of content and story, but I asked the directors with all the trouble and challenges in Brazil, why is Brazil always producing this fabulous output of queer representation on screen, especially in trans cinema? And both directors said because we have nothing to lose, because we feel that with the restrictions placed upon us and the challenges from government to erase and invalidate our lives, we want to be as unapologetic as possible. In terms of Alice Junior, you get that without being explicit, you get that by co-opting the teen movie genre, and in Dry Wind you get that by presenting hirsute male fantasies on screen.
Beyond what we’ve already mentioned, what’s the top pick for someone who wants to get involved but doesn’t know where to start?
I would say have a look at the bundles! We’ve put together bespoke, hand-picked bundles for a whole range of interests. That includes films that have a youthful perspective, one that’s all documentaries, and we also have the “Film Festival Experience” which has the Irish shorts programme on it. I would say definitely choose a shorts programme, because that is a distillation of a film festival. Choose something you think is going to please you, which may be more conventional in form but the content is going to speak to you. And then choose something weird, I think that’s always important. I would say If It Were Love is definitely the one to check out, I think a lot of people will have a connection to that in their own particular way.