Michael Langan talks to João Ferreira, Queer Lisboa’s Festival Director, about how queer cinema is changing and how it remains, inevitably, a culture founded on desire.
The Queer Lisboa Film Festival is now in its 17th year. It’s not only Portugal’s premiere LGBT cinema showcase, but has carved out a name for itself as one of the most interesting and important forums for queer film there is. It’s retained a friendly, intimate feel but is nevertheless ambitious, experimental and devoutly international. This being Lisbon, you are also guaranteed some great parties alongside panel discussions and screenings. The opening night saw Canadian director Malcolm Ingram’s documentary Continental, about the famous – nay, notorious – New York bath-house of the same name and was followed by a party featuring a performance by white-trash-gay-rapper Cazwell.
João Ferreira has been the Festival’s Director for nine years, having worked his way up from doing hospitality and box office, then moving into programming, before eventually having his hand on the tiller. I spoke to him about the forthcoming Festival and developments in LGBT film.
How would you describe your vision for Queer Lisboa?
Queer Lisboa was never supposed to be something closed off to a general audience. Of course we cater for an LGBT crowd but the idea was to have a very diverse programme that doesn’t look at gay or queer cinema in a narrow way but finds narratives and aesthetics that could also be called queer. We try to forget the labels and look for queerness in all kinds of films. It really works here because the Festival is still very successful within the community but also for a audience who’s just interested in seeing these films – it’s about fifty-fifty.
Do you think that’s also influenced by queer cinema moving more into the mainstream, so audiences are more used to seeing gay stories on screen?
It’s definitely become the case that general moviegoers are less afraid of going to a queer festival. That’s something that happened for many years – I talked to people who would watch gay films on DVD or elsewhere, but not necessarily go to a queer festival. Having said that, we’re not really interested in screening mainstream or ‘crossover’ films.
Do you think that as audiences shift in that way, or film makers assimilate queer stories into the mainstream, it’s going to change what a queer film festival actually is?
Well, it’s always changing. We are dependent on the industry and on what’s happening out there, not only in terms of the personal treatment of narratives or developments in experimental cinema, we’re also dependent on the distribution companies. We always adapt to that reality. What we have to do is filter out what’s interesting and show those films that we feel deserve to be in the festival or in competition. Now, we have six programmers and all together this year we watched over 700 hundred films.
Who knew there were so many! Is it possible to identify any trends over the years?
Oh sure. Of course queer cinema is always a direct reflection of society and how communities and individuals live in different locations. For many years AIDS was a big issue in queer cinema, and then marriage became a big issue, especially in documentaries. I think there’s a tendency in queer cinema to be more linked to the realities of political concerns that very much depends on the political situation in the filmmaker’s country or their individual concerns, politically and socially speaking.
I guess the coming out story, for most filmmakers, is over now?
Yes, you don’t see that very often. Nowadays, you more often get coming out stories that are told in relation to issues of bullying and homophobia, which are not new issues of course, but are newer in terms of their representation. The classic coming-of-age story was a big trend in the late nineties.
There seems to be much more of a focus just on relationship dynamics, as there is in any kind of film.
In queer cinema there’s always a period of positive representation. So for many years filmmakers were concerned to show gay and lesbian couples as very ‘normal’ couples – never fighting, adopting children – everything was perfect. Now that’s been established in some countries and communities the relationships are likely shown as having problems, such as domestic violence, but we usually begin with that very rosy representation.
João Ferreira by Luis Martins
In the Festival brochure you write very eloquently about the issues surrounding the funding of the arts in Portugal, not just in economic terms but in broader, more philosophical ones; having to make the case for the existence of the arts and culture. You also described Queer Lisboa this year as having one of its most politically charged programmes ever.
I think it’s inevitable that you examine films, these art objects, from where you’re at, in this moment. So we, as programmers, looked at these films in that context, but the truth is a lot of them are reflecting economic realities and what is happening to our society and what effects the economic crisis is having specifically on minorities – not only sexual minorities but ethnic and racial minorities also.
Queer Lisboa is publicly funded. Is that funding safe?
Yes, so far. What has suffered here is film production – there was no money at all last year. But funding for festivals is such a small percentage of the budget it has remained safe, yes.
You also write in the Festival brochure about the body as a politically and socially constructed object. Do you think there’s something specific in queer cinema about the way that the body is treated?
If you think about it, queer culture is based upon desire, and desire that is not manifested in a normative way. Desire has a body and I guess that queer culture is imprisoned in the figurative, in representations of the body. In film it’s always easier to classify or read something as queer if you have a clear desire for another body or there’s a narrative that goes in that direction, rather than thinking in aesthetic terms. If we think about experimental filmmakers, especially American ones in the seventies, they did create a queer aesthetic but that’s always harder. If you erase the body it’s difficult to sell it as queer, to defend it in those terms.
You mean the idea that form can be queer?
Yes, even though I believe that is possible. We do look for that also in our programme but it’s not so apparent to audiences.
It’s that idea about breaking the normative again.
It has to do with transgression, even transgressing forms. That’s one of the reasons why, some years ago, I started the Queer Art section of the Festival. There were these films we wanted to show but they needed a special box to be put in so that people understood that’s what they would find there. A Festival needs to be more than a showcase, we have to offer a reading of those films, not telling the audience what to think necessarily, but curating it in a specific way.
Are there any particular films or events that you are particularly looking forward to this year?
The Little Joe event is something that really interests me; a new way of showing film inside an art installation, this multi-media crossover between artistic disciplines. The Greek film Boy Eating the Bird’s Food is really beautiful – it’s not a gay film per se but it’s totally queer in the way that it’s about being outcast, which is the story of a lot of gay people. I think it will really touch audiences in that way and it’s also talking about Europe right now. I’m really happy that we have the Gore Vidal documentary. He’s not very well known in Portugal so I’m glad we’re showing that. I think he’s a very interesting personality who should be more visible.
United States of Amnesia
You also write about Gore Vidal in the programme – is he a personal hero of yours?
Not as such but my family are part American and I’m obsessed with American culture. I lived there and he was one of those personalities I got to hear about very early on and I was very curious about him. He always appealed to me in some way, as someone intellectually challenging especially because he went against the normative gay speech that the American gay community had and how they presented themselves.
What role do competitions play in the Festival?
They’re very important in terms of negotiating with filmmakers and distributors, but they also really open out the Festival in terms of people’s involvement. We have an audience award too and it’s always prestigious for films to be in competition.
We’re getting queer cinema from places now where we’ve never had it before.
Yes, and it’s fundamental to look at those realities and learn from them, from different experiences around the world. The issues tend to be the same but take different forms and the way people deal with them is different, but the problems are the same.
What’s the vision for the future of Queer Lisboa?
I hope that the Festival continues to adapt, always looking for new things – queerness where you don’t suspect it – and always to be aware of what’s happening and what people want to see.
Queer Lisboa 17
20th – 28th September 2013
Cinema Sao Jorge, Aveninda da Liberdade 175, Lisbon, Portugal