Suspended disbelief: Elizabeth Streb’s dancers.
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Defying gravity: LGBT voices and daredevil acrobats delight Ryan Gilbey at BFI Flare

BFI Southbank's LGBT film festival Flare has become more eye-catching. Now it dazzles.

When the actor Russell Tovey expressed relief that his tough upbringing had saved him from becoming one sort of gay man (the type who “prances around”), he was campaigning on behalf of another: those who make themselves less demonstrative and eye-catching lest they incur the wrath of a hypothetical foe. That streak of denial and self-loathing is addressed in Do I Sound Gay?, which is screening as part of BFI Flare, the institute’s annual LGBT film festival (19-29 March). Formerly known as the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, it underwent a makeover last year, reshaping itself to be more eye-catching, not less.

David Thorpe, the director of Do I Sound Gay?, finds himself newly single in his forties and resolves to investigate something he feels is hampering his prospects of happiness: his voice. A more honest film would have admitted that this is as much about a documentary-maker’s search for a subject but the conceit holds for a while. Thorpe consults a speech therapist, who identifies an elongated “O” and prescribes vocal exercises (“Roberto was aglow and the fish was local”). We also meet the writer David Sedaris, who looks crestfallen at the regularity with which he is addressed as “ma’am” when phoning the reception of a hotel.

The mood is playful to a fault: Thorpe doesn’t wrestle with his subject so much as tickle it. Despite interviewing Zach King, who refused to modify his voice or gait even after a homophobic attack on him was filmed by classmates when he was 15, and admitting to his revulsion at the sound of “braying ninnies”, Thorpe loses focus and momentum. His analytical powers are also suspect. Complaining that the only audible gay voices in his youth belonged to the camp or effeminate, Thorpe doesn’t realise that this was because the mainstream wouldn’t countenance other kinds of gayness. Had Tovey been acting then, he would have needed to polish up his prancing or else grow to like the inside of his closet.

Any confined spaces in Catherine Gund’s Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb v Gravity exist to highlight the boundlessness of the human body. Streb, a 65-year-old choreographer, wears a black suit, black specs and ink-splash hair; she’s John Cooper Clarke’s Mini-Me. As the founder of Streb Extreme Action, she urges her company on to the far reaches of physical endurance and injury (“More force! More velocity! More risk!”) and asks: “If you’re not flying, what’s the point?” One collaborator traces this to Streb’s sense of rootlessness as an adopted child. Streb Extreme Action has become an unofficial home for performers whose approach to family has been DIY.

BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity [Official Trailer] from Aubin Pictures on Vimeo.

Her dancers turn somersaults inside oversized hamster wheels; one plucky lass is spun horizontally inside a giant egg whisk at the end of a rotating robotic arm while others leap through glass or dodge spinning girders and pendulous breeze blocks. It’s the only dance company that should be wearing hard hats instead of tights and leotards. One of the most spellbinding pieces is “Little Ease”, named after a medieval torture cell into which the victim was crammed. There’s a persuasive continuity between this minimalist work and Streb’s epic One Extraordinary Day event, staged as a taster for the 2012 Olympics and featuring dancers inching along the spokes of the London Eye, with Streb walking upright down the cloud-carpeted exterior of City Hall. Gravity and space are reduced to mere formalities.

The trailer for The Vagine Regime. Warning: potential tears

I also enjoyed another documentary, Erica Tremblay’s In the Turn, in which an LGBT roller derby team, the Vagine Regime, zooms on to the rink through the parted curtains of a pair of pink fabric labia. Its antics have a serious point, as shown by the inspiration they provide to Crystal, a transgender child with suicidal impulses. Frangipani, Sri Lanka’s first gay film, brings an ingenuous sweetness and a delicious visual aesthetic to a familiar love triangle: boy chases girl who won’t give him back his nail varnish remover, girl holds a candle for him, boy is more interested in getting his hands on another boy’s candle. Melodrama creeps in but there’s no disputing the eye or the heart of the director, Visakesa Chandra­sekaram. He brings extra flair to Flare. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.