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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear