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 small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.