Suspended disbelief: Elizabeth Streb’s dancers.
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496