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10 March 2017updated 14 Sep 2021 2:42pm

The BFI’s Flare film festival shines a spotlight on LGBT writer Peter Wildeblood

It also showcases coming-of-age LGBT dramas, set everywhere from Icelandic fishing villages to Irish boarding schools. 

By Ryan Gilbey

It is now three years since the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival shrugged off any previous, outdated definitions and limitations in order to transition spectacularly into Flare. How are you getting on with the new name? I found very quickly that it tripped off the tongue and so I feel no need to cling nostalgically to the old one. (It was a different story when the National Film Theatre was rechristened BFI Southbank. I held out for a good few years until I got bored with friends saying “Where?” whenever I asked them to meet me at the NFT.)

I have a real fondness for the Festival Formerly Known as the LLGFF, though, partly because I was sent to report on it during my first stint on a newspaper back in 1994. It was the opening night film — Rose Troche’s sparkly comedy Go Fish — and there I was, 22 years old and keen as mustard with my notepad on my knee, waiting for the lights to go down. The woman sitting in front of me swivelled round in her seat and started making chitchat. When she realised I was a journalist, she demanded to know why a national newspaper had sent a man to cover a film about lesbians. We got into a good-natured debate in which I pointed out that one need not be a serial killer to appreciate The Silence of the Lambs. If she was offended at having her sexuality likened to a psychopathic compulsion by a youthful hack, she didn’t show it, and we parted on good terms. If I imagine that exchange taking place now on social media, it makes me want to crawl whimpering under the covers.

So Flare it is. This year’s festival opens with Against the Law, a BBC television film about Peter Wildeblood (pictured on the right, above), a gay writer imprisoned in 1954 under the same legislation that was used successfully to prosecute Oscar Wilde. The film borrows its title from Wildeblood’s book, published in 1955 upon his release from prison and heralded by CH Rolph in the New Statesman as “the noblest, and wittiest, and most appalling prison book of them all”. It led directly to the Wolfenden Report On Homosexual Offences And Prostitution and to the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967. The combination of an accomplished cast, including Daniel Mays as Wildeblood and Mark Gatiss as the prison doctor trying to “cure” him, and a script by Brian Fillis (whose credits include An Englishman in New York, the sequel to The Naked Civil Servant), suggest a high-calibre production.

I’ve heard good things about Being 17, a coming-of-age tale directed by André Téchiné and written by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood), and you don’t have to look too hard to find other examples of that evergreen genre in the festival’s line-up. Heartstone situates it in an Icelandic fishing village, Handsome Devil at an Irish boarding school, Seventeen among a group of Austrian girls. Trans issues can be found at the centre of several documentaries including FTWFT: Female to What the Fuck, which ponders the intricacies of transitioning, and Raising Zoey, in which the stand-out star is the mother of a transitioning 13-year old, as well as in fiction features such as the Brazilian drama Don’t Call Me Son.

Go Fish enthusiasts will be pleased to see one of the patron saints of lesbian cinema, the sparkly Guinevere Turner, in a screening of the first episode of the 12-part web series Different For Girls, which begins with a woman admitting to her girlfriend that she got pregnant during their “break.” Alan Cumming plays an artist and former Aids activist whose life begins a new phase in After Louie. Meanwhile, the closing night gala choice, Signature Move, concerns a Muslim immigration lawyer keeping her sexuality hidden from her widowed mother.

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The above titles are new and unknown quantities, but if you want to know what you’re getting, you can’t go wrong with Flare’s “Winks and Nudges” section, which revives various camp delights. There is an Imax screening of the underrated, jubilant 1980 Village People extravaganza Can’t Stop the Music (which features among its cast Caitlyn – known then as Bruce – Jenner) and another outing for the hilarious and horrifying Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest. Axes and wire hangers will not be permitted in the auditorium.

The BFI Flare film festival runs from 16-26 March 2016 in London.