Director: Daisy Asquith
Soundtrack: John Grant, Goldfrapp and Hercules & Love Affair
Running time: 70 minutes
Queerama: A Century of Gay Rights and Desires on Film is a documentary composed of BFI archive footage from news reels, interviews, music, television and film through the 20th century to the present day. Directed by Daisy Asquith, Queerama reveals how LGBT experiences, and more obviously, social perspectives on LGBT issues have shifted over the last century. At times both uplifting and upsetting, Queerama lets the footage speak for itself as a document of love, prejudice and pride.
The set up is straightforward; clips are cut together more or less chronologically, and also thematically, running through every theme under the sun. Queer perspectives on childhood, religion, art, psychiatry, community, the AIDS crisis, breakups, long term relationships and old age are covered, all set to a killer soundtrack. I can’t speak for a straight audience, nor an audience who lived through some of these years, but as a bisexual millennial with (despite my best efforts) a limited knowledge of UK LGBT history, this film was both engrossing and revelatory.
The homophobic attitudes throughout the first two thirds are predictable, but still shocking in the casualness of their presentation. The rhetoric could almost be funny if it weren’t for the horror of dehumanisation. “Most homosexuals live a dark and secret life,” a newsreader intones in crisp BBC RP, as men dance quite normally together in what looks like someone’s basement. There’s a streak of fear that runs through these early clips, the threat of a hidden invader. Gay men are “indistinguishable from you or I”; a lesbian “looks like any other woman”. Weirdly, to a modern, LGBT-friendly audience, the permeation of “you’d never know” rhetoric has the opposite of its intended effect. It bends back on itself with the distance of history; now we look “the same” because we are.
The interviews with lesbians and gay men are fascinating, and I was struck by the courage of the subjects to agree to share their experiences in such a climate of hatred. The diversity of opinion is deeply emotional on both ends of the spectrum. A sophisticated elderly lesbian, whose identity is kept hidden, finishes an account of her relationships with “There's absolutely no advantage to being homosexual in a heterosexual world. And there's no happiness, really.” Later, a man tells the interviewer with gently expressed joy, “I have no desire to be heterosexual. I don't see that there are any advantages to being heterosexual.”
There are no interviews with trans people, although transgender, nonbinary and gender-non-conforming lives are all touched on and explored in the film. Honestly I would have liked more on this, but I would guess the documentary was limited by available footage.
Meanwhile, an interview with a psychiatrist in the 60s — the 60s! — stands out as a thirty second horror movie. She discusses lesbianism as a disease to be treated and cured, and speaks of the young girls in her care as being damaged, traumatised, and sick. Although we’re aware of views like these — they continue in many parts of the world — seeing it in such a modern context is shocking. For younger (and sheltered) viewers, Queerama’s juxtaposition of interviews really brings home how far we've come.
For young LGBT viewers especially, this film should be required watching, but it’s a crucial experience for straight audiences too. It’s never comfortable to admit ignorance, but where else are people taught this history? In 1994, the year I was born, protesters gathered outside the houses of parliament to campaign for equalising the age of consent. In 2003, the year I turned nine, the crime of gross indecency was repealed. I knew these things, but Queerama made them real. This is barely history. This is happening now.
A hundred years sounds like a long time, but the archive footage makes those decades as real as our lives today (for older viewers, of course, they will have been). Though many aspects of the film are horrifying, the overall feeling is one of joy, love, pride and achievement. The changes we’ve made in such a small space of time are truly phenomenal, and while there’s still a long way to go, the future looks bright. Queerama thinks so too, finishing on a high — and passing the baton to a new generation of LGBT youth.
Queerama: A Century of Gay Rights and Desires on Film is out on DVD on 26th March 2018. The special features are amazing; everything included adds further depth and information on both the making of the film and the societies it presents. They include:
- Daisy Asquith Q&A (2017, 8 mins): director Daisy Asquith in conversation with the BFI’s Simon McCallum
- This Week: Homosexuals (James Butler, 1964, 23 mins)
- This Week: Lesbians (John Phillips, 1965, 26 mins)
- Ballad of Reading Gaol (Richard Kwietniowski, 1988, 11 mins)
- Rosebud (Cheryl Farthing, 1991, 14 mins)
- Illustrated booklet with full film credits and essays by Daisy Asquith, Simon McCallum, Lucy Robinson, Selena Robertson, Alex Davidson and So Mayer