This is a Welsh-English translation of a piece I had published last year – a festival report from the Iris Prize International Film Festival, for the online edition of the literary journal O’r Pedwar Gwynt.
In his influential 2010 text, Cruising Utopia, the theorist José Esteban Muñoz calls for an understanding of queer existence which centres an utopian drive. His vision, borrowing from Heidegger, performance art and historical perspectives towards utopia, uses gay cruising as a metaphor for how we might draw potential from queer co-existence, away from the blinding glare of normative society. Without a collective utopian imagination, Munoz argues – in art as in sex as in night life and so on – there is always a deficiency in how far we can think possible futures for oppressed and otherwise minoritized communities.
For a while now, I have been curious about how Munoz’ connection between cruising and utopian thought might be applied to film festivals. Film festivals are always cruising sites. They are, at their best, spaces for discovery, for making connections and for loss of innocence, psycho-geographies where you are constantly aching for that unanticipated encounter with something new and transformative. If any film festival fits this description, it is the Iris Prize, whose latest, tenth edition came to a close this past Sunday in Cardiff. The Iris Prize is one of the world’s most prominent LGBTQ+ film festivals, and it prizes the close-knit, familial, unpretentious atmosphere it fosters as much as its reliable programme of international excellence in contemporary queer-oriented filmmaking.
Among Iris’ notable characteristics, in addition to its lively nightlife element and focus on community, is that it privileges short films over features. The festival does, however, offer a significant platform for a handful of the year’s most notable queer features. In my view, Inxeba, or The Wound, about a scarring ritual within a South African tribe, is among the year’s most affecting films of any kind, as is Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, which narrates an aimless New York teenager’s discovery of tenderness and empathy via encounters with men he meets on camsex sites. But even these remarkable and highly acclaimed films, receiving their Welsh premiers, take a backseat at the Iris Prize compared to the competitive short-film strands. There is good reason for that: the festival’s titular Prize, for a new LGBT-themed short from anywhere in the world, is the world’s largest monetary prize for a short film, LGBT+ or not, at £30,000.
The somewhat surprising victor of this year’s international prize was Mamma Vet Bäst, or Mother Knows Best, by Mikael Bunsden, the first Danish filmmaker to win. It is a film shaped upon one conversation – almost its entire quarter-hour runtime is composed of one short – between a mother and teenage son in a car, after she meets his boyfriend for the first time. The simplicity of this plot and stylistic approach disguises a twisty, artful portrait of a relationship of seemingly infinite complexity. It is a film with much to say (without ever resting on polemic) about the limits and hypocrisies of liberal tolerance today, and its power was only slowly revealed to me across the course of repeated viewings during Iris’ last weekend.
Equally superficially simple, but with ultimately much less to hold onto, was The Mess He Made, a somewhat one-note American short about a young father killing time while he waits for results from a sexual-health test. In truth, I’m unsure how much else I have to say about this film. Nevertheless, I’m fond of how Iris gradually slims its shortlists, showing the top three films of its two main competitive strands on what it refers to as its Super Saturday, offering an insightful look at the dynamics of its juries’ tastes before the announcement of the winners. In the case of the international prize’s top three this year, it’s clear that this jury, chaired by Brian Robinson, formerly of the BFI, favours films driven by one strong idea and a confident, direct narrative style.
This was certainly true of Odd Job Man, directed by Marianne Bilcher, about a middle-aged straight man who, upon losing both his job and his wife, discovers a new lease of life as an ‘odd job man’ at a drag club. This was probably the main competition’s most formally sophisticated film. But personally – and this seemed to be a consensus among those I spoke to – I was glad the jury opted not to award a film with so familiar a perspective (i.e. that of a non-descript elder straight white man) considering Iris’ genuine commitment to underrepresented stories.
There was a little more variety, of several kinds, to be found in the top three of the Iris’ British Short strand. Été was the most lyrical, sensual and subtle short I saw at this year’s festival. It narrates a boy’s silent crush on his friend one Summer of sheep-shearing and lakeside relaxation in Herefordshire – a plot description which didn’t exactly set my imagination alight. But its director, Greg Oke, frames this ordinary-enough scenario with a stunning amount of detail and humour, for example in the ample amount of screentime dedicated to its protagonist’s effort to learn French, and his obsession with the singer Jacques Dutronc, who plays over long stretches of the twenty-minute film’s soundtrack. I had the opportunity to ask the director, in one of the many Iris parties I attended, if there was a specific connection between the film’s different strands which I may have missed, and he assured me Été’s disparate registers came together more or less randomly. The film is much richer and more suggestive as a result of this restlessness – a deeply satisfying and intuitive work.
It would be hard to argue, however, that We Love Moses, this U.K. section’s winner, was undeserving. We follow the blooming of a twelve-year-old girl’s obsession with her older brother’s close relationship with his male friend. It is the narrative’s specificity which sets this film apart; its themes of sexual ambiguity and the societal pressures upon young girls take place in an urban school environment, with an all-black cast. Its humour and sense of wonder make this one of the most impressive films at this year’s Iris Prize.
It was pleasing, too, to see a sensitive documentary short – of the kind that could easily fall through the cracks at another festival – reaching the top three of this section. Where Are We Now, directed by Lucie Rachel, portrays the relationship between a Scottish father and daughter follows their respective coming-outs, the father as a trans woman and the daughter as a lesbian. Rachel’s film entirely avoids overemphasis and preachiness, favouring an observational approach which allows this fascinating (in its mundanity as much as anything else) relationship’s nuances to shine through.
In Cruising Utopia’s closing pages, Muñoz calls on us to search for utopic potentialities in aesthetic works and communal situations; for strategies of escape from society’s “narrow version of the here and now,” to demand better for communities underserved by normative regimes and to step “out of this place and time to something fuller, vaster, more sensual, and brighter.” My brief period spent at this year’s Iris Prize – the quality of the films, the drinks and the dancing, the hours of conversation had – suggested a taste of this fuller-vaster-brighter future. Several of the festival’s films served as reminders that, in our corner of the world, we as queer people have come an incredibly long way. But why not demand better yet for people all along the gender spectrum everywhere in the world? Why not demand utopia?