Streaming spotlight: films to be proud of

How cinema has recorded and influenced LGBTI history

by Jennie Kermode

Rainbow flags are flown to celebrate Pride Month
Rainbow flags are flown to celebrate Pride Month Photo: torbakhopper

June is Pride Month, so we’re looking at some of the best documentaries exploring LGBTI history around the world, plus two films that made history by changing the perspectives of those who watched them.

50 Years Legal
50 Years Legal

50 Years Legal, Amazon Prime, NowTV

Only 53 years ago, it was illegal for consenting adult men to have sex with each other in the UK. Simon Napier-Bell’s documentary remembers the piece of legislation that changed this (at last for those over 21) and reflects on what has happened since, taking in further legislative changes and the gradual cultural change that accompanied them. There are strong contributions from the likes of Peter Tatchell, Quentin Crisp, Angela Eagle, Marc Almond and Julian Clary, providing insights that blend the personal and the political, packing a lot into just 90 minutes. With US documentary The Lavender Scare sadly not available to stream in the UK at present, this is the best historical overview you’re going to find in cinema, though it’s unfortunately light on lesbian and bisexual issues. A slightly downbeat ending contemplating how closely trans people’s struggles today resemble those of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the past reminds us why Pride is still about protest.

Sidney And Friends
Sidney And Friends

Sidney And Friends, Amazon Prime

Whilst most LGBT people in the UK now enjoy a degree of security, those living in Kenya still have a long way to go to secure their basic rights. This documentary developed from a chance meeting between director Tristan Aitchison and his chief protagonist, Sidney, an intersex person raised as a girl who faced parental rejection after developing an attraction to women and who has survived on the margins of society, struggling to access healthcare. Through Sidney, Aitchison met a number of other intersex and trans people who tell their stories here – stories with many elements that will strike a chord with viewers elsewhere, but shaped by a heavily prejudiced society. With several of the film’s subjects actively involved in changing that society, however, this is a film full of hope and one that, rather than dwelling on their suffering, celebrates their agency.

We Were Here
We Were Here

We Were Here, BFI Player, Amazon Prime

Recent years have seen a flood of powerful documentaries about the AIDS era, from the heartbreaking 5B to the inspiring Small Town Rage, but David Weissman’s San Francisco story is one that will stay with you. It focuses on the stories of survivors, predominantly gay men discussing events that they did not, at the time, expect to survive, and reflecting on the loss of almost everyone else they then knew. One of the birthplaces of gay liberation and the hub of bathhouse culture, San Francisco was a city where people could let go of awful pasts and experience a real sense of freedom for the first time in their lives, before the disease came out of nowhere to create a still more awful present. Weissman presents us with the witnesses, like soldiers reunited years after a brutal war, grateful to be alive.

Les Invisibles
Les Invisibles

Les Invisibles, BFI Player, Amazon Prime

When lesbian, gay and bisexual identities are recognised by many people only in the context of sex, and when older people are perceived as less sexual beings, it can become difficult to express who one is in old age. For this film, Sébastien Lifshitz interviewed 11 French people over 70 about identity, relationships, the impact of living through changing times and the minutiae of their day to day lives. The result is an affecting series of portraits with a determinedly upbeat tone but with some really bleak stories along the way, reflecting on small moments that brought joy and the tremendous pressure of living in a society that sought to deny them. It’s a history lesson with an intensely human core.

Chemsex
Chemsex

Chemsex, BFI Player, Amazon Prime

There’s always a danger than in telling LGBTI stories, we try to sanitise them, either because they are to some degree our own or because we want to make redress for all he ugly prejudice and propaganda of the past. This can not only distort history – it can lead to the stories of those deemed less ‘respectable’ getting lost altogether. William Fairman and Max Gogarty’s Chemsex tries to look at one aspect of gay life as it is, holding nothing back. It’s not for the squeamish, but it’s a powerful piece of work, capturing something of the allure of this world (whether or not you’re attracted to men yourself) at the same time as telling stories of addiction, desperation and despair. in picking apart this difficult subject, it stands out as one of those rare films that really does raise awareness and invite people who are pat of that scene themselves to re-evaluate it.

The Children's Hour
The Children's Hour

The Children's Hour, Chili, Amazon Prime

Some LGBTI films don’t just record history – they make it. This is the case with William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour, which broke new ground in 1961 by addressing lesbianism despite the chilling effect of the Hays Code. Shirley MacLaine plays a teacher in love with her colleague (Audrey Hepburn) but unable to express it, trapped as a result of malicious allegations by a resentful pupil. Despite the fact that her love goes unrequited and the ending is tragic, it makes a powerful statement by presenting her in the mode of other unhappy women with whom the audiences of the time had learned to sympathise, and the fact that Hepburn’s character also regards her with concern rather than disgust helped to change public attitudes to lesbian and bisexual women, as well as contributing to the demise of the code.

Victim
Victim

Victim, BFI Player, Amazon Prime

Whilst The Children’s Hour provided a powerful voice for women in the US, Victim was doing the same for men in the UK. It starred Dirk Bogarde – a huge star at the time, taking a big career risk – as a married man who was always been attracted to other men but has hidden from it in shame. When he uncovers a blackmail ring taking advantage of the criminal status of gay sex, he becomes determined to root out and expose the corruption stemming from it, leading to a dramatic courtroom showdown – not to mention some very difficult conversations with his wife. The film made a powerful contribution to persuading MPs to vote for decriminalisation in 1967, beginning a process that would change hundreds of thousands of lives.

Dancing In Dulais

Have you seen Matthew Warchus’ feelgood 2014 hit Pride? This is the short film on which it was based, recorded live during the miners’ strikes in the Eighties, showing the LGBTI community in solidarity with others.

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