Anatomy of a panic

Richard Squires on the history of homophobia and The Perpetrators

by Jennie Kermode

The Perpetrators
The Perpetrators

Blending animation with live action, Richard Squires’ short The Perpetrators, which screens as part of 2023’s BFI Flare line-up, takes a deep dive into the history of attempts to classify and monster gay and bisexual men, examining the different ways in which they were imagined as a threat to children. He does so through the story of a ten-year-old boy who exists as a ghost, peering through the windows of the suburban house where he used to live and exploring the contents of his local library.

Set in a vividly remembered 1980s, it’s such a detailed story that when I met Richard I asked him if there was a true story behind it.

“To some extent, yeah,” he says. “I mean, it started off after my research into queer criminality, I suppose, looking at these pathological representations of queerness historically, from about the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s. I wanted to animate some of these stereotypes, and then at some point I decided to bring in my own experience as a queer kid growing up in the 1980s. It reminded me, I suppose, of the strange, complicated nostalgia I've got for that decade where people were representative as depraved and as sick by the media.

Richard Squires at work
Richard Squires at work

“There was the AIDS epidemic, which obviously had a huge effect. Clause 28, the Conservative government's banning of the promotion of homosexuality in schools. And the other thing which was very much part of my experience growing up as a kid was this resurgence of the stranger danger moral panic. Lots of adverts on TV where there were kids being approached by horrible men. And certainly in the American media, perhaps less so in the UK media, there was a definite link between homosexuals, and these kind of depraved men who were a threat to children.

“I think that that sense of queers being a menace was something which was very prevalent in the Eighties. It’s something which, as a queer person growing up at that time, I've integrated. It's part of my experience, and, unfortunately, very much still part of queer kids’ experience today.”

I had wondered about, I say, given that we’ve seen a recent resurgence, especially in the US, of people promoting the myth of an association between LGBTQ+ people and paedophiles.

“Absolutely. I mean, I don't think it's ever really gone away. It was something which was being challenged in the Eighties. It's not that queer people were sitting back and not challenging these representations. But I think with the rise of populism, we see it re-emerging again, in all types of different ways. Obviously the trans debate and also the drag queen storytimes in the US, and the potential repeal of gay marriage laws. And then people like Bolsonaro and Putin who are still peddling this link between queer people in general and paedophiles. So it's definitely still there, and it obviously still needs to be challenged.”

Something else which struck me about the film is that there's a feeling that the difference between the animated stuff and the live action stuff is like the difference between being queer and being part of everybody else's community. And there is that sense of the boy as being an outsider because of his queerness as well.

Face to face with a stereotype
Face to face with a stereotype

“Absolutely, absolutely. I think, for me, my experience of growing up as a queer kid was that there were all of these images in the media and on TV – there was a lot of derogatory talk about queers. And so you're subjected to all of this kind of imagery, and yet at the same time, you're becoming aware of the fact that you yourself, potentially, are somehow linked to this group of people. I've always had a sense of myself as an outsider, I guess, but what do we do with those images?

“What we do with those representations is something which really interests me, because I'm very much someone who believes that absolutely, we have to be affirmative, we have to challenge negative, pathological representations. But I also think we have to acknowledge the darkness that is there in terms of our history. We integrate those images or we reject them. Whatever we do, there are bad parts of our history there, and I think that it's important to acknowledge that”

Is it also the case that, with animation, those images can be exaggerated in the way that they were exaggerated in popular culture, so we can see how unrealistic they are?

“Yeah, yeah, sure. I've been working for about the last ten years with fantastic character animator Elroy Simmons, so I tend to do the character design and then Elroy goes off and does the actual animation. Certainly part of the reason for animating is the fact that you can push things, you can make characters more extreme, more exaggerated. That's obviously part of the medium, and I think as well, animation is a good medium to represent otherness. So, yeah, it's definitely part of it. And I like the conversation you get between the live action and the animation in the film, and how that kind of the audience.”

Within the material which the ghost boy reads from the library books – narration which continues throughout – there’s the suggestion that queer people choose to be social outsiders, and that the social support we provide to each other is somehow intended to discourage interaction with anyone else – but some of the images which we see at the same time provide a challenge to that.

“Yeah. I mean, the ghost boy discovers a book in the library and reads these texts, and they are the texts which I got from my own research and the way that these sexologist and criminologists used to define queer people. They're something which we would think of as pretty horrendous and homophobic now, but again, there's something which I think is part of our history. We have to remind ourselves and we have to keep challenging. Certainly the film is challenging on that level. And that includes language and terminology.

An imaginary Ford Cortina
An imaginary Ford Cortina

“As well as these kinds of old sexological texts, I looked at more modern texts. There's a book I looked at which is kind of horrendous, it's called Seven Steps To Recruit-Proof Your Child, and it's by an American evangelist. It's basically a guide for parents to learn how to avoid the homosexual menace, and this was published in the Nineties. And again, it uses that terminology, it uses all these kinds of pathological ideas which have come from 40 years before.”

And yet, even that sexological text does suggest that there's a community out there somewhere for the boy, I note. Sometimes, back in those pre-internet days, that was how we found out that we weren’t alone.

He nods. “It's this weird thing, isn't it? That the sexologist and the criminologist kind of helped to define this subculture. And it's something that we have to acknowledge. We have to challenge, we have to fight against it, but, yeah, it's definitely part of the history.”

I ask how he went about recreating the Eighties in the live action scenes, and he smiles.

“Well, luckily, my parents had their kitchen redone in the Eighties, and I don't think they’ve had it redone since then. So that really helped. A lot of the other things, the details, were actually sourcing props from the Eighties. And then the other thing which really helped was – and hindered – was the fact that we were in a pandemic. The suburban streets were really quiet, with less people going out, so when we were shooting the 1980s Ford Cortina which cruises the suburban streets, it was probably made easier for us by the fact that there was a pandemic going on. But there was also, of course, a lot of editing of shots. There were very non-1980s things which were also filmed, but they've been carefully cut out.”

At one point, there's a Christmas wreath on the door, which seemed to speak to that particular loneliness of Christmases when you're being told by adverts and so on that everybody's all together and part of one family, and you notice that outsider status a lot more.

Now let's see who you really are.
Now let's see who you really are.

“Definitely,” he says. “There are lots of things in there which help to build up this sense that the kid is an outsider. I was brought up in suburbs of South London. It's not that far from the metropolis. My experience is that it felt very provincial and very apart from the metropolis. And there's a lot of stuff in suburbia, even the orange street lighting, the foliage and the bushes and the leafiness of it, which actually I found quite kind of disturbing. As a teenager I felt much more reassured in the city. There's some kind of innate sense of threat in the suburbs, I think.”

As he mentioned the orange streetlights I note that the film keeps coming back to the colour orange in the animation. Is there a particular reason for that or is it just that it was bright and easy to distinguish?

“I shot the film with cinematographer Alex Grigoras, and then Alex graded the film as well. When we were grading we specifically thought about, first of all, kind of 1980s colours, in terms of the kitchen, in terms of the live action footage. But we also were very influenced by Hanna Barbera, and particularly Scooby Doo, because obviously the design of the animated sequences makes reference to Scooby Doo. And we looked at the colour set of Scooby Doo characters, and the way that those colours are used in that animation. So everything is pushing towards this 1980s vibe.

“The film is available for people to see at BFI Flare, which there are two screenings, there's one on the 19th and then on the 25th, as well, and it's also going to be screening at some other festivals as well. So if people want to see the film, they can keep an eye on my website.”

BFI Flare tickets for The Perpetrators are available here.

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