Sandra Alland previews the films in Matthew Hellett’s second Queer Freedom programme. Queer Freedom screens 23 October as part of the launch of Brighton’s Oska Bright, the largest learning-disability short film festival in the world.
Filmmaker and curator Matthew Hellett joined the Oska Bright Film Festival’s creative team in 2007. When he became Lead Programmer in 2017, Hellett created Queer Freedom, an impressive and much-needed film showcase of LGBTQI+ learning-disabled and autistic artists.
The first Queer Freedom was the most popular strain of Oska Bright 2017, and has been picked up by festivals around the world. For the second instalment, Hellett has skilfully selected an exciting range of genres and subject matter. True to his reputation, the programme promises equal depth and sparkle.
Hellett says, ‘Learning-disabled artists and creatives from across the world are consistently underrepresented in the film and TV industries – both in front of and behind the camera.’
Queer Freedom exists because representation is even scanter for those in Hellett’s community who are also queer and/or trans. Additionally, mainstream LGBTQI+ events, and even disability arts, are not always welcoming to those who are neurodivergent.
Programmed, managed and presented by learning-disabled people, Oska Bright shows a rare dedication to disability justice. Their access centres solidarity across disabilities and marginalised experiences. All films are in one level-access location, subtitled, audio-described, and live BSL-interpreted. Screenings are low-cost, and audiences can come and go as they please.
The 2019 edition of Queer Freedom takes the audience on an unforgettable journey through learning-disabled and autistic experiences of gender and sexuality. Six shorts – from England, Scotland, Denmark, Australia and Canada – pack documentary, animation, poetry and biopic into a delectable 25-minute programme.
In ‘Born To Dance with an Extra Chromosome’, we meet four members of the English performance sensation, Drag Syndrome. Filmmaker Nikolay Nikolov features live drag shows and one-on-one interviews with this fab troupe of artists with Down’s Syndrome. Lady Francesca, Horrora Shebang, Gaia Callas and Justin Bond each bring a unique style, sexiness, thoughtfulness and humour to the stage – and to the film. Non-learning-disabled creative director, Daniel Vais, is also interviewed. He narrates the group’s growing success since their formation in 2018. Alongside brilliant live performances, the documentary shines brightest when troupe members discuss their own motivations, challenges and desires around gender, dance, and being in front of an audience.
Scottish writer/filmmaker Mattie Kennedy, who was keynote speaker at Oska Bright 2017, returns with the delightful ‘Enid and Valerie’. To bring their otherworldly script to life, Kennedy collaborated with animator Vitoria Bastos. ‘Enid & Valerie’ is both tea party and incantation, unfolding in wondrous stop-motion and stylistic framing. Bastos’s hand-made characters and set pieces are startlingly beautiful and detailed. Guided by Kennedy’s rhythmic voice-over, we flit between dream and reality as two femmes meet. Pass the teapot, or is that a witch’s hat?
Also made in Scotland, Melissa Joan Clifford’s ‘Roberta Cowell’s Story’ is a supershort biopic about one of the most well-known trans women in early 20th-century UK. A race-car driver and World War II fighter pilot from Croydon, Roberta Cowell continued a successful career even after being outed by the press. Here she’s celebrated by Clifford through a montage of stock photos, and footage from the filmmaker’s visit to Glasgow’s Mitchell Library.
Jessica Laurent, a French filmmaker based in Ireland, was Viborg Animation Festival’s 2018 Artist of the Year. As such, she was tasked to create the Danish festival’s visual identity. Her ‘VAF 2018’ is a fun and layered festival trailer that became a film in its own right. Laurent co-animated her designs with Maria Blowers to devise a visually vibrant story of two women, a multiplying dog, and the surprising collision/overlap of their lives.
Through a skilled and surreal mix of eerie sound, candid visuals, and recorded poetry, ‘Lipstick Fights’ portrays Jon Mitchell’s struggle to comfortably and safely explore gender as a learning-disabled person. Mitchell was paired with mentor Lincoln MacKinnon as part of DADAA Digital Productions’ Mixed Reality Project in Western Australia. He wrote and performed in the film, and collaborated on editing and sound design. Mitchell’s use of internal rhyme and imagistic poetry is subtle, moving and funny, ‘A hairy man seeks breeze on the knees’.
Love Intersections is a queer- and POC-based media arts collective on unceded Coast Salish territories (Vancouver). The collective’s Jen Sungshine and David Ng host the documentary, ‘Loving Our Language: Pride in Disability Culture’. In separate interviews that make up two halves of the film, guests Amar Mangat and Vivian Ly address how culture and language influence and (in)form queer, disabled and D/deaf identities. The hosts get great material from both guests; it would have been exciting to have them in discussion because of their deep resonance. Mangat, who’s ‘gay, queer, POC and Deaf’, highlights the connection between D/deaf culture(s) and sign languages, and wishes for a place where he can be ‘all four of these parts’. Ly discusses autistic body language, and draws parallels between D/deaf, autistic, and queer cultural experiences and oppressions. Despite this not being a disability-led series, Sungshine and Ng connect important issues around disabled and D/deaf communication and community-building, including perceptions of what makes a language.
Near the end of ‘Loving Our Language’, Vivian Ly highlights the value and rarity of the ‘different feel’ for community members who are able to access autistic space or queer space, suggesting that ‘where those intersect might be a really great space’.
Experience Queer Freedom for a taste of just how great a space it can be!
Queer Freedom screens as part of the launch event for Oska Bright, 6pm-9:30pm, 23 October, The Old Market, Hove.