The Mardi Gras Film Festival returns this February with an array of fictional and documentary features and shorts, over a hundred all up. This year’s theme is the queer frontier, honouring our queer elders who have pushed boundaries and created spaces for us, and inviting audiences to expand our own boundaries of empathy and experience through film.
There are films from thirty-seven different countries, including six Asian fictional narratives and more shorts and documentaries. One program strand is Focus On First Nations, including the opening film Wildhood, a Canadian tale of two-spirit journey, and Finlandia, a magical realist story of Indigenous Mexican third gender family. Rebels With A Cause, the second program strand, serves up docos of activism across history and countries, including Hating Peter Tatchell, Rebel Dykes, and Seyren Ateş: Sex, Revolution And Islam.
Utter legend St Vincent and Carrie Brownstein’s mockumentary The Nowhere Inn is on the bill, as is Cloris Leachman’s final performance in Jump, Darling. Also screening is the Wachowskis’ Nineties lesbian noir classic Bound, modern screwball caper The Sixth Reel for us Classic Hollywood nerds, and oh yes, that Paul Verhoeven shockfest Benedetta.
Cinema screenings take place in the city, Hurstville, Parramatta, and Cremorne. The festival will also tour to the Blue Mountains and Canberra in March. For those of us reluctant to leave home, over half of the films are available to stream on demand.
Nisha-Anne caught up with festival director Lisa Rose to talk about the intricacies of programming a queer film festival, the perfection of short films, the various ways Queer Screen funds emerging queer filmmakers, and also exchange Wordle strategies.
The Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 is in cinemas and online 17 February – 3 March and will then tour the Blue Mountains and Canberra through March. The program and tickets are available at www.queerscreen.org.au.
You’ve been with Queer Screen since 2012 and this is your fourth year as festival director. Aside from the pandemic, how’s it been for you as a person evolving?
Well, I mean, I’ve been with Queer Screen for a long time. And it’s like a second family to me. Like it’s more than a job because obviously I started as a volunteer, I was very passionate about it, and then made a career change into, you know, turning my passion into my career which is something that a lot of people don’t get to do. So that was very exciting for me. It’s been a really interesting process changing from a volunteer to being staff. I love it. It’s a great job. I feel very privileged to have a role like this.
Was it super challenging in terms of you had to learn a lot of skills about like organisation and juggling all different kinds of priorities and liaising?
Yeah, definitely. And I was really lucky that the previous festival director, Paul Struthers, when I was a volunteer was incredibly collaborative. I learned a lot off him, and also from James Woolley who at the time was working at Sydney Film Festival and was also doing some work with Queer Screen and is now the executive director of the largest queer film festival in the world in San Francisco. They were really great in teaching me a lot just about the industry. But I’ve also come from a background where I’m quite particular. I’m more process-driven than I think some of them were. So I’ve been able to hopefully streamline the things that we do.
But the breadth of this particular role in terms of my – like every day is completely different. And the number of stakeholders that I have to communicate with is much larger than any other role I’ve ever had. And yeah, I’m not going to lie, it’s challenging. It’s a very stressful role. But, you know, the payoff is great. It’s such a wonderful thing to be able to give something good back to the community.
Absolutely. And it’s not just the queer stuff, but it’s also the film and it’s the marriage of them both. That’s just so awesome to me.
Yeah, it is awesome. It is.
In terms of the pandemic, you managed to just get Mardi Gras Film Festival in before we went into lockdowns. And then Queer Screen last year had to be fully online which, as you know, I loved. I love when things are fully online and I’m like, “Yes! I don’t have to leave the house.” Did that mean that you already had all your infrastructure in place for this year in terms of quickly shifting gears if you needed to?
So yeah, Mardi Gras Festival 2020 – we finished that festival and the pandemic basically didn’t exist. And then it was like the middle of March when it kind of hit Australia. So this is actually our fourth festival that we have done since the pandemic started. It’s now the fourth time that we’ve had an online component in the festival. And it’s been a very steep learning curve, but I think it’s been a really lovely sort of silver lining to what’s been an extremely challenging time for the world. We’ve been able to diversify our audience because being able to move to online and do a hybrid festival means that we can reach people in different areas of the country. Because we go national, we can reach people who are shift workers, people with young children, people who have access issues. There are so many people who could not normally come to the cinema.
So there’s this massive silver lining and obviously with the situation that’s currently happening in in the country, there are probably some people who may be a little bit cautious about wanting to return to the cinema. And so being able to offer them sixty per cent of the program online is great. And we as an organisation are really committed to continuing even post-pandemic offering hybrid festivals in some way, shape or form, depending on whether the filmmakers and rights holders and the Classification Board will allow us to do that. We’re really committed because we really see that there is a benefit.
Obviously there’s, you know, nothing like sitting in an audience of queer people watching a queer film. It’s a very communal experience and it’s an exciting experience. But you can’t diminish what is a really exciting thing to have people able to watch all these films that they would not normally get to see at home by themselves or with a friend or with their partner or their dog or cat or whoever they like.
Is there some sort of pushback in terms of dealing with filmmakers who maybe don’t want their films to go online and would prefer them to be in the cinema? How do you deal with that?
Yeah, absolutely. For sure. I think the first festival we did was probably the most challenging – the first festival that was hybrid – because a lot of filmmakers at that point wanted to sort of hold out. Because, you know, some of them have spent years making their film and they’ve dreamed of having it on the big screen. And obviously the pandemic has stuck around and people can see that it hasn’t gone away quickly. People have had to pivot and adjust and realise that this is the new normal that we’re in for the time being. And so some have been really open to it, some are more resistant, and that’s their right. It’s completely up to them how they want to do it. And so, yeah, we have twenty-five films that are playing exclusively in cinema. But more than half are playing online as well.
Sixty per cent sounds like a fantastic number. So the film festival theme this year is the queer frontier?
Yeah, our artwork is very much in space, and it has purple fists that are kind of raised and united. The whole theme is really about celebrating people who have carved out space for themselves. And we’re inviting the audience to explore the queer frontier. It’s like a play on the final frontier of space and exploring the queer experience. We’ve got a really great program strand which is called Rebels With A Cause. And it’s all about artists and musicians and activists and people that have really forged a path for all of us. So it’s celebrating those and asking people to go and explore all of these new genres and filmmakers. It’s exciting.
I love that the activism thing ties into Sydney as a place for queer activism as well as all around the world. I also love the fact that the festival is opening with Wildhood because I was so excited to see that on the program. I had never heard of it before, but then the fact that it’s a First Nations queer narrative and it’s two-spirit — I’m just very excited to see that.
I was very excited when I managed to confirm that film for opening night. It’s a beautiful film. It just had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September. And it hasn’t played too many places since then. It’s beautifully shot, and it’s this really lovely film about this young two-spirit youth on a journey literally and figuratively about their identity and sexuality, and also on a road trip where they walk through a stunning, stunning landscape and re-connecting back to their culture. I’m really excited for people to see it.
Awesome. And I love the fact that Michael Greyeyes is in it because he’s such an amazing actor. I love that he making these kinds of films where it’s not just the establishment stuff, it’s queer stuff as well. So that’s one of the strands, Focus on First Nations. What went into the thinking behind that and the film choices?
It’s a really interesting thing because in terms of the intersection between queer and First Nations stories, it’s not something that comes up comes up a lot which is a real shame. And this year, just through the process of when I was programming, I started to see that there were some really great queer First Nations stuff that was around. As soon as I managed to confirm Wildhood – which I actually managed to confirm pretty early on – for an opening night film, and I already had Finlandia which is a really beautiful film that’s mostly set in Mexico.
There’s Querencia which is also from Canada, which is something that I’ve never seen before. It’s about two queer Indigenous women in Vancouver, and they both have very differing connections to their heritage and culture. So that kind of forms a tension in their budding relationship, and it’s a really interesting thing to see. It’s made by one of the lead actors who created that sort of episodic [framework].
Then there’s also Pure Grit which is one of my favourite films in the program which is a really interesting documentary about this incredible woman in America who is a bareback horse racer which is a really dangerous sport. And she’s Native American and has had to deal with a lot of stuff in her life and on the reservation. She’s really resilient and such a person to admire, and it’s a thrilling and really engaging documentary. So it’s really great that we’ve got all of those films in.
One thing I really love about Queer Screen and Mardi Gras Film Festival is there’s always been an inclusion of narratives that aren’t cis and aren’t white. I actually watch quite a lot of the Asian narratives. I watched A Distant Place just earlier.
Isn’t it beautiful?
Oh, the scenery.
Such a beautiful film.
It was so still. And then, you know, the little emotional explosion at the end which was actually quite distressing. (laughs) Has that always been something that’s been really important to you as a festival director, to include the people of colour narratives?
Oh absolutely, yeah, without a shadow of a doubt. I always want to try and have the most diverse program that I possibly can. Because we are a diverse people, so it’s really important to make sure that it’s not just white faces, it’s not just young faces, it’s not just able-bodied people. You really need to make sure that you have a diverse range of films and communities that are represented, not only so people can see themselves on screen, but so that other people can experience life in somebody else’s shoes. Because that’s the beautiful thing about film – how you can learn things about other people and other experiences. So yeah, it’s always been very important to me.
In terms of choosing the films, are there certain parameters that you have for yourself? Because I’ve watched some queer films where I go into it, all excited and everything, and then the message is sometimes really horrible or the ending is just really awful. And it might be the Bury Your Lesbians stuff or it might be something where I’m like, “No, that is diminishing the dignity of the queer person.” Is that something that you consider?
That’s a really interesting question. Because you can’t ask one film to sort of represent everything. What I tried to look for is authenticity, and that it’s all about balance. And, you know, obviously, I tried to avoid programming films that could be problematic. But the Bury Your Gays stuff is obviously a prime example. Many, many a queer woman has died in films. And I think that’s a perception that is true, because it definitely has been a trait [of cinema]. But it also is not the trait of what is happening now in a lot of films. And I think that people, particularly queer women, have been burnt by the past of that happening a lot.
I worry sometimes that people don’t take a film on its face value, that this is this individual film making these choices. And it’s really all about balance. Obviously, you don’t want to have a festival that’s full of really dark films or films that have really tragic things. You want to be like, “Oh, this film has this. So I need more lighter films or I need this.” It is about the greater jigsaw puzzle.
Obviously, you know, I don’t make the films. I only program them, and I can’t program films that don’t exist or are not perhaps in the film festival cycle. The team and I in terms of from features through to shorts – we watched over seven hundred films, and only fifteen per cent were selected. So we do have a massive range of films that we can choose from.
The key thing for me is wanting to show a diverse range of films, not only in terms of who they’re representing, but also like story and genre and also thinking about the audience. Because you know, one person’s favourite film is another person’s how could you watch that film, that’s terrible. So I really try to think about the audience and making sure that there’s at least something for someone to engage with and want to watch.
That’s fascinating. Do you find that over the years that you’ve been with Queer Screen, the calibre of storytelling has deepened, has gotten more complex, has gotten more sophisticated in a lot of ways?
I would say that the thing that has probably changed the most in my time with Queer Screen would be the diversifying of genre. So, you know, there are still coming of age films and coming out films. But going back a number of years, they were a key genre and there are not as many of those now. There are thrillers and horror and mysteries and things that are a little bit like quirky comedies and all sorts of things that are getting made now. And then obviously, in terms of diversity of where the films are coming from – like we have some films from Africa this year which we don’t get that often. In terms of the faces that we’re seeing onscreen – we have a few films that are made by trans filmmakers this year which is great. We’re seeing a broader range of content. And yeah, the quality just gets better and better every year.
And I love the fact that we’re getting Christmas queer films now.
You’ve got to love a Christmas – like we deserve Hallmark Christmas movies just like straight people do. And the joy about a Christmas movie from a filmmaking perspective is that, you know, everyone watches it every year. So it’s got longevity.
I’m hoping we’ll get more.
I’m sure we will.
So QueerDoc has been part of Mardi Gras Film Festival for a while now. And I know you have the strand for Rebels With A Cause. In terms of documentary, do you have a certain amount of documentaries that you like to include?
Yeah, so QueerDoc was a standalone film festival that Queer Screen did for a number of years in that first decade of the 2000s. And there are so many wonderful documentaries that get made every year. But we just can’t fit them all in. So we tend to play anywhere between fourteen and eighteen documentaries, like feature documentaries in the festival, depending on the balance and how many sessions and that sort of thing that we’re doing. And people tend to love the docos, the people that are into documentaries. The battle for the winner of the Audience Award is always really close for the docos because people who come tend to love them.
So the Rebels With A Cause is a really fantastic program strand where it’s got one of my absolute favourite films in the program which is No Straight Lines which is the rise of queer comics, and it charts the hidden history of LGBTIQ+ creators in graphic novels and comics. Unless you’re really into it, you wouldn’t know and then you discover this sort of hidden and really queer kind of culture and subculture. It’s just such an exciting thing.
The other really great one in that one is Rebel Dykes. Which is a fantastic doco about radical queer lesbians in the Eighties in post-punk London, and they lived in these houses where there was like sixteen of them, and it was all really incestuous. And, you know, kind of like a love-in, and then they would go to an S&M club where there’d be like mud-wrestling, and then they’d go and protest Thatcher. It’s a really interesting doco, and they’ve got some really great characters that they interview.
I’m really looking forward to seeing that. And Australian documentaries. You’ve got Romp which is set in Newtown, and Manscaping which features Naked Barber on Oxford Street. So like Australian documentaries – is there always a fairly good selection?
Yeah, so obviously we do My Queer Career which is our Australian LGBTI short film competition and the richest prize in Australia for that sort of short film. And there are often one or two documentaries in that, and there is one doco that made the final of that this year. But I had so many great Australian short docs that were submitted that I decided to create a separate shorts package called Oz Doc which is just about Australian documentary. Because there are just some fascinating stories about queer Australians and I think it’s a really important thing that we understand and get to know and experience what’s happening in our own backyard. So I’m excited about that package.
I’m glad you said that because my editor Andrew is a big champion of short films and loves documentaries. So he’s going to be super excited about that. And eighteen short films. Do you find short films are popular?
That’s a good question. Yes and no. I’m playing a lot of short films before features this year which I didn’t do at all last year. But this year I’ve decided to put quite a few shorts before features. We do that to give people a little snippet of a different kind of film when they’re coming along, and to try and get people into short films.
Some people just love short films, I love short films myself. I just think it’s so great, like the pacing in a short film is generally fantastic. A short film can just be perfect. You’ve created this little snippet of someone’s life or like an experience.
We’ve got nine shorts packages this year. We tend to do anywhere between about seven and ten each year. And we have our stock standards that we do every year which are our QueerDocs and our Gay Shorts and our Lesbian Shorts and our Trans And Gender Diverse Shorts. And then we kind of thematically see what other things are happening and add in an extra package here or there. So that’s what we’ve done with the Oz Doc shorts. We’ve also got this other package which is probably my favourite package. I shouldn’t say that, I shouldn’t choose favourites.
I was going to ask you favourites, anyway.
It’s our shorts about family ties. It’s not kids films, it’s a package that is about familial connection, whether it be through blood or through your chosen family, and there are some fantastic films in that package. It’s a really mixed package in terms of sexuality and gender identity. I’m hopeful that people come and watch those films because some of my favourites are in that package.
Do you want to talk a little bit about My Queer Career and Queer Screen Completion Fund? And Pitch Off as well? How long has all of that been going?
So Queer Screen being a not for profit charity, we have objects of our constitution, and one of those things is to support the industry. Like it’s not through just showing films. And so we’ve been really privileged over the last few years to have some successful festivals and have some great sponsors and grants and donations from our community which has enabled us to create a couple of initiatives that have been able to help filmmakers in Australia.
The Completion Fund is in its ninth round that is happening at the moment. So people can still enter until the end of this month. And it’s going to give away up to $20,000 to people who are trying to complete a feature film or documentary or a long form web series, or episodic. And it has given over $100,000 away since we started doing it, in, I think, 2016.
And then Pitch Off which we started doing, I think, four years ago – we do that at Queer Screen Film Fest in September. Because it’s really hard to get funding for short films in general. They’re usually self-funded or through crowdfunding and things like that. So we decided we wanted to try and help people make some short films because often emerging filmmakers are, you know, learning their craft in shorts.
We get heaps of entries in that every year where people have to submit their script and a bunch of other things. And then we choose six finalists who get to pitch to industry judges. And then the really exciting thing is that every year we have like six pitches, and we choose one winner who gets $10,000.
But, you know, pretty much over half of the films that have been pitched have managed to get their funding and have been made, and some of them have gone on to be screened by us and also Sydney Film Festival or Melbourne International Film Festival or have gone on to play festivals overseas and in Frameline and various other things. So we’re really excited that we can do that.
My Queer Career has been around – it’ll be its twenty-ninth iteration. And it’s always an exciting night to give away $16,000 worth of prizes.
In terms of My Queer Career, there’s a prize for best film, and there’s a prize for emerging filmmaker, there’s screenplay, there’s a performance award, and there’s an audience award. The audience award is always really exciting because that we do – we started this last year where people scanned a QR code on the giant screen and then they voted and then it was like everyone’s waiting to see who wins the audience award. It’s like the tension – you can cut it with a knife.
It’s always a fabulous night, My Queer Career, and we always have a good turnout of the filmmakers. We’ve got eight fabulous films in My Queer Career this year. And often, you know, the cast and crew will be there and friends and family, and it’s always a really wonderful energy in the room.
Actually, one of the things to note is that in terms of My Queer Career, in terms of Pitch Off, in terms of the Completion Fund, the end winners and recipients of all of those are always chosen by an independent jury outside of Queer Screen. So Queer Screen may choose a shortlist – we don’t for the Completion Fund – but for Pitch Off and My Queer Career, we curate and choose the shortlist and the finalists. But the recipients are always chosen by an independent jury of three people who are from the industry and not associated directly with Queer Screen. And we do that because, you know, it’s a small industry in Australia. So we want to make sure that we’re having a diverse range of people looking at the stuff every year and, you know, there’s no influence and things like that. And it’s great. Really different things get chosen.
And obviously all the judges are always queer or you don’t mind?
Not always. I mean, they’re always majority queer. We have occasionally had – like one of the judges may not be queer and is just from the industry, but they usually are.
That’s so great. The community screenings in Parramatta and Hurstville – that’s really exciting. Is that a new thing?
Yeah, so the Hurstville one we did for the first time last year, and we have a great partnership with Advance Diversity Services which is an organisation based there. We do one screening at the Event Cinema in Hurstville of a film called The First Girl I Loved. And then in Parramatta, we’re doing one night where we’re doing two screenings. We’re doing a screening of Seyren Ateş: Sex, Revolution And Islam which is a fantastically interesting documentary about this bisexual female imam and the work she’s doing in trying to modernise Islam.
It’s playing with a feature film called Kapana which is the first gay film that’s ever been made in Namibia. And it screens with another film from Africa, a lesbian romance called Ìfé. And it’s great to do that. And they’re only $10 tickets as well.
We’re screening Hating Peter Tatchell in George Street which is a documentary about the activist Peter Tatchell which we’re only doing for $10 as well. And then we’re also doing a youth-focused screening with a kind of hangout and panel afterwards with a bunch of young creators which is a – don’t let the name turn you off but the name is Hetero. (laughs) It’s this wonderful episodic that has been made in Seattle. Most of it has been made by teenagers, and it’s got wonderful energy. It’s about a group of queer kids in the Gay Straight Alliance, but there’s nobody straight in their alliance. So they have to go and hang out with straight people. Hence why it’s called Hetero.
Love it. Was the Hurstville screening last year pretty popular? Did you get a good turnout?
Yeah, we did. We had a good turnout, people from the community around there and some people who travelled there as well. It was great. And we always want to try and do things in different parts of Sydney. Because, you know, not everyone lives in the inner suburbs. People live all around.
And there are actually queer people in Western Sydney which is fantastic. There’s an audience. So my final last question is totally random, but it’s not random because I follow you on Twitter.
Is it about Wordle?
(laughs) I struggled with today’s word. I need to stop doing it like–
At midnight, right? Me too.
I know, I need to do it in the morning when I wake up, not do it like quarter past twelve at night because whatever I do, I struggle. (laughs)
(laughs) I’m like “Goddamnit, five out of six. That’s not acceptable.”
My starting word that I use – it’s an unusual word, I didn’t even know it was a word. It’s “soare.”
You must have read the same article that I read.
I think it was an article in The Guardian. It’s actually a good thing [that it’s only one a day]. Otherwise, I would just be sitting there, instead of doing my work. It’s so funny though. Like before I read that article, I was like, “People use the same word every day?” I’ll change it, I just – whatever comes to me. And I don’t know if I like using the same word. I feel like I want to diversify it up again and just do like random words.
When I first started, I was like, no, okay, use the most frequent ones. So mine is always a combination of R, A, S, T, E. But that does not seem to be working for me. So I think I might have to change it up.
I was doing “radio” for a while.
With the D, yeah. And all the vowels. Good, good.
But then I was like it doesn’t have an E.
Oh yeah. Still, thank you for sharing your Wordle strategy with me and the rest of the queer community, I’m sure it’ll be very edifying. (laughs)
Thanks so much, Lisa. It’s so great to finally meet you.
Yes, you too. Thank you so much.
The Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 is in cinemas and online 17 February – 3 March and will then tour the Blue Mountains and Canberra through March. The program and tickets are available at www.queerscreen.org.au.
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