Embodying Counter-Public Space and Performing Queer Culture: The Inaugural Scottish Queer International Film Festival 2015

in Screen Bodies

As I enter the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow for the opening night of the Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF), two giant pink poodles (actually festival volunteers dressed as characters from the festival’s opening film, Dyke Hard [Bitte Andersson, 2014]), greet me enthusiastically. They gesture me toward the CCA Theatre where a sold-out crowd has assembled for the festival’s opening screening of the Swedish lesbian fiction film Dyke Hard. The plastic chairs we sit on are closely packed together to maximize audience space, and yet even as I bang elbows with those on either side of me and feel my knees pressed up against the seat in front of me, the excited and jovial mood of the surrounding crowd overcomes immediate feelings of physical discomfort. As Marijke De Valck (2007) argues, the continuing appeal of film festivals is linked to the provision of an embodied experience shared with others. From the pink poodles, to the use of the CCA as the main festival space throughout the four-day festival, to the inclusion of discussion panels and workshops alongside screenings, SQIFF emphasizes the performance of queer film culture as a communal and collective experience.

As a space for socialization, entertainment, education, and activism, SQIFF recalls the grassroots origins of queer film festivals that were first established in the late 1970s and 1980s as oppositional “safe havens” where queer communities could be formed and where queer artists could publicly exhibit their work. Skadi Loist and Ger Zielinski (2012) characterize these early festivals as being predominantly volunteer-run counter-public spheres that were politically positioned and aimed at intervening in the broader public sphere by challenging the lack of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) images in mainstream media. With the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s and the promotion of these radical queer films in more mainstream festivals such as Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival, LGBTQ films gained new cultural recognition as a potentially profitable niche market. Joceline Andersen argues that queer film festivals responded to this commercialization of queer culture by remodeling themselves as community resources and as tools for the education, outreach, and celebration of the local queer community (2012: 52–53).

In its mandate, programming ethos and organizational structure, SQIFF aligns itself with these earlier interventionist counter-public festival spaces. Prior to the screening of Dyke Hard, the festival’s organizing committee gathered on stage to introduce themselves, and it became immediately apparent that this festival was at once a significant cultural event and a deeply personal endeavor. With more than three hundred LGBTQ film festivals operating worldwide since 1977, Scotland has remained surprisingly absent from this list until now.1 A report by Creative Scotland in January 2014 revealed that cinema attendance figures in Scotland are rising steadily and cinema going is becoming the most popular cultural activity outside of the home in Scotland. Scotland is the site of two major European film festivals, the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) and the Glasgow Film Festival (GFF), and hosts more than thirty other film festivals throughout the year. The establishment of SQIFF therefore responds to a need for an LGBTQ film festival in Scotland while contributing to the country’s already vibrant film culture. It is also evidence of Scotland’s largely supportive social climate and recent developments in Scottish LGBTQ culture. In 2014 same-sex marriage was legalized in Scotland and since 2005 Scotland has celebrated LGBT History Month with events, activities, and exhibitions taking place across the country. Glasgow itself is home to two queer filmmaking collectives, Digital Desperados and Lock Up Your Daughters, and hosts many LGBTQ events throughout the year including Glasgay! and Glasgow Pride.

Yet the importance of SQIFF is further found in its ability to offer a counter-public space where festival goers can debate and challenge the homogeneity of LGBTQ images made visible in mainstream media. The festival’s co-founder, Helen Wright, emphasizes the festival’s embrace of “queer” not as an umbrella term for sexuality but rather as a site of political contestation and activism. Central to the festival’s queer politics is an emphasis on intersections between different forms of oppression including homophobia, racism, misogyny, ableism, and classism. Particularly because the festival is located in Glasgow, a city characterized by its industrial roots and working-class history, issues of class, and their intersections with issues of sexuality, are important to acknowledge. In 2014, Mark Cousins argued that arts venues are “too defined by class” and are subsequently alienating working-class patrons. As one strategy for challenging this potential alienation, SQIFF offers free tickets to asylum seekers, refugees, and the unemployed.

This year, the festival’s main venue was the CCA, an arts gallery and cross-arts facility located in Glasgow’s city center, and this choice of setting also worked to position SQIFF as a counter-public space. By situating the festival within a well-established public art space, it allowed for the possibility of overlap between the CCA’s regular predominantly middle-class patrons and the festival goers, thus cultivating a more eclectic and diverse cinematic culture and complicating the mainstream/marginal divide. It was a welcoming space where volunteers, organizers, filmmakers, and audiences gathered together each day. As bodies mixed and mingled together within the physical space, they embodied a visible public queer presence and highlighted socialization as a key pleasure associated with festival-going. From a pair of festival goers excitedly unpacking their different views of the French film Alive! (Boujon, 2014) about five HIV positive men learning to parachute, to a filmmaker recruiting volunteers to be in her film on femme culture, to a woman speaking to a group of festival-goers about the need to form a UK queer film festival network, the space was pleasantly overwhelmed with a cacophony of sounds and an atmosphere of debate, creativity, and activism.

SQIFF was established as a non-profit organization in May 2014 with the aim of expanding queer film exhibition in Scotland and getting “people watching, talking about, and making more queer films,” according to the organization’s official website.2 The organization seeks to exhibit queer films to Scottish audiences who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see them, to inform and educate the public about LGBTQ issues and culture, and to more generally challenge inequality and barriers to accessibility in the arts. Prior to the inaugural 2015 festival, which ran from 24 to 27 September, SQIFF had organized a series of one-off events that included a film event as part of the Scottish Transgender Alliance’s Trans and Intersex Conference of the Isles and a Queer Shorts Showcase in Edinburgh in collaboration with LGBT History Month Scotland.

SQIFF’s emphasis on building partnerships with local organizations is one that was incorporated into the festival’s programming ethos, which festival co-founder Helen Wright described as “community-focused.” The committee offered particular organizations like the Glasgow LGBT Health & Wellbeings 50+ Group and the Scottish Transgender Alliance the opportunity to host an event or sponsor an award as a strategy for accessing particular social groups that may have otherwise been overlooked or difficult to access. Other organizations such as Alliance Française Glasgow and the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies at Stirling University sponsored specific screenings that further strengthened intersections between cultures and between academic scholarship and queer practice.

Issues surrounding intersectionality and inclusion were a central focus for the festival. Its diversity of programming, which ranged from a Swedish fiction film about the comeback of a failed lesbian rock group (Dyke Hard) to a documentary about an American trans artist living in Haiti (Peace of Mind [Cary Cronenwett, 2015]) to an African queer film about two teenagers in love produced in the Republic of Guinea (Dakan [Muhammad Camara, 1997]) to locally produced queer film shorts to feminist pornography, recognizes the multiple forms queerness can take on-screen and encourages conversations about what “queer” means to different people in different contexts. In addition to the screenings, there was a free panel discussion with filmmakers and festival organizers about the strategies and challenges of queer film production and exhibition; a workshop on scriptwriting for young people under the age of 25; a workshop on filmmaking led by queer filmmaker Campbell X; and an acting workshop for trans and/or non-binary people. As a result, the festival was as much about facilitating connections and conversations between organizers, filmmakers, activists and audiences, and inspiring queer artists to produce their own stories on-screen as it was about watching films.

From the outset, SQIFF defined itself as an open-access audience festival that aimed to be accessible to all. SQIFF maintained this commitment throughout the four days with gender-neutral toilets, subtitles and captions on most screenings, and BSL interpreters at all discussions and workshops. In doing so, they transformed the space of the CCA into a queer-friendly space whilst actively attempting to remove those barriers to accessibility that work to mark certain bodies as different or more visible than others. SQIFF thus not only embodied a celebration of queer culture but also sought to challenge the invisibility of normalized barriers, such as gendered symbols on toilets. In addition to the use of the CCA as the main festival hub, specific festival events also took place in other venues around the city, such as the Glasgow Women’s Library, The Glad Café, the Andrew Stewart Cinema at the University of Glasgow, and the Drygate Brewing Co., pointing to more widespread public support of queer filmmaking in Glasgow and temporarily transforming these spaces into hubs of queer culture.

SQIFF’s opening event set the tone for the festival. Dyke Hard is about the comeback of a failed lesbian rock group, and the film combines various genres, including elements from action, comedy, horror, musical, and B movies. Through its self-reflexive play with genre and particularly its embrace of B-movie conventions, Dyke Hard suggests the importance of queer film as a form of entertainment as well as a form of activism. Throughout the screening the audience was openly engaged, laughing along to its cringe-worthy moments of excess and raunchy humor. In the Q&A following the screening, director Bitte Andersson described how Dyke Hard began as a personal project by Andersson and her group of friends to counter what they saw as a tradition of depressing queer films. Dyke Hard was conceived by queering their favorite film genres and combining them within one film. While the project was initially funded through a Kickstarter campaign, it was later transformed into, in Andersson’s own words, a “Cinderella Story,” since a late injection of funds by the Swedish Film Institute allowed the film to be entered onto the festival circuit and gain a visibility it would not have been able to obtain otherwise. Andersson further acknowledged the role that the Stockholm queer community played in the five-year process of making the film and stated that the initial imagined audience for the film was the three to four hundred extras who took part in it. Thus, the event connected the Stockholm queer community, embodied on-screen in Dyke Hard, and the physical audience sitting in the CCA Theatre, all of whom were linked together by a desire to support and participate in queer film culture.

The SQIFF Shorts program, titled Cruising Utopia, provided a marked departure from the festival’s other screenings with an emphasis on queerness by way of political aesthetics and embodied experiences. Featuring five experimental short films released between 1964 and 1996 that included Charles Lofton’s queer reimagining of black gay liberation through images of Black Panther Party demonstrations in O Happy Day (1996), Kenneth Anger’s queer remaking of the American cowboy figure in Scorpio Rising (1964), and Abigail Child’s queer critique of liberal capitalism in Mercy (1989), among others, this screening showcased films that defied narrative logic and challenged traditional film conventions. The spectator was forced to abandon the search for narrative continuity and instead to become immersed in the rhythmic quality and slippery subjectivity of these works. In particular, Ron Rice’s 1964 experimental film Chumlum blurred distinctions between reality and role-play with an eclectic cast of costumed characters. At times, bodies and spaces blended together through kaleidoscopic film techniques, and it was unclear whether the subjects on-screen were acting for the camera or being observed. As the screening shifted between films, which ranged from five minutes to thirty minutes in length, a queer history emerged that embraced intersectionality: between race, gender and sexuality; between found footage and constructed reality; and between the mainstream and the radical.

In line with SQIFF’s self-identification as a Scottish queer film festival, the program included a Film Shorts competition entitled Queer Scotland, which highlighted eleven locally produced short films focused on queer identities, narratives, and concerns within a specifically Scottish context. While the quality of work in this screening ranged from amateur to professional, it showcased the diversity of queer filmmaking in Scotland and highlighted specific LGBTQ themes and issues, including gay cruising, losing one’s virginity, disability, coping with depression, youth suicide, and struggling against social norms. Following the screening, the films’ directors, producers, and actors were invited on stage to speak about their films and answer audience questions. Similar to the Q&A following Dyke Hard, this event allowed filmmakers and audiences to interact with one another and to engage with the screening as a shared experience. The audience was further invited to participate in the event by voting for their favorite short. The prize for the winning film was £500 in filmmaking equipment hire and support at GMAC Film and an automatic nomination in the category of Best British Short in the 2016 Iris Prize Festival in Wales. The winning film was Annabel Cooper’s High Heels Aren’t Compulsory (2015), which follows university lecturer Carolyn Mortimer as she returns to work for the first time following her gender transition.

On the front of the festival brochure, four faces, painted using combinations of reds, pinks, yellows, greens, browns, purples and blues, blend and blur into one another. They face different directions and yet remain interconnected, representing the embracing of difference through togetherness that SQIFF encouraged throughout the festival. On the last day of the festival, the organizers set up a DIY face-painting station. Like the pink poodles at the opening event, this emphasis on the performative and the playful helped us see and experience SQIFF as a participatory and communal experience. Overall, SQIFF achieved an effective balance of activism and entertainment, creating a space for socialization, community-outreach, and, above all else, fun.


It is important to note that in addition to SQIFF, 2015 also witnessed the establishment of another LGBTQ film festival in Glasgow: GLITCH, a ten-day queer, trans, intersex, and people of color film festival that took place in March.


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Contributor Notes

Dr. Allison Macleod’s research focuses on the intersections of queer theory, sexual politics, and representations of space. She graduated in 2014 from the University of Glasgow with a PhD in Film and Television Studies.

Screen Bodies

An Interdisciplinary Journal of Experience, Perception, and Display