Having celebrated its 10th year, the Xposed Queer Film Festival kicked off in May 2015 with a special screening of cult classic musical The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, followed by an opening night party at Südblock. Over the four days that the festival took place, Xposed aimed to challenge our perceptions of what is queer, by pushing the boundaries and creating new platforms for the multitude of queer filmmaking forms. The Berlin Film Journal spoke to festival directors Bart Sammut and Michael Stütz about the festival’s aims, the representation of queer culture in the media, and the importance of providing visibility for queer storytelling.
What was it that inspired you to create the very first Xposed film festival back in 2006?
Bart: I was living in Australia at the time, but wanted to come back to Berlin to make an event to show queer films. Australia had been having a particularly good few years of producing interesting queer short films, so I thought I would make a festival that could take place during the Pride week in Berlin, as there were no queer film events taking place. I tried for months to find somewhere to put the festival on, and to find people who would be interested in putting it on with me. I eventually got in touch with the Teddy Foundation, who put me in touch with Schwuz, and they were the ones to say yes, and give me the go ahead. We did it very lo-fi that first year and had a very big response, so I thought that we should do it again the following year.
When was it that the two of you started working together on the festival?
Michael: I started working on the festival in 2011, but I’d known about the festival from before. I actually went to the 2007 edition of the festival, and it was already packed back then. It was very well attended and people were excited about it, because there was nothing else happening at the time that focused on queer cinema. Obviously there were queer films being screened in the Berlinale program each year, but the festival itself isn’t that accessible for a community, as it can be hard to get tickets and not everyone attends. Xposed really became the only annual festival within the city that put on queer films that you were not able to see in cinemas, that embraced local experimental and underground filmmakers.
How has the festival developed over the years would you say?
B: In our fourth year the festival really started taking shape. We developed the idea to have a land and region focus the same year that we had an emphasis on Turkish cinema. This idea really took off, and we’ve continued to do it year after year.
M: I think you also grow into it; it’s a practice and there’s a lot of research involved.
B: We research all year long – what’s out there, how could it fit into our program. There are a lot of great films we also have in mind for future programs, that wouldn’t necessarily fit this year, but could be amazing next year.
M: We don’t want the program to be exclusive to just new films. It doesn’t matter when the films were made, that’s not the most important thing for us. In the focus program for example, there are a lot of films from the 1980’s to the 2000’s, whereas the international program tends to focus on more contemporary work.
B: I think that we also really lean towards a lot of experimentation in film in our program.
What do you think it is that draws you towards experimental film?
B: They last. When I was working for a television show in Australia in 2000 that aired short films, it was the experimental films from the 60’s and 70’s that you could show again, because they were still relevant, they still had an effect. Other more narrative films just don’t go the distance. An experimental film can be interpreted many different ways, in many areas of different peoples lives. Experimental film actually has a longer shelf life in regards to short film.
M: Yeah and I think it also caters more to how we define the term ‘queer’ for our film festival, and for ourselves. Because an experimental film naturally has a lot of ambiguity, it leaves a lot of space for interpretation and your own vision. It communicates mostly through aesthetics, and is linked to more performative aspects. I think that’s what we like; it opens up these grey areas and leaves things open.
B: We’ve travelled around to lots of different festivals and see a lot of queer and lesbian film, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of experimental film on offer. There’s a lot of narrative stuff, which is also good and relevant, but our audience has never really reacted as positively to this type of cinema.
M: People in Berlin tend to be very interested and curious to find out about different types of filmmaking, which our festival allows them to do. If you never have that type of film out there, then an audience will never be able to discover it, so it’s a shame that some of the other LGBT/Queer Film Festivals don’t try to push it a little more. There’s always this fear that people have – we can’t do this, what if people don’t come. But if you never try it, nobody will come. We have to rethink cinema and the festival’s approach to film. We need to go back to smaller more intimate spaces, and create the right environmental for these films to be received.
How do you feel that your festival is able to attract a diverse audience?
B: We had a questionnaire last year for people to fill out to find out about our audience, where people had the option to write down their sexual orientation. It was really mixed. There were people who identified as all different types of sexualities – gay, queer, lesbian, transgender, and heterosexual. There were people from Berlin, but some who were just visiting. It’s always different each year.
M: Definitely in the last few years it’s felt like there are people who have come in previous years that keep coming back. We’re starting to get more of a core audience. There’s obviously a lot of shifting around but that’s such a part of the city, there are always people coming and going.
What do you hope to achieve by providing a platform for queer film with your festival?
B: I hope to achieve visibility for the filmmakers. One of the things I wanted when I started this festival was to be able to put out all of this great Australian short queer film that wasn’t being shown anywhere. I wanted to give these filmmakers more international exposure, to enable them to make more. The more queer filmmakers being given a platform to make short queer films, will lead to more queer feature films being made, which results in more visibility for the queer community. This is also part of the reason that we’re showing The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert as the opening film at this year’s festival. That was one of the first queer films I ever saw as a young boy growing up in rural Australia. It was a life changing moment for me.
M: Absolutely. I think that we are also looking for films that are not necessarily always put in a queer context, that blur the lines somehow. We want to make people ask themselves what is queer by showing films that experiment with identity, corporeality and sexuality, that challenge us as programmers. We always want this wide range, and these rough edges between the films, such as showing a gay narrative short film next to an experimental feminist porn film. Then you can bring in all these different sorts of people to the festival, who are able to watch films that they would never normally see or be exposed to.
B: When people come out of a film and say ‘I have no idea what that was’ I view it as a compliment, as long as they remember it and it stays with them.
M: It’s always nice to be able to surprise people, and to make them think. This is also really important in regards to showing female stories in the films that we show, and provide a platform for feminist filmmaking in our program. There are so many experimental films out there which are made by women who have a lot to say.
When did you first get into queer film?
M: I feel like it always starts as a private interest. When I was fourteen I just watched anything I could get a hold of and started watching two or three films a day after school. I grew up in a small city in Austria, which was dear to me, but also suffocating, as I had not come out yet. Film was my way to explore and get away from that place. The first queer film I remember was My Own Private Idaho. I loved the film, and even though I don’t think I fully understood it at the time it didn’t matter, there was just something about it that I related to. I went on to study queer cinema at university, and then started working for the Berlinale after moving to Berlin.
B: The thing that catapulted my interest was when me and my partner started making films together that centred around queer characters. Our films weren’t going very far in the festival world, because they weren’t traditional queer films. We eventually got our film selected for a queer film festival in Sydney, which was so great. There was such a nice community and everyone was so supportive; the experience was amazing.
M: I feel like you’re always desperately looking for some kind of representation, cause you’re in a world where no one is like you. Especially as a teenager, when you’re not out to anyone and you don’t come from a big city. I was eating up those old classic Hollywood films because there was this exaggeration and drama in them. There are subtexts that you don’t realise at the time, but there’s something that draws you to these types of storytelling. It’s as if there’s some code language in them you have to encrypt with your own fantasies, which really shapes who you are, and your own sense of cinema. Those films are still super important to me now.
Over the last year or so there seems to be a much greater awareness and focus on the LGBT movement in the media, such as Laverne Cox being on the cover of Time magazine last year for example. What are your thoughts on this?
B: I was talking to the director of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival about this last year, and she referred to it as ‘The Modern Family Effect’. A lot of queer film festivals have found it very hard to get funding and support, because a lot of sponsors feel there is no need for them any longer, and that queer culture has now entered the mainstream, such as television shows like Modern Family. This sense that support for queer cinema is no longer needed.
M: I’ve come across a lot of people who when I say that I’m working for Xposed seem to think that there is no need for queer film festivals anymore. They think that it’s an outdated approach, but they don’t know what we’re showing. There is so much out there that isn’t being shown.
B: People think because the Berlinale is showcasing a lot of queer films in it’s program, that there is no need for a queer film festival in the city.
M: But there’s just so much more out there. It’s very important to have the representation you do now in the mainstream media, from Orange is the New Black to Transparent. There are some wonderful representations, but mostly what ends up in the mainstream media are shows like Modern Family, which is like a gay version of a heterosexual life. And I think there’s much more out there, as not everybody who is queer is living that kind of way. Everyone has to find their own way that they want to live their life. Obviously it’s important for the queer community to have the rights to marriage and children if that’s what people want, but there’s definitely more out there than that. It’s important to push for that, because I think that there’s something missing from the way in which our community is being represented.
B: The only way that this representation has gotten to where it is today, is because of the work carried out by the smaller film festivals pushing it ahead.
M: The influence always comes from the outside. The experimental and underground makes its way into the mainstream over time, so that’s why it’s crucial to keep it going. It’s important to provide a more bold and daring representation of sexuality, and as a film festival we have a responsibility to show these films. Even within the community there is prejudice and ignorance, and it’s important to be able to break through that.
How do you see the festival developing over the next few years, and what are your hopes and plans for the future?
B: We’re going to be stopping the land and region focus, as we’ve been doing that for 10 years now. That’s why this year’s focus is Australia, the same as our first year, bringing the festival full circle. For the next 10 years we hope to focus more on themes and topics. We’re also discussing the possibility of opening up the program into other aspects of film, such as performance film for example, giving the festival more of an inter-media approach. We’re taking a first step in this direction by having an installation as part of this year’s festival, which will be a series of porn shorts playing on a loop. We hope that this can create a more intimate feel, bringing porn back into the cinema environment.
M: We also want to inhabit and explore other spaces around the city, such as working with galleries for more performative programs and interactive work.