“Nature would have done it” – Queerama: A Century of Gay Rights and Desires on Films (DVD Review)

Crafted from the BFI National Archive, Queerama is an outstanding work, taking us through a century of gay rights as seen through the prism of film and television to a wonderful soundtrack that incorporates the works of John Grant, Goldfrapp and Hercules and Love.  It’s a stunning work that is touching, emotional and riveting to watch as we move from the coy representation of old to the acceptance that modern life offers.

Having toured film festivals across the UK, Queerama has been well received in many quarters, featuring in the BBC Four Storyville strand, too.  It’s a staggering achievement to mine the archives of the BFI, let along across a whole century, yet Asquith does it with flair.

Threaded with archive news footage, including commentary that will challenge conventions of today but were perfectly acceptable in days of old, we see the evolution of gay rights and the dangers that gay men and women have faced for decades, not just from prejudice and criminality, but from each other and from the AIDS epidemic.  We see the quest for love and life and the hostile attitudes that spans decades

From tentative glances to violent encounters, love, liberation and pride, Daisy Asquith has created a thing of beauty.

This isn’t just a political feature, it’s a social one, too, the story of people and some of the comments are heartbreaking.  Queerama looks at love, desire and passion; freedoms that everyone deserves but was oppressed for so long. Hearing a lesbian teacher talk about how her love of teaching has nothing to do with her ability to love and then being asked if she feels attracted the girls she teaches is a jaw dropping moment, whilst a medical professional claims that the “damage” of homosexuality is done from a young age and talks of correcting abhorrent behaviour.

As film and television becomes bolder with its representation of homosexuality, we see touching performances from across the century, many of which have become standout moments in entertainment – Caravaggio, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Beautiful Thing, The Naked Civil Servant, Victim, even Carry On films are included.

Context is provided through the news footage and documentary excerpts that Asquith uses so very well.  There’s something hypnotic about Queerama, something where, for every moment of affection, there’s a startling roadblock of opinion, typically negative and, by modern standards, outlandish that would have been seen as rational at time.  Vox pops from members of the public and professionals cross the whole spectrum of opinion – positive, negative and steps in between.  For it’s subject matter, there is very little in the way of explicit material here; Queerama shocks for its exploration of values, not reveling in adult content.

We start in 1919, with the first gay relationship on film in Different from the Others, before moving through newsreel and amateur film across the 20s and 30s.  We see the subtle hints of sexuality in the 1940s cinema world before entering the 50s and the world of sexual perversion that was replaced by a quest for human rights and challenging the status quo in the 60s and 70s, with moves to decriminalisation, yet a world away from a sense of equality.  By the last part of the 20th Century, we have the Pride movement, outrage in the Commons, the AIDS crisis and the new world of liberation and equalities in the 21st Century and continuing today. It’s a story of 100 years of searching for identity, a journey towards equality that is still being travelled today.

Amongst the special features are a powerful, short Q&A with Daisy Asquith, two 1960s features from the current affairs programme This Week, Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and Rosebud, a 1991 short film that is described as “an erotic tale of voyeurism, power dressing and fantasy, clad in an aesthetic that typified lesbianism in the 90s”.  Together, they form a fitting addendum to the 70 minute feature. Both features of This Week, one covering homosexuals and lesbians, are a testament to the times – they’re not hostile, they’re just uncomfortable to watch.  

A look at the Queerama website sheds light on the source material, as does the in-depth booklet that explores many of the themes and feature essays from Asquith and others.

As a journey through film, there’s few experiences like Queerama, a superb exploration of changing sensibilities and what it means to be ostracised when all you seek is love and acceptance.

You can find out more about Queerama here.

Dir: Daisy Asquith
Prd: Mary Burke, Adam Partridge, Catryn Ramasut, Kate Townsend
Music: Goldfrapp, John Grant, Hercules and Love Affair
Country: UK
Year: 2017
Runtime: 70 minutes