I came to this cold, having missed its original TV airing last summer, so I had no expectations prior to looking at the cover and reading the blurb. “Oh good,” I thought. “A UK version of The Celluloid Closet.” For those not in the know, and there can’t be many of my generation who aren’t, The Celluloid Closet was the documentary spinoff of Vito Russo’s groundbreaking 1981 book of the same name, which looked in depth at homosexuality and homophobia in cinema, with a particular focus on Hollywood output. The documentary (1995, Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman) was a chronologically structured and highly absorbing work, laying bare just how shoddily 20th century movie-making had treated its LGBT characters. Interviews with actors and industry personnel as well as historical footage told a gripping story.
But Queerama is something completely different. Although, with its use of archival footage, it shares one similarity, that’s almost the only one. It isn’t narrated, there are no talking heads. Instead, it tells its tale with an impressionistic approach. It’s less linear, more like a roadmap that’s been chopped into pieces and then reassembled in the spirit of the cut-ups literary technique. Director Daisy Asquith raids the BFI archive (and goes beyond it, too) and splices documentary footage with film clips so that although she’s invisible, she’s constantly present, narrating tacitly.
And what footage. It’s fascinating to discover that ITV, despite its reputation as a pandering, ad-compromised channel, actually led the way. Its current affairs programme, This Week, was helmed by progressive presenter Bryan Magee. In 1964, he devoted entire editions to gay subject matter, first ‘Homosexuals’ (directed by James Butler) and then ‘Lesbians’ (directed by John Phillips). It’s interesting to note how confused the terminology already was. Homosexuality is a word that covers same-sex attracted men and women and yet, already, the notion that it was a male-specific term had considerable traction. No matter, these were bracing pieces of television; the very first to float the outré notion that gay people deserved freedom from persecution.
Subjects were initially filmed from behind to protect their anonymity. Just three years later, the subjects were stepping out of the shadows and facing the camera undisguised, as demonstrated by the BBC’s Consenting Adults 1:The Men and 2: The Women, aired in 1967 just prior to decriminalisation. While it can be tempting to view the tone taken by both channels as ‘non-judgmental’, there’s plenty of judgement in pity, and pity is very much the order of the day. A doctor declares that homosexuality is a “manifestation of the failure fully to develop” (give her points for not splitting infinitives) and then refers to it as a “damage” incurred during infancy. “No cure has yet been found for the homosexual condition,” adds another well-meaning ‘expert’.
Although there’s an impressive array of movie footage in Queerama, it is these early documentaries that provide the most arresting moments. Witness the lesbian teacher, explaining with dignity and patience, that she is not a paedophile, the silhouetted figures justifying their very existence, and the sheer pluckiness of the man who, with John Waters-esque wit, explains that he thinks heterosexuality is disgusting.
We move into the ’70s, the first whole decade of freedom, before taking several steps into the ’80s when, under Margaret Thatcher, there’s an extraordinary spike in homophobia, caused not only by the censorious, right-wing reaction to HIV/AIDS but also the legal amendment, Section 28, preventing councils from ‘promoting’ homosexuality (in reality, this meant that any teacher with a non-reproving attitude toward gay people could be sacked, and a generation of LGBT children were dissuaded from seeking advice and support). Queerama captures the rage, dismay and appalling injustices of this era, as well as the joyful rebellion it sometimes spawned.
One of Queerama‘s coups is that it secured the use of John Grant’s music for its soundtrack (you’ll also hear Goldfrapp and Hercules And Love Affair). While there’s no denying its plaintive, pop power, as an accompaniment to footage from a different century, it’s anachronistic. Then there’s the fact that it comments on the queer experience in a different (if similar) culture (America) to the one being examined on screen.
Queerama also, it hardly needs pointing out, reclaims ‘queer’. Many of us are happy that it’s a word now imbued with positivity. For others, it’ll never stop being like the ‘n’ word. For others still, it’s become so catch-all that it includes straight people with fetishes, rendering it meaningless. Whatever one’s personal feeling about that thorny issue, this is still an overwhelmingly excellent documentary with a flaw. In its presentation and style, it strives to be more than a ‘mere’ film about LGBT representation on the British screen. Its ambitions — to be a thing of beauty in and of itself — are noble. But in wanting to be more than it is, it doesn’t realise that what it is is enough, a failing of confidence to which many LGBT viewers will relate.
The DVD presentation is hard to fault; there’s intelligent writing in the booklet and extra features are abundant, including the full This Week episodes from 1964, Q&A with the director, and shorts, including The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1988) and Rosebud (1991).