2016 marks the tenth anniversary of the Iris Prize, the largest international prize available to an LGBT short filmmaker. Each winner is given a £30,000 budget to make another short film, and to date a total of seven new films have been produced and shown at film festivals around the world. This year saw a record number of films submitted for the Iris Prize, so let’s take a look at some of the best, as well as a previous winner and a film made with the prize itself.
A Dolls Eyes (Director Jonathan Wysocki)
What at first seems to be a fairly straightforward cinematic trip down memory lane evolves quickly into something more personal and soul-searching. Director (and star) Jonathan Wysocki is haunted by memories of the film Jaws, and by how the character of Quint (the shark hunter, played by Robert Shaw) describes the eyes of the deadly great white: “Lifeless eyes… black eyes… like a doll’s eyes.”
Wysocki uses this eerie line as the springboard for an investigation into his own childhood and adolescent hang-ups and anxieties, including his burgeoning sexuality. Beautifully shot as both a twilit view of the 1970s and ’80s and an homage to the early films of Steven Spielberg, A Doll’s Eyes treads an ingenious line between imaginative film and documentary, and crams a lot of food for thought into its brisk thirteen minute running time. There’s a dark vein of humour, but also something very touching about this well-crafted short.
B. (Director Kai Staenicke)
This is director Kai Staenicke’s second time on the Iris Prize shortlist, after It’s Consuming Me (his second film as director) was nominated in 2012. Whereas that film was a live action, rapid fire montage exploring obsessive desire, B. is an unsettling animation which dives headfirst into the even darker recesses of sexuality and gender.
Its heroine is known simply as ‘B.’, though from her doll-like appearance it’s safe to assume this stands for ‘Barbie’ (and perhaps even safer to assume it was shortened to avoid incurring the wrath of toy manufacturer Mattel). Her blandly handsome boyfriend is ‘K.’ (short for Ken, perhaps?), but B. is secretly in love with a red-headed woman she encounters in a bar. Tackling themes of regret, missed opportunities, fantasy and violence, B. is sure to prove a stand-out in this year’s competition, not least of all because animated LGBT+ shorts are still relatively rare.
Balcony (Director Toby Fell-Holden)
Nominated in both the international and British categories for this year’s Iris Prize, Balcony offers a very timely, intimate and ultimately shocking portrait of a cross cultural friendship on a bleak London housing estate. Boisterous bad girl Tina is attracted to her neighbour and schoolmate, Afghan refugee Dana. She sticks up for her against the cruelty of school bullies and the two of them become friends, but in attempting to forge a friendship with her fellow misfit, is Tina projecting too much of her own life onto the object of her desire?
Featuring excellent and utterly convincing performances from young actors Charlotte Beaumont (Tina) and Genevieve Dunn (Dana), and with an ending that is certain to leave audiences breathless, Balcony doesn’t shy away from thorny subject matter or pull its punches. A brave and gutsy film that manages a fine balancing act between moments of brutal intensity and touching tenderness.
Between Us (Eadrainn Féin) (Director Daithí Ó Cinnéide)
With dialogue entirely in the Irish language (or Gaeilge/Gaelic), Between Us is a gentle, understated short that focuses on the relationship between a teenage boy and his father in rural Conemara. When the boy – a keen football fan – goes to school in a pleated skirt and make-up, his traditional, old-fashioned father must learn to accept his son for who he really is.
What makes this film stand out from similar approaches to the subject is its warm-heartedness. Yes, it tackles the inevitable schoolyard bullying that follows, but Between Us offers a different, upbeat take on the parental reaction, and provides us with a satisfying and positive ending. In refusing to label its protagonist one thing or another (he wears a skirt and make-up, but has no desire to transition or change his name and doesn’t seem to be attracted to other boys) it also offers a more nuanced take on gender fluidity, even against this unlikeliest of backdrops.
Cecil & Carl (Director Elvis León and Gaston Yvorra)
One of the subjects we’ve seen tackled more frequently in recent LGBT+ cinema is age. With same-sex couples in much of the US and Europe having lived quite openly since the 1960s and ’70s, many of those from the generation that protested at Stonewall are now entering their sixties, seventies and eighties. But growing old gay comes with all the same challenges as growing old straight, and a great many more besides.
Cecil and Carl have been a couple for 43 years, but have lived apart since Carl was diagnosed with dementia and moved into a nursing home. This touching documentary introduces us to two very endearing characters and offers a moving portrait of love, commitment and loyalty. It may be a sobering view for those of us who would like to remain spry and youthful until the end of our days, but it’s also a heart-warming portrait of true love transcending distance and absence.
Tonight It’s You (Director Dominic Haxton)
Dating apps such as Grindr have revolutionised the way gay men hook up with one another – for better or worse, depending on who you speak to. Dominic Haxton’s taught and utterly chilling short film explores the latter, to brilliant and spine-tingling effect.
It begins familiarly enough. Handsome CJ (Jake Robbins) meets Hunter (Ian Lerch) online and accepts an invite to meet up with him for sex. Hunter lives with his parents on a remote farmstead, and so he and CJ have sex in a barn a short distance from the main house. And that’s when things take a turn for the weird.
To tell you more than this would really spoil the terrifying twists and turns that follow. Suffice to say, viewers should expect the unexpected. Genre films like Tonight It’s You feel like a leap forward in LGBT+ storytelling, where sexuality is an integral part of the story without it being political or “issues” driven. Director Haxton could be a major talent to look out for, particularly if he continues making horror movies. There are some genuine leap-out-of-your-seat scares, and the whole film has an oppressive, sinister mood that will linger long after the film is over.
Last Vestiges (Director Seth Poulin)
What happens when someone whose livelihood is based on youth and desirability nears the end of his brutally short shelf life? That’s the premise of this gritty, dark but also very thought-provoking short film.
Eddie is a go-go dancer in a gay club. The place is subterranean, sweaty and dark. Eddie’s income – not to mention his self-esteem – depends on his ability to seduce the club’s clientele. With competition from younger dancers, his days gyrating on the bar would seem to be numbered, and an encounter with an elderly client proves disastrous in more ways than one.
Anyone who has seen a great number of LGBT+ shorts will have seen more than their fair share set in similarly gloomy, ominous nightclubs, but what makes Last Vestiges stand out from the crowd is the performance by lead actor Clint Butler. He imbues Eddie with a fragility that underscores his strutting, hyper-sexual go-go persona, and the film’s ending is both poignant and haunting.
Little Boy Blue (Director Nathan Keene)
Is this the most visually beautiful film ever to make the Iris Prize shortlist? Very possibly. Is it the most shocking film to be nominated? Again – it seems likely. Nathan Keene’s dark fable is set in rural Australia in the 1950s, but behind the rolling fields and gorgeous sunsets lurks a world of disturbing violence and brutal horror.
Eva is an adorable little girl with an unsettling penchant for animal torture. What’s hinted at, both by the film’s opening titles and an overheard conversation later in the film, is that Eva was born a boy, but that a surgical mishap and its ensuing cover-up resulted in her being raised as a girl. When Eva strays beyond the limits of her parents’ land she discovers a little boy her own age, shackled and dirty and kept prisoner inside a rickety barn.
What follows is an extremely gruesome fairy tale, with the boy’s keeper, the monstrous Mr Welch, standing in for the ogres of legend. A genuine shocker, but utterly ravishing to look at, Little Boy Blue most definitely isn’t one for the squeamish or the faint of heart.
Little Doll (Director Kate Dolan)
Many LGBT+ films deal with the subject of coming out, but the stages that come before it, those very first crushes and attractions, remain relatively unexplored. Little Doll tells the story of Irish pre-teens Elenore and Alex. When Alex invites the younger Elenore to a sleepover, Elenore experiences all the emotional turmoil of her first crush, not to mention the subtle cruelty of the other girls. Poignant, funny and a little bit heart-breaking within its twelve minute running time, its strengths lie mainly in an excellent young cast.
Sophie Power is great as Alex, but it’s Ciara Gallagher’s Elenore who steals the show. The young actors’ chemistry is convincing, and director Kate Dolan has a keen eye for capturing candid moments between the two that feel spontaneous and genuine. The sexuality of children is an understandably difficult and thorny subject for filmmakers to approach, but Dolan handles it with a light touch and plenty of charm.
Sign (Director Andrew Keenan-Bolger)
A relationship is condensed down into a sweeping montage, taking us through all the laughter and tears that relationships can contain. Certainly, as a premise, it’s one familiar to anyone who has kept pace with LGBT+ short films in the last 10 years. Where Sign differs from what we may have seen before is by having its lead actors not say a word of dialogue for the duration. Instead, and as the name suggests, everything is communicated through sign language, and without subtitles.
Aaron (John P. McGinty) and Ben (Preston Sadleir) meet in a New York subway station. Aaron is deaf, but the two hit it off and begin dating, with Ben learning sign language along the way. It would give too much away to tell you how things work out, but Sign really does manage to cram all the romance, heartache and emotional turbulence of a classic tearjerker into just 15 minutes. As well as exploring the dynamics of a gay relationship, we see how Aaron’s disability affects them both, for good and bad. McGinty and Sadleir make a very endearing onscreen couple, and the passage of time is handled with supreme skill by director Andrew Keenan-Bolger, who also served as the film’s editor.
The Den (La Tana) (Director Lorenzo Caprioni)
A married man takes his wife and son to the Italian coastal town where he used to holiday with his family as a teenager. There, by chance, he meets, an old friend, Luca. It’s clear, early on, that there’s some history between the pair, but the exact nature of that past still manages to shock. What follows is a dark and claustrophobic piece that refuses to signal where it might go next. The “game” Christian plays with Luca is sexy and frightening in almost equal measure. A sense of potential danger and violence hangs over the whole film, and the contrast between Christian the family man and Christian the sexual sadist gives it a bristling intensity.
That juxtaposition is mirrored in the stark contrast between the sun-kissed beach bar where Christian and his wife first encounter Luca and the dark and claustrophobic den where they engage in their furtive game of bondage and submission.
The Threshold (Daaravtha) (Director Nishant Roy Bombarde)
Mumbai’s Queer Film Festival launched in 2010, following a 2009 high court move to decriminalise homosexual acts in India, and Indian LGBT+ cinema is still very much in its infancy. Having said that, Nishant Roy Bombarde’s The Threshold is one of the most accomplished, entertaining and ultimately moving films shortlisted for this year’s Iris Prize.
A beautifully shot and brilliantly acted coming of age tale, it tells the story of Pankaj, a young boy growing up in present-day India. Through traditional Indian customs that allow for the blurring of gender boundaries, Pankaj explores the first tremors of his sexuality, experiencing his first crush on a neighbouring boy, and suffering the cruelty of local bullies, not to mention the scorn of his old-fashioned father. But it’s the relationship between Pankaj (Nishant Bhavsar) and his mother (Nandita Patkar) that gives the film its emotional heart. The film ends on a joyously uplifting note that is almost guaranteed to bring a smile to the face and a tear to the eye.
You Deserve Everything (Director Goran Stolevski)
A handsome young doctor (Sachin Joab) talks to an elderly patient. A young and equally handsome Arabic-speaking interpreter (Jean Bachoura) translates for him. It quickly becomes clear, however, that the relationship between these two men goes far beyond the professional. The doctor, Edward, and the translator, Sami, are also lovers, though their relationship has been kept a secret from their colleagues.
When Edward learns of Sami’s impending marriage to a woman, his heart is broken, and his dreams of future happiness with Sami are shattered. But will Sami’s new life mean the end of what they have together? Can Edward carry on happily as Sami’s secret lover? Goran Stolevski’s moving film explores some of the tensions when sexuality and traditional culture meet head on. It’s a masterclass in subtlety, much of the drama drawn from things unsaid and pent up emotion, and the scene in which Edward visits Sami on the day of his wedding makes for tense, uncomfortable viewing.
Cowboy (Director Till Kleinert)
Till Kleinert’s third short film as a director was a popular but surprising winner of the Iris Prize in 2008. This dark and twisted tale follows Christian, a big city real estate agent, out into the countryside and a remote, seemingly abandoned village. There he meets the eponymous Cowboy, a handsome but mysterious young man. After toying and teasing with him, taking Christian’s car for a breakneck joyride around the country lanes, Cowboy finally seduces Christian and the pair have sex.
This is just the beginning, however, for this night of illicit passion (Christian has a girlfriend back in the city) was part of an elaborate trap, with Cowboy as the bait, and what follows is brutal, bloody and blackly comic. Taking inspiration from such cult horror classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Wicker Man and Children of the Corn, Cowboy’s gory climax is one that will have you watching the film through your fingers.
Burger (Director Magnus Mork)
As well as showcasing international LGBT+ short films, the Iris Prize also allows its winner to go on to make another short film. Norwegian director Magnus Mork, who won in 2010 with his film Samaritan, travelled to the prize’s hometown of Cardiff the following year to make Burger.
Set late one night in an inner-city kebab shop, Burger brings together a diverse group of characters; from three gay guys on their way home from a club to football fans going home from a match, and from two well-spoken young women at the end of a disastrous night out to a group of overbearing “lads” intent on mischief.
The ensemble cast is brilliant (and went on to win an award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014). Using a combination of professional actors and people who had never acted before, the action feels spontaneous and unscripted, almost documentary-like. Burger is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the best film to be produced under the Iris banner so far, and an honest, funny and engaging snapshot of modern Britain.