The Iris Prize is now in its 11th year and once again will showcase some of the best LGBT+ short films from around the world. Since it began in 2007, the prize has allowed filmmakers from as far afield as Australia, Israel and Brazil to produce a brand new short film in the UK, with a current budget of £30,000, thanks to the support of the Michael Bishop Foundation.
Last year saw a British film, Balcony, scoop the prize for the very first time. With an even greater number of submissions than ever before, could this be a golden year for Iris? Let’s take a look at fifteen of my favourite short films showing at this year’s festival.
The Whole World (El mundo entero) (Director Julián Quintanilla)
A young man, played by director Julián Quintanilla, visits his mother’s tomb in a cemetery in small town Spain. It’s her birthday, and as she does every year, his mother – nicknamed La Chary – appears to him from beyond the grave. But this is no horror story. The larger-than-life La Chary (played with admirable gusto by Loles León) simply wants to hear what he’s doing and offer him her advice. But this year, she has a request.
Years ago, when Julian was still only a child, La Chary witnessed local youths verbally abusing a gay man who lived in their neighbourhood. She did nothing to help him at the time, and this has been plaguing her ever since. She would like Julian to set things right.
This touching, often very funny film owes a great deal to the work of Pedro Almodovar, and Loles León (who appeared in Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) delivers much of its charm, playing a role closely based on Quintanilla’s own mother.
Curmudgeons (Director Danny DeVito)
It isn’t often you see such a familiar name among the directors of the competing shorts at Iris, let alone one who has appeared in – and directed – some of the biggest movies of the last 30 years. Short films are often seen as a calling card by up-and-coming directors, so it’s nice to see a Hollywood veteran try his hand at short films, and deliver such a memorable story of a gay relationship between two senior citizens.
Robin (Lucy DeVito) is visiting her grandfather Ralph (the late David Margulies) in the nursing home where he lives, but her visit is interrupted by the arrival of his lover Jackie (played by DeVito). Ralph and Jackie’s relationship seems based on mutual grouchiness and bad language, and the f-words fly throughout. Ultimately, however, Curmudgeons is a warm-hearted taken on finding love in the winter of one’s life, and the chemistry between Margulies and DeVito is adorable.
The Rabbi (Director Uriya Hertz)
Israel has a tradition of producing excellent LGBT+ cinema in the last 15 years, including Eytan Fox’s 2006 drama The Bubble and 2009’s Iris Prize winning short film Steam, directed by Eldar Rappaport. But while many aspects of life in Israel have been explored, including its politics, the country’s fraught relationship with its neighbours and military conscription, it isn’t often we see Judaism put front and centre in a gay drama.
The title character of The Rabbi is Michael, played by Gur Yaari, a married man teaching at a Jerusalem yeshiva, or religious college. When a favourite student admits to being confused about his sexuality, Michael finds that he must confront his own sublimated desires. This subtle, understated drama is more about those things which go unsaid than the soap opera pyrotechnics of full-blown arguments, and a frosty dinner scene, where Michael’s student joins the Rabbi’s family for supper, positively fizzes with pent-up energy and emotion.
Odd Job Man (Director Marianne Blicher)
Odd Job Man’s protagonist is an older gentleman whose life reads like the lyrics to a country and western ballad. He’s lost his job, his wife’s up and left him. What can poor Poul (Peder Holm Johansen) do?
While wandering the streets of Copenhagen, he spots a sign outside a nightclub: ‘Odd job man wanted’. As he walks in, Poul can hardly imagine that within hours he’ll be zipping up drag queens’ dresses, and that within days he’ll be one step closer to realising a long-buried dream.
When an opportunity comes for Poul to take the spotlight for himself, it throws him completely outside his comfort zone. Does he have what it takes to be a performer? Will he wow his audience, or become a laughing stock? This quirky little comedy is a pleasing fish-out-of-water story, but also a thoughtful rumination on wondering if our better years are behind us.
The Dam (Director Brendon McDonall)
Perhaps it was inevitable after 11 years, but Brendon McDonall’s The Dam presents Iris with a first. This is the first time a director has won the Iris Prize, produced another short film with Iris, and later returned with another film in competition.
Brendon McDonall’s bittersweet coming-of-age story, All God’s Creatures, was a favourite with audiences at the 2013 Iris Prize Festival. He went on to make Spoilers here in the UK, and has now returned with The Dam, a perfectly self-contained drama about an older couple’s reunion after a long spell apart, in the shadow of the hydroelectric dam they both worked on.
Films exploring what it means to grow old as an LGBT+ person have become something of a trend in recent years, but The Dam is an exceptional piece of writing, with excellent performances from its lead actors, and skilful use of its dramatic location. It is often difficult to predict a winner, but if I had to put money on one film in this year’s competition, it would be The Dam.
Sisak (Director Faraz Ansari)
Two men, played by Jitin Gulati and Dhruv Singhal, encounter one another on a bustling commuter train in Mumbai. Their eyes meet, but no words are said between them. This becomes a regular occurrence, the two of them sharing the same carriage night after night, but never quite summoning the courage to speak, not even to say hello.
Without a word of spoken dialogue, the romance that blossoms between these two characters is frustrating and heart-warming in equal measure. So much is done with the slightest of gestures, the briefest moments of physical contact, that anyone who, by the end, isn’t cheering on our protagonists must have a heart of stone.
If this sounds like the outline of a light romantic drama, remember that the Indian Supreme Court voted to effectively recriminalize homosexuality, after a brief period (from 2009) when the penal code outlawing it was overturned. LGBT+ people in India still face persecution for being themselves, making stories like Sisak all the more important.
The Mess He Made (Director Matthew Puccini)
At a sexual health clinic somewhere in small-town America, a young man, Jude (Max Jenkins) awaits the results of a rapid HIV test. While he waits, he explores the area surrounding the clinic. He goes to the supermarket. He buys groceries.
Each moment would, in itself, be banal, but loaded with the weight of anticipation this taught drama unfolds with nail biting tension. The title is ambiguous. Was “the mess” made by Jude or his partner, who we only ever hear at the other end of a phone line? Did either of them have an affair? While Jude waits, we’re offered glimpses of his home life, including one revelation which adds a whole new dimension to what could have been a formulaic drama.
The Mess He Made is a deceptively simple film. Not much happens, and yet it offers a snapshot of the decisive moment when someone’s entire life could change forever.
Little Potato (Director Wes Hurley & Nathan M. Miller)
It’s fair to say most documentaries don’t come with a plot twist. There may be surprises along the way, but the kind of jaw-dropping moment you get in soap operas isn’t something you’d expect to find in a film based on fact.
Little Potato tells the personal story of the film’s co-director, Wes Hurley, and his mother. Growing up gay in the Soviet Union, Wes eventually immigrated to the USA following the fall of Communism. His mother, a doctor, was a “mail order bride”, and married a conservative evangelical Christian who lived in the Pacific Northwest.
As he entered his teenage years, Wes began to wonder if he and his mother had swapped state tyranny for the tyranny of his stepfather. But there was a surprise in store for Wes and his mother, a surprise which would make them re-evaluate family and friendship, and what life in America means for both of them.
Half a Life (Director Tamara Shogaolu)
While it’s a very strong year for documentary shorts, LGBT+ short films from Muslim majority countries are still depressingly rare, and so it’s good to see a film like Half a Life¸ produced in Indonesia but tackling the subject of gay rights in Egypt, in competition.
Made using a loose, distinctive style of animation which seeks to bring the vibrant – but often dangerous – streets of Cairo to life, Half a Life uses an anonymous narrator’s account of homophobic abuse, both at the hands of the mob and the state police, to explore what life is like for LGBT+ people in contemporary Egypt.
Bigotry and violence are both still commonplace, and this film is a welcome reminder that while enormous progress has been made in Western Europe, North America and elsewhere, many LGBT+ people are still living in fear of persecution; from their families, their communities, and even their own governments.
One Summer (Director Gregory Oke)
On paper, One Summer feels like the kind of story we’ve seen maybe one too many times before. A young farmhand dreams of a world beyond this quiet corner of the countryside, while developing an attraction towards a male colleague and friend.
Where One Summer brings something new to this familiar idea is in how it handles the protagonist’s interior world. He listens to vintage French rock by artists such as Jacques DuTronc and learns French in his spare time. His desire for his friend is never stated so boldly, but is hinted at in increments.
The attractive lead actor does an excellent job of communicating his character’s conflicted hopes and aspirations, his attempts to “fit in”, and his realisation that this is futile, and perhaps not what he ultimately wants. Well-acted and beautiful to look at, One Summer also boasts perhaps the coolest soundtrack to any short film you’re likely to see this year.
Sodom’s Cat (Director Huang Ting-Chun)
Dating apps and online dating have been a feature of many LGBT+ stories in recent years. For better or worse – depending on who you ask – they have revolutionised the way LGBT+ people meet up for dating, romance or just “no strings” fun.
Sodom’s Cat, from Taiwanese director Huang Ting-Chun, asks what it must be like to be a part of this world, and yet feel strangely distant from it. Sun is a young man who attends a sex party, organised via a dating app, with four other men. While the others seem to be enjoying themselves enormously, Sun finds himself unaroused, despite the others’ best efforts turn him on.
Challenging contemporary ideas of what it means to be gay and sexually active and depicting gay sex with great frankness and honesty, Sodom’s Cat could prove one of the more controversial films in this year’s competition.
Leroy (Director Marley Morrison)
Leroy (Benidorm’s Nathan Bryon) is a young man living on a deprived council estate in North London. When his beloved grandfather, Nelson, passes away, Leroy agrees to do a reading at his funeral. But when he discovers a mix tape of music that his grandfather made for him, Leroy decides to do something a little bit different instead.
This quirky short owes a great deal to offbeat cult classics such as Napoleon Dynamite and Welcome to the Dollhouse. Leroy and his best friend Yukiko seem to exist in their own joyously eccentric little universe, slightly disconnected from the world inhabited by Leroy’s “wannabe gangsta” brother, Kenny. (A bathroom scene between Leroy and Kenny is laugh-out-loud, split-your-sides funny.)
Though it’s not competing for this year’s Iris Prize, Leroy is – for me – one of the standout films at this year’s festival, and I’ll be quietly rooting for it in the category for Best British Short.
Colours (Director Peter Lee Scott)
The world of football is one of the few remaining corners of British life where institutionalised homophobia still dominates, almost unchecked. A dearth of “out” football players, coupled with the hyper-masculine and often abusive atmosphere of the terraces have combined to form a final bastion for anti-gay bigotry.
It’s therefore appropriate that one of the films competing for the Best British category at the Iris Prize Festival should explore this subject, during a year in which we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act.
Colours tells the story of Adam, a 17-year-old who finds himself at loggerheads with his bullying team captain, Mike, when they discover that a teammate – Adam’s best friend Tom – is gay. With a compelling, standout performance from George Somner as Mike, this is a hard-hitting look at male friendship and violence. It is the kind of film that shouldn’t have to be made in this day and age, but sadly does.
Scar Tissue (Director Nish Gera)
Johan and Sami meet up for a date in a Dutch café bar. Johan is Dutch, Sami is a Syrian refugee living in the Netherlands. They hit it off and decide to spend the night together, but in the course of their date, Johan learns about the horrors Sami escaped from, while Sami is confronted with the realities of life for many of his fellow refugees now living in the West.
A subject such as the persecution of LGBT+ people in the “Islamic State” could be handled clumsily in a short film. How do you communicate that much human suffering in such a short space of time without it descending into exploitative melodrama?
Fortunately, first-time writer-director Nish Gera has a light touch with the material. The unimaginable traumas of Sami and Bashir, a homeless Syrian Sami and Johan meet along the way, are hinted at, but are no less disturbing for it.
Taste of Love (Director Paul Scheufler)
At just 5 minutes in length, Taste of Love is possibly the shortest film in competition this year, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable. It’s subject is the sense of taste, and how it applies to love and sex. As a sense, taste isn’t necessarily the first that comes to mind when we think of sex, but this vibrant, joyous short uses taste as a kind of metaphor for the notion of polysexuality, in all its glory.
In a suitably sensual voiceover, our narrator explains how she enjoys the unlikely combinations of different flavours, and so these foods appear, in the brightest colours, across the screen. The whole thing is presented with such energy, panache and wit, it’s almost impossible not to fall under its spell.
Films like this rarely win the big prizes at film festivals, but for my money they are all that those festivals are about. If the Iris Prize festival is about celebrating sexual and gender diversity in every form, then Taste of Love is a fine example of just that.