BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival: Thoughts from the Opening Night Gala

Cloudburst (Thom Fitzgerald, Canada, 2011), followed by Q&A with Thom Fitzgerald and actors Brenda Fricker and Ryan Doucette, 23rd March 2012.

“I’m not out yet, where I’m from” says a voice a couple of seats away. I just manage to catch these words at the edges of my hearing, already faint by the time they reach me. At the Opening Night Gala of the 26th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, amidst the plush seats, thick red curtain, and that certain movie-going community of yesteryear, a conversation emerges in the growing hum of the audience. Hugs are shared among a group, dialogues struck up between strangers, a fleeting kiss, and confessions that wouldn’t normally be shared, or not so casually at least.

Cloudburst follows a seventy-something lesbian couple that hit the road from Maine to Novia Scotia on a mission to get married. The film stars Olympia Dukakis as the feisty Stella, Brenda Fricker as the gentle yet blind Dot, and Ryan Doucette as the young dancer Prentice whom they pick up along the way. Throughout the screening, it was that voice saying “I’m not out yet, where I’m from” that stayed with me, the utterance colluding with the onscreen images. After all, Dot finds herself in a similar plight, forced to hide her 31-year relationship with Stella from her granddaughter. As much as the film is about Stella and Dot’s mission to get married, it also becomes a mission to find acceptance, and, above all, never to have to apologize for who (or how) they are.

“The warmth of the audience explodes and all I can notice is the heat, that palpable air only a crowd can create.”

The audience’s cheers of support for Stella’s rebellious, sexually charged ways and sighs of sympathy for Dot’s deteriorating health cause the space between spectator and screen to collapse. It’s as if the shifts in human weight and emotion of the audience actually impact the beautifully rendered celluloid projections.

When Thom Fitzgerald, Brenda Fricker, and Ryan Doucette come onstage for the Q&A, the hum continues to grow. As Fitzgerald gives a loving nod to his boyfriend of 13 years, Fricker describes how natural it was to portray a relationship with Dukakis. The same cheers and applause that followed Stella and Dot’s comedic journey crescendo in response, forming a certain warmth that flows towards the guests and envelops these intimate exchanges.

"Explode your expectations!"

Explode your expectations!’ cries the festival’s tagline. And as the doors open to make way for the repeat screening, I begin to understand what they meant. The warmth of the audience explodes and all I can notice is the heat, that palpable air only a crowd can create. I can no longer tell who just came out of the screening and who’s about to head in – the delight upon just seeing the film and the excitement from those about to see it meld to form a pervasive buzz.

“Those boundaries that are so painstakingly erected between one another in the city crumbled momentarily.”

What struck me this evening at the LLGFF was not only the promise of the range of films to be screened over the week, but also that buzz—the ambiance, the community, and the transience of the experience that makes it all the more exceptional. Films, filmmakers, programmers, and spectators collaborate not only to form an intricate network, but also to make that very network apparent, and one that brings the collective cinematic experience to life.

Perhaps, then, as the posters declared, there was something else exploding: those boundaries that are so painstakingly erected between one another in the city crumbled momentarily to trigger the interactions that could, or should, take place. From the quiet murmurs to the booming chatter, I took the sound of those last voices drifting into the night air and that one faint confession at the beginning as signs of a promising week to come.

For a complete list of the BFI LLGFF screenings and events (23 March – 1 April), see the official website. For an overview on the importance of festivals as networks and sites of passage, see Marijke de Valck’s Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia


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