This year marks 10 years since the first Mardi Gras Film Festival was held in Sydney. So much has happened since that first festival, including the demise of Mardi Gras as we knew it, and the screening of hundreds of queer features, shorts and documentaries. Just as the queer community has evolved in Sydney, so too has the global community and this is reflected in this year’s crop of films.

There will be 135 films screening in 80 sessions, spread over 12 days in 4 venues. I spoke with festival programmer, David Pearce, about the themes, thrills, trash and highlights of this year’s festival.

This year is about diversity, says Pearce. He tells me the 2003 program features drag kings and drag queens, interracial affairs, gays having straight affairs, straights having gay affairs, a lesbian Macbeth, and a Senegalese Carmen. This year’s program is one of the most diverse we’ve had. There’s a diversity of ages too, from young British rent boys (9 Dead Gay Guys) through to 70-year-old Japanese grandmothers having sex for the first time (Lily Festival). Pearce says the fluid nature of sexuality is also a theme. Sexual partners backwards and forwards, so to speak, he laughs. For this reason the festival includes films which have fathers who become mothers (Enter The Clowns), a transgendered woman on a road trip (Thelma) and a documentary about being born intersex (Being Normal).

When asked to comment on emerging trends in queer films, Pearce indicated there is a clear trend towards getting out of the ghetto or, as he described it, an embracing of the concept of metrosexuality, i.e. where people of different sexualities coexist as friends, lovers and party people. Bob And Rose, a new TV miniseries from Russell T. Davies, the writer of the original British Queer As Folk, is an example of this trend, says Pearce. Two episodes from the 2001 series will screen at Palace Academy Twin.

Last year the festival had a strong Asian flavour and this trend continues in 2003. Amongst the contemporary queer Asian cinema offerings in the festival is Mango Souffle, the first Indian feature film to openly portray a gay male love story. Pearce singles out Li Yu’s Fish And Elephant (2001), the first lesbian-themed feature from China. Yu employed a lesbian couple she met in a bar to play the main characters in this story of first love between an elephant keeper and a saleswoman. Then there is Japanese-Canadian Desir?Lim’s Sugar Sweet (2001), a funny, sexy, romantic story about three girls, a porn director, a marketing executive and an internet pal, or Michelle Chen’s and Li Xiao’s documentary The Snake Boy (2001), which tells the story of an androgynous gay singer Coco, a sort of a Chinese Paul Capsis who is doing his best to revive jazz and the homosexual subculture in Shanghai.

Yen Tan’s Happy Birthday (2002) is a Robert Altman-esque exploration of longing and relationships in the lives of five very different people who have nothing in common except the same birthday. Yen Tan won the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival’s Jury Award for this film and will be coming to Sydney to present her film. For those who loved Iron Ladies in 2001, this year’s festival has the first screenings outside Thailand of Saving Private Tootsie (2002), a Katoey action comedy which follows the adventures of a group of transvestites, transsexuals and gays lost in the jungle after a plane crash.

Canadian films are under Queer Screen’s spotlight this year. Canada is closer to the Australian lifestyle and psyche than many other Western countries and we believe the audience will strongly identify with the themes raised by these films, says Pearce. There certainly is a wide range on offer including a comprehensive range of shorts in French and English. Girls have Canadian Girls, Eh! and the boys have Hot Boys From Cool Canada. This is in addition to a feature and three documentaries, including Tom, a film written and directed by Mike Hoolbloom about the New York fetishist filmmaker and photographer Tom Chomont which screened at Berlin last year.

We also have several debut feature films, such as A.K.A., which recently screened at Sundance, from UK director Duncan Roy who had a short (Clancy’s Kitchen, 1998) in the festival before, says Pearce. Other debut features include the opening night film, Miles Swain’s The Trip (2002), Lab Ky Mo’s 9 Dead Gay Guys (2002), Desir?Lim’s Sugar Sweet, Yen Tan’s Happy Birthday and the world premiere of Totally Sexy Loser by Queer As Folk USA screenwriter Jason Schafer.

Pearce says the festival has been fortunate enough to have a number of firsts. As well as Mango Souffle and Fish And Elephant, we’ll be screening the first lesbian films from Slovenia (Guardian Of The Frontier) and Croatia (Fine Dead Girls). The Croatian film, directed by Dalibor Matanic, is Croatia’s official nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. There is also a film which screened at Cannes in 2002 (9 Dead Gay Guys) and one which won a Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival (Suddenly, 2002, Argentina).

As well as a comprehensive collection of shorts (there are 48 on my count), Pearce is excited by the program of documentaries which he considers particularly strong in this year’s festival. They’re very different this year and include Family Fundamentals, a film by Arthur Dong which explores families where ultra-right-wing conservative parents have gay and lesbian children. Truly powerful.

The program also includes two documentaries about some of the first gay and lesbian activists in the US. Hope Along The Wind looks at the life of Harry Hay, who founded a gay rights organisation in the late 40s. No Secret Anymore, the life and times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who launched the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, will have its second screening here after premiering at San Francisco. Other documentaries include the British Lesbians Behaving Badly/Lesbians Ol?worthy successors to the marvellous Invasion Of The Big Haired Lesbians which was screened only a few years ago. The festival will close with a documentary, Venus Boyz, an intriguing journey into the universe of female masculinity and the global heart of the drag king subculture, which Pearce saw in Berlin and had to have in the festival.

When I asked Pearce to name his personal pick of the features this year he quickly nominated Canadian Brad Fraser’s Leaving Metropolis (2002). It’s Fraser’s adaptation of his 1994 hit play Poor Superman which explores what happens when a gay man falls in love with a married man. I loved the play and was intrigued by the film. Pearce also likes Cock And Bull Story (2002), directed by Billy Hayes, whose real-life experience in a Turkish prison was portrayed in Midnight Express; as well as Guardian Of The Frontier and Thelma.

This year will see more late-night screenings of cult films at the Dendy Newtown. Donna Deitch’s 1986 classic Desert Hearts will be again shown in all its glory on the big screen. Boys will have the delightfully weird Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a shameless adulteration by Doug Mills of the 1953 science fiction turkey Killers From Space involving a conspiracy plot to wipe out gays that goes wrong. Don’t forget the Can’t Stop The Music singalong at Palace Academy Twin on Valentine’s Day either.

Also important is the very popular My Queer Career, the Australian and New Zealand Queer Shorts Competition, which is having a 10th anniversary retrospective in addition to its usual competition screenings. Celluloid Closet, the full day of free screenings of shorts that failed to make the final selections in the competition, will also return this year.

The festival runs from 12 February to 23 February. Bookings for the opening night must be made through the State Theatre or via Ticketek. Other sessions are available from the Palace Academy Twin (their sessions only) and the Dendy Newtown (Dendy sessions only). Phone bookings on 9645 1611, fax 9645 1699 or online -“ all of which must be made at least 24 hours before you wish to attend. Pick up the comprehensive festival booklet for complete details.

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