Debuting at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest before making its way to London for a two month residency as part of the BFI’s Gross Indecency festival, Daisy Asquith’s Queerama mines the BFI’s National Archives to codify a collective queer experience in Britain throughout the 20th Century. Exploring prosecution, love, desire, forbidden encounters, gender, shame and sexual liberation Asquith’s documentary aims to spark an intergenerational conversation about queer identity, helping modern-day LGBTQ communities to better understand the persecution and progress that has shaped our shared history.
Scored with music from John Grant, Goldfrapp and Hercules & Love Affair, but without an omniscient narrator-guide, Queerama collects fragments of fictional film and real-world documentary to create a space for gay, lesbian and transgender men and women from the early 1920s onwards tell their story in their own words. At times difficult to watch for its sheer rawness - homosexuality is at various points described as disgusting, revolting and unnatural - Queerama marks the 50 year anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act with a celebration of the strength of the queer community and a call-to-arms to protect LGBTQ rights in the UK around the world.
Ahead of her opening night at Doc/Fest, we caught up with Asquith herself to talk Theresa May, what it meant to be trans in the 1950s and why we mustn’t ‘rest on our laurels’ when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
How did Queerama come about? Why did you decide to make this film now?
I’d wanted to do it for some time. It seemed like a dream, something I’d imagined one sleepless night. We pitched it in February and once the BFI said yes we had about 10 weeks to make it. It’s been pretty crazy. Simon McCallum (curator of the BFI’s LGBT50 and Gross Indecency) has curated a strand of gay film in the archives, so that was a massive help. Once we’d worked through that, we went looking for other stuff that was less overtly queer, more subtextual. When we lack representation, when we lack people on screen that look like us, we queer things ourselves. We wanted to reflect that in the documentary.
How would you describe the project? What are you trying to achieve with it?
We decided to have an emotional narrative, rather than a facts based historical narrative. People don’t care about laws. Instead, this is about the resistance and courage people showed when being gay was illegal. It’s about the humour they used, and the love, to get through those tough times. We look at how people felt in the 50s when Churchill made it much tougher to be gay, and through the 80s when Thatcher did the same thing. Thousands and thousands more gay men were arrested under Thatcher in the 80s than were in the 70s, you begin to see that it comes in waves. I strongly fear Theresa May becoming prime minister, she’s voted against every clause for gay equality. We may have come a long way but we can’t say we’re ‘safe’. There’s no room for resting on your laurels.
Why did you decide not to include a voice over?
I wanted John Grant’s amazing lyrics to hold the emotion of the story, and I think they do. People don’t need someone to tell them what to think in this film. We all have our own personal responses when we see a presenter in the 50s calling gay men revolting, there’s no need to explain that. I didn’t feel there was anything missing, that needed explaining.
Some of the statements presented are quite challenging. Were you worried about legitimising those views?
It’s very sad seeing people not being allowed to love in the way that they want to, so you try and find elements of humour because people survived amazing hardships with humour. John’s music and lyrics, when I listen to it, it’s like having his arms around you, so I hope people share that feeling when they watch this film. I hope they feel supported by us as filmmakers and musicians. There are so many knowing moments that I think people will be able to connect with and feel stronger as a community.
One of the characters that really stuck with me, was an interview with ‘Steve’...
We’d call Steve ‘he’ now, yet they insist on calling him a woman and a lesbian even though their name is Steve - it’s a gender free name. When Steve says their mum finds it disgusting that they dress in men’s clothes, that’s heartbreaking for me.
His confidence and level of self-awareness, at a time when we didn’t have a nuanced understanding of gender or pronouns…
It resonates so strongly with me and with a lot of people. The thing with Steve, they can’t help but be anyone but themselves. He falls in love and you just think, good on you mate. Amazing courage.
Using archival footage to present people like Steve to the world, even though we might think of trans-identity as a modern understanding of self, this documentary shows how the trans community is far from ‘new’. We’ve simply failed to acknowledge their existence until recently.
I completely agree! We’ve always had people with complex sexualities and complex genders and the world is better for it. I hope things will continue to improve, but I honestly don’t feel sure about that. It’s kind of scary right now.
Would you say the film attempts to codify a shared history and experience within the queer community?
I hope so, I hope it gives younger people an understanding of how far we’ve come. But for my straight friends too, many didn’t realise gross indecency was a crime until 2003. Sometimes it’s hard to be a perfect community when you’re under fire. I hope it encourages a dialogue between LGBTQ people of different generations. It goes back to that theme of nothing really changing, we’ve always been here.
How is this anniversary important to you?
I’m pleased to celebrate it, but we must also be clear that 30,000 gay men were arrested between 1967 and 2003 for crimes which wouldn’t have been an offence if their partner had been of a different gender. We should take time to celebrate, but we mustn’t lose the rights that we’ve fought for, both in the UK and around the world.
Is there anything you’re particularly excited to see at Doc/Fest?
I just had the chance to watch Mr Gay Syria which is a fascinating feature about Syrians who’ve escaped to Turkey and enter this pageant. I’d highly recommend it. Queercore: How To Punk A Revolution is another one on my list, that’s a great film.