Themes of liminality run through the Mezipatra Queer Film Festival in Prague. The event is held in November each year, as Europe slowly turns to the coldness of winter. Once, when I stated that Prague was in Eastern Europe, my fellow Czech festival friends were quick to retort – “No! We are Central Europe!” The word Mezipatra translates to Mezzanines, a floor that is situated between two floors occurring in an architectural liminal space. It’s neither up nor down. This is a utopian space for the festival organisation:

Whether you move upstairs or downstairs, you always meet your neighbours in the space which does not belong to either of the flats. Mezipatra (or mezzanines) have no specific owner, nor are there valid rules of one and not the other. In the mezzanine, all the differences are irrelevant, no matter which floor you came from. Simply, you are and will always be welcome! 1

This speaks to 2018’s theme of “Beyond Reality”, where the program invites audiences to dive into their imagination, where “everything is changeable, fluid, adventurous.” The restrictive everyday is left behind for the fantasies brought about by queer film. This world “beyond reality” is not fixed. In this space, “the borders between our different backgrounds and the successes and failures we’ve had to face disappear.”2

Like all strong film festivals, the event is significantly much more than just an avenue to exhibit films. Mezipatra is a party, a meeting place, and a place for discussion. The festival is held across two cities. First, in Prague and, secondly, in Brno, organised by a civic association called STUD. Further, to quote the organisers, the festival “echoes” through various towns across the Czech Republic. The festival dropped the gay and lesbian label in 2009, opting to be queer instead. For the organisers, queer is a liberating term, breaking free from “traditional perception of sexual and gender identities based on the invariable categories of man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual.”

Being an Australian visiting Prague, the time was a bittersweet one, politically speaking.  We were nearing the one-year anniversary of the successful outcome of our voluntary postal survey on marriage equality – a process that was a traumatic one for many LGBTIQ Australians, yours truly included. The festival organisers were gearing up for the topic to be debated in their own parliament with the possibility of an outcome being known before their closing night event in Prague. The topic featured heavily in the opening night speeches with the representative from the US Embassy noting the recent success of openly LGBTQ politicians in their mid-term elections. Frustratingly, the parliament ran out of time to vote on the issue before closing night. Nervous energy on this matter reverberated throughout the festival.

For the Prague contingent of the festival there are three theatre venues. Kino Lucerna is the primary festival venue, with its accompanying bar being the location for the opening and closing festival parties. Kino Svêtozor is conveniently across the road. Kino Pilotü is in a notably hipster part of the Prague 10 district. Across the road from Pilotü is Patra, a venue that is perfect for anyone organising a community event. Downstairs is a cafe; above is a community meeting place that doubled as a drag performance space during the festival.

I featured on the grand jury for the main competition, whose main task was to award the prize for best feature film. There were ten films in competition. My co-jurors were Tereza Frodlová, a restorer and a curator for Prague’s National Film Archive, and Veronika Lišková, whose film Daniel’s World screened at the festival in 2014. The prospect of being on the jury was a daunting one, given that previous jurors included Harry M Benshoff, Todd Haynes, Bruce LaBruce and Cerise Howard. The ten films addressed here were in competition.

We the Animals (d. Jeremiah Zagar) won the grand jury prize for 2018. Our jury statement identified the film as an “ethereal coming of age story. The cinematography is creative and the use of animation very smart as it tells the dreamlike awakening of a young boy in up-state New York.” Based on an autobiographic novel by Justin Torres, which is an exploration of his growing awareness of his difference in a highly masculine environment, the film also won the NEXT innovator award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The queerness does not become explicit until much later into the film, when the young Jonah develops feelings for the neighbourhood boy.

The main premise of the film, however, is how a young boy and his brothers navigate the cycle of abuse that his mother receives from their father. As Jonah’s fantasies and nightmares begin to seep into his real world, so too does Zagar’s poetic form begin to dominate a sense of realism.

The jury awarded Sauvage with a special mention for its moving depiction of a young man aimless in his quest for intimacy and connection with those around him. Léo (Félix Maritaud) is a sex worker in Strasbourg who is yearning for love, all the while he remains wild (sauvage) at heart. The film credits Maritaud as Léo yet a remains unnamed in the film. The film is an incredible debut effort from Camille Vidal-Naquet and Félix Maritaud brings a strong, physical and emotional presence to the film. The camera is also somewhat “wild” in this film as well. It’s mobile and often handheld as it follows Maritaud strutting through the streets of Strasbourg. Maritaud has had an incredible year, appearing in numerous queer indie darlings — Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart, Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) and Christophe Charrier’s Boys. There is a queer punk attitude in a lot of his physicality and I am really excited to see where his career goes next.

We the Animals (Jeremiah Zagar, 2018)

Winning the audience award for best feature was Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Based on the novel by Emily Danforth, the film is one of two released this year that present the horrors of gay conversion therapy. As I have written elsewhere, 3while Boy Erased is a safe film aimed at a broader, more conservative audience, Cameron Post is more about the importance of queer friendship and beating the perils of shame. While Cameron Post is not as funny as my favourite film on the topic — Jamie Babbit’s cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) — the film is a joyous triumph of queer determination. Given its feel good quality, it’s no surprise that this won the audience award.

L’animale (Katharina Mückstein, 2018)

Opening the festival was L’animale (d. Katharina Mückstein), another coming of age tale. The film sees Mati, a young girl in her final year of school, navigating the conflicting desire for her new friend Carla and her tough motorbiking friends. Does she continue to save face, continuing to appear tough with her misogynistic friends, or does she pursue this new romantic connection? While Mati’s life spirals out of control, so too does her parents marriage, in a subplot that feels rather unresolved by the film’s closure. The film is wonderfully shot; there is one striking image of Mati speeding on her bike as one tear falls horizontally across her face. The audience responded to the film well, finding it more humorous than melodramatic.

Malila: The Flower of Farewell (d. Anucha Boonyawatana) is a curious film that could be viewed as two separate films in one. It’s slow, contemplative and poetic. The term “slow” is often bandied about as an insult for films such as this one. The slowness to this story is an imperative component to its meditation on loss and making peace with oneself. Following the tragic death of his daughter, Pich seeks out his childhood friend Shane, who manages a Jasmine plantation. Shane is unwell and Pich is desperate to rekindle their long lost connection. It’s through this connection between the two men that the film explores concepts such as love, letting go and forgiving oneself.

Visting director Olga Chajdas labeled her film Nina as one of the first Polish films to feature lesbian themes. While I am unsure of this claim, given Jan Kidawa-Błoński’s W ukryciu (In Hiding, 2013), the film does give a rare glimpse of the Polish queer experience. Titular character Nina is unable to have children with her husband, leading them to seek out a surrogate to bear them a baby – enter Magda, a young woman who evokes unexpected feelings in Nina. It’s a fairly conventional narrative beyond this, although I expect this will receive a strong run on the queer film festival circuit.

I had significant expectations going into NeonBoy (Hard Paint, d. Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon). I had missed the film at the Melbourne International Film Festival and had heard great things from those that did see the film. Pedro makes a living dancing in front of a webcam for unknown users. He undresses, dances and paints his body in neon colours. The film offers a similar tone to Sauvage, in that both protagonists are lost in a metropolis, yearning for connection and purpose. The film’s ending, however left me cold. Without giving too much away, I generally don’t like suicidal ideations being left unresolved in a film. The film’s momentary break from Pedro’s bleak world was quite unsatisfying for me. The film’s ambiguousness and its aesthetic consistently reminded me of a queer miniseries also set in Porto Alegre, O Ninho (The Nest), only for me to discover afterwards that both were directed by Matzembacher and Reolon! O Ninho also did the queer film festival circuit throughout 2016 and 2017.

I had previously seen Postcards from London (d. Steve McLean) at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and watching it again made me appreciate its distinct theatricality. The film is McLean’s first feature since his New Queer Cinema era title Postcards from America. The film uses a significantly camp style to tell a young man’s journey to London as he joins a group of high-class gay escorts. To meet the needs of his clients, Jim (Harris Dickinson from Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats) must learn all about Saint Sebastian, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The film’s re-creation of Caravaggio’s scenes are quite delightful. Beyond this, a lot of references fly thick and fast through this film yet not a lot is done with most of them beyond a veneer that this film is “witty”. Unfortunately, the film becomes incredibly incoherent towards the conclusion, which is a real shame. This incoherence results in the film losing its energy and I fear that the film doesn’t have much substance behind its surface wit.

When you read about a film billed as Knife+Heart is – a dreamy, French, Neo-Giallo, 1970s-set gay porn slasher starring Vanessa Paradis – you get excited. Again featuring M83 on the score – the band’s founder Anthony Gonzalez is the brother of director Yann Gonzalez – the increasingly surreal tone of the film is similar to Gonzalez’s previous film, Les Rencontres d’après minuit (You and the Night, 2013). I suspect many audience goers weren’t anticipating a film such as Knife+Heart as it is less about ‘70s era gay pornography and more about a stylised slasher film featuring a creepy bird. Vanessa Paradis’ Anne must balance this murderous rampage with her own personal dramas, that being the breakdown of her relationship with her lover and editor Loïs (Kate Moran). While gruesome in parts, the film focuses primarily on Anne’s investigation and increasing instability, marked by Gonzalez’s illusory form. For Alexandra Heller Nicholas, Gonzalez’s “practice is marked as much by a heavy, focused engagement with sensory provocation as it is mere storytelling.”4 This results in a film that privileges tone over tension; the slasher label is a bewitching ruse. Knife+Heart is a really exciting development in queer genre filmmaking.

Knife+Heart (Yann Gonzalez, 2018)

Lukas Dhont’s Girl is a film that I have struggled with. Dubbed “trans trauma porn” by some, 5, the film’s violent ending and voyeuristic fixation on the protagonist’s genitals detracts from the genuinely interesting topic of pushing one’s body to its limits. For Lara, her body exists in this strenuous liminal space, as she is pushing her body in two different directions. First, she begins Hormone Replacement Therapy to prepare for sex reassignment surgery. This is complicated by her arduous training as a ballerina, now shaping her body as a female ballet dancer after being raised as a male one. The glowing praise for the film from many cisgender critics does not match the discussions I have had with queer friends over this film. This troubling nature of the film extends beyond the casting of a cisgender actor in a trans role, as noted by a number of trans critics. 6Bloodied feet and genitals are the focus of the film, rather than, arguably, it offering any psychological insight. Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Oliver Whitney argues that the film sends an “inaccurate message that HRT will cause a trans person more agony” and that Dhont doesn’t frame the bloody conclusion as a “criticism of the healthcare system or even a regrettable tragedy, but … as an inevitable means of survival.”7 In a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter, Nora Monsecour, who is the inspiration for Dhont, defends the film, arguing that it is “not a representation of all transgender experiences, but rather a retelling of experiences that I faced during my journey.” 8Monsecour notes that while they consulted medical professionals for accuracy, the brutal conclusion is indeed fictional. If anything, the reception of this film demonstrates the need for the inclusion of more queer film critics in review aggregate sites in order to accurately convey a film’s reception.

Mezipatra is an excellently curated festival. Festival director Pavel Bicek and program director Sandra Hezinová, who was on the Teddy Jury for this year’s Berlinale, have a keen eye for art cinema. There was a lot to love in this program. The main international feature film competition was supported by the international short film competition, consisting of 31 short films. Winning this award was 23-minute Canadian film Pre-Drink (d. Marc-Antoine Lemire), which saw two friends – a cis boy and a trans girl – having a drink of wine before they head out to meet their friends for a night out. It’s a simple snapshot in the lives of two amiable characters. There was also a program of films that focused on redefining the concept of family, featuring notable queer titles travelling the film festival circuit, Anchor and Hope (d. Carlos Marques) and A Kid Like Jake (d. Silas Howard). Notable documentary titles included Game Girls (d. Alina Skrzeszewska) and Man Made (d. T Cooper). Retrospectives were the fantastic Pink Narcissus (d. James Bidgood), Bara no retsu (Funeral Parade of Roses, Toshio Matsumoto, 1969) and the romantic drama Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love, Lukas Moodysson, 1998).

Beyond the film program, the surrounding events tied neatly into the program’s theme of “Beyond Reality”. The opening night ‘Wildlife Party,’ followed the screening of L’animale.  The annual warehouse party Fata Morgana followed the screening of Neonboy complete with the neon paint seen in Pedro’s webcam dancing scenes. I discussed my research on queer film festivals over brunch and Birgit Bosold from the Schwules Museum in Berlin was a guest for a discussion on queer history in the populism era. Held upstairs at Patra cafe was the delightful Ouch on the Couch drag night. While the night was perhaps a little tamer than “Party Monster, the sex-filled Shortbus and the exquisite The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as evoked in the program guide, it was fantastic to see a strong drag culture in Prague.

Overall, my main impression of Mezipatra is based on three observations. First, there is a strong commitment to art cinema here. The films selected for the main competition, with perhaps the exception of Girl, are all taking contemporary queer cinema into interesting directions. Second, the audience is considerably young. Many arts festivals struggle with an ageing audience. Attendees I met at Mezipatra spoke of initially attending the peripheral parties, such as the Fata Morgana party before considering seeing films, which is an interesting reversal of many community festivals I have attended elsewhere. Finally, Prague is a beautiful city. The century old, art nouveau theatre Kino Lucerna surrounded by newly forged friendships is an experience I won’t soon forget.

Mezipatra Queer Film Festival
Prague 8-15 November 2018
Brno 16-23 November 2018
Festival website: http://www.mezipatra.cz/en/

Endnotes:

  1. Mezipatra Queer Film Festival. 2012. “Looking Back at the Past Years”, Accessed 14th December 2018.
  2. http://www.mezipatra.cz/en/2012-10-01-16-23-20/history/8-festival/8-looking-back-at-the-past-years.html.
  3. Stuart Richards, “Boy Erased is a safe and predictable take on the horrors of gay conversion”, The Conversation 24 October 2018.
  4. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, “Knife+Heart”, Alliance of Women Film Journalists, 2019. Accessed 4th March 2019.
  5. Matthew Rodriguez, “Netflix’s Girl is another example of Trans Trauma Porn and Should be Avoided at All Costs”, Into More, 4 October 2018.
  6. Tre’vell Anderson, “Netflix’s Girl is Dangerous and Doesn’t Deserve an Oscar”, Out, 4 December 2018; Cathy Brennan, “It’s winning awards, but Girl is no victory for trans representation”, BFI; Danielle Solzman, “Girl: Cisgender Male wins award for Transgender Role at Cannes”, Solzy at the Movies, 21 May 2018.
  7. Oliver Whitney, “Belgium’s Foreign-Language Oscar Submission, ‘Girl,’ Is a Danger to the Transgender CommunityHollywood Reporter, 4 December, 2018, para 7.
  8. Nora Monsecour, “Belgium Oscar Submission ‘Girl’ Is a “Message of Courage, Bravery And CompassionHollywood Reporter, 7 December 2018.

About The Author

Stuart Richards lectures in Screen Studies in the School of Creative Industries at the University of South Australia. His first monograph The Queer Film Festival: Politics and Popcorn is published as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s ‘Framing Film Festivals’ series. He has previously worked with both the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and The San Francisco Frameline International LGBTQ Film Festival. He is a member of the Australian Film Critics Association.