Queer Screen 2020: Right Now’s Top Picks

By David Branigan and Samaya Borom
Courtesy of Queer Screen

Queer Screen is back! But, this year, it was online.

Queer Screen is a world-renowned film festival, regarded as one of the most significant platforms for LGBTQI+ filmmakers to showcase their important work.

Below are reviews of just a few of the wonderful films Queer Screen 2020 presented.


Welcome to Chechnya

Directed by David France

Reviewed by Samaya Borom

It is so dangerous to identify as LGBTQI+ in Chechnya that those willing to take part in David France’s documentary Welcome to Chechnya needed to have their identities digitally altered, through the use of artificial intelligence and visual technologies. The crew also resorted to the use of phones, hidden cameras and other media devices to ensure that they were not brought to the attention of Chechen authorities. 

France’s film follows activists, such as David Isteev and Olga Baranova, who formed part of a network that assisted people caught up in the “gay purges” that occurred in the Chechen Republic, in the south-west of Russia between February and April 2017.

During this time there were reports of the authorities torturing, detaining, disappearing and killing members of the gay community, sometimes imploring family members to kill their children and siblings to eradicate homosexuality and send a message about perceived Chechen values and morals. A predominately Muslim society, homosexuality is viewed as an affront to those in power, particularly the police and security officials.

Advocacy groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, called the Chechen officials out for their discrimination and use of torture against the LGBTQI+ community.

The documentary features interviews with Isteev, Baranova and others about their involvement in trying to save hundreds of people from being tortured or killed – despite the great danger this posed.

No one was immune from the purge; in some instances entire families needed assistance due to the threat of extermination by authorities, effectively turning them into asylum seekers. The film also mentioned the disappearance of a famous Chechen singer, Zelim Bakaev, who went missing after attending his sister’s wedding in the capital Grozny. The purge clearly crossed all levels of society.

Welcome to Chechnya is a must watch film. It is essential not only for shining a light on the horrors of the purge, the continual discrimination and mortal danger of the LGBTQI+ community in the Chechen Republic, but also for it’s use of AI which allows for their story to be authentically told – in the hope that it brings international awareness and advocacy for change in the country.

Surviving the Silence

Directed by Cindy L. Abel

Reviewed by Samaya Borom

Cindy L. Abel’s Surviving the Silence is a fascinating documentary about courage and what it takes to live one’s truth – at the risk of everything that an individual has worked so hard for. 

We follow the story of Colonel Pat Thompson, a career Army nurse in the US military who was asked to preside over a controversial trial that discharged Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer from service – due to the fact that she was a lesbian. Unbeknownst to the military at the time, Thompson was also a lesbian and was living with her long-time partner Barbara Brass. 

At its heart, this film is a love story where we are given a glimpse of how strong Thompson and Brass’ relationship is. This was achieve through interviews and a re-telling of how they both ended up having to shelter that love in order to protect it, particularly during tumultuous times when being part of the LGBTQI+ community was dangerous for those wanting to serve their country in the military. 

Interspersed with archival footage and considered animations, the film constructs a narrative around how service to one’s country and service to one’s self was often conflicting as well as where changes needed to be steadfastly fought for in order to allow people to be themselves in a military setting.

The film is all the more important at a time when LGBTQI+ provisions are being actively wound back in the US and should illuminate the ability for the military to follow the path of inclusion, rather than exclusion.

Breaking Fast

Directed by Mike Mosallam

Reviewed by David Branigan

Breaking Fast is an earnest and aspirational bourgeois post-queer rom-com. The film weaves pleasantly through dominant pop culture tropes and narrative paths well-travelled, en route to a third act subversive enough to grapple with faith, logical and biological family ties, closets of the self and homonormativity.

The romantic and spiritual fate of a gay, Muslim doctor, Mo, is never really in doubt from the moment his Paul Rudd-ish white knight appears and romance blossoms chastely in and around Ramadan. Writer and director Mike Mosallam foregrounds representation and culturally embedded assumptions through his quasi-autobiographical proxy, and the love interest serves as much to highlight the tension between individual and universal freedoms as the charms of facial symmetry. Mosallam fleshes out the meet-cute by revealing this outsider as more receptive and attuned to the Muslim experience than Mo expects, neatly unpacking fear of the unknown and rigid orthodoxy.

What one character refers to as “the Gayrab family” is similarly shown as both open-minded and constantly ready to offer up a weary but enthusiastic self-defence. Mo is self-consciously ruffled and acerbic in a way that seems to reference Torch Song Trilogy auteur Harvey Fierstein’s voice, in the phrasing of Mo’s often imperially frustrated dialogue and its “we’re all just after love and acceptance” messaging.

Mo’s seeming outsider status in the gay world positions him as a comic foil. The script captures the anodyne gay utopia of West Hollywood and cis-gendered white gay male vanity, privilege and misogyny with an acuity that the central narrative at times lacks, precisely because it’s at such pains to valorise his supportive family and faith.

The teasing out of the question “Your Islam allows you to be gay?” also feels somewhat schematic and idealised, perhaps necessarily in a form that rarely denies a happy-ever-after and a lesson or two in humility. But Breaking Fast recolonises this formal comfort with a culturally specific and gentle humour that offers a palatable corrective to casual and cultural racism and the erasure of diverse queer bodies and voices.

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