Looking back over 2015, it has been a great year for gay cinema, and nowhere more evident than at this year’s Iris Film Festival, which was held in Cardiff.

With over 50 films, live entertainment, a bar, workshops, a youth conference, and an awards ceremony. It’s no surprise the slogan for the Iris Prize Film Festival this year was “Watch films, party nightly, repeat”. And there was certainly a lot of that going on. The festival is a showcase of fresh new LGBT cinema. 30 short films were competing for the Iris Prize of £30,000, allowing the winner to make a new short film in the UK. And there was certainly an impressive mix of work shown. Filmmakers used humour, drama, factual reporting, interviews, satire, animation, and even contemporary dance. There were also 10 films competing for Best of British Short, and several feature films.

The climax of the event was the Awards ceremony, hosted by Amy Lamé. This opened with a live performance by Lily Beau, singing the beautifully haunting song which had been used in the festival’s video montage.

This year, the Iris Prize was awarded to Arkasha Stevenson from the USA for ‘Vessels’ – about a transgender woman who gets silicone breast injections. Best of British Short was won by Lloyd Eyre-Morgan for ‘Closets’, which brings a young gay man from the 1980s together with another from contemporary times. It also won the Youth Jury Award for Best Short. Best Feature went to Andrew Nackman for the coming-out comedy ‘Fourth Man Out’; And performance awards went to Sigrid ten Napel for ‘Summer’, and Davide Capone for ‘Darker Than Midnight’.

The annual event has just celebrated its ninth year in Cardiff, and took place over five days. It’s a busy event, with two screens operating and very few empty seats. Yet despite that, there was a friendly and enthusiastic atmosphere throughout. Many of the directors were there to introduce their film or take part in Q&A sessions, and chat afterwards.

The festival is highly recommended and details can be found at the official website at http://www.irisprize.org/ . The dates for 2016 have been confirmed as 12 – 16th October, so book your tickets and see the best cinema that new, gay talent has to offer. Highlights of the film festival this year included:

VESSELS

USA/Arkasha Stevenson/15m

The story of a transgender woman called Diamond who has little money, and goes to get illegal silicone breast injections. But in this case low-cost beauty comes at a cost. This film is both gorgeous to look at, and hard to watch. The person who takes the money and administers the injections emerges from a cloud of cigarette smoke with talon-like green fingernails, like an exotic dragon or witch. The pain of the procedure was uncomfortably convincing, and I admit I watched this scene with my arms folded over my chest. The film is visually stunning, with a rich blue and blood-red colour palette, unsettling use of camera angles and lighting. And all the while, the imagery of the night-time traffic travelling through the busy roads like corpuscles in blood vessels. In short, this film is stunning.

IN THE HOLLOW

USA/Austin Bunn/15mThe true story of two young women who went hiking in the woods, and were shot by a homophobic man. The film has all the more impact because it is told by the surviving woman recounting the story in the present day, as she re-visits the actual site of the attack. This is intercut with scenes of a re-enactment. The end result is a powerful and moving piece of filmmaking.

THE LITTLE DEPUTY

Canada/Trevor Anderson/9m

A short but totally charming film about a young boy who goes to one of those Wild West themed photo studios with his father. When the photographer mistakenly offers him a red dress to wear, he corrects him and puts on a little deputy sheriff uniform and poses next to his Dad. As an adult, he decides to go back and re-create the portrait in a way that seems far more comfortable. The filming style is clever and witty, starting off like a home movie and ending up as a Wild West fantasy. This is both funny and hugely likeable, with a terrific punchline.

CLOSETS

UK/Lloyd Eyre-Morgan/18m

Winner of both Best of British Short and the Youth Prize. In 1986, a teenage boy likes to wear dresses and mime to Bette Midler and Cher. Humiliated by his mother and told, “You’re not right!” he seeks refuge in his wardrobe and considers ending it all. A flash of light transports him to 2016 where he meets a gay teenager living in the same room. Closets is an intelligently written and produced film that compares what it’s like being gay 30 years ago and today. Things may have moved on, but is everything rosey now? This is a thought-provoking film that puts serious points across with humour and just a little bit of sci-fi whimsy.

CHANCE

UK/Jake Graf/16m

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Trevor is suffering loneliness and depression after losing Doris, his wife and long-time companion. He regularly takes flowers to the park bench which bears a plaque in her memory. There he meets another man who is also troubled and lonely, a friendship starts to develop. Over time, mutual support and fondness blossom into something deeper, but will that be enough to overcome the barriers and allow both men to find happiness again? It’s a simple plot, but a wonderfully warm-hearted film. And it’s refreshing to see a love story where the characters are older men. You really do feel the characters’ pain, their love, and their happiness. It’s a very sweet little film that will bring a lump to your throat and a smile to your face.

PAPER THIN

UK/Nataly Lebouleux/20m

Here we have something totally different. A dark and sinister animation, about a young lesbian being forced to go through conversion therapy. The film takes a swipe at the religious justification behind this type of “purification”, and the ‘loving’ parents who think they know best. The unsettling nightmare-like style falls somewhere between Jan Svankmejer and David Lynch. It also brings in elements of 1950s sci-fi b-movies and horror, and the work as a whole is very disturbing to watch.

FOURTH MAN OUT

USA/Andrew Nackman/86m

Adam lives in small-town USA. He’s a car mechanic by day, and hangs out with his three best friends by night, having poker nights, watching the game together, and going to strip clubs. But for the last few years Adam has been keeping a secret, and he’s finally decided it’s time to open his closet and reveal the truth.Fourth Man Out tells the story from two different perspectives. The gay man coming out to his family and friends. And the straight buddies who have to try and accept this surprising new information. The script is warm and funny, with some brilliantly comic set pieces and an assortment of wonderfully weird characters. The ensemble cast does a great job making the characters believable, funny and immensely likeable. By the time the closing credits rolled, I wanted them all to be my friends too, even the ones I didn’t like at first. And I really didn’t want the film to end.

SCRUM

Australia/Poppy Stockell/54mI have a confession to make. As a person who groans at the mere mention of sport, I was not expecting to be very taken by a sports-related documentary film. But despite my reservations, I have to say it completely won me over. Amazing photography, GoPro camera sequences, high definition slow motion shots, and fascinating behind the scenes footage. All of this combined makes you feel you are actually there. Plus it challenges stereotype views of gay men. Poppy Stockell shows us an Australian gay rugby team preparing for the Bingham Cup. But rather than dwelling on the sport itself, she tells the story through the players. We learn about their backgrounds, their challenges, and their passion for the game. We feel their emotion, their pride and their humour. And above all, we see the importance of belonging and being accepted. Something you don’t need to be a sports person to understand. It’s an unexpected way to produce a sports documentary film, but I loved it. I found it touching, funny and inspiring. Ok, I might not be any the wiser on the rules of rugby, or feel any more tempted to get my shorts on and join in. But I have a heck of a lot more respect for those guys who do.

HOW TO WIN AT CHECKERS (EVERY TIME)

Thailand/USA/Indonesia/Josh Kim/80mWhen they turn 21, young men in Thailand are put forward for a lottery which decides which are drafted into military service. The draw is a major event with friends and family present, and the men have to pull a ticket from a pot which decides the next two years for them. On the day Oat has to go through this process, he recalls the story of when he was 11 years old and his brother Ek was in the same position. Ek’s boyfriend, Jai, came from a wealthy family who could afford to bribe the officials and keep him at home. But with both parents dead, Oat and Ek have to live with their aunt and rely on Ek as the main breadwinner. As we watch the day of the lottery approach for Ek, will he be selected? And if so, what will happen to Oat? Despite two of the main characters being in a same-sex relationship, the story is not specifically about homosexuality. It is only significant because it means both men will be up for the draft at the same time. In fact, people in the film are generally accepting of the gay and transgender characters. The story is more about relationships, and how they can be affected by issues like class and power. It’s about how people “do what they have to do” to survive. I’ll admit, The Hunger Games did go through my mind with the lottery scene, but that is the only similarity. This is a skillfully written and directed film, and the cinematography is gorgeous to look at. Oat is bright, resourceful and resilient, and the actor gives an impressive performance. In fact, the acting overall is superb in this. If you’re looking for a film that gives your emotions a workout, and sticks in your mind for days afterwards, this is well worth seeing.

SUMMER (ZOMER)

Netherlands/Colette Bothof/85mAnne is a 16 year old who lives in a village where nothing changes. Everyone knows everyone else, and outsiders are not welcomed. Old fashioned chauvinism, racism and homophobia are the norm. Anne has never felt she belonged until Lena arrives. Lena is different to everyone else there. She is confident, rides a motorbike, wears leather, and seems to know what she wants. Anne is immediately fascinated by her, and a passionate romance soon develops between them. Summer/Zomer is a beautifully shot coming-of-age film with a surprising soundtrack of upbeat songs. It represents that moment in someone’s life when they see things clearly for the first time, and everything changes forever, which will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt different or an outsider. It reassures you that things can change, and there is hope. Despite some incredibly dark parts to the story, this is overall an uplifting film that’s hard not to like.

by Martin David | @doubleagent73

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