For every moment of outward celebration that comes in hitting the big birthday milestones, there’s a corresponding instance of internal examination as we reckon with the evolution we’ve undergone in the interim, with how the world around has changed, and we within it. That’s as much true of an institution as an individual, and it’s in that stopgap spirit that the 25th anniversary edition of the GAZE International LGBT Film Festival is pitched, surveying the difficult past behind and promising future ahead from the perspective of its hard-won present. “Obviously there is a huge historical element to the festival this year” notes festival programmer Roisin Geraghty of the challenging task of representing the remarkable growth of GAZE while forging ahead with its future. “You don’t want to kid yourself into a false sense of security, because you want it to be dynamic, you want it to be different every year.”
Like the queer experiences of and to which it hopes to speak, GAZE certainly has been across the course of its existence. Geraghty’s appointment to the programming role came in 2015, the same year Ireland voted to constitutionally enshrine marriage equality, and in so doing cement its transition from the conservative country into which the festival boldly stepped in 1992, when same-sex relations remained an illegal act. That astonishingly accelerated evolution in social conscience finds tribute in the festival’s opening night world premiere of The 34th, offering an inside perspective on the Yes Equality campaign that Geraghty highlights as a crucial reminder of how hard-won it all was. “It’s historical, but at the same time it shows how far Ireland has come even in that short period of time.” Equally attested by a “Queering in the Years” exhibit and panel discussion, examining LGBT representation in Irish media, the rapid development in the culture the festival addresses provides a profound point of retrospective reckoning at this milestone stage of its life.
“Our mission statement at GAZE is the power of LGBT stories and the power of the collective experience” Geraghty says, emphasising the ability of the festival environment to incite broader conversation. Its quarter-century of visibility has played no small part in fostering a dialogue about the inalienable; where political analysts have pointed to the power of personal narratives in making the case in 2015, it’s clear that the cinema screen has had and continues to have extraordinary potential for developing understandings. But for all the festival’s success in fronting its popular Irish shorts programme, which Geraghty has toured across festivals through the UK and North America, is there cause for concern at the relative dearth of queer content in Irish cinema outside the festival circuit? “I think it’s changing, in the last couple of years there have been some features – A Date for Mad Mary, Handsome Devil – they’re quite mainstream which I think is brilliant.”
As much as native talent may remain at the heart of the festival’s work, GAZE is steadfastly committed to presenting the plurality of queer experiences: “It’s important to get the balance of both, so obviously we want to screen a lot of films that portray how hard it is for LGBT people in certain countries.” With a programme that visits locations from South Africa and Iraq to Taiwan and the Philippines, Geraghty has curated an international outlook that eschews any complacency in celebrating domestic progress while there is yet so much to be done elsewhere. “It’s more difficult to find narrative films like that,” she says in discussing the surfeit of politically-minded non-fiction on offer, “it is easier to find that content, more global content in documentary form.” The concept of creative activism is clearly close to her heart, and thus too the festival’s; the “Flare Tactics” panel discussion is a cornerstone of GAZE’s determination to harness sentiment and continue to mobilise a worldwide movement.
Active engagement across such lines as nationality and sexual identity, for Geraghty, is as much if not more the festival’s purpose as exhibition alone. She highlights the “Looking Awry” panel, on bisexual representation on screen, as one of the key events over the festival weekend: “I think we’re all going to learn a lot – that’s one of the things I’m most excited about”. Is there a difficulty, as programmer, in offering proportional screen time in a media landscape where perhaps the L and G aspects of queer culture tend to take precedence? “Well it’s more difficult to find that B content, it’s just not out there as much, so that’s why I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding with the bisexual community and representations of bi on screen.” Despite the encouragingly increasing representation of trans characters on television, she laments the ongoing absence of that T experience in features; a retrospective screening of The Crying Game, she hopes, will help “skew the lens” in considering paths travelled, and yet to take.
There remains the difficulty, for the wider queer community as much as for GAZE itself in this anniversary year, of reconciling the celebration of diversity with the unwillingness to be defined exclusively in terms of sexual identity. “It’s funny,” Geraghty muses, “I love screening films where the character, they’re an LGBT character but that’s secondary to what’s going on in the film. The story is not about the fact that they’re LGBT, it’s there and it’s important and obviously we’re an LGBT festival and we want to present these stories but it’s so great when you see content that their sexuality is not an issue, they just happen to be gay.” Communicating this aspect of “the queer experience” while acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all “queer experience” to speak of is at once the defining challenge and the unique appeal of GAZE’s far-ranging programme. Could the festival that constituted radical representation in the not too distant past ever have imagined itself, 25 editions later, setting an agenda for the future in a society more open to, aware of, and interested in its niche? “It’s funny when you go to festivals,” Geraghty concludes with a smile, “people still think of Ireland as a really conservative country, and it’s nice to be able to go, no, we’re actually, things are changing a lot in Ireland – it gives me a lot of pride.”