Iris Prize 2021 – Beyond Carol

Lesbian.

Directed by Rosemary Baker and based on the poem by Lisa Luxx, Lesbian. is a poem about the word itself and the decades of toxic connotations it’s acquired, featuring a cast of real queer women (Luxx, Victoria Brown, Leilah-Jane King, Saima Razzaq, April Welsh), this is a fierce call to arms to reclaim it.

Short film is a perfect vehicle for bringing to life poetry, to give such well-written words a platform to connect on an even deeper level. What already began as a powerful poem, gets further enhanced with Rosemary Baker’s graceful, textured and colourful visual. The presence which Baker’s direction builds is impressive but it’s even more so when paired with the voice of Lisa Luxx.

Luxx gives a commanding performance, it walks the line of both being refined and perfectly down to earth. Similarly it balances being even toned and expressing the appropriate anger in response to the common homophobia all queer people have experienced at one point or another, whether directly or indirectly. Lesbian. creates a mix of poetry, performance and art piece, it has a compelling patter and pace, gripping throughout and leaves you still thinking of its meaningful message after the credits have rolled.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯✯| 10/10


Noor & Layla

Written and directed by Fawzia Mirza, five prayers coincide with five stages of a Muslim couple’s relationship, demystifying queerness in the Muslim community and religion in queerness. Starring: Sahar B. Agustin-Maleki and Nicole Nwokolo.

It’s entirely refreshing to see a queer story through the lens of religion which isn’t some blend of conversion therapy, Catholicism, Christianity or an abusive coming out experience. Not to mention that it’s still relatively rare in today’s film and television landscape to see Muslim characters in a natural, unforced setting. One where religious beliefs can be seen as a part of daily existence rather than debated, misused or, as is most typical, used a point of conflict. In that sense, what Fawzia Mirza has achieved here deserves a great deal of admiration. Mirza’s style of direction is also extremely well done, modern and stylish without trying to overextend itself.

However, when delving into it in the sense of a relationship themed short film, it does struggle in certain ways. Firstly in its decision to move on a reverse timeline, it’s an interesting idea but it’s also risky in that it’s not always conducive to connecting with its characters. You’re missing out on their romance until later, which prevents you from investing in the story. It also moves quite fast in the earlier stages, then slows down a lot, rather than having a smooth pacing throughout. It’s an element which is more tricky when exploring a very specific experience or perspective, such as this. It feels as though it needed to even out its timing to let all of its themes and personality land in the time that it has, missing out on a warmth or personal touch to its otherwise loving, if slightly chaotic, relationship.

Verdict: ✯✯✯| 6/10


En Ce Moment

Written and directed by Serena Vittorini, in March 2020, as Belgium went into lockdown, photographer Vittorini found herself sharing a house with Ophelie Masson, shortly after their relationship had begun. The disruption of the pandemic and the difficulties they face in communicating with one another make this an intimate self-portrait of two women thrown together by circumstance.

Couples being thrown together by lockdown is an experience which many people will be able to relate to. En Ce Moment is a brief, intimate window into the life of one such couple but instead of covering the boredom, frustration and inevitable arguments, it takes a more introspective view. It provides an unusually honest perspective, expressing genuine concerns about their relationship rather than frivolous disagreements. The story feels like a hybrid of drama and documentary, being clearly influenced by the personal experiences of Serena Vittorini.

Its visual style reflects well its natural openness, it’s raw and unfiltered, which has its advantages and disadvantages. It helps to push the film’s sincerity and honesty, it’s also an interesting choice to use an unusual ratio, which blends well into its intimate nature. However, it does hold a certain disconnected feel, its voice and visual don’t always seem to be working together, not quite managing to build a more impactful atmosphere, keeping you at arm’s length. Leaving it at a varying level of success but a strong concept to explore a modern relationship intensified by lockdown.

Verdict: ✯✯✯| 6/10


Are You Still Watching?

Written and directed by Tali Polichtuk, co-directed by Alex Cardy and Kitty Chrystal, in the midst of Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown, Jamie (Zoe Terakes) finds reprieve from the monotony of isolation through their imagination, sensuality and some help from iconic onscreen queer characters.

You can’t go wrong making a thirsty animated lesbian adventure including nods to Sarah Paulson and Cate Blanchett. What’s fascinating about this short is how it’s hyper sexualised and yet never becomes sleazy or cheap, it has a funny, warm personality which makes the comedy and sexuality of it work in tandem. The style of animation is excellently vibrant, the colours are in your face but instead of feeling obnoxious, it’s satisfying and energetic to watch.

It has a bluntness to it which is not brash but unwaveringly honest. Its filmmakers have ensured its relevance by not only relating on a level of isolation and worry through the pandemic, but also packing it to the brim with pop culture references. It only takes place over 6-minutes and wastes no time whatsoever, it’s highly entertaining, brilliantly animated and you’ll wish there was a ‘next episode’ button you could press when it ends.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯| 8/10


A Summer Place

Written and directed by Alexandra Matheou, Tina lives in Limassol which is now slowly becoming the oligarch paradise of the Mediterranean. Being both a player and a victim in this city transformation, Tina feels overwhelmed – until an extraordinary encounter changes her life. Starring: Mary Mina and Aurora Marion.

One of the most stand-out elements of this short film, is the superb quality of Alexandra Matheou’s shots which feel worthy of any feature, let alone a 20-minute short. The vibrancy, colour and detail Matheou and cinematographer Yorgos Rahmatoulin capture of their very well chosen locations, is superb and captivating to watch. It immediately builds an atmosphere which is generous, with a touch of curiosity. It fits perfectly to its story which is wonderfully understated, using minimal dialogue, subtle but clear.

Part of the success of its subtlety is through the performances by Mary Mina and Aurora Marion. Their chemistry is sweet, the flirtation is just enough to get across a sapphic vibe and the connection between them feels genuine. There’s both a lightness and a gravity to the story, it’s accessible in the way it deals with migration, it never tries to force the conversation but you can still easily receive its message.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯| 8/10


Duet

Written and directed by Shae Xu, an unspoken romance resurfaces when a high school music teacher meets a former colleague. After years of absence they perform together once more, the music expressing what can’t be said. Starring: Mingyi Zhang and Lipei Gao.

A long lost romance, particularly one that occurred behind closed doors, is always a good story to work through tension, pointed flirtation, resentment, regrets and jealousy. However, it doesn’t feel as this film capitalises on that potential. Choosing a black and white visual to befit its classical music and academic style setting implied a more subtle, tense story but what you receive is much more transparent or overt. Its atmosphere goes a touch heavy on the drama, everything is out on the table and there’s no lingering layers to delve into to intensify or solidify their relationship.

Unfortunately that then leads the style of direction and visual tone to feel as though it’s trying too hard and overplaying its hand. The performances have a similar feel, they’re hitting some clichés and the emotions are simply as expected, it also slightly plays into typical stereotypes of lesbian characters. There is a chemistry between Zhang and Gao but sadly it just comes across as something we’ve seen time and again, there’s no definitive or individual nature to it, other than adding the musical angle. The story is familiar and ever-relevant but the package it comes in struggles to set the right tone.

Verdict: ✯✯½ | 5/10


You can watch all these shorts as part of Iris Prize’s ‘Beyond Carol’ selection, available online until 31 October


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