The queer version of Cannes in Cardiff
Held in Cardiff each year, the Iris Prize is one of the world’s leading LGBTQ film festivals.
The 2018 festival will see 35 short films competing for the £30,000 prize. The films represent filmmakers from 20 different countries, with subjects including contemporary dance, brutal violence and challenging stories about gender.
I caught up with Berwyn Rowlands, Festival Director, for a behind-the-scenes at this year’s Iris Prize.
Why are LGBTQ film festivals like Iris important?
Representation is the key reason why LGBTQ film festivals continue to be important. It’s very difficult to challenge the fact that we’re seeing more representation of our communities in mainstream media - especially television where every soap must have a quota of gay characters - but this is not yet true of the film industry. The fact that the release of Love, Simon was such a big deal in 2018 says it all! Do we need more LGBTQ characters in movies, yes! Do we need more diversity within the movies, yes! This is where film festivals fit in. We’re a great place for the communities we represent to see themselves on a big screen.
Festivals are also important because we can also make a stand and be political with a small “p”. Taking for granted our liberties would be complacency on a grand scale - things change in the world very quickly, as we’ve witnessed this year in the US. As LGBTQ communities, we need to be able to talk and listen to each other. Social media is a powerful tool for communication, but it can funnel discussion into an echo chamber, where it’s difficult to listen and understand each other. Festivals like Iris continue to have a role as we offer people a chance to watch, talk, and listen in a safe environment.
With the availability of content online and streaming services, are LGBTQ film festivals still relevant?
Festival audiences are generally getting older, but most film festivals that are still relevant today will work with the other platforms to maintain and build their audience.
Well produced film festivals, with the right resources, offer something that streaming and online platforms can’t offer - direct access to the talent. You’ll meet directors, writers, producers, and actors if you come to Iris in October. This is fantastic for the audience, as it gives them an opportunity to engage directly with the film makers and ask questions, or simply take a selfie.
Festivals can also be a great way for the industry to meet and share experiences - the good and the bad - which will contribute to a sustainable LGBTQ film sector.
Each year the Iris festival seems to be becoming bigger - what’s driving interest in the festival?
The main reason I guess is the £30,000 cash prize to make a new short film sponsored by The Michael Bishop Foundation. I’d also like to think that it’s word of mouth. We look after our visiting film makers by offering hosted accommodation, a free festival pass, and daily lunch.
Cardiff is also a fabulous capital city - small enough to feel intimate, but with all the attractions you’d expect from a modern city. We always talk about the Iris Family, and over the years this has grown from the modest 1,500 admissions in 2017 to the 10,000 we’re expecting this year.
How is the festival evolving to reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ community and experience?
When we launched in 2006, the Iris Prize was focused on stories about sexuality - primarily gay and lesbian, bisexuality was invisible or just ignored. The main change since those early days has been the increase in trans visibility, which culminated in a name change in 2013 when we added “T” to “LGB”.
From what I can remember, the first trans film shortlisted for the Iris Prize was in 2013. This year we have almost more trans films than we do films by women or about women, with many of the trans stories being told by women.
Where do short films fit in the creative development of LGBTQ filmmakers?
I’ve always enjoyed watching short films and get quite angry when some just see them as a calling card on a journey to make a feature film. In the same way that some writers enjoy writing short stories, we have film makers who enjoy the short film form - a place to be experimental and challenge some of the norms of story-telling.
You’ll find more originality at Iris than in many a mainstream festival, because of the freedom that is afforded to short film makers. The digital revolution has also made it easier to create content - but that doesn’t make everybody a film maker!
If people can’t get to Cardiff to be part of the festival, is there any way to access some of the films that you’ve brought together in this showcase?
During 2019, we will be taking Iris on The Move to Newcastle, Llandudno Junction, Manchester, Brighton, and many other destinations across the UK with a programme of the best of Iris.
This year, working with Peccadillo Pictures, we’ll be making the short film programmes screened at the Cardiff Festival available online - in the UK only. The programs will be up for a month, allowing more people than ever before to see the short films in competition.
In the past, Peccadillo have also included many Iris Prize shortlisted films on their impressive Boys on Film DVD series. We’re committed to sharing our stories with as many people as possible, and 2019 will be the year when we will focus our resources on improving this area of our work.