The closing-night film of this year’s Chennai International Queer Film Festival is about marginalised groups, but not in the way you expect.
It’s probably best to hear the story from the man who wrote it. In a Guardian interview, screenwriter Stephen Beresford recalled a meeting with film producer David Livingstone in September 2010. Livingstone asked, “Is there any story you are burning to write?” As it turned out, there was one, about miners in the Dulais valley in South Wales who were caught up in the longest strike in British history – it began on 5 March 1984 and lasted until 3 March 1985. Margaret Thatcher’s government, determined to slash subsidies to loss-making industries (and simultaneously diminish the power and influence of trade unions), announced that 20 coal pits were to close. The result? Several locally organised strikes – after all, 20,000 jobs were lost. The strike then went national, headed by the National Union of Mineworkers. In short, all the makings of an impassioned on-screen drama.
But this is just the background of the story Beresford wanted to tell. What interested him, really, was the source of the largest donation (£11,000 by December 1984) to the miners’ cause: a group that called itself Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). The film that Beresford wrote, and Matthew Warchus eventually directed, is called Pride – it’s about this stranger-than-fiction teaming-up. Beresford knows that the first question on our minds is: “Why?” The answer comes from the protagonist, Mark Ashton, a gay man who’s the self-appointed leader of LGSM. When invited to Dulais, Ashton goes up on stage before the bewildered miners and says, “We’ve been through some of the things you’ve been through.” Later, he adds, “What’s the point of supporting gay rights and not anyone else’s rights?” He knows what it’s like to be marginalised, to be persecuted by the government. He knows what it’s like to be picked on by cops and the tabloids. He knows what it’s like to fight for rights. Now, he’s recognising another fight for rights.
Pride, which was released in 2014, is having its India premiere today at Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival 2015. I was invited to a press screening last week and, after the moist-eyed end, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film received a standing ovation at its Cannes premiere. It went on to win the Queer Palm award, an independently sponsored prize for LGBT-relevant films among the entries playing in and out of competition at the festival. Pride is certainly more crowd-pleasing than the previous year’s winner, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, which features graphic sex and a pessimistic worldview. I’m not comparing the two films. I’m just saying that we need (and need to recognise) films that exist across the spectrum of human experience.
The best LGBT-themed films I’ve seen recently have all been a little dark, a little doomy. There was Stranger by the Lake, in which a man seeks a relationship with a hunk who may be a serial killer. There was the astounding Blue Is the Warmest Colour, which got a lot of attention for its sex scenes but is more about laying bare the psyches of two girls who tumble into a relationship. Then there was Weekend, another superb dissection – this time, a male couple – of a relationship that comes with a very short expiry date. Pride, in comparison, is like a few dozen rays of sunshine – which isn’t to say it’s completely free of gloom. There is, of course, the fate of the miners, who are dismayed, at first, at being “backed up by perverts.” Then there’s the time frame, the early 1980s. AIDS was beginning to make its presence felt, further marginalising the marginalised. An unsympathetic character in the film dubs it “Anally Injected Death Sentence.”
But the overall mood is that of a rom-com. Despite all the “Better Blatant Than Latent” banners, Beresford makes sure not to exclude mainstream viewers. There’s no sex. There are comforting clichés about the gay man’s inability to keep still in the face of disco music. There’s even one of those scenes where one person gets up and begins to sing an anthem, and slowly, others get up and join in… Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too! Could Pride have been pricklier, more political? Perhaps. But then, it might not have been so audience-friendly, and sometimes, as Mary Poppins wisely said, a spoonful of sugar can help the medicine go down. And the patients aren’t always gays and lesbians and miners. They’re the people under these labels – the man who hasn’t spoken to his mother in 16 years; the student who fears coming out; the activist who needs to learn that activism cannot define his life. The advice he gets was, for me, the film’s most poignant moment: “Don’t give it all to the fight. Save some for home.”
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