From Anamarija Horvat (University of Nottingham), a playlist of films and television programmes that have contributed to the formation of queer memory, shaping how viewers imagine queer history and the past of the LGBTQ rights struggle.
Queer Memory on Screen
In 2021, Scotland became the first country in the United Kingdom to make mandatory the teaching of LGBTI history in schools. While positive, this development brings to the fore precisely how rare learning about queer histories is, and how common the absence of such knowledge is. Perhaps prompted by this absence, queer cinema and television have for decades engaged with the question of queer historicity, with a particular proliferation of such works happening in recent years. In my new book Screening Queer Memory: LGBTQ Pasts in Contemporary Film and Television (Bloomsbury, 2021), I look at how these media have both commented on and participated in the creation of queer memory, shaping how viewers imagine queer history and the past of the LGBTQ rights struggle.
In this list, I look at some works with which Screening Queer Memory deals, as well as other films and series which offer interesting examples of how makers of filmmakers have engaged with queer histories. This list is by no means exhaustive, as the ‘memory boom’ in contemporary queer cinema and television can be seen in works as different as Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), Rocketman (2019), Ammonite (2020) and It’s a Sin (2021). Rather, it is meant to illustrate some of the different ways in which queer fiction film and television have engaged with the subject of memory, variously commenting on its absence, its unsaid presences and the question of queer historicity more broadly.
Caravaggio – Derek Jarman (UK, 1986)
Any list dealing with how queer cinema has thematised gay historicity and the LGBTQ past would be incomplete without mentioning the oeuvre of Derek Jarman, whose deliberately anachronistic filmography pre-empted the explorations of queer memory seen in New Queer Cinema classics such as Looking for Langston (1989), The Hours and Times (1991) and Swoon (1992). About Caravaggio, Jarman himself commented that ‘people tend to think that history is immutable, that there is something called reality. Reality is what interests me – that image of reality in Caravaggio. Why is a Ken Loach film more real than a Ken Russell film? … People say ‘reality’, but what they forget is that the streets they walk through come out of people’s imagination, and are not real in that sense.’ It is precisely Jarman’s emphasis on the mutability of history, and his subversion of the notion of reality that makes Caravaggio a particularly interesting text with respect to queer filmic memory, and the question of whether the past can ever be accurately represented. The film can be seen as part of a BFI subscription.
Another Way / Egymásra nézve – Karoly Makk (Hungary, 1982)
With the recent passing of a law banning any pro-LGBT content in Hungarian schools, looking back at Karoly Makk’s Another Way (1982) serves as a good example of Hungarian filmmaking which condemned both homophobic and political repression, doing so through a revisiting of Hungary’s own political history. Set during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the film depicts a love affair between two women, implicitly aligning the oppression experienced by its heroines with the political repression of Hungary by the USSR and bringing together questions of national and lesbian memory. In this sense, it serves as an interesting example of how cinema can decentre heteropatriarchal conceptualisations of national history, instead presenting a queerer vision of the past. The film can be streamed here.
Velvet Goldmine – Todd Haynes (UK & USA, 1998)
Made by one of New Queer Cinema’s foremost directors, Velvet Goldmine reimagines the glam rock era and its own fictionalised version of David Bowie (aka Brian Slade, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers). While it centres around an ostensibly simple plot of a journalist (Christian Bale) tracking down a long-lost rock singer, the film blurs the distinction between star and fan, instead presenting a vision of the past in which the line between imagination and reality becomes anything but clear cut. Through its emphasis on fan fantasy and fan memory, Velvet Goldmine’s unique depiction of the glam rock era and its exploration of bisexuality and androgyny focuses not on what this period was actually like, but what it felt like to be immersed in its music and its stars. Plus, the music is excellent too. The film can be accessed on Amazon Prime.
The Watermelon Woman – Cherly Dunye (USA, 1996)
Dunye’s mock-documentary was the first feature length film made by a black lesbian filmmaker to be screened in US cinemas. More than twenty years since its release, it still stands as a rare filmic exploration of how the legacies of queer black women are deliberately buried and misremembered. Like Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, The Watermelon Woman also centres on a fictional celebrity, this time exploring a young filmmaker’s search for the mysterious ‘Watermelon Woman’ (Lisa Marie Bronson), an actor she later discovers was herself queer. The film also questions the link between filmic misrepresentation and interracial relationships, mirroring Cherly’s romance with the white Diana (Guinevere Turner) with the Watermelon Woman’s own romantic history with a fictionalised version of Dorothy Arzner (Aleksandra Juhasz). In raising questions of black queer memory and interracial relationships, it echoes the concerns of Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989) and The Attendant (1993), and Rodney Evans Brother to Brother (2004). You can watch it here.
Transparent – Joey Soloway (USA, 2014 – 2019)
Questions of transgender memory, trauma and forgetting lie at the heart of Joey Soloway’s Transparent, which begins when the retired Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) comes out to her adult children as transgender. As both Maura and her children look forward, Transparent examines the buried transgender legacies of their family, going as far as Weimar Germany and Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexology in its second season, and depicting the persecution of their transgender great-aunt Gittel (Hari Nef) by the SS. In looking back at both the past of its central characters and the past of sexology, Transparent serves as a poignant example of how contemporary queer television has tackled the subjects of familial trauma and memory. It can be streamed on Amazon Prime.
Veneno – Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo (Spain, 2020)
Veneno tracks the life and death of Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, a Spanish transgender celebrity who shot to fame during the 1990s. While the media of her day frequently depicted Veneno herself in objectifying and dehumanising terms, the series revisits such representation through a much more sympathetic approach, instead thematising issues like transphobia, sex-work and Veneno’s incarceration in an all-male prison. The series is led by three trans actresses (Daniela Santiago, Isabel Torres and Jedet) who embody Veneno during different points of her life. It received a huge amount of critical praise in its native Spain, with the then-vice president Pablo Iglesias tweeting his support of the series, and a memorial plaque to La Veneno herself again being installed in Madrid’s Parque del Oeste after its original had been vandalised and stolen in 2019. While not yet available for streaming in the UK, Spanish-speakers can access the series here and it can be found with English subtitles via HBO Max in the USA.
London Spy – Tom Robb Smith (UK, 2015)
Centring on an intergenerational friendship between two gay men, the younger Danny (Ben Whishaw) and older Scottie (Jim Broadbent), the BBC’s London Spy utilises its spy narrative to engage with issues such as media misrepresentation and queer historicity. Through mirroring recent events such as MI6 Mathematician Gareth Williams’s tragic death and the subsequent sensationalistic media coverage of his personal life and sexuality, as well as with engaging with seropositive histories and the persistence of discrimination towards HIV-positive queers, the series serves as an interesting example for the ways in which contemporary queer television is addressing questions of generationality and memory. An especially prominent homage to Derek Jarman’s seminar film Blue (1993) also appears, drawing a link between queer cinema’s depiction of seropositive histories and its own televisual present. You can watch London Spy here.
The Handmaiden / 아가씨 – Park Chan Wook (South Korea, 2016)
In this highly-stylised adaptation of Sarah Waters’ much-loved novel Fingersmith, Park Chan Wook transports the book’s central lesbian couple from Victorian England into Japanese-occupied Korea. This change in scenery functions as more than set-dressing, instead thematising histories of heteropatriarchal oppression and sexual subjugation through a focus on the Japanese occupation. Like Karoly Makk’s Another Way, The Handmaiden is another interesting example of how cinema has mobilised questions of national history and trauma through focusing on queer protagonists, therein resignifying its narrative away from a focus on heteropatriarchal positionality as the only valid national subject through which to explore the past. While the film has been criticised for the male gaze it brings to its explicit depictions of lesbian sex, the ways it engages with lesbian positionality, heterosexism and Korean national history are nonetheless very much worth engaging with. You can watch it as part of a Netflix subscription.
Pose – Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals (USA, 2018 – 2021)
Pose is the first American television series to focus on an ensemble cast of mainly trans queers of colour, and it is thus interesting that it is also a show set in the past, looking back at the HIV epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. Taking the mantle from Jenny Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990), Pose is set in a fictionalised version of the queer ballroom subculture, tracking the young Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) as she works to create her own House and become one of ballroom’s most celebrated figures. Whilst Pose looks at subjects such as transphobia and the effects of AIDS on the queer community, it nonetheless takes a resolutely celebratory and joyful approach to its central characters, highlighting the importance of the chosen families and community spaces they created. Of particular interest is also the show’s depiction of ACT UP in its second season, therein marking a rare example of the activist labour of queer communities of colour being commemorated on television. Pose can be seen on Netflix and the BBC.
Pride – Matthew Warchus (UK, 2014)
Described by its director as a romantic comedy between queer activists and striking miners, Pride tells the story of how activist organisation Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) worked to support the miners of the Welsh city of Dulais during the 1984-1985 Strike. Resoundingly upbeat and feel-good in its approach, Pride brought the legacy of LGSM’s activism out of obscurity (with even the film’s screenwriter having not believed the story prior to writing the film) and has since become an instant classic both among queer and mining communities, inspiring activist groups like Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants in the UK to Lesbians and Gays Support the Dockers in Norway. A celebration of queer solidarity, you can watch it here.
Anamarija Horvat is a researcher in film and television studies, queer theory, and gender studies. She has published on subjects including LGBTQ memory, intersectionality, and queer migration in contemporary television, with her work appearing in journals such as Feminist Media Studies and Critical Studies in Television, as well as in The International Encyclopaedia of Gender, Media and Communication and The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Queer Studies and Communication. She was a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, and is co-founder of the Queer Screens Network and co-chair of the NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies) Queer and Feminist Workgroup.