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How Do We Get More LGBT Stories On The Screen? Some Thoughts From The BFI's Ben Roberts

Photo of Matthew Hammett Knott By Matthew Hammett Knott | /Bent March 31, 2014 at 10:55AM

The British Film Institute's Ben Roberts discusses how to get more LGBT stories to the screen.
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Judi Dench, quietly changing attitudes to LGBT people in "Philomena"
Judi Dench, quietly changing attitudes to LGBT people in "Philomena"

Yesterday night saw the close of BFI Flare, London's rebranded LGBT film festival. Earlier in the week we brought you our thoughts on why queer film festivals are still necessary, but since festivals can only be as good as the films they screen, we thought it would be interesting to consider queer film from a production perspective.

One man well-placed to do just that is Ben Roberts, the openly gay head of the BFI's Film Fund, which invests over £26 million of public money in feature film production, development and distribution every year. It's a potentially invaluable lifeline for LGBT film, given the commitment to diversity expected from a public funding body like the BFI. But what exactly is the Film Fund's approach, and how does it benefit LGBT filmmakers and their stories?

When I spoke to Roberts, our call was unfortunately coinciding with a screening of the latest cut of "Pride" - a film recently supported by the fund and starring Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton and Dominic West among others, which tells the story of a group of gay and lesbian activists who offer their support to some striking miners and their families in a homophobic Welsh village. The film has a gay writer but a straight director, and is not intended for a primarily gay audience. But, as Roberts explained, that is part of its appeal.

"Pride", like the Film Fund-backed "Philomena", is a real Trojan horse of a film

It's mainstream but it's teaching everyone tolerant values that you cannot argue with, and it's very emotionally engaging. It's really inspiring in terms of how it treats its LGBT themes. It's the same thing with "Philomena". The power of putting Judi Dench in that role - where she doesn't give two hoots about the sexuality of her son - on women of the same age who read the Mail is really quite incredible. It's like how when I came out to my folks, they were principally concerned with how similar characters who they identified with on The Archers had reacted. "That's OK. I can live with that. If Judi's fine, I'm fine".

Queer filmmakers are not going to be supported simply for being gay

Sometimes the best thing we can do is be agnostic towards the sexuality of the filmmaker as long as the stories are interesting. We would be very happy if a gay filmmaker's first film was gay, second film wasn't, third film was, fourth film wasn't, fifth film kind of was. I suppose the question is how are we supporting LGBT filmmakers who are wanting to tell stories that are incredibly personal and very much dealing with themselves and issues of representation.

But we're still just looking for the most interesting stories. Something that's levelled against filmmaking that's based purely on the sexuality of the characters is that it's not going to be that interesting to anyone, including lesbian and gay audiences. It still comes down to the question of what is your film about? What story are you telling? Is that interesting in its own right? The politics of it can be very present but we’re only supporting about twenty five films a year in production. You're alighting on films not because they are ticking a certain box but because they're compelling.

The BFI Film Fund's Ben Roberts
The BFI Film Fund's Ben Roberts

This is not always the case when it comes to LGBT-themed material

I would love us to find more, but actually we don't see that much that's really compelling. It's incredibly rare how often you find those pieces of writing that we get excited by. The majority of the stuff is fairly unambitious. They're achievable, they're affordable, they're written from a personal perspective. But they're kind of ordinary. They don't really have a character beyond mumblecore - a lot of walking and talking, dialogue-heavy, two handers which are dealing with a relationship between two characters. They might be relatively small in terms of locations, the kind of films you can shoot and self-finance, and that's just not what we're looking for. Are we really needed for that kind of film?