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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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He advises LGBT filmmakers to be more ambitious

Have your primary characters be lesbian, but broaden your palette. We don't really invest in microbudget filmmaking through the Film Fund, although we fund [microbudget schemes] iFeatures and Microwave, which funded "Lilting". Our budgets can still be under a million quid. But a lot of material doesn't need that kind of budget.

Something like "Weekend" did come to the film fund (before my time) and wasn't supported. "Lilting" was made through the Microwave scheme. Both those films, even on that small scale, are distinctive but perhaps through execution more than design. Often first films, whether they are LGBT or not, are just films demonstrating that a filmmaker has the ability to execute something very simple. And we can then come in and say OK, now broaden your horizons.

Not all filmmakers have the capacity to move beyond that personal, semi-autobiographical first film

80% or more of first-time filmmakers don't make another film, LGBT or not. It comes back to the idea that everyone has a story in them... but do they have more than one story? It's no surprise that Andrew Haigh is making his second film ["45 Years"] about something else completely. He is very talented and creative and imaginative and he’s been able to imagine something else.

Ben Whishaw in "Lilting"
Ben Whishaw in "Lilting"

Diversity may be best supported at the earliest possible stage

When I first arrived, I felt there was a little bit more frustration that we weren't doing enough than I sensed this week. We really are trying to identify those projects that we can support and hopefully that's becoming evident. It's just finding really great stuff is tough. Sometimes there is an expectation that we will be able, in one sweep, to determine what gets made and what doesn't. It's true to a degree, but we don't fully finance films, so it's not just down to us where the taste and appetite lies.

We should be helping people tell the best versions of their stories at the development stage. We can have some more rigorous targets in diversity at that end of the spectrum, when people are making shorts or developing their first features as screenplays. That's where I think we should be making sure we're not asleep at the wheel. What's sometimes understood as us being closed-minded is often actually oversight. It's at the seeding end where the filmmakers who are LGBT or identified as queer can be developed beyond their instincts to make a £50,000 microbudget film, and developing their storytelling and dialogue skills to apply beyond what they've had in their head for ten years.

He would love to discover a new Derek Jarman, but hasn't managed yet

The area I'm slightly more frustrated by is truly bold and somewhat more overtly queer filmmaking, that is really screaming its politics and its messages. I do feel that's very hard to find, possibly because no-one feels as much of a need to be so vociferous. We're always wishing for another Jarman and generally not meeting them. We see work that is aesthetically mirroring something but doesn't have the integrity of it. What are filmmakers compelled to say today versus when you were having to campaign against Section 28? There's a slight normalisation of a lot of scenarios.

But in terms of representation, what they support works both ways

When I look at our slate across the year, I would like to think there are enough films about women, enough films with BAME representation and enough with some kind of LGBT representation that feels truthful. Truthfulness is the other part of it. We are definitely filtering out those films that feel cliched or slightly fraudulent in terms of their characterisation. I think it's important that we are equally policing against those films. I've had several conversations with producers where I've called them out against a character that I think is offensive, and we have not funded stuff on that basis. And that's as important as what we fund.