Stories

Commodifying the Queer

By Young Film Critic Taylor Hess

"Do we need the banner, the label of 'queer,' or can the work just be shown, integrated throughout all the sections of a festival," asks Stephen Kent Jusick, festival director of MIX NYC. Jusick poses his question rhetorically because he, along with the seven other panelists in the 11th and final TigerPro discussion at IFFR, isn’t particularly interested in the answer so much as unpacking the challenges in how queer film and queer identity is commodified in today’s marketplace.

Tiger Pro Panel

"Commodifying the Queer," is the title and central theme of the 90-minute panel moderated by Madeleine Molyneaux and featuring IFFR’s CineMart director Benjamin Crotty, curator Pedro Marum, distributor Philippe Tasca, and filmmakers Martin Ester Bergsmark, Natasha Mendonca, K8 Hardy, and A. Liparoto. While they discuss and debate the purpose behind IFFR’s ID: gender(dot)net program and the effect of other queer programming in related art and cinema spheres, more questions surface — does the panel itself validate the binary of cinema versus queer cinema by engaging with and legitimizing the topic? How does the conversation around queer film condone or even perpetuate how it’s marginalized? When presented not just as a cinema genre, but also as the theme of a festival program or the topic of a panel, is queerness an exploitation of identity?

Engaged filmmakers with mixed feelings 

"I wanted to resist being on a gender panel," says Bombay-based filmmaker Natasha Mendonca. Her film, Strange Love, world premiered at IFFR and was supported by Rotterdam's Hubert Balls Fund. "We use genre in the marketplace in order to exploit or commodify, but I like to show my work in all contexts, not reduce it and put it only in one box," she says.

I'm always called upon to be the radical feminist lesbian

Being on the 'gender panel' was also loaded and complicated for New York-based K8 Hardy, who's in Rotterdam with the world premiere of her film Outfitumentary. Gender, feminism, queerness, and identity are all subjects in Hardy's work as an artist and filmmaker, and significant in how she found her community and audience in the beginning of her career. "But I'm always called upon to be the radical feminist lesbian," explains Hardy. "On one hand, it's great that we're here talking about it," she says. "But then, on the other hand, it can feel limiting for the content," she continues. "It's not that it's marginalizing, but it's minimizing."

Stamp of queerness

Whether it's important to draw a distinction between defining a filmmaker as queer and marketing a film in the industry as queer is unclear. But the stamp of queerness on Hardy as filmmaker and artist has served her to extent. "I guess I do want to commodify myself if that could help make me money," says Hardy. "Even though I feel like I'm actually pretty good at commodifying myself, but I don't know how to make money," she laughs. Representing a sub-genre as an artist who works on the margins, who's provocative and alternative is perhaps less problematic for Hardy than pegging or commodifying her film in a sub-genre. "It's minimizing to be read through the context of female-ness or queer-ness for the actual work itself…" she trails off. "It's obviously super complicated."

an anti-state fuck you, basically

"It's very boring," says Mendonca. "We need to open our minds to accommodate all colors and genders in the discussion." Mendonca started the first international film festival on gender and sexuality in India, but has resisted from calling it a queer festival. It was only labeled as such because of the LGBTQ content in many of the films in the program. "Intersectionality with disability rights, childhood sexuality, concepts of masculinity, everything really was included in what the festival stood for," she says; "an anti-state fuck you, basically."

Stay on the margins without being marginalized

This sort of anti-state, anti-norm, anti-culture is what’s important according to Jusick, "as someone who still believes in reaching people through the underground," he says. Queer cinema has yet to fold into the "mainstream lame-stream," says Jusick; "and that's fine for me. The most important thing is for people to do the work they want to do," he continues. "I think of commodification as when work isn't presented in the way it's intended."

So the ultimate challenge for the filmmakers, it seems, is how to stay on the margins without being marginalized. The ultimate challenge for the rest of us, I think, is to provide boundaries with space for the margins.