Mezipatra Queer Film Festival that tours Prague, Brno and other cities in the Czech Republic. One of the few queer film festivals in the former East Bloc that has kept an annual presence since its beginning, but not without occasional skirmishes with municipal councilors. The bullet holes are a part of the poster, which represents and anticipates a target.
Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival is held in the city of Miami Beach (facing mainland Miami) in and among the historic, festive Art Deco district of South Beach. The festival is particularly attentive to the history and struggle for LGBT rights in the “sunshine state” of Florida. Films critical of anti-gay crusader and Floridan Anita Bryant are particularly well received.
Merlinka - named after a famous Belgrade drag queen, this festival struggles annually.
Merlinka rainbow pieta. The intended meaning of the international rainbow motif, a shibboleth of sorts, might be invisible to those outside of the LGBT scenes. Alternatively, if understood, the poster might incite vitriolic charges from the social and religious right in Serbia.
Ljubljana (in Slovenia, formerly Yugoslavia) holds the longest running LGBT film festival in Europe. In Communist Yugoslavia the city of Ljubljana was a gay destination. A northern city with very liberal mores, out of which grew the festival itself. Since the capitalist turn liberal culture, including the festival, had to contend through the 1990s with growing parochialism and macho-defensive nationalism.
San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, the world's longest running since 1976 with a program of super-8 films by local filmmakers, who spent a lot of time milling about Harvey Milk's camera shop where they had their films developed.
John Greyson's Covered was a poetic response to filmmaker's witnessing of the attacks himself. Click here to see Covered on Vimeo.
While lesbian and gay film festivals [open endnotes in new window] have spread unevenly around the world since the late 1970s, the very idea of such a festival taking place in any given city can prompt a wide range of responses, from polite liberal indifference to brutal reactionary violence. In this article I mobilize Foucault’s concept of heterotopia as a type of probe, heuristic in part, to open up the complexity of what a festival may be but also, more specifically, to determine how sexual identity and community mark and distinguish such festivals from others. The term heterotopia itself has no connection to sexuality per se. Rather it is intended to capture the sense of those radically heterogeneous spaces, spaces of difference that lay figuratively and sometimes literally at the edges of society, its built spaces and its norms, as discussed in more detail below. Furthermore, in this paper, I argue in favor of an articulation of the unique space of the lesbian and gay film and video festival through Foucault’s heterotopia and suggest a felicitous relation to gay space and the act of queering space. Without doubt, any type of festival may be studied through the heterotopic notion of space; however lesbian and gay film festivals set themselves off from the rest on account of their unique theme and constellation of issues. While a few scholars have mentioned the relation between heterotopia and film festivals (e.g. Stringer, 31), none has worked the concept through any particular type.
It is no secret that these festivals, among others, have become important cultural and economic features in most cities in the world, as each city individually chases the tourist dollar and follows the optimistic recipe for becoming a “creative” or “global” city. Until the early 1990s, however, many distributors and filmmakers shunned lesbian and gay film festivals in fear that such association would work against their careers. The early 1990s brought a wave of exciting films that were grouped under the rubric of the “new queer cinema,” which were in part celebrated for their capacity to appeal to audiences beyond the LGBT community as a “crossover” film. The 1990s also brought with it the rise of the gay niche or pink dollar that was aggressively courted by marketers in North America, Australia and Western Europe. Until this period of transition in the 1990s, the stigma of the festivals was to be avoided at all costs.
Let’s now turn to Foucault’s heterotopia and work through the six characteristics as they apply to LGBT film festivals, with consideration of what pressing questions they might pose. The application of Foucault’s concept of heterotopia to LGBT film festivals contributes significantly to a deeper understanding of the festivals themselves as events. Written in 1967, the essay Des Espaces autres (translated as Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias, 1986) falls into Foucault’s early period, before the pivotal May 1968, and serves as a snapshot of Foucault’s intellectual concerns and positions. Specifically, here his concept of heterotopia may be situated in dialogue with other French philosophers of the time, such as Gaston Bachelard, Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau and Guy Debord, among others. The term heterotopia (and its cognate heterotopology) itself in English is a neologism from the French hétérotopie, distinguishing itself from utopie and etymologically stemming from the Ancient Greek heteros (other or different) and topos (place). Similarly, Lefebvre coined isotopia; de Certeau has his heterology. All of these take utopia as their model neologism and aim to supplement or exceed it. As it is commonly known, utopia has its own deliberate ambivalent etymology, as sketched by Thomas More from the Ancient Greek, namely ou–topia (outopeía) for no place or nowhere, as well as eu–topia (eutopeía) for beautiful or good place. It is from the translation into Latin that the Greek prefixes are reduced to the single ‘u,’ thereby setting the two possible meanings and places into tension in the single word.
Leading up to his concept of heterotopia, Foucault sketches a brief history of concepts of space according to specific historical epochs. The highly hierarchical medieval space is that of emplacement, which Galileo dissolved when he posited the scandalous “infinitely open space” or extension. In contrast to the 19th century and its emphasis on history and time, our epoch considers space through the concept of the site. Briefly, general concepts of space in the West, then, have moved from the Medieval ‘emplacement’ to Renaissance ‘extension’ to 19th century ‘teleological history’ to the modern ‘site.’ Foucault defines the site through “relations of proximity between points or elements,” e.g. series, grids or trees (23). He states that
Unlike time, Foucault claims that “contemporary space is perhaps still not entirely desanctified,” but still carries with it the oppositions of private and public space, family and social space, cultural and useful space, as well as leisure and work space. According to Foucault, the constancy of those oppositions hints at the hidden presence of the sacred. The contemporary space of sites for Foucault is strongly heterogeneous, not an infinite homogenous void waiting to be filled.
Between utopia and heterotopia, Foucault positions the figure of the mirror. The hybrid experience of the mirror is both utopic and heterotopic. Its utopic aspect as a “placeless place” enables the subject to see herself in a place where she is not; but it also has a heterotopic aspect in as much as the mirror exists in reality. Foucault writes,
Foucault is strictly using the mirror here as a figure, an illustration, and should not be confused with French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage in human development (cf. Lacan 1977).
Heterotopia richly articulates the space of the cultural formation of the lesbian and gay film festival. Foucault’s mirror posits a utopic placelessness, an ideal beautiful place. The figure of the mirror, which I am taking here as a institutional metaphor, resonates well with the experience of community-oriented lesbian and gay film festivals. There viewers experience a similar play of presence and absence at any community-designated event, specifically in the screenings, waiting in line, and so forth, through the fleeting mechanisms of recognition of resemblances, empathy, identification, repulsion, disidentification, and so on. Moreover, the films, as selected and sequenced into programs, and notion(s) of community underlying the festival itself, together produce complicated experiential chains of familiarity and difference, according to such categories as habitus, gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual identification. In short, the festival itself takes place as an event with a limited duration across a constellation of sites and festival-goers that actively produce and perform this heterotopic space.
Foucault lays out six general principles that together constitute his theory of heterotopia:
Heterotopias can be found in every culture, in a sense expressing the culture’s utopian impulse by creating these “other spaces” and imposing them; they have two general categories: the crisis and the deviant (24 f.). (a) Crisis heterotopias are reserved for individuals in a state of crisis in relation to the ground of society, e.g. rites of passage for adolescents, the aged, pregnant women. (b) Deviant heterotopias are “those in which individuals, whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm, are placed,” e.g. psychiatric wards, prisons, and even retirement homes.
One could say that, historically, the origin of lesbian and gay film festivals stems from a culture of sexual deviation or deviance, within the larger context of gay liberation and lesbian feminism, both certainly contestations of various societal norms and laws regarding sexuality, gender, the private-public divide, among others. Moreover, LGBT community action has developed its own institutions of crisis and heterotopias within the larger deviant, queer framework, such as formal community center, as well as the refuge spaces of the bar, club, bathhouse, and nighttime cruising parks, coming out groups, shelters for youth, to name a few resilient practices.
The vibrant cultural space of the carnival, according to Bakhtin, offers the possibility of social unruliness and limited rebellion but always within the constraints set by some larger authority that permits it to take place. Important to note is the concessionary aspect of the act of permission on the part of the state. The carnival as event does not simply happen but is granted permission by some higher authority. What does it mean when permission is denied or revoked in the case of certain lesbian and gay film festivals? Such film festivals everywhere have unruly pasts, faced protests from religious and populist rightwing political groups, and had their public funding threatened at the whim of municipal, regional or national politicians and granting agencies. While these actions usually remain within the public sphere’s basic accepted rules of conduct, other actions against the festivals move beyond such rules.
Responses to particular festivals around the world can and have been remarkably more severe, as the process of globalization continues (Appadurai 1990; Binnie 2004). In 1997, for example, the South Korean military intervened to restrain the opening of the first Seoul Queer Film and Video Festival on the Yonsei University campus (Kim 1998). Soyoung Kim suggests that, in view of having been shamed in the eyes of the Western media, South Korean authorities reversed their decision later and allowed this festival, among others, to take place subsequently without incident in order to save face as a nation seeking positive international recognition on the world stage. Since then, the festival has operated without major incident (Kim 2007).
Much more brutal attempts to quash such festivals have occurred more recently, particularly the 2008 first editions of the Queer Sarajevo Festival in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Merlinka in Belgrade, Serbia, as well as the “Bok o Bok” (translated as “Side by Side” in English) Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
In the Sarajevo case, the festival was imprudently scheduled to take place during Ramadan and extensively vilified in the local press as a foreign perversion (Kajinic 2010; Beneteau 2008). Both local and foreign organizers were beaten by angry men with clubs, chanting religious phrases and homophobic insults, as these violent protestors forced their way through the police line into the opening screening. Two documentary films were made on the event: the complex, layered Covered (2009) by Canadian filmmaker John Greyson who was present as an invited guest and the second, Queer Sarajevo Festival 2008 (2009) by Cazim Dervisevic and Masa Hilcisin, filmmakers associated with the festival based in Sarajevo. The festival has not yet taken place. Curiously, under similar threats and before it was scheduled to open, the Merlinka International Queer Film Festival in Belgrade in 2008 was canceled, however subsequent editions have been held successfully there. Those countries aiming to join the European Union have to meet certain standards of human rights as specified in the EU’s constitution, which includes anti-discriminatory clauses for LGBT rights. The rightwing of such countries name the situation “euro-sodomy” (e.g. Kulpa 2011; Kajinic 2010), and this also applies to many of the new republics formed after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.