Film and arts festivals may have taken a different shape over the past year, with Zoom being the new venue of choice, but their impact on the communities they cater to remains undeniable. Festivals that showcase queer work can help their audiences find a sense of belonging and pride, by giving them the opportunity to see their identity reflected back at them through collections of LGBTQ+ work that may be difficult to find elsewhere.
CineQ is a queer film exhibition in Birmingham, that prioritises the work of queer, trans and intersex people of colour. The four-day festival started out as a community cinema and was founded by Rico Johnson-Sinclair, whose passion for telling stories goes back to his childhood. “My love for storytelling was entrenched in actual books – because when I was younger, being from a poor background, the only way I could access stories was going to the library and lending books for free,” Rico tells us. “I used to be the kid that would very much love summer – not because I could go out and play, but because the sun would go down later so I’d have more time reading. I used to write my own books when I’d run out of books to read.”
This hunger for stories soon moved into the world of film. “I started to watch all of the films that I didn’t have access to before, and realised that films were a magical and accessible way to create stories on the screen – but also that these stories had a profound impact on the way that the world sees those communities.” Rico noticed in particular the impact of LGBT storylines when they began to emerge in soaps, and how these affected the perceptions of those around him when he was a young teenager. “There was a significant difference in the way that people treated me, as an openly queer person at age thirteen, after they watched these soap opera storylines to before,” Rico observes. “I saw that this was also reflected in the way that people engaged with film – if they’d watched a film with a queer side character, they would then coming up to me saying, “I watched this film and I understand, I get it” – they didn’t, obviously, because they don’t understand what it’s like to be queer from watching a side character in a film – but it was some semblance of acceptance, which I hadn’t felt or seen before.”
It was perceiving these changes that led Rico towards working in film. “I realised that I could use film to dismantle some of the prejudices – dismantle the misunderstandings and lack of empathy between communities.” After moving into film exhibition, Rico started to see a whole new genre of film – “The Marlon T. Riggs’ of the world, who was an incredible black filmmaker who lived with HIV, and created all these wonderful films like Black Is… Black Ain’t,” he tells us. “Seeing that there was a plethora of queer black film really reignited my passion about getting these films out – because if I had never encountered these films, that meant there was a whole bunch of people like me, who might have a lot of internalised racism and homophobia, who had never seen them either. So that reignited my passion about showing queer film.”
CineQ festival was born out of this passion. Instances of LGBTQ+ films being shown in Birmingham were rare, let alone films with QTIPOC representation – and CineQ wanted to change that, Rico says. “The attitude you’ve got to have is that if it doesn’t exist, you’ve got to create it.” Rico’s priority was ensuring that queer films were accessible to their audiences, after his own experiences as a young film enthusiast. “As a queer black man who comes from a low socio-economic background, I haven’t had access to film previously. I couldn’t go to cinemas, because I couldn’t afford to – and actually the only way that I could engage with film was through piracy,” he says. “For queer audiences that want to go to a cinema but their cinemas aren’t programming queer work, the only way they can access queer film is through sites like Netflix or Amazon, which the film industry is critical of because they see it as taking away from actual cinemas, or through piracy for those who can’t even afford the subscription to Netflix or Amazon.”
One of the priorities of CineQ was screening films that showed the experiences of queer people of colour. “There are so many spaces for for white gay men, and there aren’t many spaces for queer people of colour – especially queer, trans and intersex people of colour,” Rico says. “I wanted to create a festival that prioritised their perspectives, but also in an authentic way; so we only show films that are by and for queer people of colour; and if we don’t, we show films that have had a genuine or authentic input by a queer person of colour, because that’s how films should be made.”
Showing these stories and creating safe discussion spaces to unpack them through events like CineQ, Rico adds, helps address the cultural divides in the queer community. “These are stories that need to be told, because they’re going to make a difference in understanding our community as a whole – and really deal with some of the segregation that’s happening in our community. They’ll make a difference to the way that people interact with each other, and the amount of empathy that we have as a community.”
The first CineQ festival in Birmingham was a huge success, selling out four of its initial screenings. The CineQ team were making plans for 2020, with hopes to increase their programme and make the festival more immersive, but had to make the “heart-wrenching” decision to cancel the festival just before the first lockdown back in March 2020. Instead, CineQ moved online to do a series of virtual events. When the exhibition can return, Rico plans to have a “hybrid approach”, with the festival partly happening digitally in order to make it both more accessible and more sustainable. “We’ll be looking at 2022 as a new date for the festival, and try and completely reinvent what CineQ is,” Rico says.
Like most of us, Rico eagerly awaits the day that sees the arts sector open and thriving again – and believes it will come back bigger and better than ever before. “I think the economy is probably going to flourish – but it’s also going to make space for some really interesting events, that previously would have been a huge risk because people just weren’t going out, but are now going to be completely viable because people want to do anything new,” he says. “I think we’re going to have a new Roaring Twenties – people won’t want to be in their houses, they’ll be out every day of the week. Nightlife culture and events culture are going to explode.”
You can find out more about CineQ here: http://www.cineqbirmingham.co.uk.
Follow CineQ on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @cineqbrum.