Introducing a musical performance at the Academy Awards isn’t normally the biggest of deals, but for Chilean newcomer Daniela Vega, it was a landmark opportunity: At the 2018 ceremony, she became the first transgender person ever to present at the Oscars. The film that got her there, meanwhile, had already made history that same night. Sebastián Lelio’s uplifting drama “A Fantastic Woman,” in which Vega gave a luminous performance as a trans woman battling heartbreak and discrimination, won that year’s international feature award — becoming the first film with a transgender lead to win an Oscar in any category.
“Thank you so much for this moment,” Vega said from the stage, before segueing into a tribute to gay Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s much-nominated queer romance “Call Me by Your Name”: It was a minute of airtime that contained more global LGBTQ visibility than many a previous broadcast.
“A Fantastic Woman’s” triumph was a clear marker of a rising tide of international LGBTQ cinema, making its presence felt at festivals, awards ceremonies and arthouses alike: No longer a fringe concern, queer cinema from across the globe appears to cultivate a larger and more diverse audience every year: witness the across-the board adulation for French director Celine Sciamma’s lesbian period romance “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which took the 2019 Cannes Film Festival by storm and amassed a swooning cult from there.
At that same festival, veteran queer filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical “Pain & Glory” became one of his most broadly acclaimed films, eventually taking $38 million worldwide (and a couple of Oscar nominations to boot).
Even given the restrictions of a global pandemic, the past year has been a rich and varied one for queer cinema of many stripes, both on the festival circuit and multiple avenues of distribution — with the streaming realm an increasingly vital ally in amplifying LGBTQ film and filmmakers.
This year’s international Oscar race hasn’t been as kind to queer cinema as the one that culminated in Lelio’s victory: no LGBTQ-themed films made the final five in the category, though several were submitted by their respective countries, with a couple making the pre-nomination shortlist.
Most prominent among those is “Two of Us,” an assured, emotionally rich debut from French-based Italian director Filippo Meneghetti, which seeks to rectify the ageism that prevails even in this liberal-minded film sector. A rare portrait of older same-sex romance, its study of a covert, decades-long love affair between two women in the same apartment building is tender and empathetic, but takes some surprising genre turns as their secret is threatened. (As a portrait of everyday lesbian life within the boomer generation, it stands comparison with a Paraguayan festival standout from 2018: Marcelo Martinessi’s Berlinale-laureled “The Heiresses.”)
If “Two of Us” fell just short with Oscar voters, the French Academy was more generous: Meneghetti won the Cesar for first feature earlier this month, while leads Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier both received actress nods. Merely being selected as France’s Oscar entry, meanwhile, entailed beating one of the country’s most celebrated queer filmmakers to the punch: Francois Ozon’s “Summer of ’85,” a rollicking fusion of gay coming-of-age romance and teen tragedy, was among the films shortlisted and passed over by the French selectors. (It also racked up a formidable 12 Cesar nominations, though left the ceremony empty-handed.)
Joining Meneghetti’s film on the international Oscar shortlist was a filmmaker who could hardly be less of a newcomer. Polish-born but well-traveled in terms of film production, Agnieszka Holland helmed the Czech Republic’s entry “Charlatan,” an absorbing biopic of Communist-persecuted Czech faith healer Jan Mikolášek that is most interesting in its dramatization of Mikolášek’s rumored gay romance with his devoted assistant. A quarter-century after her English-language Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle “Total Eclipse” probed the historical affair between poets Rimbaud and Verlaine, Holland once demonstrates a subtle, sensual understanding of gay male desire in challenging circumstances.
Also shortlisted for the Oscar: gay Guatemalan writer-director Jayro Bustamante, who has almost singlehandedly put his country’s cinema on the arthouse map with his first three features. (Prior to his 2015 debut “Ixcanul,” Guatamela had only once submitted a film in the Oscar race.)
The film that earned the Academy’s attention, “La Llorona” — a powerful, politically resonant horror film acting as an allegory for lingering trauma over native Mayan genocide — is not expressly queer in its themes, though Bustamante shot it back-to-back with an equally potent film that very much is.
Granted a limited U.S. release in late 2019, “Tremors” tells the story of a well-to-do family man vilified by his evangelical Christian community when he belatedly comes out, leaving his wife for a lower-class man. It’s a sharp, upsetting portrayal of the challenging realities of LGBTQ life in Guatemala, where homosexuality is legal, but not protected by anti-discrimination laws.
Another study of a family shaken by taboo queerness in its midst, the well-regarded “Funny Boy,” from Canadian director Deepa Mehta, had high hopes in the international Oscar race before being disqualified over its proportion of English-language dialogue. Adapted from a best-selling autobiographical novel by Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai, it’s a bright, accessible tale of a young boy from a conservative Colombo family, coming to terms with his sexuality as the Sri Lankan civil war brews in the background.
Picked up by Ava DuVernay’s diversity-oriented Array distribution company, it achieved wide exposure in the U.S. and other regions via Netflix. It wasn’t the only subcontinent-set queer film to find a mainstream audience in 2020. Though India’s commerce-driven Bollywood industry largely shies away from LGBTQ themes, Hitesh Kiwelya’s gay romantic comedy “Shubh Mangal Zyada Saav-dhan” was a surprise success, topping the domestic box office before COVID-19 shuttered cinemas the very next week.
Queer self-discovery and political bedfellows are once more narrative bedfellows in “Moffie,” a gut-punching war drama from South Africa’s Oliver Hermanus that recently landed a best British debut BAFTA nomination for producer and co-writer Jack Sidey. Set in South Africa’s apartheid era, it brings vivid, visceral immediacy to its story of a closeted gay teenager sent to the frontline of the Border War with Angola in the 1980s, examining the violent masculinity that sustained a whole country’s history of hate. Hermanus, a Black gay director, previously examined the corrosive effect of same-sex desire on a white Afrikaner man in his Cannes-selected 2011 stunner “Beauty”; “Moffie,” which finally gets a U.S. release in April after premiering at Venice in 2019, arguably establishes him as Africa’s foremost queer filmmaker.
Still, his isn’t the only such voice emerging from a continent where LGBTQ themes are frequently a source of controversy: Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s youthful, candy-colored lesbian romance “Rafiki” hit headlines in 2018 when it was banned by Kenyan censors for its positive depiction of same-sex romance, but became a global festival favorite.
From the same country, Peter Murimi’s stirring documentary “I Am Samuel” depicts the struggle of a rural preacher’s son to be with the man he loves in the face of familial and governmental oppression, and was a staple of last year’s largely virtual doc festival circuit. It’s a modest film that nonetheless makes a seismic statement in the context of its origins — and joins a global chorus of queer voices in the medium that will no longer be sidelined or silent.