This week the eyes of the global film world turn to Berlin, where the 64th annual Berlin International Film Festival — or more familiarly, the Berlinale — kicks off. Known for its heady mix of vanguard international cinema peppered with blockbuster Hollywood premieres (this year including Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel), the Berlinale is arguably also the gayest of all major mainstream film festivals, each year presenting a multitude of works from some of the world’s most exciting queer talents, both long established and as yet undiscovered. Each year’s LGBT-themed films compete for the special Teddy Award, which for more than a quarter century has recognized excellence in narrative feature, documentary and short categories.
The 2014 queer Berlinale slate includes more than 20 full-length films from across the planet, with wildly diverse topics ranging from the runways of Paris to the lowest rungs of India’s caste system, from bootleg trans plastic surgery in the Philippines to sex-reassignment-fuelled bank robbery in the US. Here's a look at this year’s lineup.
Love Is Strange
Directed by Ira Sachs
A darling of the 2012 Berlinale, with his Teddy Award–winning Keep the Lights On, Ira Sachs returns with the tender story of Ben and George, a New York City couple who marry after 39 years of being together, only to be faced with George’s subsequent firing from his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school. Ben and George (beautifully played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) lose their Chelsea apartment and are forced to shack up separately with friends and relatives (including Marisa Tomei and Cheyenne Jackson in supporting roles). Despite the stress and strain of these unexpected late-life changes, the couple’s long-time love effortlessly endures.
Yves Saint Laurent
Directed by Jalil Lespert
When French designer Christian Dior dies suddenly in 1957, his 21-year-old assistant, Yves Saint Laurent, is shockingly named artistic director for one of the world’s most famous fashion houses. This gorgeous and glamorous biopic by Jalil Lespert reveals Saint Laurent’s meteoric rise in the fashion world (including the 1960 launch of his own label with partner and lover Pierre Bergé) — a man of extraordinary talents who would personify the spirit of an era, but one who would also constantly struggle with his own self-destructive tendencies. The film stars the incredible young French actor Pierre Niney in the lead role.
Praia do Futuro
Directed by Karim Aïnouz
The only LGBT film in competition for the prestigious mainstream Golden Bear Award at this year’s Berlinale, Praia do Futuro comes from Berlin-based Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz. Opening in Fortaleza (Aïnouz's hometown and the location of the actual Praia do Futuro beach), this is the story of lifeguard Donato, who one day saves the life of German tourist Konrad. When the two men then find themselves bonded to each other, Donato returns with Konrad to Berlin to begin a new life. Years later Donato’s little brother appears, wondering why Donato left Brazil without a word — but then the younger man, too, is drawn toward reinventing himself in the mesmerizing German capital.
Ye (The Night)
Directed by Zhou Hao
Already drawing comparisons to Jean Genet and Rainer Werner Fassbinder for his raw portrayals of intimacy, 21-year-old first-time director Zhou Hao also stars in this story of three people on the edges of Chinese society: a young male hustler, the female prostitute he befriends and the john who falls in love with him.
Directed by Sophie Hyde
As if being a teenager didn’t already present enough challenges, Billie learns that her mother will undergo sex-reassignment surgery in a year’s time. In the interim, the two agree to spend every Tuesday afternoon together, navigating the changing nature of their relationship.
Ya Gan Bi Haeng (Night Flight)
South Korea, 2014
Directed by Leesong Hee-il
Fresh on the heels of his 2013 Berlinale appearance with Baek Ya (White Night), Korean director Leesong Hee-il returns with this tale of two childhood mates whose friendship is reignited after a chance meeting, ultimately leading to a dangerous emotional power play in a society where success is everything.
Hoje eu Quero Voltar Sozinho (The Way He Looks)
Directed by Daniel Ribeiro
Building on his 2010 short Eu Não Quero Voltar Sozinho (I Don't Want to Go Back Alone), Daniel Ribeiro uses the same actors to tell the story of Leo, a blind 15-year-old boy who finds himself attracted to his new friend Gabriel, despite the jealousy of his female friend Giovana.
Der Kreis (The Circle)
Directed by Stefan Haupt
The story of Switzerland's first gay group, Der Kreis, is told via main characters Ernst Ostertag and Röbi Rapp, the real-life Zurich couple who met through the organization in the 1950s and who’ve now been together for more than 50 years. The film features Marianne Sägebrecht of Bagdad Café fame.
Viharsarok (Land of Storms)
Directed by Ádám Császi
After a stint playing professional football in Germany, young Szabolcs returns home to Hungary to work on his grandfather's farm. There he meets country boy Áron, and romance quickly follows — as does local prejudice.
Felice chi è diverso (Happy to Be Different)
Directed by Gianni Amelio
A gay male history of Italy since fascist times, this groundbreaking documentary includes interviews with men from across regions and social strata. It reveals the dichotomy between how the country’s media have reported about its gay citizens and how they really have lived.
Directed by Eduardo Roy, Jr
Manila’s transgender scene is the setting for this cautionary tale about the dangers of black-market plastic surgery. In a world where beauty is everything, for some no cost is too high to achieve it.
Directed by Diego Araujo
Set against the turbulent backdrop of Ecuador’s 1999 banking system collapse, Feriado tells the story of 16-year-old Juan Pablo, who, forced to live with his rich uncle, winds up meeting and falling in love with pueblo boy Juano.
Directed by Frank Keraudren and Allison Berg
More than 10 years in the making, The Dog is the fascinating real-life story of John Wojtowicz, whose 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery — to fund his partner’s sex-change operation — inspired the film Dog Day Afternoon. It’s also an unconventional look at New York City gay life over the past four decades.
Pierrot Lunaire: Butch Dandy
Directed by Bruce LaBruce
Toronto’s own Bruce LaBruce presents this typically very unusual piece, based on his own 2011 stage production of composer Arnold Schönberg's 1912 musical, which in turn was inspired by Albert Giraud’s poetry. In LaBruce's musical film, Berlin is the backdrop, and the title character is a trans man (played by The Raspberry Reich’s Susanne Sachsse) who falls for a young girl who’s clueless about her lover’s gender.
Finding Vivian Maier
Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
This utterly fascinating documentary shines a light on Vivian Maier, the mild-mannered suburban Chicago nanny who led a secret life as one of the 20th century’s most compelling street photographers — which would be discovered just prior to her death, when her vast collection of undeveloped film and negatives was purchased at auction.
Directed by Davi Pretto
Blurring the lines between documentary and narrative, Castanha is a stark but tender portrait of 50-something drag artist João Carlos Castanha, haunted by the loss of two loves and his own impending mortality.
Fucking Different XXY
Until now, every film in the innovative and titillating Fucking Different series has consisted of shorts by lesbians about gay male sex or shorts by gay men about lesbian sex. This sixth installment breaks down the gender binary: seven trans directors (including Buck Angel) present pieces about aspects of sexuality that are alien to them.
Directed by Elfi Mikesch
A photographer looks back on her small-town Austrian youth, seeking answers about her erratic and apparently mentally ill father, a man who left his own photographic legacy of disturbing shots from his years of service in the French Foreign Legion.
Directed by Till Kleinert
A mysterious stranger brandishing a samurai sword appears in a rural northern German village, leaving a trail of destruction and a spellbound young local police officer, in whom the warrior awakens irresistible urges.
Directed by Chris Mason Johnson
It’s 1985 in San Francisco, and tensions about AIDS are reaching a fever pitch, both in the gay world and beyond. For modern dancers Frankie and Todd, the crisis brings a host of unexpected personal and professional challenges and they must relearn everything they thought they knew about sexual behaviour.
Directed by Jayan Cherian
The difficult world of India’s Dalit (or untouchable) caste is revealed in this hauntingly beautiful film, through the story of young Shankaran, the son of a controversial Dalit leader, and his gay American friend Jack.
Directed by Joselito Altarejos
A story of young gay love in the modern world, Unfriend is the tale of 15-year-old David, whose affair with his friend Jonathan plays out as much on social media as it does in real life.
The 64th Berlin International Film Festival opens Thurs, Feb 6 and runs through Sun, Feb 16.