It’s been a banner five years for queer cinema. From Call Me By Your Name, Love, Simon and Happiest Season to a slew of iconic lesbian historical dramas in the form of Carol, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite and, arguably, The Favourite, these intoxicating narratives have captured the cultural imagination and ushered in a new era of queer storytelling. It’s something we’ve seen replicated on the small screen too, through American shows like Euphoria, Atypical and The Bold Type.
However, a quick glance at these productions show a glaring uniformity. Western cinema, unsurprisingly, has built a monopoly on white protagonists. They are usually centred around trauma, “forbidden love”, the go-to coming out trope or a one-off life changing romance revolving around dainty white women. There are plenty of thoughtful queer films which delve into the nuances of gender, sexuality and race, but very few have enjoyed anywhere near the same commercial success as Emma Stone making vengefully erotic eye contact with a gout-riddled Queen Anne. Diversity across film has noticeably increased, but we’re still seeking out queer films that have been built by the LGBTQ+ community from the ground up.
The likes of Moonlight and Ife (which translates into “Love” in the Yoruba language) have been unique in their creation and their cultural significance. Not only do both films capture distinctly different experiences attached to Black LGBTQ+ love and romance, they also usher a new wave of cultural firsts. Released in 2016, Moonlight showcased Black life and queer love on its own terms, forcing critics and audiences to consider why it had taken them so long to see a unique portrait of masculinity that also delicately unpacks the queer coming-of-age experience. 2020’s Ife similarly made history as the first Nollywood lesbian film to involve Black queer women in its conception and creation. Each of these films remain vital as they spotlight largely untold stories, and offer considerably more than any background token gay in a Marvel film ever could.
While there’s a gaping hole in the market, there are also a few gems to make the most of. With that in mind, we’ve put together a guide of incredible (mostly) non-western queer films.
Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (2019)
Synopsis: A young Punjabi woman struggles to find a balance between her family values and who she truly loves.
Why it's good: Bollywood movies were a part of my life long before the dawn of Disney VHS tapes, and their soundtracks often lingered in big Pakistani weddings and parties. I’d grown accustomed to the amped up musicals, the extravagant outfitting and flawless choreography. Ek Ladki does this and then some.
With the title roughly translating to “How I Felt When I Saw That Girl”, it packs in all the beloved features of a classic hit. It may be a new kid on the block, but it broke barriers in becoming Bollywood’s first lesbian romance film. Unsuspectingly meta, culturally disruptive and unbelievably sweet, it’s a Hindi coming-of-age rom-com you have to watch.
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Synopsis: A young Black lesbian living in Philadelphia begins to unravel the mystery around an infamous 1940s Black actress commonly dubbed as the Watermelon Woman.
Why it's good: Cheryl Dunye pulls off a stunningly didactic film that is passionately self-aware. Bringing forward a fictionalised version of herself, the film follows Dunye’s mission to confront and explore the active marginalisation and erasure of the Black experience in cinema, particularly queer film.
Dunye’s directorial debut faced challenges, not only because of its LGBTQ+ themes, scenes and language, but because the screenwriter was awarded endowment funding that was inherently politicised. There was a lingering belief in the US that government-funded projects shouldn’t exhibit sexually explicit tones. Still, Dunye’s critical analysis of the industry and search for the The Watermelon Woman is a tale that, even today, speaks volumes.
Saving Face (2004)
Synopsis: Another good old fashioned closeted protagonist with a twist. Wilhelmina “Wil” Pang is hiding her dearest secret from her family, but it turns out her mother may have her own chaotic truth.
Why it's good: We’re all tired of the “closet plot”, but Saving Face hooks you in with much more. One of the few early Hollywood films to focus on a Chinese-American family, this mother-daughter narrative deals with Chinese cultural attitudes of honour and respect with delightfully comedic twists and turns.
Refreshingly, director Alice Wu leans heavily on humour to drive the film, rather than personal trauma, and if you recognise Wu’s name it’s probably because she was at the helm of Netflix’s LGBTQ+ romance The Half of It (2020) – so consider this my short bid for you to check them both out.
Ma Vie En Rose (1997)
Synopsis: Ma Vie En Rose (My Life in Pink) follows the emotional journey of seven-year-old Ludo, who continuously seeks to present as a girl.
Why it's good: Belgian director Alain Berliner does a brilliant job producing a sensitive film that strikes a balance between comedy and sincerity. It delicately integrates bold visuals and tentative storytelling to conjure up worlds, both real and imaginative, which bring Ludo’s childhood innocence, longing and sense of self to life.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Synopsis: An adaption of Fingersmith by Welsh novelist Sarah Walters, Park Chan-wook trades its Victorian Britain setting for a Korean background under colonial rule by the Japanese. The three-part erotic psycho-thriller unravels a Korean conman’s deceptive plot to seduce a Japanese heiress for her wealth.
Why it's good: The Handmaiden has received wide acclaim for Park Chan-wook’s ability to fashion a thriller cascaded in dark erotica. Though several critics have labelled it as unnecessarily vulgar, the sexual crux of The Handmaiden is what makes it such a compelling watch. Artfully switching between gendered viewpoints, the movie takes a crucially powerful queer feminist lens to the prevailing themes of lust, sexuality and storytelling.
Synopsis: Two young girls cross paths in Nairobi and their lives become a whirlwind as they’re wrapped up in spontaneous moments, shared secrets and scenes of cultural upheaval.
Why it's good: A film that has continuously fought for its voice to be heard, Rafiki (which means “friend” in Kiswahili) is resilient and transgressive. It portrays the innocence of falling in love in modern Kenya against a backdrop of cultural and political stigmas, which exist both in and outside the movie.
Rafiki was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board due to “promoting lesbianism”. Homosexuality is currently illegal in Kenya, with LGBTQ+ people facing endless persecution with no grounds for protection, and Rafiki challenges these norms by providing honest, thoughtful representation of what a young Kenyan lesbian relationship ungoverned by outside voices would look like.
Synopsis: A sexually confused Catholic teen does his best to fit in in 1960s Quebec, and overcome his homophobic family through faith and the music of David Bowie.
Why it's good: Arguably one of my favourites, down to its soundtrack alone, this Quebecois film is something I stumbled across during my film-obsessed degree and has stuck with me since. Packed with the expected chaos of a coming-of-age film, its relationship with identity, faith and music is tormented, heartfelt and witty. Plus, it’s an incredible homage to David Bowie, which is more than can be said for Stardust.