SQIFF 2021: Aspects of the Embodied Self

Content warning: discussion of self-harm and HIV/AIDs

“They need to make sense of this nonsense. Together”, says the voiceover of The Devotions, one of several short films shown as part of the Aspects of the Embodied Self event at this year’s SQIFF. 

SQIFF, the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, is hosted each autumn at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Glasgow and has been a highlight of the queer arts calendar for a while. We even attended ourselves a few years ago, and this year there were a few events we were particularly keen to check out – Aspects of the Embodied Self being one of them.

A screening of seven short films centred around the queer body, the selection was curated by Jamie Rea and was followed by a brief Q&A with artist couple Ivor MacAskill and Rosana Cade. Their film Presenting Our Selves closed the event and provided an ending note that was light and hopeful enough to take some of the sting out of the darker pieces like Scars, The Devotions and Help.

At one point in Presenting Our Selves Cade quoted drag king pioneer Murray Hill, saying, “If you don’t see yourself represented, then go out and represent yourself”. This is good advice, reflected in the diversity of the bodies and lives seen in the showcase. It also rang wonderfully true over archive footage of MacAskill and Cade performing under their band name Double Pussy Clit Fuck, wearing flamboyant fake moustaches and routinely getting their tits out. It was strangely subversive for a film that put such an emphasis on MacAskill’s recent top surgery to include older performance footage featuring his chest before – but it was also affirming. Just because you can stand up and be proud of your body doesn’t mean you can’t also want to change it. At one point in the Q&A, MacAskill explained that performing helped him realise and process the fact that he was trans, recognising retrospectively, “that looks like the work of someone who wants to transition”.

Another moment of trans familiarity came, for me, during Digital Genitals starring Erykah Ohms and Toxic Shock and directed by Mahx Capacity. This short piece of techno-erotica involved the sharing of a computer tablet, placed between the legs, which the other lover could use to flick through a series of images of various genitals, that could then be showered with enthusiastic affection. My initial scepticism dissolved after realising the affirmative possibilities this technique could have for those whose genitals don’t match their gender identity, to be able to look down and see your lover kissing the tip of a penis you don’t yet have or licking a slit you don’t yet possess. Such a small technological intervention, but such a neat idea.

A couple kiss. We see the back of a white person’s head – their short hair and a dangly earring – and their lover’s face closed in a moment of bliss. The lover’s skin is darker, an ear with a smaller earring visible. The moment seems deeply private, as the viewer is shut out by the closed eye
Digital Genitals starring Erykah Ohms and Toxic Shock

And if I thought that was steamy, I clearly wasn’t prepared for the full blue movie glory of Formations, also directed by Mahx Capacity, featuring the plus-size porn star and model April Flores… having a wank in the desert. At points the bulbus, pocket-marked rocks mimicked the uneven surfaces and folds of her body in a way that emphasised the sensuality of both. 

Some of the films were less joyful though. Scars, directed by and starring Alex Anna, used a thoughtful and subtle animation technique to redefine the actor’s scars – a thick dripping watercolour effect that began in black but blossomed red towards the end of the piece. As a self-harmer myself I empathised with her words, captured in fragments as I tried not to dissociate; “It was part of the character I wanted to become… except I hid it of course… I will feel powerful because I decide… nothing is more intense and nothing else matters… I was proud… I have loved a lot of people who didn’t love me back… when you see your cuts you realise you are not doing so well after all.” These snippets are all I catch as I watch the ink roll down her arm, morbidly mesmerised and far away, in my memory, watching my own blood dripping. It’s hard to talk about self-harm poetically, but Anna achieves it, particularly when she says, “They tell a story, and I love stories”. It might also help that the entire thing is in French. 

A close up of a white woman’s arm as she holds herself, faint light scars visible. Black text is appearing on her skin and retracing the lines of the scars. The image feels melancholy
Scars starring Alex Anna

Another piece that spoke to me was The Devotions created originally as a live performance by Barry Fitzgerald and directed here by Mia Georgis. The piece was a semi-autobiographical meditation on what it means to be queer and Catholic, filtered through the story of an Irish priest from Ennis who lived and worked in New York at the height of the AIDS crisis. Told through voiceover as Fitzgerald danced on a beach, the rhythm of the words carried the pain and loss of that time, opening with the words “All this is a whisper of shame” and reaching a climax in a sequence where every sentence begins with the words, “It’s a shame…” taking us through “It’s a shame you don’t know better,” to “It’s a shame to lose them so young”. It beautifully captured the conflict between those who could see the devastation and suffering HIV & AIDs was causing and the Catholic church’s stance at the time that the virus was self-inflicted and a righteous retribution for bodily sin. This is emphasised when Fitzgerald flagellates himself on the beach. By the end of the cathartic sequence, however, Fitzgerald is dancing on the sand in the dark, wearing glittering trousers, his bare chest glistening with sweat, as we’re told that through dancing together we can feel, if we’re so inclined, a connection with god.

And even if you don’t believe that we can achieve spiritual peace through the pleasure of each other’s bodies – or the safe spaces of our queer community and culture – Aspects of the Embodied Self still managed to remind us that our bodies hold our stories. Whether your story involves you’re masturbating in the desert or flashing your unwanted tits at the world, sometimes it can be a relief to sit in a room with other queer folk and listen to those stories. Together.

By Luke ‘Luca’ Cockayne

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