SQIFF 2021: Poetics of the Visual

David Ellington stands in front of a wall. He points to the sky, making a bird with his hands. The overlaid text says, “Two birds shoot and dart as one. Around a far, far tree. He runs the distance. And watches the other. Together.”

Here, in his film Liberty, Ellington’s BSL is like a dance. Heart beating, taking to the air. Meaning communicated by the rapidity of actions, facial expressions, the words on screen and the signs he performs weave in and out of recognition for those of us who don’t know British Sign Language. He brings his forefingers forward and towards each other, does it mean “together” or “two humans” or something not quite translatable? 

A finger down the shirt alongside the words “we are one humanity”, we watch the nuances, the tension between the sign and the translation, as he performs – at times relaxed and laughing, at times almost crying in frustration.

It makes me really wish I’d gone to A New Chapter Begins, a showcase of films by deaf filmmakers earlier in the day. If this is what BSL poetry is like, sign me up. 

This is Poetics of the Visual, a showcase of short “visual poetic” films at this year’s SQIFF (the Scottish Queer International Film Festival). The next piece, I’m continuously crying tears of estrogen and tears of testosterone, sees Zafira Vrba Woodski using hormone gel to create artificial tears that run down their face. Starting into the camera they apply hormone gel under each eye in turn, using their own estrogen gel and testosterone gel gifted to them from a friend who died. Their voice talks to us, though we don’t see them speak. Against the bright azure of the background and the finery of their clothes they seem like an ancient Egyptian deity.  

This is matched by their voice, with its steady confidence and the weight of their words. “The history of people who break the expected norms of gender and sexuality is quite extreme,” they say. “Being trans is a matter of life and death.” They tells us how trans, queer, femme folk across the ages have been both held in high esteem for their wisdom and killed and persecuted for their difference. “Death follows you and is always close when you are trans,” they say. “We are missing generations of people who could have been our lovers, partner, parents or our friends… they all deserve to be radically mourned.”

“Being trans is something that should be celebrated, being gender-blessed… embodying revolutionary time… We fight to survive, but I have never met a trans person who is afraid of death. That is also one of our gifts.” I believe them. 

Next we have Wake up! It’s Yesterday directed by Julieta Tetelbaum, which was filmed in New York City during the pandemic. It follows a candy floss vendor playing a game with herself where she imagines other people’s lives. We watch her watch them, asking herself: “Do their failures torment them? What makes them proud of themselves? Do they want to cry inconsolably in the shower? What are they addicted to?”

It’s kind of sweet. The romantic appropriateness of her profession, to spin sugar, the compact nature of it, the simplicity, she’s a character herself – dragging her red cart up her tenement building stairs. Ending on the question: “Is that all there is?”

I didn’t feel much for Strangers, directed by Joel Junior, apart from a riff that started in my head at the beginning, “One buff dude sitting in a tree, R-E-A-D-I-N-G.”

However, the final film – it belongs to me – was pretty relatable. Directed by Em Johrden it featured trans people discussing what gender euphoria, the lesser-known counterpoint to gender dysphoria, feels like. They talk about finally shaving their hair off, about feeling fully embodied, about being seen for who they are inside. At one point someone says, “She saw me as I wanted to be seen and was attracted to the person I wanted to be seen as.” Another explains that every time they experience gender euphoria it decreases their gender dysphoria. And honestly, I want to see the words “I crave trans joy” on a t-shirt immediately. 

Overall, I’m not sure that the curated theme of “visual poetic” films really came across in the selection, though maybe my understanding of the term isn’t broad enough. Saying that there was some beautiful writing here and I’m going to be looking out for more BSL poetry films from now on. 

By Luke ‘Luca’ Cockayne

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