Feature: Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open is a forthcoming series of screenings from Brighton’s Duke of Yorks Picturehouse devoted to exploring queer cinema. I met with its organiser, Jonathan Hyde, to find out more.

As a so-called ‘gay capital’ with a well-regarded art school, there’s a surprisingly small queer arts scene in Brighton, and an even smaller queer film scene. “I’ve lived in Brighton for eight years”, explains Jonathan Hyde, programmer, organiser and one-man driving force behind Eyes Wide Open, “and to my knowledge there isn’t a queer film club here, or any kind of discussion happening, so I essentially wanted to create something for myself. That’s the motivation.”  The screenings, which will take place at the Duke of Yorks Picturehouse, and the brand new Dukes at Komedia opening in the North Laine in December, will showcase a range of specially selected films exploring the best of queer cinema. But what exactly is that?

“I want to use the word ‘queer’ with the widest possible definition for the programme I want to discuss and show. It’s a diffusion of terms, which makes it easier to programme – it’s not gay cinema, it’s not LGBT cinema, ‘queer’ can mean all sorts of different things. You can have films that aren’t by queer filmmakers and which don’t have a queer plot, or even subplot, that over time take on a cult status in the queer community. The term ‘queer’ has had a renaissance of late, it’s used by many institutions – it’s an academic word that has been embraced. I like to think that it’s no longer an insult.”

So where are these discussions taking place? “Certainly in this country, we’ve had our protests, we’ve had our lives accepted a bit more and legalised, and there isn’t so much of a fight, so in terms of the discussion surrounding queerness, identity and gender politics, it’s all gone into universities and academia, which can be quite insular”. This is where Eyes Wide Open steps in. Jonathan wants to bring the debate about queer identity and film beyond the realm of academic criticism, and open it to the general public. Cinema has long been a tool for advocacy, and it seems that Jonathan hopes his screenings may help to continue this legacy: “there’s this whole gay community in Brighton that I don’t know and I don’t meet”, he tells me, “and that I don’t think are particularly aware of how blessed they are that their lives are so much easier now than they perhaps would have been in the past, or elsewhere in the world, and I think it’s important to know that. Not to feel guilty, just to be aware”.

It is Jonathan himself who will play an important role in nurturing this discussion: “I want to be very transparent that I am the programmer and the personality behind the screenings. I really like film festivals such as London Short Film Festival that have a personality behind them, which continues the relationship with the public that makes it more than just pressing play on the film.”

Yes, Jonathan is pretty much flying solo in terms of organising Eyes Wide Open, but this isn’t an exercise in vanity or self promotion by any means, and he is keen to involve as many different voices in the project as he can. “It will be a mixture of films I’ve chosen, films that the Duke of Yorks may be getting anyway, and films that are selected by people I ask. For example, Andrew Haigh who directed Weekend will be doing one. In other instances, it could be anyone – a local business, or a charity. Some screenings may be films where all those involved are long dead, so it becomes much more of a representation of that film now, what it means for the present and the future, how it sheds light on contemporary queer life. Other films might have a satellite link up with the director or producer. We’ve got a good relationship with the University of Sussex and their team, who will be presenting a film in the future. I’d like to pool to be as wide as it can possibly be without losing sight of what the overall programme is.”

Eyes Wide Open presents its first screening, Charles Atlas’ Turning on November 29th. The film charts performances by Anthony and the Johnsons as they are joined on stage by thirteen women, whose stories are told throughout the film. It seems, from its trailer, to be a passionate and searing combination of documentary, installation and live performance, and it is a film that Jonathan has chosen for a reason: “in terms of Anthony Heggarty’s own appearance and influence within the queer community, I think it’s a key title to start off with. It perfectly encapsulates the word ‘queer’ for me as being about the ‘other’.”

It’s refreshing and encouraging to see how important the screenings are to Jonathan, and how important he thinks they could be for the city. “I hope Eyes Wide Open will become another element to this city which I love, and something that keeps it fresh, and young,” he explains. But what about the money? “Of course I want it to be busy, but if there are just five people who come every time, and they love it, and it’s their monthly escape, then that’s great.”

Words: Jack Casey

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