A wonderful part of my job as a director is that I get to visit different cities and experience queer culture around the world and most recently I got to spend some time in the German city of Hamburg. Having visited Cologne and Berlin in recent years it was hard to ignore the super liberal, gay friendly German culture where sex and sexuality are freely explored and expressed but Hamburg was somewhere I had heard and known little about. The first thing to mention is that I was visiting The English Theatre, where in April I will be directing a John Godber play called April In Paris. The theatre which produces theatre in the English language, performed and directed by native English speakers, is based in Mundsburg and was founded in 1976 by an American gay couple after moving to the city from New York and amazingly this year celebrates its 40th birthday. Although the majority of the work created there is what would be considered more ‘traditional’ theatre, there has been a rise of queer work over the last few years with the critically acclaimed queer musical by Stephen Dolginoff leading a successful season in 2015.
Following a little research, my partner and I headed to the city’s gay district, St Georg, which famously contains the majority of Hamburg’s LGBTQ+ businesses and bars as well as a number of sex and fetish clubs. After a stroll down the main road, passing rainbow flag after rainbow flag we started at Gnosa’s café for a little food. This small restaurant is famously a hub of the gay community and being situated right in the centre of the district is often the place to go to find out what else is going on. Our journey tooks us to a few cocktail bars before finally stopping at Tom’s Saloon, the oldest leather fetish bar around. It was fascinating to compare these places to what we are used to in the UK. Perhaps the most eye-catching difference was the equal mix of gay and lesbian couples wherever we went. Something that has always stood out to us is the divide in the LGBTQ+ community in the UK. We all have our own clubs that we frequent and continue in our lives with fractured unity but in Germany, whether in Berlin, Cologne or Hamburg everyone seems to drink together, or to quote Kipling (the writer not the cake man) abide the ‘water truce’ and form the kind of community you would expect from a targeted minority. Even the sex clubs and fetish bars were much more explicitly placed with clientele entering, already donning the personally selected equipment for such an occasion.
During our visit, the city was celebrating it’s 27th annual International Queer Film Festival which is not only the longest running but the largest queer film festival in Germany bringing in over 15,000 people to see over 130 films over a six day period. We were lucky enough to be invited to the closing ceremony of the festival where a number of awards were to be distributed throughout several categories as well as a showing of the winning films in one of Germany’s oldest independent cinemas, Metropolis. What was clear from the off was the support the festival has not only from the LGBTQ+ community but the larger community in Hamburg and the positive buzz that filled the cinema all night. Hosted by Aileen Pinkert & Sebastian Beyer the award winners included an incredibly funny Welsh short about a grandmother and her lesbian daughter from British director Suzanne Jacobs staring Benidorm’s Sheila Reid. In order to persuade her granddaughter that life is too short to be miserable in the closet, Rita takes her on a shoplifting outing to tesco to teach her how to grab life by the balls…as it were. We were also treated to a beautiful animation called The Saint of Dry Creek by American Julie Zammarchi which tells the verbatim story about a 50’s american father’s supportive advice to his gay son.
There were a number of highlights from the evening which showed a specific original voice in filmmaking but one which stood out the most was a heartbreaking yet life affirming short documentary entitled Handsome and Majestic from two Canadian directors, Jeff Petry, Nathan Drillot, which interviewed a teenage trans boy called Milan and his family. Having recently watched Tom Hooper’s incredible biopic of Lili Elba, The Danish Girl, as well as a number of other documentaries and short films, the subject of trans history and the current climate for trans people today was at the forefront of my mind and yet Handsome and Majestic managed to offer a voice that still felt fresh and unique and moved the entire audience to tears of sadness, joy, admiration and hope.
The final award of the evening was the Jury Award, which went to Thai filmmaker Nontawat Numbenchapol with #BBKY, highlighted a very interesting issue within the queer filmmaking industry. Much like the mainstream, the queer filmmaking community is still dominated by men, with 70% of submissions from men and only 30% from women with no representation from the trans community or anyone who identified as other gender descriptions. The Jury pleaded for this to change and hopefully over the next few years this section of the festival will grow.
Hamburg certainly seems to not only have a strong LGBTQ+ community within it but integrated seamlessly throughout making it a vibrant and welcoming city to visit, and one which I cannot wait to go back to in the spring.