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Getting the revolution televised

"The majority of films don’t find a huge audience, but queer films are often not given the space to fail."

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Growing up a queer kid and teenager in ‘80s and ‘90s Australia, I rarely if ever saw my experience reflected back at me in the films and TV shows I watched. In my late teens I moved to the UK and much of the next ten years was a blur of clubbing and dating, so I rarely checked in with what was happening on TV and in film, (though like a lot of queer men, I do remember being obsessed with Queer as Folk and Brokeback Mountain).  Fast forward to 2008, I graduated from Film school and was making my way in the TV industry in the UK, writing on shows like Holby City and Spooks, which in turn lead me to pitching my own shows to producers. As a young queer writer, I was desperate to create queer content… but often the response I got to my pitches was, ‘We already have a queer show’ (which was usually written by the one successful queer writer, Russell T Davies). Fast forward again to the present day, and things have changed significantly, we are seeing a lot more LGBTQ+ characters and queer content. But has it changed enough? Are we, as a community, being proportionately represented? And how broad a range of stories are now being told?  I sat down with two producers at the forefront of queer, black and female representation in the UK, Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor and Tom Hawkins, from the newly formed Joi Productions, to discuss their thoughts on how far we have come and how we still far we have to go. 

I believe you were introduced by a mutual friend because you had both expressed a desire to create the UK version of Killer Films (a New York based company that producers cutting edge, predominately queer content). Tell me a little bit about the company and what your goals are?

Joy: Queer world domination (laugh). Ultimately what we’re trying to do is to create mainly genre-based films and shows with characters, protagonists and storylines that we don’t typically see queer, black and female characters in, and make them for commercial distribution. It’s about, how do we take unrepresented voices, give them a platform and tell elevated stories? And how do we take typical heteronormative stories – spy stories, action stories, detective stories – and give them a new narrative and reshape them with a queer lens? We’re not trying to be Marvel, but we want to tell queers stories that have as big an audience as possible.  

Tom: Historically the industry hasn’t given space to the full spectrum of queer, black and female stories… which is ridiculous as there’s a universality to most stories if told well. So it’s about looking at the queer experience and finding the universality. 

What are your thoughts on where we are right now with regards to queer, black and female representation in TV and film? 

Joy: I think we are slowly moving forward, in a good way, but I don’t think we’re completely there yet. I think you can see the paint-by-numbers aspect of the inclusivity at times; queer characters are still sidelined or given stereotypical narratives. And sometimes the shows and films that are green-lit are very similar in theme or tone, like the three new black shows that are coming out in the UK soon are all music based.  So, they sit in a certain kind of box that can feel a little cliched. I think there is a lot of YA queer content that is pushing boundaries. YA shows try to be more inclusive because young adults just don’t care. I think there’s room for improvement but there’s definitely a push for more inclusivity.

Tom: The problem is, for every big queer film that isn’t a huge success, like Bros for instance, it becomes a marker for all queer films. The majority of films don’t find a huge audience but queer films are often not given the space to fail. Like Joy said, there is a big push for queer content from companies and broadcasters, but we’ll see if they’re going to put their money where their mouth is. And we’ll see if the things they put money into will transcend box-ticking.  

Do you think there’s still a fear that queer stories can’t appeal to mainstream audiences?

Tom: Perhaps. I think people can relate to any story if it’s done well and resonates. We grew up watching straight content after all. The criteria for us when looking for projects is specificity and universality, so something has to feel incredibly specific and true, but it has to have an underlying universality that everyone can engage with. We all largely feel the same emotions, so it’s about tapping into those universal emotions in very specific stories.  It’s the emotional experience that people connect with on a cellular level… and if you can take them on a truthful emotional experience, they don’t care what it’s wrapped up in. 

Joy: That’s why I love genre also. If people know and love a certain genre they’ll come along for the ride; they don’t necessarily care about the packaging.  

Can you tell us about some of the projects coming down the pike that you’re excited about?

Tom: Next year we have four projects that we’re very hopeful for.  One is called Back To The Ends which is Goonies meets Attack of the Block set in Hackney, to do with a group of kids trying to save their estate from gentrification. The Mannequin which is a psychological horror in the vein of the Handmaiden and a queer love story.  And Animals is a coming-of-age queer love story set in a youth offenders institute. And Joy will be making her directorial debut…

Joy: Yes… Dreamers is about a female asylum seeker that finds love in a detection centre then escapes the centre. 

So a lot of specificity and universality there.

Tom: that’s what we’re about.

Joy: and queer domination.

Well here’s to queer domination!

Sean Cook is a writer based in the UK, US and Australia. His show Redemption is currently showing on BritBox Australia.