Since 2007, Venice’s Queer Lion Award has reflected and elevated the best in LGBTQ cinema. Fifteen years later, founder Daniel N. Casagrande said this year’s Venice Film Festival will be “the most queer edition ever.”
Among the fest’s 30 LGBTQ-themed titles, 19 are competing for the Queer Lion, including a record six films from the main competition. They include Todd Field’s orchestra conductor drama “Tár,” starring Cate Blanchett; Darren Aronofsky’s estranged gay father study “The Whale,” featuring Brendan Fraser; Laura Poitras’ doc “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” chronicling bisexual artist Nan Goldin’s life and anti-opioid crusade; Andrea Pallaoro’s trans woman family drama “Monica”; Emanuele Crialese’s “L’immensità,” starring Penélope Cruz as the mother of a transgender child; and Gianni Amelio’s “Il signore delle formiche,” the true story of an Italian artist jailed under an infamous anti-gay law.
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With an average of eight to 10 nominees each year, why are twice that number now in competition? “In past editions, I asked if there weren’t more films of LGBTQ interest submitted for the festival,” Casagrande explained. Plenty were, but the issue was their “lower quality” compared to other Venice selections. He thinks this year’s better, larger crop is “undoubtedly a sign that LGBTQ themes, stories and characters are less perceived as a problematic stigma, and more as an integral part of society. I’m inclined to read these numbers as part of an ongoing trend.”
Back in 2003, film critic/journalist Casagrande asked the Venice director at the time, Moritz de Hadeln, if he’d like to create an honor similar to the queer-themed Teddy Award, which was established when he was director of the Berlinale in 1987. “The answer was a warm ‘yes,’ so along with my current right-hand man Marco Busato and Franco Grillini, I started working on the project,” Casagrande said. It hit a speed bump when De Hadeln was replaced by Marco Müller, who “unconditionally endorsed” the award but took a few years to launch it.
Casagrande and Busato choose nominees by asking Venice’s selection committees which films have LGBTQ themes central to the plot, a sometimes bumpy process. “To be honest, we’re still trying to find out if both of Cate Blanchett’s [“Tár” love interests] are female, or only one of them,” Busato said with a laugh before the festival. This year’s jurors are connected with the festival, but past years have included journalists, critics, directors such as filmmaker Tinto Brass (“Caligula”) and the first all-female jury in 2021.
The founders recalled a few comic moments over the years. “I like to remember a very laid-back Brian De Palma who, during the press conference for [his 2012 lesbian-themed thriller] “Passion,” declared himself sure of winning the Queer Lion,” Casagrande said with amusement.
The award had its share of controversy, including early attacks from Italian newspaper Libero and Iranian website Baztab. But as far as Casagrande knows, only one film was taken out of contention for the award. That was in 2007 when the Italian PR reps of “Sukiyaki Western Django” asked them to remove it from contention, claiming “it was ‘not of queer interest’. And we were glad to oblige,” Casagrande said.
The Queer Lion has honored features with big-name talent (Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl”) and filmmakers like 2009 Career Achievement award winner Ang Lee. This year, that honor — the second one ever presented — will go to “Casa Susanna” writer/director Sébastien Lifshitz at the Sept. 9 awards ceremony. But Casagrande seems proudest of its ability to launch small indies to more fests and awards, citing Li Cheng’s “José” and Kuba Czekaj’s special mention honoree “Baby Bump.”
“The award has changed the thinking of some producers and distributors, who at first feared having their movies been labeled as ‘gay films,'” he said. “The Queer Lion has helped open the mindset of the film industry towards new paths. And despite huge progress, there are still many ‘fragile’ LGBTQ works in need of support and visibility.”