“SUBWAYThe doctors have said very clearly: ‘No more head injuries.’ So says Peter Tatchell, one of the world’s most tenacious, divisive and necessary activists, as he prepares to fly to Moscow in 2018 to protest state-sanctioned homophobia. The journey, which takes him back to the city where he was beaten and arrested in 2007, forms one of the few present-tense sections of this greatest hits documentary. Tatchell has suffered numerous injuries during her protest life, though claims of memory loss are comically undermined during a Kid-Gloves interview with Ian McKellen. “Fifty-two years of civil disobedience, Peter!” gasps the actor admiringly. “Fifty-three now,” Tatchell replies, unable to resist the urge to be right.
As of this year, there are 54. Tatchell was already an activist when she moved from Melbourne to London in 1971 at the age of 19. Among other accomplishments, he went on to organize the first gay rights protest in a communist country (East Germany, 1973), co-founded the gay lobby group OutRage !, and attempted to arrest Robert Mugabe as citizens (London, 1999 and Brussels, 2001). Former MP Chris Smith correctly identifies those clashes with the Zimbabwean dictator as turning points that softened public hostility towards Tatchell.
What is the best way to describe it? Are you a “performance artist” (as Stephen Fry says)? “Brave son of a bitch” (singer and DJ Tom Robinson)? Or “a little irritating” (Smith)? Dr. George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, calls him “an intimidating kind of guy,” but then he would say: it was Carey’s 1998 Easter Sunday sermon that was kidnapped by Tatchell, who rushed to the pulpit to protest the Church’s disdain for lesbian and gay rights.
Analysis is scant on the ground in this friendly but functional film, with any fleeting or accidental ambiguities. Images from the 1983 Bermondsey election, for example, in which Tatchell ran as a Labor candidate and lost after a homophobic campaign against him, show him modifying his doorway speech, with his Australian tones cut out. peppered with glottal stops and shouts of joy. Why not ask about that? A ubiquitous score guides the viewer’s responses, and we get a standard eighties montage (Thatcher, royal wedding, Band Aid). One highlight is footage from the 1990s “kisses” organized by OutRage !, in which gay protesters risked prosecution for making out in front of police and cameras. If only the filmmakers had bothered to identify Derek Jarman during his roughly 20 seconds of screen time, rather than narrowing down Britain’s most important queer filmmaker to Man in Crowd.
Those unfamiliar with Tatchell or unconvinced of his importance will still find a decent place to start in the film, although it remains a timid portrait, according to the book, of a man who is quite the opposite.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism