Celebrating Bis on Screen

We caught up with Jacob Engelberg, a film programmer based in Brighton, at the Queer Media Festival in Manchester, where he had just given a talk about bi representation in cinema, “Representing Bisexual* Desires On Screen”. It was pretty much the only point in the festival that the “b” word was spoken.

How did you get involved in queer film festivals?
I studied film at university, theoretically, which I was really into – and still am – but I was lucky enough to be working at a cinema where a queer film programme was running and then the person who was running it stepped down and offered it to me. So I’ve been doing that for just over two years now. It’s called Eyes Wide Open Cinema and we do things in Brighton and across the South East as well.

And how did you come to be speaking at the Manchester QMF?
The programme that I run (Eyes Wide Open Cinema) and the Queer Media Festival are both part of a network of queer film festivals and programmes across the British Isles and we were discussing what we wanted to tour this year. I piped up that I wanted some bi content because so many festivals are lacking that and someone said: ‘go on, why don’t you do the talk then’.

How do films show bi content and what are the problems with it, or good things about it?
I think the first thing I talk about is how is it even possible to read a character as bi, and often the only way that we can ever do that is if they have multiple relationships with people of different genders at the same time. And even in some of those situations they are not unequivocally read as bi. And there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of polyamorous relationships but the issue that I have with that is that it means anything that isn’t that will be read as straight or gay.
So, that is probably the main issue. It’s not only consensual polyamorous situations that we find, it’s often that a character’s bisexuality is revealed through the fact that they were cheating on someone – and that is another very harmful trope. I feel that these harmful stereotypes come to affect bi people and our lives.
I also think, when it comes to the good things about bi representations, I think there is a way of enjoying some of the bad bisexuals in cinema. Like Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell is like a brilliant kind of camp villain in lots of ways. The way she parades her bisexuality is so unlike anything that anyone would do – that there’s a fun element to it definitely. And a director I spoke about, Gregg Araki who is – by no means are these representations unproblematic or is there no discussion to be had around them – but what I appreciate in his films is that they create a space where people are like: I feel these bi desires and what does that mean about me, about the relationships that I am having, my life, my identity. It feels like he has quite an empathetic gaze, that allows you, and these characters, to be confused by this confusing system of sexuality that we have.

What about how gay & lesbian cinema and bi representation on screen interact?
In the context of gay cinema, I think we need to think about who is making the films and that this is perhaps a by-product of not having bi people behind the camera or out bi people in the film maker’s social milieu. I don’t want to place all the blame on the gay community, it is something that originates in heteronormativity and originates on those rules but it can definitely be so much more hurtful when we go to the festival where we thought we would see ourselves or the screening where instead we see the cheater, the murderer or whatever. It can be painful.
But I think why we see it in gay cinema is there is something there about the coming out narrative where people say, I used to not know who I was, I used to be confused, I used to not know who I was, but now I am out and proud and everything before was a fake inauthentic self and that has a lovely powerful narrative structure.

It can feel like there are limited and repeated bi narratives: bis as promiscuous or bis as confused. Have you seen any others? Good representation of bis in film?
I think there are probably lots of examples in films that we consider being gay representations where a character might mention a relationship of a different gender in a passing comment or something – it’s not central to the plot or anything. But to understand those kind of things as bi representations is important because its about not disavowing that moment of that person disclosing that.
A bi film I really like that I mention, doesn’t do those things you mention, “Wild Side”, which you are able to read as bi because it has a polyamorous three-way relationship at its core but that has literally nothing to do with the plot, it’s in the tradition of European art house cinema. It’s a slow-moving film about identity and family, rural versus city, those are the key themes in the film, it just happens to be the fact that this is the relationship at its core. Those kinds of representations would help to complicate the range of things that we have. I don’t want to say they are better because there is something very fun about having things like bisexual female vampires or the ridiculousness of Basic Instinct. But what matters is if we can only be those things what does that mean about us and our everyday lives.
Thanks for talking with us and I hope the talk can reach more people – is it going to be on again?
It was recorded when I was talking at Cardiff recently and I hope that can be shared in the near future, or if you’re organising a film event and would like to add it to the programme you can get in touch with me on jacob@eyeswideopencinema.co.uk
Thanks Jacob!