Queer Wave Festival: Diego A. Aparicio and Cyprus’ first LGBTQ+ film festival

“Spread the love. It starts with a ripple” reads the tagline of Queer Wave: the Cyprus LGBTIQ+ film festival. In September 2021, the festival brought together the island’s LGBTIQ+ community, allies and cinephiles, through its 20 screenings with 40+ feature-length and short films, and numerous parallel events. For the first time in Cyprus, LGBTIQ+ cinema took centre stage for 10 days, with films exploring themes of love, coming out, identity and family bonds, and creating a safe space for the LGBTIQ+ community and its allies to come together after 18 months of Covid-19. Widely covered by mainstream media and supported by established bodies and cultural institutions, the festival came to embrace diversity, bring forth important issues about LGBTIQ+ rights in Cyprus, and enrich the quality of cultural events on the island.

The mastermind behind the festival comes from an unlikely background of physics, quantum technologies, and two years’ training as a medical physicist with the NHS in Cambridge, UK. Diego Armando Aparicio had been a devoted cinephile for years, at one point programming screenings at Imperial College London, and eventually joining the UCL film society. His first few times on a film set while at UCL played a key role in Aparicio’s decision to get involved with film more seriously. After briefly writing for the Curzon film blog, serving as part of a jury at the Venice Film Festival in 2018, and assuming a role as co-director of partnerships for Cambridge’s 10th Watersprite film festival in 2019, Aparicio decided to pursue his love for cinema professionally: a radical change after his seven years in physics.

Through visiting European festivals, and volunteering for festivals in London, the idea of creating a new one back in Cyprus started forming. His love for LGBTIQ+ art house cinema, but also the need to create spaces in Cyprus that can ignite social dialogue, made him realise just how much a queer film festival could add to the local cultural landscape. In a strange turn of events, the pandemic offered the perfect opportunity to test his idea: Queer Wave was inaugurated online in August 2020, successfully paving the way for an in-person second edition the year after.

We talked to Diego about his takeaways from the two years of running the festival, the challenges he faced, his hopes for the festival in the future, and his own plans for filmmaking.

Diego A. Aparicio, by Tomek Zwolinski Ⓒ

What was your relationship with film before Queer Wave?

When I was 17 and had already made the decision that I was going to study physics, I discovered Cyprus Film Days at the Rialto Theatre, and the Limassol Cinema Club later on. It was then that I first realised how rich art house cinema can be, and the profound impact of watching LGBT+ cinema in an auditorium as a closeted teenager. I was already on a different path, though, and I didn’t truly understand what cinema meant to me at the time.

During my years at university, I would take short courses and masterclasses on film appreciation and screenwriting, and I used to organise screenings for Imperial’s film society. When I started my master’s at UCL, I joined the same society Christopher Nolan – the director of Inception, Interstellar etc – had been part of. The UCL film society was extremely active with hands-on filmmaking. Up until 2018, I was just a cinephile, with some experience working on student films. Applying for 28 Times Cinema, funded by the European Parliament, and serving as a jury member at Venice’s Giornate degli Autori helped me get a glimpse of the overwhelming number of paths one can take within the film industry.

How did the idea for Queer Wave come about?

Whilst in the UK, I attended and volunteered for BFI Flare, London’s LGBTQIA+ film festival, and from there the idea started gradually growing. I had never lived in Cyprus as an adult, and I wanted to familiarise myself with the local industry as well. The LGBT+ aspect interested me on a personal and collective level, as I felt that not enough was happening on that front. In July 2019, with support from Rialto, I attended a festival development course in Poland, organised by the UK’s Independent Cinema Office, and taught by some of the world’s leading festival professionals.

In September that year, I finally left the UK and returned to Cyprus to get some experience in film production. Six months later, the pandemic happened – and it was almost a year before I was back on a film set. When all filming came to a halt, I poured all the energy and excitement I had accumulated in a different direction: putting together an LGBTQ+ film festival in Cyprus. In spring I kept seeing lots of established festivals going online because of Covid, and none of us knew how long this was going to last back then. Many people were trying the online thing, so I thought: ‘why not us?’ I reached out to a few friends who were really excited to be a part of it from the get-go, and it wasn’t long before we had a name and logo.

Alexis Markou Ⓒ

How was the first virtual experience compared to the in-person festival?

Having now experienced both, I would never swap the in-person experience for the online one. Cinema is a collective experience, and I think it’s important to watch films in a theatre. When we first started, however, planning an in-person event was subject to too many risks. Many were sceptical of the format, but in the end, we recorded around 1000 views during Queer Wave 2020. Between 1-8 August, we showcased 25 films, 15 of which were short films. We complemented our programme with some introductions and Q&As online, and viewers interacted with us through social media. Not ideal, but it was a start.

When it comes to last year’s physical edition, I remember that wonderful disbelief when we realised we had two fully-booked events on our opening night: a screening of Zaida Bergroth’s Tove; and a performance by the local drag queen legend Miss Foxy. Some people couldn’t get tickets but came to the afterparty. In the end, there were probably about a hundred of us, so the venue couldn’t host us without breaking the Covid protocols. We had to break it off quite early – lessons for next time! It was so humbling to see everyone coming back consistently after that. We had great attendance on practically every night of the festival, and you could feel that there was a strong sense of community in it: queers, cinephiles from different walks of life, filmmakers and even families were all coming together. During Queer Wave 2021 we had an attendance of over 1200, and the festival ran 3-12 September across three venues in Nicosia. We showcased 44 films, including five shorts from Cyprus. We hosted four Q&A sessions with filmmakers and two discussion panels that brought together activists, academics, and even an MEP.

Nafsika Hadjichristou Ⓒ

I think it was so exciting for this to finally happen, and for the LGBT+ community to have these physical spaces to meet, interact with each other but also see the support that’s out there. And for the cinephiles as well – to finally have a platform that can fully focus on these topics and show them from a broader perspective. Because up until now, LGBT+ films were only a small part of other festivals, so that can’t really encapsulate the full picture.

Absolutely. When I attended Cyprus Film Days back in 2011-2012, it was two LGBT+ titles that left the biggest impression on me, as I felt how empowering it was to watch and experience films like that collectively in a shared space. Ten years ago, conversations on LGBT+ topics were even more limited than today in the public sphere. And yes, even with other festivals occasionally hosting LGBT+ titles, that leaves huge room for improvement, especially in a place like Cyprus that is so dominated by multiplexes. In most cinemas, you only get to see more commercial films, so this barely leaves any space for arthouse titles: a great deal of queer cinema never reaches audiences in Cyprus as a result.

Nafsika Hadjichristou Ⓒ

What were some of the challenges you faced while putting the festival together?

Due to all the uncertainty that came with the pandemic, it felt very plausible that we would not get the funding and be very disappointed. But the uncertainty was also very liberating for us: we had nothing to lose. Back in April 2020 when I first flirted with the idea, I met up with a couple of friends, told them about it over a glass of wine (or two) and they were like: ‘do it’. Their support helped me trust that there were ways of making it happen, even with a tiny budget, a small team, and few resources. Some discouraging comments we had were from people saying that film festivals should not be held online, but instead of wasting that year, we wanted to utilise it to establish the festival as an idea first. We wouldn’t have received the same support for our second edition if we hadn’t had an online Queer Wave 2020 as a proof of concept.

What do you think are the main benefits of festivals like these? How did you see Queer Wave benefit you and other fellow film-lovers?

It’s hard to tell for sure, in a ‘cause-and-effect’ kind of way, as the festival itself has been around for less than 24 months. I think in some regards it’s too early to see Queer Wave’s impact, but just taking into consideration that the festival has reclaimed public spaces and is being covered by mainstream media, it creates the space for some conversations to finally happen – and hopefully encourages other LGBT+ initiatives to materialise: within the arts and beyond.

We also witnessed filmmakers meeting one another, and brought people together that perhaps wouldn’t normally cross paths otherwise. In time, the festival could well become a meeting place that will allow future collaborations to happen. I’m noticing more and more queer artists and filmmakers emerging from Cyprus, and it’s an honour for Queer Wave to provide a platform where they can showcase their works.

Nafsika Hadjichristou Ⓒ

How do you see it evolve in the future?

When I was in Prague recently as a speaker at the 22nd Mezipatra Queer Film Festival, a fellow panellist was asked the same question. He responded with: ‘My therapist doesn’t allow me to think about the future.’ (laughs) I don’t want to mention anything that we might not be able to deliver in 2022, but I’ll just say that we want to create a really strong foundation for the festival team. Queer Wave owes a great deal to its core festival members and volunteers. Our most important priority is to find the right people to carry on the work: not necessarily a big team but certainly a devoted team, as festivals demand really good collaboration. It’s not always easy to find the right people for a long-term project like this. We’re looking for people to become part of the festival family, it’s the only way for it to evolve in a healthy manner. We also want to work more closely with the LGBT+ community north of the buffer zone, it’s something we want to explore further with Kuir Kibris. For our online edition in 2020, we went the extra mile so that viewers north of the green line could access the majority of our selection. For Queer Wave 2021, we strived to offer subtitles in Greek and English, but also Turkish. Ultimately, we hope the festival can become more accessible and inclusive to more communities; and bring all of us in touch with the ‘other’: whatever that is from each perspective.

What’s on your plans for this year? Do you see yourself keeping involved with filmmaking?

I would like to. Running a festival and making films are not mutually exclusive at this point, but realistically there is a trade-off. Practically speaking, you need to be very aware of how you divide your time, as the two can (regrettably) get in the way of each other. After 2.5 years, however, I’ve reached a point where I need to be more selective with what projects I pursue and under what circumstances.

Do you prefer the role of the director, scriptwriter, or more technical roles?

I made a film with a friend a couple of years ago: a short film we shot on Super-8 – it was an incredibly fun experience! But to actually call yourself a director or screenwriter requires serious dedication to the craft, which is something I have not prioritised thus far. I’d like to give each a try since those were the things that drew me into cinema, but they’re not the only fulfilling roles I can think of – and it’s healthier to realise they’re not for everyone. I’ve really enjoyed editing in the past: it can feel a bit lonely at times, but it’s a really powerful and creative tool!

Because of my non-technical background, on sets, I’ve mainly worked as a production assistant on four feature-length films: two co-productions with France and two more with Greece, which were overall great experiences. But I can’t keep accepting PA posts indefinitely. I have more to offer with the skills I already possess, and I’ll never pick up new ones if I get pigeon-holed in one role. A more senior role in the production department would be welcome, but I’m also very keen to work as a script supervisor or assistant director. Often, all anyone needs is a good opportunity. But those are rare in Cyprus, so people are sometimes better off creating their own. Hence Queer Wave.

Alexis Markou Ⓒ

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