So many of the greatest LGBTQ+ documentaries ever made deal with struggle. The films listed here are full of inspiration and compassion, love and struggle, truth and heartbreak.
That many are as much, if not more, about the fight for equal rights, proper representation or justice as they are about love reveals why Pride events around the world, and key LGBTQ+ charities, are still so necessary and so important.
We Were Here
Compassionate, compelling, uplifting, life affirming and utterly heartbreaking – David Weissman’s documentary tells the story of the effect of AIDS on San Francisco’s gay community in the early 1980s.
The film (titled San Francisco’s Year Zero: We Were Here when shown on the BBC in 2012) is told through the recollections of friends and lovers, care-givers and activists, researchers and medical practitioners who bravely stepped into the shaming void left by the lack of a coherent official response. And what emerges are tales of astonishing bravery, resilience and community solidarity in the face of an initially undiagnosed but devastating epidemic.
Whether it is San Francisco’s lesbian community rallying around their stricken brothers in arms, the haunted faces of survivors as they look back on the early days of the epidemic, or the shocking failures of government, this is an unflinching and unforgettable documentary film. And it is somehow all the more powerful for the simplicity with which it is presented – the filmmakers getting out of the way of the story with grace, skill and compassion. Available to rent on Vimeo or Amazon
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A Secret Love
After falling in love in their early 20s, Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue kept their relationship secret from their families until they were well into their 80s. For six decades, the two Chicago women were business partners and housemates in public, but lovers in private, until a drunken reveal to Donahue’s grand-nephew Chris Bolan.
He would, in time, bring their incredible love story to Netflix and mass acclaim – though by the time filming began in 2013, Donahue was in poor health. The resulting film, charting their lives together and their secret love story, is so beautiful and powerful – including an impromptu wedding on Donahue’s 90th birthday. Available now on Netflix
Paris Is Burning
Stunning social history realness as Jennie Livingston’s legendary film charts the golden age of New York’s nascent ball culture in the late 1980s, exploring issues around gender, sexuality and race and interviewing key players from the drag scene.
Set against the backdrop of the Aids epidemic, Paris Is Burning is a vital document of the end of an era in which the extravagant weekly balls celebrated drag culture and the gay and trans communities.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
A sobering and unsettling look at the continued battle for equal rights. The film explores the life of Marsha P Johnson, a vital activist figure from the Stonewall uprising of 1969 through the foundation of the Gay Liberation Front to the ACT UP Aids activism of the late 1980s and early 1990s, before their untimely death in 1992.
This stunning film is one part murder mystery looking at the circumstances of Johnson’s death verdict – the initial verdict was death by suicide, but a decade later, after intense pressure from their supporters, the cause of death was changed to unexplained and the police investigation was later reopened thanks to Victoria Cruz of the NYC Anti-Violence Project – one part fascinating deep archival dive.
With the two competing elements together, David France’s film is a fitting tribute to Johnson – dubbed “the Rosa Parks of the modern transgender movement” by the Village Voice. It also shows how the wait for real equality is ongoing, with so many believing Johnson is one of far too many trans women to have been murdered. Available now on Netflix
Are You Proud?
Made to mark 50 years since the Stonewall Uprising in New York, one of the defining acts of defiance in the battle for gay rights, Ashley Joiner’s documentary charts the key moments in the fight for equality and blends archive footage with new interviews to ask how much progress has been made. Both celebration and call to action, this vital film brings together a diverse range of voices and asks tough questions. Watch now on Amazon Prime or BFI Player
The Invisible Men (2012) takes us inside Israel’s gay Palestinian underground, following men like Abdu, Faris and Louie, three courageous gay men hiding out in Tel Aviv, marginalised in multiple ways, oppressed and in danger in both Palestine and Israel. Eye-opening, heartbreaking, but with some joyous moments when we see love finding a way.
By contrast, Hello My Name is Lesbian gathers women aged from 19-84 living in Denmark, one of the world’s most sexually liberated countries. With animated sequences, brilliant archive footage and a diverse, beautiful cast this is a beautiful celebration of lesbian love.
Barack Obama and ex-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon call gay rights “the final frontier in human rights” – and Global Gay follows the fight to decriminalise homosexuality around the world. At the time the film was made, in 2014, there were seven countries in the UN in which homosexuality was punishable by death and a further 84 where it could merit prison. Momentum is shifting, but the fight goes on.
Out Run (2016) follows Bemz Benedito in her quest to be elected as the first trans woman in the Philippine Congress – a battle joined by a wonderful crew of working class trans hairdressers and beauty queens as they take on a homophobic evangelical preacher.
And finally Man Made shows four transgender men preparing to enter Trans FitCon – the world’s only all-trans bodybuilding competition in Atlanta, Georgia. Dominic, Mason, Rese and Kennie are the competitors, who have already overcome so much to make it onto the stage, with Rese having been homeless when debut filmmaker T Cooper’s camera first starts following him.
Olly Alexander: Growing Up Gay
Singer and actor Olly Alexander was educating, inspiring and helping future generations of young gay people long before he made his incredible speech at Glastonbury during Years and Years’ set, or starred in Russell T Davies’s series It’s a Sin.
In this documentary, made for BBC3 and still available via the iPlayer, Alexander joins youngsters facing issues that he encountered as a young(er) man, whether that is to do with bullying, mental health issues or anxiety disorders, asking what can be done to help and support young LGBTQ+ people – and also talks about his own journey. Watch now on iPlayer
How To Survive A Plague
Another extraordinary documentary taking us inside the early days of the fight against the Aids epidemic. David France’s Oscar-nominated 2012 film follows the first-generation Aids activists who stepped up when political leaders and the medical establishment failed, becoming self-educated lobbyists, pharmaceutical innovators, drug smugglers, independent publishers and scientific researchers in their battle to ensure Aids would not be a death sentence for future generations.
This insider account charts the years of frustration, the innovation and struggle, the founding of Act Up and TAG (Treatment Action Group) who fought to speed up and expand the access to potentially life-saving treatments. Rent or buy from Amazon
A simple but effective documentary looking at transgender representation in film and television. Trans actors and creatives – from Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox to Chaz Bono (son of Cher), Mj Rodriguez (star of BBC2’s Pose) and Transparent’s Alexandra Billings are among the talking heads explaining how they have been impacted by Hollywood depictions of trans people and why cultural representation matters in a straightforward but important film. Available now on Netflix
Welcome to Chechnya
Since 2017, Chechnya’s fanatical leader Ramzan Kadyrov has been waging war on LGBTQ+ people in the Russian republic. But where there is love, there is hope – and this third entry on our list for filmmaker David France is a film of defiance and bravery. The feature-length documentary follows activists in Russia running safe houses and embarking on daring rescue missions to help those whose lives are under threat from a government-led campaign of torture and execution.
Innovative face-doubling techniques protect the identities of the people on the frontline of this battle against oppression and hate. Available on BBC iPlayer.
The Big Issue TV is a subscription video on demand service showcasing documentary films that are challenging, provocative and vital viewing.
The Big Issue TV Pride Playlist joins playlists for Earth Day 2021, Women’s History Month and a Prisons playlist – released to coincide with a special edition of the magazine in April, all of which are still available, alongside films on politics, social activism, the environment, finance, culture and health and technology.
All films are hand-picked by The Big Issue team, with new content added each month. To subscribe to The Big Issue TV for the introductory rate of £3.99 per month go to thebigissue.tv
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