The Out Take: 10 Fantastic Teddy Award-Winning LGBT Films To Watch Right Now

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Today marks the beginning of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. And while some might consider the Berlinale to be the third of the three major European film festivals, after Cannes and Venice, when it comes to queer cinema it’s by far the most exciting. Why? It’s thanks to that charming bear up there, the Teddy Award.

The Teddy was first given back in 1987, to Pedro Almodovar’s “Law of Desire” and two short films by Gus Van Sant. That may not seem all that long ago, but think about it: the big foundational moment for American New Queer Cinema was four years later, at Sundance 1991 when “Paris Is Burning” and “Poison” both won Grand Jury Prizes (both films also won a Teddy). Venice and Cannes only just got into the game themselves, awarding the first Queer Lion in 2007 and the first Queer Palm in 2010. The Teddy, by encouraging and cultivating queer cinema for more than thirty years, has become the most significant LGBT film award on the festival circuit.

It isn’t just prestigious because it’s old, either. Some of the best queer films ever made have won this prize, and some of the best films of the last thirty years in general. While American New Queer Cinema was on the wane, the Teddy turned to LGBT films from around the world, highlighting thrilling and unexpected work from Asia and Latin America. Recent winners from the United States have gone on to pick up awards back home, Independent Spirits as well as Oscar nominations. With such an impressive pool of films, it’s a little ridiculous that there isn’t more attention paid to the Teddy each and every year.

But don’t take my word for it! Here are 10 fantastic Teddy winners that you can stream right now at home. And if you’re curious, the official program guide has been posted online, where you can look at this year’s eligible films and tributes to Sergei Eisenstein and Dusty Springfield.

“Relax,” by Chris Newby – Best Short Film, 1991

We’ll start at the beginning, or at least close to it. Chris Newby’s “Relax” is a miniature masterwork, a stunning distillation of the social and psychological dimensions of the AIDS crisis. It builds up from a single act, one man’s decision to get tested for HIV. The threat of infection and, crucially, the threat of simply knowing whether one has been exposed to the virus hover over both his life and the images that Newby uses to challenge the audience.

The British Film Institute has made “Relax” available to rent on its website, as well as two other Teddy short winners from the early years: Richard Kwietniowski’s “Alfalfa” and Constantin Giannaris’s “Caught Looking.” They’re both great as well.

“Paris Is Burning,” by Jennie Livingston – Best Documentary, 1991

I am a broken record about this film, one of a handful of Teddy winners that has actually attained a significant cultural impact beyond the queer film festival world. It is also still brilliant and still on Netflix Instant. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re not as on top of this “movie fan” thing as you might have thought.

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“Trevor,” by Peggy Rajski – Best Short Film, 1995

Many of the award-winning short films at the Berlin Film Festival over the years have been sexy, experimental works in the milieu of Derek Jarman or Constantin Giannaris. That’s hardly the only kind of film that deserves this sort of attention, however. Peggy Rajksi’s “Trevor” is beautiful in its simple commitment to the perspective of a single gay kid, in love with his best friend and alone in suburbia.

“The Watermelon Woman,” by Cheryl Dunye – Best Feature Film, 1996

Considered to be the first feature film directed by an African American lesbian, “The Watermelon Woman” makes history by focusing on the history of cinema itself. The main character is a filmmaker named Cheryl, played by Cheryl Dunye herself, who becomes fascinated with the archetypal roles for black actresses in 1930s and 40s Hollywood. It’s an exploration of the past that helps push the future forward, the sort of film to which we should continue to return as we try to understand the new directions queer cinema is going in this even newer century.

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“¿Con qué la lavaré?” by Maria Trénor – Best Short Film, 2004

Dedicated to such queer luminaries as Jean Genet and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, this gorgeous short film’s animated dreamland finds its spirit in the shady bars and cruising spots of old. Yet it presents this world of dripping sexual energy with an operatic dignity, helped along by the perfect soundtrack choice of a 16th century torch song.

“Beyond Hatred,” by Olivier Meyrou – Best Documentary, 2006

Olivier Meyrou’s “Beyond Hatred” is a sort of anti-courtroom documentary. It has to be, actually, because the trial in question was closed to the public. One of the three skinheads that murdered 29-year-old Francois Chenu was a minor. Instead, the film intimately follows the mourning process of his family alongside the legal proceedings. The result is a somewhat formally restrained look at the results of homophobic violence without directly confronting any of it in a brash manner. Chillingly beautiful, “Beyond Hatred” includes some of the best individual shots of any Teddy Award-winning nonfiction film.

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“Tá,” by Felipe Sholl – Best Short Film, 2008

Quick, daring and sexually provocative, Felipe Sholl’s slice of life short film tries to explore the ways in which an expanded comfort with sexuality occasionally complicates the way we understand each other. It may not directly come out and say anything quite as ridiculous as “love is dead,” but it’s a playful glimpse into what a future of openly gay but still entirely adolescent teenagers may look like.

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“Tomboy,” by Céline Sciamma – Jury Award, 2011

Featuring one of the best child actor performances in recent memory, Zoé Héran as Laure/Mikael, “Tomboy” is a deeply understanding look at the way gender identity issues emerge in the childhood. It’s a question of perspective. By leaving the film in the hands of its protagonist, Céline Sciamma carefully respects the ideas and individuals involved, and crafts a truly beautiful tale of youth.

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“Keep the Lights On,” by Ira Sachs – Best Feature Film, 2012

Heartbreaking, if also a little miserable, “Keeps the Lights On” is quite the tragedy of drug addiction, miscommunication and emotional exhaustion. As such, it’s pretty impressively compelling in spite of how rough it is to get through. It may also be the first ever Teddy Award winner to mention the Teddy Awards – its protagonist is a filmmaker who actually wins one himself. That alone makes it a little piece of history.

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“Call Me Kuchu,” by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall – Best Documentary, 2012

Despite its frustrating omission from this year’s Best Documentary Oscar shortlist, we can console ourselves that the truly exceptional “Call Me Kuchu” won in Berlin. This profile of the heroic LGBT community of Uganda is an epic of activism and a powerful reminder that the road to justice and acceptance is long and torturous. Its legacy continues with the David Kato Vision & Voice Award, which this year’s festival program announces will be given to Cambodian activist Sou Sotheavy.

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