That The Queen of Ireland sold out two of its three screenings at this year's Sydney Film Festival is very encouraging. In light of recent events and the current political atmosphere in Australia surrounding gay rights, it could not be more relevant. The titular queen is Panti Bliss (or Rory O'Neill), the outgoing but humble drag queen who is credited with having a pivotal role in the campaign that eventually resulted in gay marriage coming to Ireland.
The Queen of Ireland, directed by Conor Horgan, is an intimate character study that frames an important moment in Ireland's social and political history in profoundly personal terms. It's a simple and unflashy film which uses the endearing and magnetic Panti Bliss as the nexus point of the discussion of homophobia, pervasive and toxic notions of masculinity, and the steady momentum of social progress.
In drag as Panti - who he describes as a "giant cartoon woman" - Rory's reserved and gentle personality becomes wry and brassy. The film briefly explores Rory's beginnings, when he first realised he was different during his childhood in the small town of Ballinrobe, to when he discovered his drag persona and began the second part of his life during an extended sojourn to Tokyo. Drag is framed here in simple terms of performance and empowerment; Rory uses his queerness, the very thing that has made him an outsider, as his ultimate self-expression.
After an appearance on a late night talk show during which he discussed the pervasiveness of homophobia, Rory became the focus of much media scrutiny following accusations of slander from high profile right wing groups in Ireland. Using his newfound notoriety, he delivered a moving speech which quickly went viral - retweeted by RuPaul herself, among others - and became a figurehead of the marriage equality movement. It is here that The Queen of Ireland picks up momentum and moves swiftly toward its pre-ordained conclusion.
This may be a triumphant documentary, but in acknowledging progress, it also acknowledges that there are still hurdles to overcome. Panti Bliss is an honest and engaging personality. His intelligence, eloquence and thoughtfulness make for a documentary that is wonderfully edifying while still being joyful and genuinely funny. The film puts difficult concepts in simple terms, and taps into some potent truths about what life is like for queer people.
The Queen of Ireland is not a perfect film - suffering from some slightly uneven pacing and a few canned-sounding voiceovers - but it is profoundly important. It taps into and speaks of things that many people may never consider about how inequality and oppression are so deeply ingrained in our society that they can go unnoticed by the majority. If every single person were to see this film, its eye-opening potential may bring us leaps and bounds toward truly understanding one another.
The Queen of Ireland originally screened as part of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival. It will see wider release on Thursday September 8th via Transmission Films.