Sequin in a Blue Room is released via Peccadillo Pictures on UK/Ireland & North American digital platforms from 9th April. SequinInaBlueRoom.film
This article refers to ‘cottaging’, a gay slang term originating in the United Kingdom. Cottaging refers to anonymous sex between men in a public toilet, park or identified place.
Ask any gay man about their first experience of gay sex, and many will talk about the excitement, apprehension, fear and doubt of those first fumblings. For many gay men of my generation, these first encounters were secret, clandestine and full of risk, and for some, they revolved around a secret school romance kept hidden from public view. Others found themselves drawn to the local gay ‘cottage’ where promise, fear and heart-pounding tension lit up wet Saturday afternoons. However, mention the word ‘cottaging’ to any gay youngster now, and the response is bound to be “Cottage…what?” For these young people, the concept of sex in secretive locations like a public toilet, park or alleyway is alien in our new online world.
Cottaging was risky, with men of all ages hoping they would catch a bite that would lead to a brief non-verbal acknowledgement and a secretive and brief love affair. After the deed was done, both men would, more often than not, just walk away. Sometimes these meetings were scary and abrupt, the experience enough to make sure a young man never returned to the cottage. However, occasionally these encounters would lead to ongoing relationships of support.
READ MORE: THE FRENCH BOYS
The arrival of online gay dating apps such as Grindr would mark the beginning of the end for many local gay cottages, with many arguing the appearance of the app’s liberated gay communities and gay sex. However, has the app made the world of first sexual activity any safer for young gay men? After all, while convenient, these apps continue to embody a clandestine risk just as cottaging did yers before. Anyone signing into any of the leading gay apps finds their screen full of blank profiles, faceless pictures and empty profiles; however, unlike cottaging years before, these mysterious people are ranted access to our homes through the phones in our pockets.
Samuel Van Grinsven’s new film Sequin in a Blue Room explores the online world for gay young people in a brave and bold dissection of teenage gay life in the 21st century. Here the journey of one young man in Sydney sits front and centre as we explore the addictive nature of the app and the risks that surround online meetings.
To say Van Grinsven’s film is one of the most important gay coming-of-age films of recent years is an understatement. Sequin in a Blue Room is nothing short of ‘essential’ viewing as it opens up a timely discussion on online hook-ups, sex and vulnerability in a gay teenage world of experimentation. Here the vulnerability of our adolescent protagonist is cloaked by a sense of invincibility that doesn’t exist. I recently caught up with director Samuel Van Grinsven to explore the urgent and important social themes held in Sequin in a Blue room.
” It’s a coming-of-age story that is not remotely concerned with coming out, where sexual discovery is not only easy but accelerated. Where vastly different generations and experiences of being queer collide within a single hook-up app.”
Samuel Van Grinsven
Hi Samuel, thanks for taking the timeout to talk to me about your new film Sequin in a Blue Room. I thought the film was unquestionably one of the most important gay coming-of-age films of recent years. Can you tell us about the film’s journey from page to screen?
I found and fell in love with the 90’s film movement of New Queer Cinema. The early works of filmmakers like Gregg Araki and Gus Van Sant brought an infectious freedom and youthful energy to the screen. Stories that were honest about where they came from, but unafraid to play with form and genre. Unashamed to be queer and not remotely concerned with being palatable. It was courage, on-screen; courage that I remembered feeling as a teenager coming of age.
Sequin in a Blue Room came from exactly that. An attempt to capture the unique confidence, agency and tensions of a queer teenager in the digital age. An attempt to see my experience reflected. It’s a coming-of-age story that is not remotely concerned with coming out. Where sexual discovery is not only easy but accelerated. Where vastly different generations and experiences of being queer collide within a single hook-up app. An app where self-assured Sequin, the 16-year-old protagonist, comes face to face with a different set of challenges than our expectations predict from the tried and true genre.
Part of the reason Sequin in a Blue Room carries such power is newcomer Conor Leach’s central performance. How did you go about casting Conor? And was it challenging finding a young actor who could embody the complexity, innocence and confidence of ‘Sequin’?
Very challenging! Australia is still a largely conservative country in a lot of ways, and we certainly found that in initial responses to the screenplay. Of course, some of that was warranted. I am a new director, and to make a film like this requires a building of trust. We were lucky to be championed by some key actors and industry to find the right cast.
Conor had just graduated from Melbourne acting school, and this film was one of the first roles his agent had put him forward for. I actually looked at him and was not interested initially until his agent reached out directly and asked if he could self-tape. He did, and to this day, I have only ever watched the first two lines. He instantly brought self-awareness and power to Sequin that I think we so often miss when portraying young queer characters. When I look back on my own coming-of-age, I have memories of being surrounded by immense courage and conviction in queer identity despite the odds. Conor brought that, and it was instantly refreshing and challenging. He was on a plane to Sydney within a couple of days and offered the role on the spot.
Was it always your intention to create a bold, brave and challenging film that dissected the world of online gay hook up’s? And do you feel discussions on the vulnerability sitting behind ‘gay apps’ are long overdue?
You’re never entirely certain what an audience will end up finding challenging or bold in a film. You find it at different stages of the filmmaking process. There were scenes that hit hard onset; you could feel it in the cast and crew – a palpable tension. There were scenes that hit harder in the edit. There was a day I walked in to check on the editor, Tim, and he told me to sit down and watch a scene, but he was going to press play and head home. I did as he said and instantly understood why; he had just spent 8 hours editing a scene that is still incredibly difficult for me to watch to this day.
Yes, there is tough and challenging content in the film. But, I never set out with the intention to shock. That response from audiences is a response to honesty. I wanted to be honest about experiences in my community but also share some of my own truths from my journey as a queer youth. I think there are a lot of discussions overdue within the queer, and especially gay male, community. It’s been a fantastic experience to engage in those discussions with this film, be it in an audience Q&A screening, interviews or online.
I think that is also an interesting part of where we are currently in the history of queer film. In recent decades, queer stories that reach a wider audience are often concerned with looking outward. Be that biopics or historical dramas, we’ve been playing catch up. Finally sharing the stories that for so long we weren’t able to. But now, with more queer films finding an audience, we are seeing conversations that look inward. Stories by us, for us. That’s not only important, but it’s also exciting and necessary.
“When I look back on my own coming-of-age I have memories of being surrounded by immense courage and conviction in queer identity despite the odds. Conor brought that, and it was instantly refreshing and challenging.”
Samuel Van Grinsven
In opening this interview, I talked about the journey from secretive gay meetings in public places to hook-up apps. Do you feel the landscape has really changed for young gay men in the risks attached to their first sexual experiences? And in your view, are these experiences still wrapped in secrecy, despite the progress made in social equality?
Thematically, that is an element at play in this film. There is a lot of queer theory written about this very subject. The idea of cycles of transgression that for many queer people, their first sexual experiences are acts of transgression. From that, a sexual pattern can develop where we may continue to seek out sexual experiences that are viewed as transgressive. That becomes an interesting theory when paired with the social progress of equality. It’s something I was questioning myself about the gay world immediately around me.
I do think a lot has changed; that doesn’t mean it’s a more positive experience for everyone, though. I’m in my late 20s now, and there were certainly risks for me; I have spoken with people in their early 20s who experienced the same risks in new ways. That’s the interesting tension point Sequin in a Blue Room places itself in. A unique period of time in which vastly different experiences of being queer collide within a digital platform.
Sequin’s journey embodies the excitement and false confidence many young people experience when first using an app in the safety of their bedroom. But, do you feel young people really understand the world they enter on creating a profile?
Young people, especially young queer people, are a lot smarter and more independent than we give them credit for. Firstly, we are talking about a generation of people who know how to use social technology better than any other. They can spot a fake, they can sense a dangerous situation, and they know what to look for. Is that always the case? No, but when tackling the writing of Sequin as a character, it was one of our key aims. To bring to the screen a 16-year-old young queer man who had the true agency and courage that you see in youth today.
That’s not what leads Sequin into dangerous situations. It’s the hubris of youth and his belief in his invincibility. In many ways, Sequin knows more about this world in the film than the older generations he interacts with. But it’s the selfishness and naivety of Sequin that is his downfall.
I don’t know of any gay man (including myself) who hasn’t used a gay dating app at some point. Do we, as a community, need to take the mental health outcomes of such apps more seriously? And should app developers be doing more to ensure the safety and security of those accessing their platforms?
Yes, more needs to be done. A part of that is looking at the underlying issues that are only heightened on these apps. That’s everything from racism to body shaming. We need to be more honest and active in fighting the fact that, for some reason, largely gay men believe it is okay to be more explicitly racist or sizest via their profiles on these apps than they are in real life. The outcomes of that are incredibly damaging.
Queer film and art are a part of pushing that conversation to the surface, and to do that, we have to show it honestly for what it is.
One of the fascinating discussions Sequin in a Blue Room raises is the use of terminology in sex (e.g. Twink). Do you feel that the gay community are at risk of labelling themselves based on sexual desires and preferences? In turn, creating sexual commodities rather than individuals.
That’s a tricky one. I think these terms are such a strong part of queer culture now that attempting to lose them is probably an uphill climb. I think we are already rapidly seeing a drop of terminology that is damaging, either to self-identity or to others. So there is a self-policing happening that is somewhat positive.
I also think you have to look at the most popular terminology for what it is and not be shy about it. Largely, these terms are used to speed up the process of casual sex via apps designed for exactly that. I don’t think you see these terms as prevalent in other apps that are more tailored toward relationships, for example. There is no denying that gay culture is openly sexual; these terms are authentically born from that, and I think there is enough awareness of that out there.
“We are seeing pop-up online bars, queer gaming meetups, watch parties and more live streams. Those spaces inevitably lead to new forms of social connections.”
Samuel Van Grinsven
It’s important to state that many people have a positive experience with online hook-up apps and dating. But, do we risk losing the more personal approach of conversation, physical groups and connection in our ever-growing online world?
It’s a double-edged sword, the app’s experience can and has been traced to the closures of physical queer spaces that used to serve that purpose of community or meeting place. On the other side, the positives of identity and sexual exploration that comes with these apps can’t be disregarded. I would also be the first to say that I have had transformative points of connection and communication via apps. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
A lot has changed in the western queer community in a very short space of time. Something I am passionate about here in Australia is the preservation of our physical history. That includes our gay bars, clubs, bathhouses and meeting places. It’s about viewing these spaces as more than just a physical version of their now online counterparts. These are spaces of our living history, of our survival and liberation, that we need to band together as a community to protect and share with new generations to help keep our story alive.
In a world where COVID 19 has dramatically altered the landscape of social connection and confidence, do you feel the use of hook-up apps will also change to reflect this?
I think they already have. We are seeing pop-up online bars, queer gaming meetups, watch parties and more live streams. Those spaces inevitably lead to new forms of social connections. I have also noticed a dramatic shift in people being comfortable with video calls, and dating and hook-up apps have adopted that. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s how fast we can adapt. Because of that, I think there is a new genuine intimacy being found virtually that we used to think only existed in the flesh. Of course, it will go the other way once we are out of this, but I don’t see us letting that go entirely.
Finally, what do you hope people take away from Sequin in a Blue Room?
Firstly, I simply hope they are entertained and enjoy the film. Secondly, my hope is that people see a part of themselves in Sequin’s story. Be that the specificity of a digital queer coming-of-age or just that human story of searching for yourself in your youth and making mistakes of growing up too fast along the way.