How a boy from Anglesey created the biggest LGBT+ film festival prize in the world

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Berwyn Rowlands’ skills in TV and film have secured Welsh film recognition all over the world.

Creating the Iris Prize Film Festival, a world leading celebration of queer film, Berwyn has revealed how a love for film turned into an expansive career.

Born in 1966, Berwyn was starting to create productions – or trying to – whilst growing up in his home village of Llangoed on Anglesey from the age of nine.

“Most of it was horrible, but I learned about a wide shot and what a cutaway was,” laughed Berwyn.

“I managed to persuade kids in the village to do stupid things and film it.”

Using his 8mm camera and projector to entertain friends, Berwyn’s love of cinema came from regular trips to Bangor, which was the nearest venue to his home at the time.

“We had to cross over the bridge onto the mainland to go to the cinema, which was quite the achievement seeing as my mother didn’t drive at the time,” he said.

“When it did happen it was a massive affair. For me, cinema and film was massive.”

Being brought up in a passionate Welsh-speaking, working-class family, Berwyn was determined to showcase Welsh talent in TV and film.

Producing films and TV in both Welsh and English for the likes of the BBC, ITV and S4C, Berwyn went on to create the first public film festival in Aberystwyth in 1989 which later became the Welsh International Film Festival.



Berwyn, left, in 1970

During the festival’s running, Berwyn included LGBT+ films.

Not realising just how important this was for queer visibility at the time, he admitted that if he’d have known the importance things might have been different.

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“If I’d of known fully of what I was actually doing, I would have been so nervous and probably wouldn’t have done it”, he admitted.

“The way we showed stuff that was LGBT+ was that we showed it within the mainstream film festival

“I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Coming to terms with his own sexuality during this time, Berwyn took strength from his family who continued to love and support him.

“The second that happened, I didn’t look back, my father and my mother gave me their blessing”, he added.

“I never quite understood whether I’m one of the luckiest gays in Wales, but the only trouble I had really was myself. It was my need to come to terms with my own sexuality.”

Fully embracing his feelings, Berwyn was determined to showcase more LGBT+ film in his home country.

Admitting the Welsh side became an “ordinary” part during his 15 years in Aberystwyth, Berwyn started to purposefully “slip in more gay content” within the festival.

“What was interesting was our ability to slip in more gay content,” he said.

“We reached a point where we thought we would be more visible so we branded something called The Gay Weekend.

“We deliberately said that the last second weekend of the festival was very gay.”

Around this time Berwyn, and other LGBT+ people across the UK, were within the brunt of Section 28 and subsequently victims of the stigma that followed.

Admitting it made him feel almost illegal to exist, Berwyn reflected on how a group of like-minded people helped each other.

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“Looking back, it was quite dark,” he said.

“The gay side of the film side took over. The Welsh side became an ordinary part. The gay thing, at that time, was people thought you had AIDS and you were going to infect them at anytime

“You then had the tragic side of things where people looked at you and felt sorry for you, because they thought you would die.

“But I was a part of a group of people. In Aberystwyth there was this powerhouse group.”

Berwyn is regularly asked to speak about LGBT+ issues on TV and radio. In 1990, he championed and created CYLCH , the first Welsh national gay and lesbian organisation in Wales.

The organisation also saw the publication of bi-lingual magazine, Y Draig Binc.

In 1992, when exhibiting the magazine at the annual Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth an anti-gay protester publicly defaced the stall with excrement.

The event was a blessing in disguise as it pushed Berwyn to continue with trying to allocate more LGBT+ content. But, at the time, it made him angry and concerned how his family would feel.

As the years progressed into the late ’90s, Berwyn was appointed as the first Chief Executive of Sgrîn: The Media Agency for Wales.



Launch of Sgrin in 1997 Berwyn (right) and Dafydd Ellis Thomas (left)

In this role, Berwyn led the establishment of Wales’ National Film and Sound Archive and secured the co-operation of all 22 local authorities to see a unified all-Wales location service – The Wales Screen Commission – established in 2002.

As a high ranking, openly gay person in TV and film in Wales at the time, Berwyn was given two options of what he could use with the benefits.

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“There are two types of gays with positions of power,” he said.

“Those who take full advantage of it for the gays, and those who deliberately challenge themselves because they’re scared. I was the former.”

The early 2000s saw Berwyn influenced by the likes of Russell T Davies’ Queer as Folk.

Dedicating most of his career to developing Welsh hyper-local talent, Berwyn wanted to expand further.

Looking to the global stage of LGBT+ film festivals specifically, Berwyn saw a gap, and along with the support from his partner Grant and others Iris began to come into fruition with it’s first event in 2006.

I found myself that Sgrîn was closing down”, he said.

“I had lots of contacts, I’d run competitions for Welsh shorts. It was basically using 20-odd years of experience. The vision was really clear and precise.”

Since its launch, the Iris Prize has become the world’s largest LGBT+ film prize with £30,000 up for grabs.

This year alone saw more than 6,000 people watch the event live streamed during it’s opening night.



Berwyn at the official launch of Iris in 2007

Even after 13 years of queer film and TV excellence, Berwyn admitted that this is only the beginning and urges young LGBT+ filmmakers that many of the community’s stories “haven’t been told” yet.

“We’re literally still at the beginning. The first 13 years we were putting the groundwork together,” he said.

“The majority of the films at Iris, if not all of them, are examples of the best of the best.

“I think you should chase your dream and work hard at it.

“There are so many stories of ours that haven’t been told.”



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