Every summer, I cover queer film festivals—Frameline, OutFest and NewFest, among them—but I generally only attend Philadelphia’s QFest. For 12 days, once every 12 months, I get to see dozens of GLBTQ films that reflect my life, and the lives of people I know in a theatre with the queer and queer-friendly community. I see images and hear GLBTQ stories of people and places that are foreign—and often fascinating—to me. There is a palpable sensation of power and strength in the communal experience sitting in a theatre, surrounded by equally passionate and mostly queer filmgoers laughing at a comedy or caught up in an engrossing drama or documentary.
I hear debates about queer film festivals all the time. That we should get to a point of acceptance and inclusion so that queer film festivals are unnecessary; that the films are generally buff boys in the buff, and not edgy or daring enough; and, that were it not for these festivals, most of these films would never be seen by audiences.
I don’t disagree with any of these viewpoints. We should be at a place in cinema production and distribution that there is a gay film playing theatrically every week so my appetite for queer images is satiated.
Ira Sachs, director of Keep the Lights On, which played at QFest, hosts Queer/Art/Film, a monthly screening event in New York City that shows older queer films for appreciative and sold-out audiences. (Check it out on Facebook)
“It’s been a great experience,” Sachs remarked during an interview we did during the fest. “It’s made visible an audience and the history of cinema. What Queer/Art/Film does for me, is that it encourages me—it gives me permission to create images that are different from what I see that are around me today. That’s what studying history does.”
Sachs went on to discuss how queer cinema can stay alive adding, “We’re trying to tear from the page of both Trembling Before G-D and Passion of the Christ, because both those films were very good at getting the communities out to see those films,” He is hoping audiences straight and gay come out to see Keep the Lights On. (Read my **** review of this film in the September issue of Instinct.)
Queer/Art/Film is a monthly revival film series, and I would very much like to see—or initiate—something similar in my city, and even around the country. I think it is important to showcase queer films on a regular basis, not just at festivals or when a distributor can book a film.
Conversely, were it not for the efforts of QFest programmers, I would never have seen Saltwater, the latest film written by and starring Ronnie Kerr (Shut Up and Kiss Me). This sweet, sometimes bitter, but always sincere romance features Kerr as Will, a single guy who moves in with his queeny friend Rich (Bruce L. Hart). Rich tries to set him up with the hunky Josh (played by out Aussie rugby star Ian Roberts). Yet despite being perfect for each other, Will and Josh can’t seem to connect until Rich brings them together in a way they didn’t expect.
I met Kerr at the fest and we talked about his films and how film festivals respond to his work.
“At a fest, you are given an opportunity to get your voice out there. The film is one voice and the intent behind it is something else,” Kerr says. “The audiences want to talk to the filmmaker. You can connect with the public. For some viewers, it is the first time they saw me on film. They deserve a good experience. The best part is talking. The honest folks tell you what they didn’t like—no sex, no nudity, no drugs—and it is important to hear that. I explained why that wasn’t there. I had many people thank me for making something they could relate to—and some said they liked that they could watch Saltwater with their kid. It’s nice to answer questions, even if you don’t give the answer they want or make the film they want.”
Kerr also stressed that it is important for filmmakers and actors to get out to fests and thank viewers. “You almost always owe it to the fans and future fans—they are coming out to support these indie films and they have the power,” he says. “You are asking them to support you/watch your film, so you have to give something back. You get a much different fan base and following if you appear at the fest. QFest viewers will follow you for years and follow your progress. It can do great things for you. Because of Shut Up and Kiss Me, many people joined our Kickstarter campaign. They wanted to be a part of our new film.”
Another film that emphasized emotional relationships over sex and skin that played Philly this year was Turtle Hill, Brooklyn. This superb serio-comedy, about a couple played by co-writers/co-stars Brian Seibert and Ricardo Valdez, encountering relationship issues during Will’s (Seibert) 30th birthday party. Made on a shoestring over two four-day weekends in the partners’ own house, Turtle Hill, Brooklyn affected me deeply. It even prompted a discussion with my partner about the nature of our relationship and how it mirrored—or deviated from—the one depicted on screen.
My partner and I hung out with the affable filmmakers before and after their screening and we talked about their film, which has considerable crossover appeal. But Seibert said it was important for the film to play QFest. “We sought out non-queer festivals for the longest time. But audiences that come to queer film festivals are coming to watch ‘queer’ films,” he says. “We set out to just make a movie. It’s about two gay guys and their friends who are gay and straight and bi and lesbian. We thought the relationship would resonate with everyone because it’s a universal theme.”
Valdez concurred, adding, “I’m glad that we’re getting into festivals. I think it’s good platform to show another aspect of a gay life. It’s important for me to state that I’m gay and this is how I live—not what people have seen in gay films.”
Valdez acknowledged that Turtle Hill, Brooklyn defies the expectation of typical queer film fest audiences who think they will see naked boys. “People respond positively, they are open to other stuff.”
Turtle Hill, Brooklyn may have been made in 2011, when digital video has made it easy and cheap to make movies—but Qfest, which celebrated 18 years in 2012, also allowed me to connect with New Queer Cinema filmmakers like Rose Troche and Todd Verow, who once upon a time—back in 1992—made films the old-fashion way—on celluloid and with no money.
I interviewed Troche for her Artistic Achievement Award this year, and have interviewed (and worked with) Todd Verow several times over the years. These filmmakers, like the aforementioned Sachs, have long inspired me with their alternative queer voices that portray issues of romance, lust and sex, as well as addiction, obsession and desire.
While Verow makes about three films a year, his films generally go direct to DVD after festival exposure. I was pleased to be in the audience as viewers responded as enthusiastically as I did to his QFest entry Bad Boy Street.
Verow admits he does not watch his films with audiences—“I get too nervous”—but he appreciates festivals, especially for the post-screening Q&As. “So often you make a project and you don’t get the physical reaction from people. It’s always nice to screen at a festival and get feedback from an audience, whether you agree or not. They can say something to you. Often as a filmmaker you don’t know what people think.” Verow says. “This film is sweet, happy and romantic and close to me, so it’s nice that people get something out of it in an emotional way. “
Verow thinks queer film festivals are very important and relevant for GLBT filmmakers because of the diversity they have the ability to foster.
“In mainstream fests, it’s tokenism: here are the three gay movies we’re showing,” he says. “Queer fests should be more interesting, and show more different kinds of queer life—show mainstream queer films and experimental films. Too often the [programmers] are trying to please a mainstream audience. GLBT fests used to show the only queer films that existed and that portrayed gay life in a positive way. But that’s not the case anymore. There are so many positive images of gay life now, that fests should show more extreme, controversial, and experimental stuff.”
I’ve followed Verow’s (and Troche’s) work for almost two decades now, and it amazes me to see how far we’ve come as a community in that time—both cinematically and socially. Two significant screenings I attended this year at Qfest addressed the AIDS crisis from past and present points of view. United in Anger, a documentary on the history of ACT UP, fired me up and made me wish I could have been part of this organization in New York City from the beginning of the AIDS crisis. I was also proud to be a part of Tiona McClodden’s locally made short film Bumming Cigarettes. I have a cameo role (that's me below!) in this drama about an African-American lesbian waiting for the results of her HIV test. It was gratifying to attend a festival screening a work and see a fan base develop for Bumming Cigarettes.
This was also important to all of the filmmakers I met at QFest, who promoted their work from within the community. For Verow, a film fest veteran, he likes festivals because they give him the opportunity to see other films and meet with other filmmakers. For a newbie like Seibert, there’s a different focus. “As a producer, connecting with other producers and talking to them and how they raise money and going about it was valuable.”
Hopefully Turtle Hill, Brooklyn will get distribution. I am encouraged by Tiona McClodden’s efforts to use her film to raise awareness about HIV testing in the queer community. And I hope Saltwater and Bad Boy Street finds viewers on DVD, after limited theatrical exposure.
Nevertheless, it is seeing these films with audiences, and experiencing that moment when people connect with what is on screen that makes festivals vital and exciting. I loved hearing the laughter at Verow’s cameo in Bad Boy Street, or getting choked up during United in Anger as protesters chant, “ACT UP! Fight Back! Fight AIDS!”
But why do these great films have to be shoehorned into just 12 days a year? Why can’t queer film play every week and not just for a dozen jam-packed days in the summer? I am discouraged that many of these films will disappear were it not for the efforts of QFest, other LGBTQ film fests and film lovers like me to support them. Moreover, I am disappointed that I have to wait another 12 months before I can see such a terrific collection films again.