A rather staggering forty-four films with either GLBT themes or a GLBT director are screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, including new works from directors Tom Kalin (“Savage Grace“), Isaac Julien‘s “Derek“), Bruce LaBruce (“Otto; Or Up With Dead People“), producer Christine Vachon, as well as a screening of Gregg Araki‘s remastered “The Living End.” The films inspired a reunion of sorts at this year’s festival, anchored on Saturday night with a dinner celebrating the group of queer films. In remarks during dinner B. Ruby Rich, who coined the term “New Queer Cinema” at a Sundance panel in 1992, emotionally proclaimed the room as “filled with history.”
For better or worse, that now legendary “Barbed Wire Kisses” Sundance panel, moderated by Rich on January 25, 1992 featuring Vachon, Araki, Julien, Kalin, Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, Jennie Livingston, Christopher Munch, and Marlon Riggs, galvanized attention of the media and even inspired Sudance observers far away from Park City.
Rich stood alongside Tilda Swinton (who backed Isaac Julien’s doc, “Derek”) at the dinner that welcomed a restaurant full of queer filmmakers, industry insiders, and festival programmers, including Vachon from Killer Films, Marcus Hu from Strand Releasing, Michael Lumpkin and Jennifer Morris from Frameline, Raj Roy from MoMA, Basil Tsiokos from New Fest and Kirsten Schaffer from Outfest. A handful straight but not narrow industry types also joined the celebration, including IFC’s Jonathan Sehring, Strand co-president Jon Gerrans, and Focus Features CEO James Schamus who also reflected on the significance of the gathering, echocing Rich’s comments and calling it an “historic evening.”
Many Sundance ’08 attendees also participated in panels and celebrated at parties in Main St.’s Queer Lounge, backed by a range of Queer-minded supporters, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The queer events reach their peak tonight (Thursday) with the infamous “Homos Away From Home” party, a revived annual tradition of the first significant queer party at Sundance that began back in the early 1990s when the new wave of queer cinema was just emerging. As promoters noted recently, the event, which was only queer event of note back in the early 90s when publicist Mickey Cottrell spearheaded the gathering, in recent years it has featured John Cameron Mitchell in singing the Star Spangled Banner and Jared Leto and Naomi Watts singing Happy Birthday to Alan Cumming.
Among the gatherings held over the week was a chat about gay filmmakers and sexual provocation with LaBruce and Julien,moderated by The Advocate‘s Kyle Buchanan. The talk often diverted into nostalgia, with Julien noting how Derek Jarman’s 1976 “Sebastiane” was the first gay film he ever saw. “I saw it underage,” Julien laughed. “It was sorta like seeing a porn film except it was in Latin. I’d never seen something that sexually explicit in the cinema. That’s the difference. You’re seeing it in a large cinema, in a public space.” LaBruce, meanwhile, reflected on his motivations for his own work. “The reason I started making sexually explicit films in the first place was because I was sort of disillusioned with the gay world in the ’80s and I thought that even then it was becoming too conformist.”
But perhaps the most interesting discussion arose out of comments comparing today and the past. At a panel moderated by indieWIRE‘s own Eugene Hernandez, Tom Kalin joked that when Rich proclaimed “a New Queer Cinema,” George Bush, Sr. and twelve years of Republican reign were finally coming to an end. “And now George W. Bush is ending his regime,” he noted. But Kalin questioned whether the comparisons stopped there. “I think honestly I don’t know what queer film is anymore, as a term,” he questioned. “Is it movies that are made by homosexuals? Is it movies about homosexuals? I don’t know. Is ‘Brokeback Mountain‘ a queer film because it has a heterosexual director but deals with this story of unrequited love?” Kalin pointed out a drastic difference between the periods, both socially and politically.
“I can only see the early 1990s and that first wave as really coming out of a very specific historical moment,” Tom Kalin said. “It’s difficult to conjure for people that weren’t alive or around during the time what it was like without AIDS medication and that kind of atomosphere of despair and frustration.”
Christine Vachon, who produced Kalin’s “Grace,” as well as many early NQC films such as Haynes’ “Poison,” Kalin’s “Swoon”, agreed with the director. “I do think that term did come out of a sense of urgency that is very hard to reconstruct for people that weren’t there. And I’m not trying to be like one of those people who was at Woodstock,” she joked. “It felt like these movies were your only shot, you’ve got to say it and if you didn’t say it right then that was it, because you could be dead the next day. It really did feel like that… Its amazing to me that I can even say it with a smile now. Because honestly at the time it really felt like it was such an atmosphere of death and despair.”
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.