Outfest 2003: L.A.'s Pioneering Gay Festival Comes of Age
by Jonny Leahan
Turning 21 years old in America carries with it a sense of newfound legitimacy, as if one has finally become a full-fledged member of society. Outfest, which celebrated its 21st birthday this month as one of the world's largest gay and lesbian film festivals, showed attendees that it, too, was now all grown up. The impression that this year's festival was a rite of passage didn't just come from the two decades that Outfest has had to suffer through growing pains, while constantly improving upon itself, it came from the attendees themselves.
With the recent Supreme Court victory over anachronistic sodomy laws still fresh on the minds of many festival-goers, the feeling that this was an important time in history permeated the atmosphere, adding to the idea that this festival was not just a celebration of gay and lesbian cinema, but also an acknowledgement of the significant progress that has occurred for the community as a whole.
That burgeoning sense of camaraderie may help explain the record 42,000 attendees at the festival, which ran from July 10 - 21 in Los Angeles, but the more powerful draw was undoubtedly the eclectic slate of over 200 films from 26 countries, not to mention the 40 parties, which ranged from intimate VIP receptions to big blow-outs.
The festival kicked off with the L.A. premiere of "Party Monster," directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who brought us "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and "101 Rent Boys." In their first narrative feature, which stars Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green, the pair takes some interesting risks with their directorial style, including using the perspective of a rat as a witness to a crime. The film chronicles the rise and fall of club kid Michael Alig (Culkin) and his best friend James St. James (Green) in a true tale of excess, which culminates in a vicious murder.
The audience seemed pleased with the film, as they were with the after party, which featured even more excess -- including an Absolut open bar and assorted drag queens dressed to the nines. After the party at the Orpheum Theater, revelers continued to celebrate at the downtown Standard Hotel, where a rooftop bash turned risqué as several guests ended up in the pool, while others got frisky on the waterbeds. Suffice to say, their nights all had a happy ending.
Also happy was filmmaker Darren Stein ("Jawbreaker"), who screened his new documentary "Put the Camera on Me" to a receptive audience. Co-directed by Adam Shell, the film looks back at Stein's home video movies from the '80s, and provides a revealing look at a gay director in the making. As he manipulates his friends into doing his bidding, the child terror makes short films that capture life in suburban California, while unwittingly creating a message in a bottle for the grown-up Stein, who in turn narrates the documentary with self-effacing wit.
"I was really happy with how the film played," Stein said. "Screening at Outfest built the awareness of our film...so hopefully that will help in getting this small, personal doc seen by a wider audience." Stein also outdid himself with an elaborate party to celebrate the movie, which was held on the grounds of the Samuel Goldwyn estate, and featured scantily clad hunks with video cameras capturing the childhood memories of tipsy partygoers.
Meanwhile, "Goldfish Memory" (from director/screenwriter Liz Gill) captured the attention of audience members, including Outfest executive director Stephen Gutwillig. "It's a wonderful Irish feature," he said, when asked by indieWIRE to single out a film that he felt was a real discovery. "It's that true Outfest rarity; a queer co-gender romantic comedy...it's a girl-meets-girl meets boy-meets-boy-meets-girl pan-sexual roundelay. It has a gorgeous young cast, a sexy free spirit, and nearly equal appeal to gay men and lesbians."
"Goldfish Memory" won this year's audience award for OUTstanding narrative feature, and has a repeat screening in Los Angeles on August 6 as part of Outfest Wednesdays "Best of the Fest" program in August and September.
Between screenings, festival-goers were welcome to choose from several panels that explored topics relevant to the gay and lesbian audience. Among them was "The Gay Pitch," a panel designed to help the struggling writer learn the art of pitching a gay-themed TV or movie concept to industry executives. C. Jay Cox, writer of "Sweet Home Alabama" and director of "Latter Days," was among the panelists offering occasionally conflicting advice to eager screenwriters.
Another film of note was "Tarik El Hob" (The Path of Love), directed by Rémi Lange, which won the freedom award in the special programming category. This unusual film tells the story of Karim, a French-Algerian student living in Paris with his girlfriend, who discovers an Egyptian town where men were once allowed to marry each other. Karim decides to make a documentary about homosexuality in the Muslim faith, and through the process meets Farid, who causes him to question his own sexuality.
Other well-received screenings included Michael Burke's "The Mudge Boy," winner of the award for OUTstanding American narrative feature, which tells the story of Duncan (Emile Hirsh) and his struggle with discovering love; and the drag comedy "Girls Will Be Girls," written and directed by Richard Day, which won the grand jury award for OUTstanding screenwriting.
There was a healthy dose of shorts programming as well, most notably the Platinum Shorts program, which included "Jouissance," directed by Larry Shea. "The screening went great," said Shea. "The house was mostly full and I liked the other films in the program...people seemed to actually watch the films and think about them." The Platinum Section is Outfest's signature showcase dedicated to work that defies boundaries.
The special section also included Platinum SnapMeat, a multimedia event at the abandoned Ambassador Hotel. The evening was a complex mix of live music, performance art, and an electronic auction block. Cell phone cameras photographed selected attendees, and their pictures were placed on large monitors. Participants could then bid on the person of their choice, using G Notes, which were issued to guests upon their arrival.
Musical performances were as varied as Medusa, a fiery female rap act, and Salò, an ambitious art-rock outfit featuring singer/keyboardist Robert Zimmer. "To me, SnapMeat was not as artistically successful or vigorous as the previous two years," said Zimmer. "However, it was ambitious in its own way and the venue was suitably freaky and amazing. Also, more people came than last year, and I felt it was a little better integrated into the festival as a whole."
The festival concluded with a screening of "Mambo Italiano," a Canadian film directed by Emile Gaudreault that had plenty of people laughing it up. Based on a stage play, this immigrant family comedy is known, for better or worse, as the gay version of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Samuel Goldwyn will release the film domestically in September.
All in all, Outfest 2003 was organized and well run, and it never took itself too seriously -- even the filmmakers agreed. "This was an excellent festival," said Stein. "It managed to be intimate while still being big in scope. Everyone on the staff was accessible and warm -- people seemed like they sincerely wanted to be there, and the alcohol didn't stop flowing. I especially liked the parties thrown at people's homes, as it helped give a sense of place to a city which could be considered faceless and sprawling."
Whether it was the steamy pool party in the Hollywood Hills or the raucous screening of "Die Mommie Die!" at the DGA, there was always something to do, and no shortage of people to do it with. "I thought it was a really good year for Outfest," said Shea, "and there were some great films shown. It's my favorite mainstream gay festival because it has beautiful venues...and it has a purpose."
One has to wonder how much that purpose will evolve as society's attitude towards gays and lesbians continues to change. Will festivals like these remain vital? "Outfest has certainly outlasted the de facto blackout of queer lives that existed in mainstream media when the festival was founded in the early '80s," said executive director Gutwillig. "Nevertheless, the representations of LGBT experience that pepper the mainstream are still pretty narrow. We're getting quantity over nuance in many cases."
"The vast majority of the films that play Outfest are never seen by mainstream audiences on television or in theatrical release," explained Gutwillig. "That's especially true for foreign titles and films that showcase lesbian and non-white voices. Film festivals will remain, for some time, the source for the most diverse, sophisticated, and international queer images." At 21, in the wake of an increasing sense of legitimacy for the gay and lesbian community, it seems that it isn't just Outfest that has grown up.