It was a big year for Outfest, one of the nation’s preeminent gay & lesbian film festivals, which concluded its 25th run on Monday in Los Angeles. To celebrate its silver anniversary festival organizers honored the history of queer cinema, publishing the “25 Films That Changed Our Lives,” a list compiled from over 1,000 responses to their inquiries, and held special screenings for four of those films including “High Art,” “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing,” “Longtime Companion,” and “Poison,” the last accompanied by a tribute to actor and editor Jim Lyons. The big news, however, was the world premiere of Outfest’s restoration of Bill Sherwood’s landmark 1986 film “Parting Glances,” one of the pioneer gay films from the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
This was the first film restored under Outfest’s Legacy Project, started in 2005, with the goal to preserve gay films, educating the public on their importance, and finally, providing exhibition. To help achieve these goals, Outfest is compiling the largest library of gay films on the planet, helped out by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s (GLAAD) decision to donate its thousands of screeners.
There are more developments underway. “When we sat down to think about how to celebrate our silver anniversary,” says Outfest Senior Programming Director Kirsten Schaefer, “we wanted to commemorate our history, but we also wanted to think what our future would be.” To this end, Outfest launched its inaugural “Boom! Musical Festival,” a two-day event that attracted a younger crowd than most events with performances by Lavender Diamond and Team Dresch. The venues were full, and Schaefer hopes to continue and expand the festival, saying hopefully, “My fantasy is having a miniature, queer South by Southwest.”
Despite all of the anniversary hoopla, the first focus was, as always, on the current crop of films, which included the following seven standouts to watch for:
“For the Bible Tells Me So,” directed by Daniel G. Karslake
Outfest responded to a thematic trend in its festival entries this year by creating the spotlight category “Queers in Christ,” a selection of five films that explore the struggles of gays and lesbians trying to practice their faith in the face of the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric of mainstream American Christianity. “With the religious right using the current administration to really attack gay people,” says Schaffer, “it seemed important to acknowledge what gay people are doing in response.” The festival’s Documentary Centerpiece and Audience Award winner, Karslake’s Sundance entry “For the Bible Tells Me So”, movingly explores five stories of families trying to reconcile their strong religious backgrounds with the sexuality of one of their members.
Their success varies wildly: one mother’s initial intolerance of her daughter’s lesbianism, fueled by her respect for ‘Focus on The Family’s’ rabid James Dobson, leads to tragedy and repentance, while pastor Gene Robinson makes peace with his sexuality and eventually is elevated to the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop. Interspersed amongst the stories are many scenes of various Evangelists and right-wing protestors wielding the bible as a weapon against gay people, while other religious scholars and ministers explain how the very few segments of the bible that mention homosexuality outright have been misrepresented in the creation of a national scapegoat, and what the consequences have been.
“Red Without Blue,” directed by Brooke Sebold and Benita Sills
Mark and Alex Farley are identical twins from a Christian Scientist home whose tight bond, threatened when the bolder brother Alex takes them both out of the closet in junior high school. Their relationship is furtherly imperiled when the two begin competing for boyfriends and abusively taking out their own self-loathing on one another, before being severed altogether when the two are forcibly separated for two years following a joint suicide attempt. In this Slamdance winning documentary, Sebold and Sills capture the uneasy reconciliation still developing as the two get to know each other again after undergoing huge changes, not least of which is Alex’s gender transition into Clair (a move which Mark, almost jealously, counters by changing into a more hipster version of himself and renaming himself, less successfully, ‘Oliver’). It is a fascinating story, finding new, heartfelt ways to explore the intersection of gender, identity, and family.
“Shelter,” directed by Jonah Markowitz
The wistfully depressing suburb of San Pedro, in all its coastal glory, forms the effective backdrop for Markowitz’s first feature, the story of forlorn recent high school graduate Zack, who’s devotion to his demeaning, neglectful sister and her young son threatens to derail his ambitions and settle him into an aimless life of dead-end jobs and loveless relationships, until he starts a relationship with fellow surfer Shaun. Filled with dusty, sun-drenched photography and plaintively strumming guitars, “Shelter”‘s particular strength is in its evocation of young restlessness and the social dynamics that begin to establish themselves at the end of adolescence.
“Shelter Me,” directed by Marco Simon Puccioni
Puccioni’s Berlinale entry opens immediately into the uncomfortable dynamic of a souring long-term relationship between lesbians Mara and Anna, who return home to Italy after vacationing in Northern Africa to find that a young Moroccan man has stowed away in their car in order to smuggle himself into the country. Almost to provoke the sullen Mara, cheerful Anna invites the man to stay with them, initiating a chain of events which further destabilizes all three protagonists. Puccioni maintains a chilly, foreboding atmosphere throughout its complicated emotional journey, helped by strong performances all-around, particularly by the always wonderful Maria de Medeiros.
“Pariah,” directed by Dee Rees
Rees’ jaw-droppingly good NYU graduate project “Pariah” continues to reel in awards, following up its wins of the LAFF Audience and the Newfest Jury awards by scoring both Outfest’s Audience and Jury prize for short narrative film. Rees shows stellar talent in both writing and directing with her story of a Bronx high school girl uncertainly trying to explore multiple identities; she is currently working on a full-length version of the short.
“Freeheld,” directed by Cynthia Wade
Wade’s quietly devastating “Freeheld,” winner of the Audience Award for Documentary Short, chronicles story of Laurel Hester, a New Jersey police officer in the final stages of terminal lung cancer whose attempts to leave her pension fund to her domestic partner, Stacie, bring out both the best and worst in her community. While she faces down an unthinkably heartless, systematic board of Freeholders who hold her fate in their hands, she finds overwhelming support in her co-workers and community, who speak up for a committed officer whose only wish is to live, and die, like anyone else.
“Triple X Selects: The Best of Lezsploitation,” directed by Michelle Johnson
Johnson’s clip-show film presents segments from a few dozen straight-oriented grindhouse exploitation films featuring girl-on-girl action, in an effort to recontextualize and thus reclaim them for a queer female sexuality. While these clips are titillating enough on their own merits–particularly in one prison-set masterpiece named “Bare Behind Bars,” where the swingingest women’s prison on earth treats its inmates to naked calisthenics, dodgeball, and dancing–what makes them really remarkable is their utter lack of understanding of how, or why, women have sex with one another. The hardcore sex scenes are mostly limited to grinding and breast fondling, and the root desire driving them to it is succinctly summed up by one naked vixen moaning “I’m a nymphomaniac.” Aren’t we all?
Outfest Jury Awards:
OUTstanding US Dramatic Feature, “25 Cent Preview,” directed by Cyrus Amimi
OUTstanding International Narrative Feature: “Tuli,” directed by Auraeus Solito
OUTstanding Documentary Feature: “Jerusalem is Proud to Present,” direcrted by Nitzan Gilady
Other jury prizes included best actor, shared by “25 Cent Preview”‘s Merlin Gaspars and Dorian Brockington as well as “Butch Jamie“‘s Michelle Ehlen who received best actress. Screenwriting went to Casper Andreas and Jesse Archer for “A Four Letter Word,” while the dramatic short prize went to “Pariah” by Dee Rees and Inge Blackman took the doc short prize for “Legacy.”
HBO Outstanding First Dramatic Feature: “Shelter,” directed by Jonah Markowitz
Outstanding Dramtic Feature: “The Bubble,” directed by Eytan Fox
Outstanding Documentary Feature: “For the Bible Tells So,” directed by Daniel Karslake
Also taking audience accolades were Rees’ “Pariah,” Cynthia Wade’s “Freeheld” and Michele Mulroney and Micah Scraft for “Sunny and Share Love You,” which took the best soundtrack nod.
[Brian Brooks contributed to this article.]