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DISPATCH FROM MIAMI | Miami Gay Fest Tosses on the Go-Go Boots and Throws a Bash

DISPATCH FROM MIAMI | Miami Gay Fest Tosses on the Go-Go Boots and Throws a Bash

It’s hard to believe that it’s only the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival‘s 10th anniversary. In only a decade, it has established itself as the first major stop on the annual U.S. gay and lesbian festival circuit. Filmmakers, sponsors and audiences alike have jumped at the invitation to spend time amongst Miami’s famed art deco facades, shirtless rollerbladers, and endless parade of girls pulling at their short skirts and falling over their heels. It’s a distinctly Miami affair.

“When I first came here, I looked at the main gay film festivals, Outfest, Newfest, Frameline. I thought about what each did well,” says MGLFF’s flamboyant director Carol Coombes. “I thought, ‘well, Miami’s such a party town. We can become the fun film festival- that’s what we do well.'”

At Friday night’s opening night gala, Coombes did what she does well in a feather-fringed pink mini-dress with thigh-high silver go-go boots that attracted almost as much delighted applause as surprise guest presenter Sharon Gless (“Cagney and Lacey”, “Queer as Folk”), who helped to introduce the opening night film, Laurie Lynd‘s crowd-pleasing “Breakfast With Scot“. The crowd ate up the sweet (if not ruthlessly heartwarming) story of an improbably straight-acting gay couple who improbably ends up taking care of an improbably flaming little boy, whose obsession with Christmas carols informed the festival’s “Christmas in April”-themed after-party. Wildlife center Jungle Island was decked out for the occasion with wreaths, over-sized presents, and best of all, a flock of enthusiastic penguins who seemed delighted by all of the attention.

Saturday afternoon saw the screening of Michael Selditch and Rob Tate‘s “Eleven Minutes,” which follows TV’s “Project Runway”‘s first winner, Jay McCarroll, as he undertakes the Sisyphusean ordeal of producing his first major runway show during fashion week in New York’s Bryant Park. The film was followed by a fashion show on the roof of the Dorset Hotel (part of the Catalina Hotel and Beach Club, this year’s festival hub), where McCarroll recreated the Bryant Park show, with the help of fellow reality TV veteran Dan Renzi from the Miami season of MTV‘s “The Real World.”

Jennifer Tilly, festival directors Keith Cromley and Carol Coombes, and distributor Steven Wolfe. Photo provided by the festival.

The event was held in conjunction with the festival’s first annual Merge Miami Queer Film and Media conference, a two-day series of panels and events designed to bring Miami’s queer filmmaking community together with professionals from all areas of the film industry. “For a couple of years, we’ve been kicking around ideas for how to best serve local filmmakers,” says MGLFF festival manager Kareem Tabsch, who organized Merge Miami, and got it off the ground with last-minute funding from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “We wanted to make sure people know that Miami is a city that takes film seriously, and we wanted to empower people to make films locally.” Events included panel discussion on such topics as distribution and publicity, as well as a script-reading of local filmmaker Harriette Yahr‘s (and sometimes indieWIRE contributor) aptly-named “Merge.”

Even events not intended as parties tend to breed a party-like atmosphere. National treasure Jennifer Tilly was on hand to introduce a special screening of P.J. Castellaneta‘s “Relax…It’s Just Sex,” which is also celebrating its 10th anniversary. After the screening, Tilly beckoned audience members to join her at the swanky Delano Hotel for drinks, where she entertained the crowd with stories of her current career as poker professional (she is a World Series of Poker winner) before picking up the tab on her AmEx black card.

Festival attendees were invited to spend a few minutes in a video booth in the Regal Cinemas lobby, recording their stories of when they first knew that they were queer, in collaboration with the world premiere of “When I Knew,” a touching collection of personal realization stories compiled by directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (“Party Monster,” “Inside Deep Throat“). The short documentary was followed by a selection culled from the previous day’s booth recordings (all of the entries, and many more, are available on the film’s website http://www.wheniknew.com).

Other standout films include Guido Santi and Tina Mascara‘s moving documentary “Chris and Don: a Love Story,” which gives a deeply felt, honest portrait of the decades-long relationship between writer Christopher Isherwood (whose “Berlin Stories” inspired the film “Cabaret“) and painter Don Bachardy, 30 years his junior.

HBO’s Dennis Williams with directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Photo by Charlie Olsky.

Just in time for the end of Passover, Orthodox Jews were the subject of two films. Nitzan Gilady‘s thoughtful, enraging “Jerusalem is Proud to Present” documents the attempts of queer activists to hold a World Pride in the Holy City in 2006, and local religious leaders’ attempts to stop them. Avi Nesher‘s film “The Secrets” is the story of two orthodox girls who discover they are attracted to one another when they attempt to help a dying French woman (Fanny Ardant) find spiritual peace.

On Thursday night, the MGLFF will unveil the first annual Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. “We’ve been showing films for the festival in Broward County since 2003,” says Coombes. “We received feedback from the audience, that they wanted their portion of the program to have its own identity, its own festival.” The FLGLFF has a slightly older feeling, opening with Johnny Syman‘s social action documentary “Ask Not,” exploring the effects of Clinton’s “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy, and closing with another documentary, Scott Bloom‘s “Call Me Troy,” about gay leather bear/Christian minister Troy Perry.

“When looking at what we’re doing in Fort Lauderdale…it helps to understand the history of Miami’s gay community,” says Coombes. “In the 1980s, a lot of HIV-positive gay men from New York started moving to Miami Beach, which was really pretty run down at the time. After the whole art deco preservation movement, the fashion world and everybody started discovering Miami…and the property values went way up. People who had condos sold them and moved up to Fort Lauderdale. Now, Broward County has the fastest-growing gay community in the US, and it’s a slightly older demographic.”

The festival will throw its biggest event yet for its Closing Night Gala film, Tom Gustafson‘s swooning musical update of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Were the World Mine“. It’s a terrific movie, a completely original musical that is closer in spirit to “Donnie Darko” than “Chicago.” While it has already played at several festivals (chalking up awards at each one), the producers are treating the MGLFF as their world premiere, bringing in over 50 guests, including the always-wonderful Wendy Robie (Nadine from “Twin Peaks”). “We couldn’t believe how welcoming Carol was with the festival,” says Gustafson. “She was so excited, and so complimentary. We’ve played elsewhere, but this really seemed like the best place to celebrate the film.”

Both festivals will run until Sunday, May 4.

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