Buoyed by the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, things looked really good for LGBTQ people at the start of 2016. Then came the Orlando massacre, and with it the reminder that queer people were not safe, not even within the comforts provided by its culture.
That was only six weeks ago, but it seems longer. Orlando has fallen out of the news cycle — for the media, too many fresher tragedies take precedence. There’s the police murders of black men, an assassin’s murders of police and the public in Dallas, the Nice attacks, and even another Florida nightclub shooting, this one in Fort Myers. And for the public, the crises converge. There were signs remembering Orlando at Black Lives Matter rallies, and the LGBTQ community responded to Orlando with anti-gun rallies and messages of support for Muslims.
This puts LGBTQ culture in a familiar position: If the threats to its people are going to be remembered, the people have to tell the story. But in 2016, is Orlando a story queer filmmakers are interested in telling?
Rose Troche (“Go Fish”) said she paused in shooting her VR comedy series, “LGBTQIA,” to focus on a short VR piece inspired by Orlando. “It’s been really difficult to figure out, what is the best thing to say about this?” she said. “I want to do a piece about choice. How no choice is a choice, how not asking is really asking.”
In other words, to ignore Orlando is a choice. But eschewing the “queer filmmaker” label is a choice as well.
In the past, queer community used filmmaking (among other things) to raise visibility (among other things) in the face of a world that would rather not deal with them at all. Hence the rallying cry: We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!
The work paid off, and queer people gained acceptance politically and in the media. With acceptance came the privilege of assimilation into mainstream culture. Many filmmakers now prefer to be seen simply as filmmakers, without the “queer” prefix.
Killer Films’ Christine Vachon has always primarily identified as an independent producer, despite early successes like “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Poison” that dealt with explicitly queer subject matter. “I steer clear from the idea that everybody can be put into a queer box,” said the Oscar-winning producer. “I think it’s important for people to do what they want.”
After the success of “Go Fish,” Troche felt pressured to identify with the queer label. “I resented being pigeonholed because I just wanted to be a filmmaker, and it felt reductionist,” she said. “That’s the point that hurts.”
However, for film professor and historian B. Ruby Rich, the importance of identifying cannot be overstated.
“Chantal Akerman died saying, ‘I’m not a lesbian filmmaker,'” said Rich, who dedicated her life to chronicling what she identified as “The New Queer Cinema” in 1992. “I understand she was a world-class, groundbreaking, field-redefining filmmaker, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a lesbian filmmaker or a woman filmmaker.”
From her perspective, the choice is clear: If queer filmmakers choose not to make queer films, then Orlando risks being forgotten.
Filmmaker Adam Baran, former Outfest and Newfest programmer, doesn’t think that’s at risk, and anticipates seeing many submissions tackling the subject in the coming years. “Any time there is something like this, it impacts people’s writing,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how interestingly they approach the material.”
What’s more important, he said, is who tells the stories, and how the queer film community fosters emerging voices. “We have to demand and say, yes, we want to see a film about Orlando by a Latin filmmaker.”
Baran works with Ira Sachs (“Little Men”) to run Queer/Art/Mentorship, which pairs emerging queer artists with mid-career mentors in their chosen field. The goal is to foster a diversity of voices in queer filmmaking, but Sachs acknowledges there is only so much they can do.
“I meet amazing young queer filmmakers all the time, at film festivals, in film schools, at queer/art events,” he told IndieWire via email. “The problem isn’t the talent, it’s the lack of economic support for filmmakers to build sustainable careers. The market makes that very difficult.”
The market may be the driving factor in deciding who will tell the story of Orlando, which isn’t studio fodder. Academy member and Strand Releasing founder Marcus Hu posited that a production company like World of Wonder may want to take it on with the hopes of selling it to Logo or even HBO.
That said, WOW co-founder Fenton Bailey said he has no immediate plans to take it on. “I think a documentary about Orlando would benefit from the perspective that only time can bring,” Bailey said. He also mentioned his friend Lady Bunny had just released a music video, “Keep On Dancing,” inspired by the shooting.
Hu thought the story could appeal to any documentarian. “Why limit this story to a gay filmmaker?” he asked. “Michael Moore could tell this story.”
Certainly, straight filmmakers can tell queer stories, just as queer filmmakers can tell straight stories. However, Rich questions what is lost with mainstream assimilation. She says she has noticed a trend of queer characters who just happen to be queer; their queerness isn’t central to the story, or even addressed. Never one to miss an opportunity to coin a term, Rich calls this phenomenon “queer incidentalism.”
Baran has noticed this as well. “There’s definitely a school of thought that it’s much better if these characters are just gay and it’s not a big deal.” He sees the value in that, but feels conflicted. “I think that’s a subtle form of internalized homophobia.”
However, even among film professionals generally regarded by Rich and others as queer cinema’s elite, there is little agreement about what makes a filmmaker or a film queer. Vachon seemed frustrated by the label. “What makes a movie queer?” she asked. “Is ‘Brokeback Mountain’ queer even though Ang [Lee] isn’t?”
Now comfortably mid-career, Troche has changed her perspective on a filmmaking identity, and said she embraces the queer label: “Clearly,” she said, “we are still in a place where it is powerful to be counted.”