Talking Shop With Curran Nault
The Polari artistic director on programming to bridge divides
By Kate X Messer,
9:00AM, Thu. Oct. 10, 2013
A few years ago, Curran Nault and I met over a table of Austin queers discussing the prospect of a new celebration (which eventually came to be known as QueerBomb).
As Curran and I got to know each other, the radio-television-film and queer studies academic invited me to sit for an interview to pick my memory banks about the Queercore music and film scene for his dissertation. Now, as the current artistic director of Polari, Austin's LGBT film festival (née Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival aka aGLIFF) Nault readies to launch the fest's 26th year, and it seemed a great time to revisit the sit-down between ol' queer culture colleagues.
The Austin Chronicle: You've had prior experience as a film programmer - with the Austin Asian Film Festival. What initially lead you to work with AAFF?
Curran Nault: I was an academic and got into the fest side of film through the AAFF. There had been a previous festival, but it was waning. At that time it was an extremely grassroots fest. A group of my friends, including my boyfriend at the time, Masashi Niwano, became involved. I became the director of programming, 2006-’10.
AC: Where were you raised? What's your early background?
CN: I was born and raised in Holliston, Mass. I was the first out gay person in my high school. I came out in 1991 and graduated in 1995.
AC: What's your academic background?
CN: My undergrad is in poli-sci – master's in 2002. I taught queer studies at City College in San Francisco. I came to Austin to get my Ph.D. in RTF at UT in 2007 and just defended my work this summer. I wrote about the Queercore scene and hope to publish that book.
AC: That's a long dissertation.
CN: Seven years.
AC: My divorce took seven years.
AC: How did all this lead to film festivals?
CN: I love academia but don't love the ivory-tower aspect - being cut off from practice and actual artists. Working for a film festival feeds that side of me - being in touch with community, being in touch with filmmakers. Right now, I am balancing the two, and it's like a perfect combination for me. My brain is fed. My heart and soul are fed, and it's all good.
AC: Polari's a paid position, so your body's fed too.
CN: [laughs] Well, I'm not eating out at Ruth's Chris all the time, but I'm eating!
AC: Would you say that Masashi and friends contemporized the existing AAFF? What were your contributions?
CN: Before us, it was mostly a screening series, which is fine, but we added performances, like bringing Filipina-Latina Homo Hop artist Jenn Ro from San Francisco to play at Austin's Music Gym and contribute the festival's bumpers. We also hosted community events. We wanted to make it more of a community thing than just screenings.
AC: How was that received?
CN: There was a lot of liberation to the fest. We could do what we wanted. We felt it important that these voices be represented in Austin. And people responded well. People rose to the occasion and contributed resources.
AC: What were your greatest challenges programming for AAFF, and what did you get out of it?
CN: Film festivals cost a lot of money: screening fees, renting venues. We had to push for fundraising. The Asian community is Austin's fastest-growing population, but it's not huge. We're not San Francisco. We struggled to get the word out. It turned out to be my first real experience in the practical art world with curating. I've always been around artists all my life but have no artistic talent myself, which is why I think I gravitate to this work.
AC: One might argue that curating in and of itself is an art.
CN: [laughs] I like to think so, and I can make a mean mix tape. Programming is a similar skill.
AC: So, on to aGLIFF/Polari. You've pretty much had a toe in Austin's queer scene as long as you've been in town. Did you see your mission as "queering" aGLIFF as it were?
CN: Well, I think Austin's gay community is - as is true for so many gay communities across the country - so dispersed. My impression is that it used to be more centralized around certain nonprofits, bars, groups. Now, there seem to be thousands of great [LGBTQ] events going on practically every night. Every time we try to schedule something, there seems to be three other similar things going on - which makes it hard to make things work, but is also kind of wonderful. It shows how vibrant the community is right now. That said, it's impossible for any one person to be at all these events, to cover all of Austin's gay communities.
AC: Don't I know it, bub.
CN: [laughs] I'm coming out of the art scene, the Eastside, and I've been involved with QueerBomb, so I bring some of those perspectives.
AC: How do you cover the turf? The breakdown between paid festival positions has mostly been artistic director and executive director. So there's just two of you out there in the community. Are the duties of these positions very separated, or is there much overlap?
CN: There is definite overlap between the communities. Interim ED Aaron Yeats and I are connected in different communities in our daily lives. He comes from a marketing background. He's connected to [the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce], for example. He talks to sponsors. I talk to filmmakers. On the other hand, I also cultivate community partners to sponsor films. In a town like Austin, the communities bleed over. And in a mostly volunteer group like Polari, the board, the staff … You chip in and get done what needs to get done. The board and the volunteers are crucial.
AC: What do you think your perspective on community - on queer community, specifically - brings to Polari programming?
CN: I like provocative stuff that pushes the envelope, that makes people think. We're in an amazing place for queer cinema right now. I feel like we are returning to an early-’90s, new queer cinema moment, in a way, where people are taking risks and chances with their films.
AC: Do you feel there are programming tipping points, where perhaps "queering" the schedule might feel disorienting for some more traditional gay fest audiences?
CN: Well, in thinking of risky: I'd been wanting to feature Interior. Leather Bar. with James Franco. I came into the festival thinking, "Oh there will be people who will be upset by explicit sex or by more risky film in general." But people have been receptive, even enthusiastic, which makes sense when you look back at the aGLIFF programming of the ’90s. They definitely took risks and pushed boundaries. Polari is a great opportunity to bring disparate L, G, B, T, and Q groups together. It's a space where people can watch film and bond over something in a dark room.
AC: That sounds like a tall order.
CN: It is. The films that can accomplish this are few and far between, because when it gets down to it, people gravitate to their particular communities. But I think it can be done.
AC: Back in the day, aGLIFF spotlighted features as "For the Boys" and "For the Girls." And while there is still an odd charm in that sort of weird, naive approach, it freaked some people out.
CN: When I came into the organization, I felt, "Yeah, this is weird," but I found out that everybody else in the organization thought so too.
AC: So it wasn't just a generational schism?
CN: Doing it that way had become tradition, but everyone in the current group was on board to change it.
AC: We're in a time where everyone thinks their iPod proves they are the best DJ in the world. People brag about Netflix views like notches on a bedpost. How do you contend with that? And then on top of that: How do you curate for such an alphabet soup of strong identities?
CN: We've gotten used to having our little niche spaces, so we're not comfortable looking outside of that. The audience needs to take the step. I see the value in separate programming. It's fun to see films with the group they're targeted to, especially within the queer community. I mean, we've spent so much of our lives feeling like we don't fit in, feeling ostracized. So once you find people that are like you, the tendency may be to stick with that. We still feature "girls" and "boys" shorts as themes, but we no longer mark the features as such. A film festival like Polari is for the entire community, and really, films are for everyone.
AC: But if you look at the lingering divisions in the community, say the lines between QueerBomb and Pride, there will always be folks who, no matter how implicitly they are invited to the table, feel that they are not invited to the table.
CN: People want to be comfortable and feel like they belong. Especially within the queer community. [We come together as community because] we've spent so much of our lives feeling like we don't fit in, feeling ostracized. So once you find people that are like you, you want to stick with that. That has been drilled down to very core places. Maybe it is a sense of fear, of feeling like you might not belong in those other pockets of the community.
AC: Of your very same community…
CN: Yes, of your own very same community - which is ironic and sad. There's perhaps the lingering feeling that people might not welcome you. Since we've dealt with those feelings of not being welcome all of our lives, I think maybe we're shy about doing that. Again, it's like QueerBomb and Pride. Both events are welcoming, and have become even more welcoming as the communities grow. But some people will always feel this hesitation to trust. That's what I'm up against. It's about getting community members to engender the same feelings.
AC: To get them to cross gulfs? Even imagined ones? What's your strategy?
CN: Again, the audience needs to take the step. It's important in a community such as ours – LGBTQ and Austin in general – for people to enjoy each other's representations, for us to approach film as a chance to learn about other people and engage with the world around us. A festival like Polari can offer those opportunities. Beyond risk and boundary-pushing, I want people to start thinking of the festival as something beyond just "come and watch a film and leave." We want people to participate in the Q&As and in the panel discussions. We want folks to stay behind and talk to the filmmakers.
AC: Well, that's all well and good for serious film fans, but how about the folks who just come to see movies and be entertained?
CN: We want people to have pleasure in what they are seeing. We want them to be entertained, but we want them to engage in and debate what they're seeing, and to also feel inspired to crate positive change by what they see.
AC: Specifics, please. What's your strategy?
CN: Well, diversity. Diversity in terms of programming. I'm conscious of genres, so that we don't just program all documentaries or all dramas or comedies. Then, of course, as we've been talking about, diversity of identities represented - not just gay, lesbian, bi, trans, but also people of color, of different classes.
AC: Relate some of this to 2013's programming, please?
CN: Our centerpiece film is The New Black, about young activists bridging the gaps in the black and gay communities, as seen through the lens of the gay marriage debate. Deep South tackles HIV/AIDS in the rural South - under-the-rug and underdiscussed topics in gay community, for sure. We are bringing in the director and having a conversation about issues in the film with The Q [AIDS Services of Austin's youth outreach division].
Our special focus this year is on dance. We're bookending the fest with two narrative films about dance, and [local dance troupe] Little Stolen Moments are the stars of our fest. They're performing and on the cover of our program and in the bumpers. There's the film Valencia, an omnibus with directors including Silas Howard, Cheryl Dunye, and local Homoscope festival founder, director Bug Davidson taking separate chapters of Michelle Tea's book. The actors will be here for screening. There's the Alice Walker doc…
AC: So now that you have two film festival programming feathers in your cap, what is your pet peeve about film festivals?
CN: It's openly known in the festival realm: Queer film festivals get charged more for films than any other kind of festival. I don't know why that is, how that started, how they can get away with that, or where that came from, but they do. Other filmmakers and other programmers have confirmed this. The economics of the festival scene irk me a little. Not just on their side, but on both sides. This might be naive or Pollyanna[ish], but I would love to get to a place where we are not charging filmmakers to submit their films to us. Many are students, or don't have a lot of money. They spend tons of money just to submit their films to festivals - sometimes the only way their films can be seen.
AC: As LGBTQ issues become more open and accepted in the mainstream, is it difficult to keep a festival like Polari relevant? Is it tough to define the edges?
CN: Our stories have made it into the mainstream. Interestingly, Indiewire says that there were more films with queer content in the 1990s than the first decade of 2000. Sure, some of that is about the politics of the times, but it also has to do with certain titles hogging the market, in a sense. Brokeback Mountain was one of the biggest hits in gay cinema, but its staying power may have taken the place of four other films that might have made it out there. "Yay, we did our queer film for the year!" There are some success stories, but most of these [gay cinema] films will only be seen on the festival circuit or maybe when they come out on Netflix or HBO.
AC: How has that affected funding and production? The likelihood that something might be produced or released? Has it had an affect on narrative trends?
CN: Certain stories are really popular, like gay marriage. The mainstream has a framework where it can talk about it, so those stories are more likely to break through. Stories approaching new facets of the community, not so much. That's what keeps them in that place, in a more underground or niche context, for better or for worse. There is a power in being not everywhere and not having to answer to anyone. It's a hard position in terms of success, but it forces filmmakers to be creative.
AC: Do you have any guilty pleasures, media-wise?
CN: Well, not guilty: I'm a huge horror fan. I guess this is another pet peeve. Due to our schedules, I'm never able to go to Fantastic Fest. We're doing a sci-fi program this year that has one film by Clay Liford in that vein that is overlapping with Fantastic Fest. They've shown queer stuff in the past. I would love to collaborate with them.
AC: How are Polari's relationships with other Austin film festivals? And with the film community in general?
CN: Polari has amazing relationships with Cine las Americas, [the Austin Film Festival], and [Austin Film Society]. [Current partner] PJ Raval is great example of bridging that gap from that world, engaging between the film production and film fest worlds in Austin. So, yeah, great relations with South by Southwest, everyone. I'm serious about getting more of the non-LGBTQIA community to participate. The full film community should participate. It happens, but I want it to happen way more frequently. Maybe they think we're showing nothing but sex films or cheesy rom-coms, but what we are showing is just as strong as anything shown in other festivals - just as artful, just as relevant to anyone. Everyone would see them.
AC: Well, you've been reaching out a lot this year. We covered it in "Gay Place."
CN: I went to some [Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays] meetings this past summer in support of our Queer Youth Media Project. It's so important to reach out and invite allies and supporters of the community. It's important to reach out and invite people *within* the community!
AC: There's so much you are competing with, though. As a culture, we are loyal and all, but we do like our shiny objects.
CN: It's funny you say that: In queer clubs, they play mostly music by straight divas. And that's great, I love that music, too; it's fun. But then there are only a few clubs that consistently play the amazing queer artists that are out there.
AC: Wouldn't it be great to hear more actual queer artists in actual queer clubs?
CN: That carries over to the film world as well.
AC: Well, yeah, sure. But the gays always seem to be up on the latest. It's kind of like what perplexes me about punk rock dudes. They are supposed to be so independent and radical and alternative, but they go gaga over mainstream corporate crap like Major League Baseball and sports teams. Likewise, you talk to your gay friends, and they are totally up on what's hot and out in the mainstream culture, on the radio and in cineplexes.
AC: So, specifically LGBTQ festivals are still important?
CN: It's so important to our culture. It's also important to not be an insular event. It's a huge opportunity to create a space where anyone can be in the audience. I want everyone to come. I'd especially love to see the queer community support the work that we are doing even more than they are.
Polari runs Oct. 16-20. Check out our preview coverage for more details.