"Of course they're coming to sit here." Curran Nault is only kind of kidding about the motto of this year's LGBTQ film festival – Don't Just Sit There: Indulge, Engage, Create. The current Polari artistic director knows his audience, and knows that some folks come simply to be entertained. "We want people to think of the festival as something beyond just 'come and watch a film and leave.' We want people to enjoy what they are seeing, but we also want them to engage in, debate, and be inspired by what they see."
The Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) began in 1987 in the nooks and crannies of Austin's storied Dobie Theater. The small four-screen movie house was owned by fest-founder Scott Dinger, who carried the aGLIFF mantle for 17 years.
This year, the recently rebranded Polari celebrates 26 years of LGBTQIA Austinites cozying up together – with only cup holders and popcorn buckets between them – to share gay expression and identity through cinema. While it's often assumed that the alphabet soup of identities implies one united gay front, the communities represented are myriad. There are preferences and cultural communities that don't even have letters: bears, drag queens, drag kings, separatists, family-types, leather daddies, butch/femme, and QPOC, to name a few. (OK, "queer people of color" have letters.)
"Polari is an opportunity to bring disparate groups together. It's a space where people can watch film and bond over something in a dark room. Yet, the films that can accomplish this are few and far between," says Nault, "because when it gets down to it, people gravitate to their particular communities."
Nault, 36, moved to Austin in 2006 to pursue graduate studies in film at the University of Texas and joined the staff of Polari a few months before the 2012 fest opened, after spending three years curating the Austin Asian American Film Festival. So the challenges of programming come as no surprise.
"As a culture, we've gotten used to having our little niche spaces," Nault says of the Amazon-ing and iPodification of taste. "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."
"I see the value in separate programming," he concedes. "It's fun to see films with the group they're targeted to, especially within the queer community. 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. But films are for everyone."
Nault's background in Austin's art scene, the Eastside, and involvement in the annual QueerBomb march give him perspective beyond a typical programmer's. "I like provocative stuff that pushes the envelope, that makes people think."
Polari26, he says, has made a conscious effort to create spaces for conversations directly with filmmakers and to encourage audience participation in panel discussions that go deeper than "how many hours did you shoot?" Because, as comfortable as sitting back and watching life at 24-frames-per-second can be, Nault's goal in selecting titles for Austin's queer film fest is to bring audiences to their feet.
The Polari Film Festival runs Oct. 16-20 at the Stateside at the Paramount, Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz, the Marchesa Hall & Theatre, Studio 4D at UT, and Violet Crown Cinema, plus installation screenings at the Polari offices on the weekend. See www.polarifest.com for full schedule and ticket info, and read our full Q&A with Nault here.
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