Polari’s Audience Award Becomes a Legend

aGLIFF founder Scott Dinger on 25 years of queer cinema

Scott Dinger
Scott Dinger

Seventeen years is a long time to spend creating, curating, and running a milestone film festival like the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival. But to Scott Dinger, it was second nature.

The face behind Austin’s 26-year-old LGBTQ film festival is receiving a big thank you from the recently rechristened Polari: Come this year’s opening night gala, the Audience Award will be renamed to the Scott Dinger Audience Award, for the man who founded the fest in 1987.

Dinger – who left the film fest world in 2004 – was in absolute shock over the honor. “I had all sorts of thoughts, including: Don’t they do this for someone who’s died? Or someone old?” he muses. “And then I remember I am old!” Dinger says he can’t take full credit for the Southwest’s longest-running LGBTQ film fest. “People would always thank me as if I had personally done it, but there are so many people behind it. It was always weird for me to have people think I was the one doing it. If I am humble, it’s because I was only the face.”

Except he wasn’t just the face. The amount of muscle Dinger put behind what was to become an LGBTQ tradition here in Austin is the stuff of legend. Flash back to 1987, before Ellen ever had a talk show and Will & Grace weren’t even character sketches. Before Tegan and Sara, Queer as Folk, and The L Word. Dinger – then program manager for the Drag’s now-shuttered Dobie Theater – started noticing lesbian and gay movies in his searches for independent pieces to bring to the theatre. “I knew they were playing in other cities, and I knew I wanted to bring them here to Austin,” he says. “But I realized I wanted to bring them all at once.”

Enter aGLIFF. It started small, with only four films. “I looked for one film for each category – international, women, men – but it was small. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it could get this big.” In the early years, aGLIFF became a gathering space for Austin’s LGBTQ community and a safe space to be out. “I’ve heard all sorts of stories; people would come up and tell me they had their first date here, or it was the first place they’d held hands in public,” Dinger reflects. “A lot of firsts happened at this festival. Those were always my favorite stories.”

Over the years it developed into a two-week event that jumped from theatre to theatre. “We took over the city,” says Dinger. Twenty-six years later, the festival is all grown up – it’s been trimmed to a manageable five days – and Austin has become a nationwide queer destination.

A lot has changed since 1987. “Back then if you wanted to hook up with someone, you had to put an ad in The Austin Chronicle, wait a week, and maybe you’d get a call,” Dinger reminds us. “Now you can get on your phone and find someone who’s within 50 feet of you. And it’s not just sex that’s changed so much, it’s society and gay marriage. It’s hard to compare it to before. I’ve dealt with the gay community for such a long time with this festival – that’s pretty darn out,” he laughs. “It’s hard to remember what it was like before.”

“I feel like an old man when I talk to people today. Even though gayness is much more accepted today with the media and all that, I still [hear stories from] people: Recently a young guy told me his experience of coming out, how hard it was to tell his parents, and it reminded me of what it was like when the festival started. It’s what we all went through [back then. Coming out [is still] not a given or easy for people,” Dinger concludes, adding that it’s not just about safety anymore.

“The festival is also a kind of educating space. I think today it’s even more relevant with people connecting to others within the community – what it’s like to be transgender or to come out for different people. We haven’t all had these exact experiences. There’s a lot of stereotyping in our community. We all get into niches and forget that there are other groups out there with different experiences. We’re not all guys who love to go out and take their shirts off and dance on the dance floor.”

And while Dinger is quick to call himself an “old man” who has a “hard time relating to today,” he’s still a staple within the community. After leaving aGLIFF in 2004, he began consulting on movie theatre construction, and soon after AIDS Services of Austin had an opening for an events coordinator. Leaving the festival was bittersweet. “It got to the point where it wasn’t challenging me anymore, and that wasn’t fair to the film festival. It needed new blood, and it needed people who could change the ideas without having me in the background.

“ASA started the same year as the film festival, and over those years I got to know and admire what they were doing,” says Dinger. “Event [planning] is what I know, and ASA is a nonprofit I believe in.” Faith in what he’s doing is something that’s very important to Dinger. He’s been coordinating AIDS Walk Austin for the past five years. “It’s a parade. Like the festival, it was once a place for us to come out in public and be proud. But it’s not just for the LGBTQ community; it’s for Austin.” Coincidently, this year’s AIDS Walk falls on last day of the festival.

Dinger admits he took a few years off from attending the festival to allow space, so the new generation might gain their new footing without concern for him looking over their shoulders. But that period has long passed, and once again Dinger is regular attendee. He’s looking forward to this year’s opening and closing films, along with Interior. Leather Bar. and PJ Raval’s documentary Before You Know It. “People always come for the sexy features, but my personal favorites have always been the documentaries,” Dinger says.

But whatever the genre, one thing is true: A thriving community needs passion, and that’s Dinger’s one piece of advice to the current Polari crew. “Surround yourself – the board and committees – with people who are passionate about this. The space, showing films, bringing people together once a year to this festival. It’s a tough thing to do. And if I have any talent, it’s bringing together passionate people who came back year after year and not for money or résumé notches, but because they were there for the right reasons.”

The Scott Dinger Audience Award official renaming ceremony takes place tomorrow night, Oct. 16, at the Polari opening ceremony at the Stateside Theatre. Visit www.polarifest.com for complete details, then follow along with our festival coverage on the Screens blog.

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Polari, Scott Dinger, Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, aGLIFF, audience award, Polari26, LGBT

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