Austin Gay/Lesbian Film Festival's Eighth Year
Austin Gay/Lesbian Film Festival's Eighth YearSuper 8 by Alison Macor
As it hits the ripe age of eight, the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) is expanding in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The 1995 edition of the event kicks off September 1, two weeks earlier than usual to coincide with Last Splash weekend, the large gay gathering that commemorates the end of summer. A more elaborate series of parties has been planned, and the festival's home, the Dobie Theatre, has been newly renovated and expanded to four screens. Lastly but most significantly, aGLIFF promises more films - a total of 95 - and a stronger program for this year's run.
The theme of stronger films runs throughout conversations with co-chairs Ted Smith and Sheri Fults and artistic director Scott Dinger. Fults defines this strength in terms of technical superiority, which comes from access to better tools to make the films, thus improving the quality of the final product. Dinger, manager of the Dobie Theatre and the festival's originator, defines it also in terms of the accessibility of the films, which he hopes will draw crossover audiences. Smith echoes these sentiments, citing the festival's premiere of Jeffrey, the much-anticipated Hollywood release based on Paul Rudnick's off-Broadway play of a romance between a man terrified of AIDS and an HIV-positive Mr. Right. Supplementing the beefed-up programming are high-tech features such as advertising on the Internet and a Web site linked to the site set up by OUT Magazine. Finally, better internal organization of aGLIFF also contributes to the festival's strength, according to Smith. Benefits-laden membership packages and heavy volunteer turn-out for the festival reflect this cohesiveness.
Stronger organization has most benefited the Regional Showcase. This is the second year for the showcase, a juried competition that includes films from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas, Arizona, and Colorado. The showcase was designed to encourage and promote films and videos that concentrate on gay and lesbian themes by offering cash awards to the filmmakers. Last year, the showcase was judged by festival board members. This year, the festival is enhancing the benefits for showcase participants by having their submissions presided over by a seven-member Advisory Board comprised of a diverse group of professionals affiliated with the film and video industry. One board member is Nicole Conn, best known as the director of the 1993 film Claire of the Moon. Conn combines an affiliation with the gay and lesbian film community with connections to the larger film industry. Board member John Downing, a professor in the University of Texas Department of Radio-Television-Film, brings an international knowledge of film and video, not to mention a useful promotional connection to Austin's largest university. The other five members of the Advisory Board contribute skills and contacts in all areas of the entertainment industry and the gay and lesbian community in particular: Dee Mosbacher, founder of Woman Vision and co-director of the Oscar-nominated Straight From the Heart; Charles Duggan, owner of the Marine Memorial Theatre in San Francisco and the theatrical producer behind the Greater Tuna plays, as well as Broadway productions; Bruce Moccia, former head of RKO Pictures and current executive with Telescene, an interactive media firm; Barbara Grier, publisher of Naiad Press; and Alicia Valdez, a Los Angeles-based music video producer.
The Regional Showcase has already inspired budding filmmakers, encouraging them with the presence of an alternative to more mainstream film festivals. Heyd Fontenot, co-director with Beth Wichterich and Donna Shepherd of the short-form video submission Lezzie Limericks and Queer Cheers and a second-year veteran of the Showcase, remembers his first exposure to the festival. On a look-see trip to Austin, one of the first things to catch his eye was the Dobie Theatre's marquee advertising the festival. At the time, Fontenot was thrilled simply to be moving to a city that offered such a festival. Now, he views its presence as more than a yearly event to look forward to. "It works as an organizing principle and a slow community builder," Fontenot claims. Local artists can use the festival's showcase as an impetus to get their projects finished in time for submission, and the contact among the different film and video directors establishes a local network. The festival, says Fontenot, gives directors like him an audience of both "film people and queer people." Crossover attendance and the presence of the Advisory Board provide a good test market, Fontenot points out. Yet, he cautions against too much accessibility in film content, shrewdly commenting on the benefits of maintaining some marginality in order to provide a venue for less mainstream, more experimental work. "I'd rather see crappy work that takes a chance," he remarks, than view yet another slicked-up, watered-down, gay Hollywood film.
Accessibility or maintained marginality: Which aesthetic should be cultivated by aGLIFF? Rather than working at cross purposes, Dinger and aGLIFF directors such as Fontenot believe they can have both. The accessible nature of films that deal with issues other than coming-out stories are more appealing (and more effective, in some cases) because their ideas are more universally felt. This universality may draw in the larger audiences that some gay and lesbian filmmakers want, as with this year's Heaven's a Drag, which has been described as "Ghost meets Longtime Companion." Dinger notes that many of this year's entrants are tackling more mature issues without losing their gay and lesbian focus. Now people are realizing, or addressing, that "a gay and lesbian film doesn't have to be made for just a gay and lesbian audience; it could be about issues dealt with by people who just happen to be gay and/or lesbian." Fults agrees with Dinger, using one of this year's features, Olives, as an example. She describes it as a murder mystery where the gay issue is a sidenote, but definitely still a presence. In this way the films may also help to obliterate a common stereotype often associated with the gay and lesbian population, allowing viewers to recognize that homosexuals have experiences beyond their coming-out stories.
In addition to the 20 features in this year's festival, the shorts program promises something for viewers who want to see more experimental work. Fontenot points out that film festivals are often the only venues to see these shorter-length films and videos. The aGLIFF shorts program, which this year has four submissions in both the men's and women's divisions, may be even more of an inspiration to young film and video makers because of the films' lower budgets. Better artists who have less access to money often categorize the directors in this program, according to Fontenot. "You'll always come away with something that's really interesting, that kind of makes you think," adds Dinger.
Making viewers think is, after all, the hallmark of a good film, no matter what the sexual persuasion of the director. aGLIFF happens to foreground both: a venue for gay and lesbian artists and a program of film and video that's anticipated by film lovers across the country and beyond. In addition to the juried competition in the Regional Showcase, the shorts program, and the premiere of more mainstream gay and lesbian films like Jeffrey, this year's festival boasts two highly touted sneak previews and a large number of directors who will be in attendance to introduce and comment on their films. The sneaks must remain unnamed until the festival begins, but Dinger encourages viewers to read promotional materials for hints about the titles. While there is not an acknowledged theme to the eighth annual aGLIFF, Dinger notes that each year the festival seems to take on a different personality or style depending on the films and videos, the film and video makers, and the attendees. Although the festival is, in its eighth year, an established Austin tradition, the metamorphosis of the festival's personality alone promises to be worth the price of a ticket.