Beyond the Closet Door

Gay/Lesbian Filmmakers Find New Inspiration

The Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) is celebrating its ninth year in central Texas with an expansion of its influence and focus. Instead of showcasing a preponderance of movies whose plots derive from the turmoil and poignancy attached to coming-out issues, the festival this year features an unprecedented number of films that examine a wider variety of themes and aspects involved in the modern gay lifestyle. Just as Hollywood's days of stereotypically depicting gays in film as flaming florists or women in comfortable shoes are passing into obsolescence, so it seems that gay filmmakers are letting go of the common (and most times traumatic) bond of coming out as a primary artistic inspiration. Life's many complexities are increasingly reflected in the ever-growing number of films by gay-identified filmmakers. Another novel aspect of this year's festival is the record number of women's films included in the program, films that prominently feature females as either filmmakers or as subjects. This mixture of the XX chromosome and the life-as-we-know-it themes, as well as some provocative documentaries and special events, set the stage for interesting trends that may make aGLIFF's ninth its best year yet.

According to Scott Dinger, artistic director of the festival since its inception, the films selected are those that have "gay or lesbian sensibility or sensitivity, or that have a great sense of camp to them." To wit, the sensitive side of the program includes Hetti McDonald's Beautiful Thing, a rite-of-passage love story depicting the first inklings of romance for three Southeast London teenagers and Rescuing Desire, by Adam Rogers, a romantic comedy about coming out late in life. In the same vein, Late Bloomers, a sweet I-fell-in-love-and-it happens-to-be-with-a-woman film written and directed by Gretchen and Julia Dyer, is making its way back to Austin after a successful stint at the SXSW film festival (Late Bloomers was awarded Honorable Mention in the Narrative Feature Film category). The Dallas-based Dyer sisters will also be on hand at the screening to answer audience questions.

Some films that fit a more non-traditional profile include Red Ribbon Blues, the story of a group of friends who, Robin Hood-style, rob pharmacies for expensive AIDS medications. The movie's writer/director Charles Winkler, who is the son of the well-known Hollywood producer/ director Irwin Winkler, will also be in attendance. A politically motivated film, Stonewall is a semi-fictionalized (and, oddly enough, British) chronicle of the events leading up to the historic 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Sadly, Stonewall's director, Nigel Finch, died of AIDS during post-production. Among the campier entries this year are Men, Men, Men, by Christian de Sica, a raunchy and often hilarious look at gay men in Italy, and Peter Litton's The Art of Cruising Men, a side-splitting portrayal of men on the make.

Also special to aGLIFF is the Regional Showcase, a collection of film and video entries from Southwestern artists, which will screen at 2pm on Sunday, Sept. 8 at the Dobie. The award winners of this juried competition will be announced at the festival's closing party at Saengerrunde Hall.

The festival will also play host to some riveting documentaries about what it means to be gay in America. The Celluloid Closet, the award-winning film by Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman, examines gay and lesbian images throughout the history of filmmaking. Also showing will be Family Values, by Pam Walton, which chronicles one lesbian's quest to deal with her religiously right father. Debra Chasnoff's It's Elementary, provides insight into how gay and lesbian issues are being presented in classrooms across America. All God's Children, directed by Dee Mosbacher and produced by Sylvia Rhue, examines the experiences of African-American gays and lesbians.

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A work personifiying at least two of the aforemention festival trends -- a lesbian film whose story unfolds around a typical social gathering -- Sharon Pollack's Everything Relative, isa touching drama set in and around New York City. Described as the "lesbian Big Chill," Everything Relative explores the lives of eight women, seven of whom are lesbians, who reunite to celebrate the birth of Daniel, the son of Katie and Victoria. Though sexual liaisons and emotional baggage figure significantly into the plot, the film centers on friendship, family, and the ups and downs experienced by these women since their college days together. As the women celebrate Daniel's life, they reminisce about their days as political activists in the Seventies and how their lives have changed -- or haven't. The film itself is intricately woven and delicately shot, including some beautiful images of sunlight speckling its way through trees and moonlight reflecting itself via shimmering water onto its characters' complex faces.

Relative's director, writer, and producer, Sharon Pollack (no relation to Sydney), is a seasoned dramatic writer whose background also includes acting and teaching, most recently teaching dramatic writing at New York University. Relative marks her first foray into directing and producing. She, along with co-producer Patricia Larouzière, made the film for less than $200,000. She wrote the script in 1994 and had the film shot, edited, and produced in time for Sundance this year, where it was very well received. Everything Relative has recently been picked-up for national distribution by Tara Releasing and will open for a theatrical run at the Dobie on Oct. 11. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to Sharon Pollack via telephone about her film.

Austin Chronicle: What inspired you to write this script?

Sharon Pollack: Well, I had a stint writing screenplays for Hollywood, which left me very disillusioned, so I quit screenwriting to work on a novel. But I found that I missed it terribly. Around the same time, I knew someone who was looking for a lesbian script, so I decided to write Everything Relative. The script just poured out of me because it was from my heart. I wrote this script as an ensemble piece because I wanted to tell several stories at once, not just one. I wanted to do this because I felt like there were so very few stories about lesbians, especially older lesbians.

AC: Don't you think this is already changing with films like Go Fish, and The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love?

SP: Yes, definitely, but those are about younger lesbians and the issues they must face -- very important issues, but different from the ones I saw among my own friends and community of people -- women and men -- who are over 30. Questions like: How am I going to have a family? How am I going to validate my relationship with my lover in a way that is meaningful, even though society won't recognize that?

AC: This was your first stab at directing for film? How did you make the leap from writing to directing?

SP: I wasn't planning to direct at all. I even started the process of interviewing directors at NYU. After I interviewed a couple of them, it was the directors themselves who first suggested to me that I should direct this piece myself because of my strong vision for the film and because it was so personal to me. I also realized that I wanted ultimate artistic control, so my life as a director began.

AC: What kind of experience was it?

SP: It was scary. I mean, I had never directed any film before... not shorts, videos, or anything. Since I knew that my strength would not be the technical details of film, I surrounded myself with good technical people, and I drew on my own acting background in order to interact with the actors. This is sort of an inverted way of directing because many directors rely more on their technical expertise rather than on their acting or scripting expertise. It worked well, I think.

AC: What did the actors/crew think of this particular approach?

SP: Well, I didn't tell too many of them when we first started shooting because I was concerned that it would make them nervous knowing that I was a first-time director. I remember in the third week of shooting Ellen McLaughlin, who played Josie in the film, asked me about my professional experience: "What shorts have you directed?" "Well, um...," I said. Then she asked, "What videos have you directed?" "Well, um," I repeated. "You mean to say that this is your first time directing anything?" she asked. "Yes, and aren't you glad I didn't tell you that when we started?" "Yes," she admitted.

AC: Speaking of your cast, they're terrific. Where did you find them?

SP: Well, New York City has a huge talent pool, which I drew on heavily. For the months leading up to pre-production, the co-producer, Patricia Larouzière, and I raised money by 20-minute readings of the script at these parties. I selected five of the eight actresses from the readings they did for me at the parties. Also, I had a wonderful casting director called Jack Bowdan. He introduced me to the remaining three actresses.

AC: Are the women who acted in the film lesbians?

SP: This is always a tough question to answer because, while I understand why people ask it and also why they want to know about it, I am also a bit reluctant to answer for the actresses themselves. It's funny, I auditioned a lot of actresses and some of those who I thought were lesbians weren't and vice-versa. I will say that most of them in the film were not lesbians. I simply didn't cast according to sexuality.

AC: All of the women in the film are very attractive. Have you gotten negative responses to this, people saying things like, "That's not representative of lesbians... all lesbians don't look like fashion models?"

SP: I have gotten some responses like, "Why are all the women beautiful?" though I don't think most of the actresses are classically beautiful. More often, I get "Why are they all so skinny; lesbians aren't all skinny," which is true. What I tell people is that the women in the film are trained, accomplished actresses, who, by the nature of their profession, are very concerned about their appearance. And I have met plenty of beautiful, skinny lesbians in New York City. Also, I like the idea of having attractive images of lesbians in film, especially older ones. I mean when I was growing up, we had the women of The Children's Hour [the beautiful but tortured Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in a film adaptation of a Lillian Hellman play], as role models. I remember when I told my mother I was gay, she said that gay women live their lives alone and are lonely, lonely people. She said this because all she had to base her views of lesbians on were films like The Children's Hour, or the The Well of Loneliness. That's why it was so important to me to have positive, healthy images of lesbians.

AC: You mentioned the cocktail parties you had as fund-raisers. What are some other ways you raised money for the film?

SP: Really, it was quite miraculous. We held many of these parties, which were making us money, but not nearly enough. Then, a lesbian organization called ASTRAEA got involved and held a huge party where exerpts of the script were read. The reading and party were both huge hits. This prompted further interest and soon we had several key investors. Once we got these investors, we just rode the momentum, and got support from all sorts of people, primarily older lesbians who both have money and who are interested in seeing films like this.

AC: It sounds very grass roots and community-based.

SP: Yes, we had a hunger to get this film made and the community responded. Of the investors, probably half were lesbians, about a quarter were gay men, and the rest were straight.

AC: Beyond the sex scenes, the film shows a lot of playful sexuality between the characters. Was that intentional?

SP: Definitely. I wanted to show the various levels of the characters' interaction, and the importance of affection and physical intimacy in the women's lives.

AC: With which of the characters do you identify the most?

SP: Since these characters are composites of different people and aren't really like me, it's hard to say. The only characters who were based on real people are Katie's mother and grandmother, the grandmother being the reincarnation of my own grandmother. The character I identify with the least is Victoria. She is the rich WASPY one who is out but is afraid to come out to her business associates. She suffers from internalized homophobia, which is not uncommon, and it makes her less "out" than her partner, Katie. One partner's being more out than another is something that many gay couples have to deal with.

AC: These characters are dealing with a lot of life, not just lesbian issues. I get a sense of sadness from them all, like each one of them has had their share of losses.

SP: Yes, they definitely have. And there are moments in the film where they succumb to their feelings of loss, but the overriding feeling I wanted to give was one of hope. When I was first trying to get the movie made and went to people who work in independent film, a lot of people didn't embrace it because it wasn't dark enough. I found that the association was very strong between independent filmmaking and darkness. And I was damned if I was going to fall for that! I mean it's still an independent film, but it doesn't have to be dark. I want to give people -- lesbians, women, and everybody some hope.

AC: What happens to these women?

SP: Why, four different sequels, I imagine (laughs). I mean, I want to know what happens to them, don't you?

AC: Yeah, I really want to know if Luce moves to LA to be with Gina.

SP: Or how Daniel (Victoria and Katie's infant son) fares in his life...

AC: Okay, now for the most important question: Was the microphone/dildo used by two of the women a deliberate attempt to get some sense of maleness into the film?

SP: No, (chuckles) really, it was just for fun.

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The two-week aGLIFF schedule runs from Friday, Aug. 30-Friday, Sept. 13 at the Dobie Theatre. Some special events, however, are set for other locations around town. The festival's opening party is planned for Saturday Aug. 31, 8pm, at the Paramount. It includes a lavish champagne dessert reception that will be followed by a screening of the Emmy-nominated film, The Celluloid Closet, a history of the depiction of gays in the movies narrated by Lily Tomlin. Tickets are $20 for reserved seating, $25 for preferred seating, and may be purchased at the Paramount box office or UTTM Outlets (477-6060). The festival will wrap with the Best of the Fest Awards party on Friday, Sept. 13, 9pm, at Saengerrunde Hall, 1607 San Jacinto. Tickets to the closing party are $15, and available at Dobie, Book Woman, and Lobo bookstores (in Austin and Houston). This event is also where the Regional Showcase awards will be announced.

A special symposium focusing on the evolution of gay and lesbian images in mainstream and independent films will be held on Saturday, Sept. 7, 1-3pm, at the Humanities Research Center on the University of Texas campus. It is co-sponsored by UT's Department of Radio-TV-Film. Invited panelists include Nicole Conn (director of Claire of the Moon), John Downing (chair of UT's Department of Radio-TV-Film), Charles Duggan (producer of Greater Tuna), Barabara Grier and Donna McBride (Naiad Press publishers and film backers of Desert Hearts and Claire of the Moon), Paris Poirer (director of Last Call at Maude's, which showed at aGLIFF 1995), Sylvia Rhue,(producer of All God's Children, which is included in this year's program), and Sharon Pollack (director of Everything Relative, who is interviewed above).

Theatre tickets for all the other festival films at the Dobie are $6 for evening shows and $4 for afternoon matinees and can be purchased on or before showtime. For general Festival information, call the hotline at 476-2454, or visit the aGLIFF Web site at http://www.agliff.org/ n K. Marie Black is a freelance writer for Austin Arts Magazine.

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