Alternate Screens

Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival

Party Monster

Ask Dennis Poplin, the founder of San Antonio's gay and lesbian film festival, Out at the Movies, to talk about the issues gay and lesbian film festivals face nationwide and right away he says, "homophobia." Directors and programmers of gay and lesbian festivals in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco don't include homophobia anywhere on their lists. Neither do Scott Dinger or Sandra Martinez, the artistic and executive directors, respectively, of the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF), even though last year, aGLIFF's 10th year, a billboard company refused to accept an aGLIFF billboard idea whose tagline stated "Baptist Fundamentalists Welcome," and its printer refused to print what it deemed were racy photos in the aGLIFF program. In San Antonio, though, the city council, bowing under pressure from religious operatives, entirely de-funded Out at the Movies by refusing to provide the festival with city arts funding or awarding it Texas Commission on the Arts funding. Poplin recalls that "there were public hearings where the festival schedule was entered as evidence that we showed pornography. ... In fact, we made the Christian Coalition newsletter this month and one of the things that they said that we did was that the festival literature `portrays suggestive homosexual poses,' and we laugh about it and it's funny but it's still very serious."

From that perspective, the issues that Dinger, Martinez, and other gay and lesbian festival programmers do mention - like finding and including larger proportions of lesbian features, funding, and representing the entire spectrum of the community - seem more luxuries than potential setbacks. They seem that way, and yet they're not. There are still those prickly, not quite overt but certainly not muted instances of "misunderstanding." For example, this spring, Dinger read an article about a film shot and set in L.A., Hard, which will screen this year at aGLIFF. The filmmakers took their film to a lab in L.A. to be printed and the lab returned the print, telling the filmmakers that they didn't print pornography. As Dinger tells it, the filmmakers then said, "`What are you talking about?' And they said, `These two guys kissing.' It's like, `What are you talking about?' They got into this big fight and another lab wouldn't do it either and we got in touch with the director on this and we were talking about maybe even helping with the funding to get it out, which we didn't have to do - they were able to take it to another, more expensive lab. And the film is kind of like a semi-gay Silence of the Lambs in that there's some really graphic stuff in there but it's still a good film."

This year, Martinez became the first and only paid staff member for what has steadily become a larger, more comprehensive festival, by far and away the Southwest's most established and successful gay and lesbian festival. Michael Lumpkin, who has been the director of the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival for 15 years, the largest in the world with 75,000 attendees this past June (last year aGLIFF counted 10,000 attendees), says, "There are lesbian and gay festivals in New York and L.A. and San Francisco, which are kind of the big three because of where they're located, but Austin, because it's been around for many years ... although it is smaller than the three big festivals, it is one that seems to be one of the most well-organized in terms of how it operates ... and they seem to keep adding improvements and other components to the festival every year."

Whether because of its improvements or coherence as a festival, aGLIFF now stands at a point where its concerns mirror those of the big three festivals. Chief among those, according to Shannon Kelley, the programmer of Outfest: The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, is "the sort of mainstreaming of gay culture and of gay films, which is a double-edged sword. It's of course nice to think that it represents a point of arrival that there are gay films in major theatre chains, and at the same time there's a theoretical question about how gay those films actually are." It is nice to see movies like last year's In & Out make money and be treated on a par with other seasonal fare, yet there's no denying Kelley's assertion that for gay and lesbian filmgoers there's something missing in the way that Hollywood films treat gay subject matter. Those omissions form the heart of what spurs non-industry filmgoers to attend gay and lesbian film festivals: to see something new and cutting-edge.

The Sticky Fingers of Time

For gay and lesbian film festivals, Kelley believes that the consequence of the mainstreaming of gay culture is that "a lot of distribution companies are having to sit up and take notice of the success that certain people are having distributing gay films. At the same time, they don't know exactly what the science of that is and so they may get a film and they have no idea whether it's going to hurt them or help them to play in a gay festival. It might even be the gayest film you've ever heard of but they think, `My gosh, if it's identified with a gay festival, I'm going to marginalize my audience and all that crossover that I wish I could get I'm not going to get now.'" Because he owns the Dobie Theatre, Dinger is particularly conversant with the way distributors think of gay and lesbian features: "The distributor will basically say [to the filmmakers], do not take any more festivals. Close it, shut it down. And so it's the kind of semi-mainstreaming of gay and lesbian films that's a bit of a threat. They know that there's only so big of a market for these gay or lesbian films and they're not making anything off of it by showing it at a festival, so it's straight cents and dollars." For first-time filmmakers who are relieved to have their film picked up at all by a distributor, the situation is a Catch-22.

But also chief among the issues facing gay and lesbian film festivals nationwide is the apparent dearth of lesbian features, which actually has been a criticism of aGLIFF in the past - that it didn't feature enough lesbian films. In fact, Dinger readily acknowledges that in the past, "it was evident that we weren't getting the women. Perhaps the programming wasn't there. I think it is harder to reach [lesbians], especially in Austin where you don't even have a lesbian bar." Kelley sums it up by saying, "Most of what's made in the general world and in the gay world is financed by white guys and viewed by white guys and consumed by white guys. The struggle is to swim against the tide of commerce and make it more than just a white guy's festival." Basil Tsiokos, programming coordinator for the New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (aka The New Festival), concurs that, "it's harder for women to get access to film. We have some video features, they have more access to that material, to that medium, but for film it's so expensive; that's been the case for a number of years. More male film work, and more female video work: It's pretty much a widespread phenomenon."

To curtail the phenomenon, for the first time this year aGLIFF created a post for a women's programmer, Jennifer "J.B." Bean, a film scholar who, after the festival, will move to Seattle to help found a film studies program at the University of Washington. According to Dinger, Bean "brought a much better level of programming" to this year's festival. In the past, Dinger would visit film festivals, particularly San Francisco's, which is where many film festivals get their programming ideas (this year, about 70% of aGLIFF's films screened at San Francisco) and would then program the entire festival. But this year, J.B. attended San Francisco's festival with him, and Dinger basically left the women's programming up to her. Already, says executive director Martinez, "you can tell there are more women calling, there are more women at the higher-level memberships. So you can start to get a feel that more women are talking about the festival."

Two hundred and sixty-nine films were submitted to aGLIFF this year, and of those 104 will be screened. A sizable majority of those submissions were for the shorts programs, which have always been crowd-pleasers at aGLIFF. This year, the shorts programs have expanded both in numbers and themes. There is, as usual, a program devoted to the best shorts, but there are others whose titles say it all: "Queer Animation," "Lusty Lesbians," "Sapphic Slapstick," and "Straight Boys That Do," to name a few. The shorts programs are gender-oriented, which is something of a dilemma for gay and lesbian festival programmers. As San Francisco's Lumpkin states, "I hate the idea of the men coming in to see a movie and then they'll leave and all the women come in to see their movie. ... You want to mix it up as much as possible but then kind of when you get to the bottom line, you're kind of in the mode of marketing and trying to sell tickets, and that kind of goal often points you in the direction of getting the core audience into each thing instead of reaching out trying to get other people into a particular film or program."

aGLIFF has its festival junkies who attend as many screenings as possible every year; like many festivalgoers this year, they won't be overly concerned with issues of funding and marketing and how the shorts are programmed. But they do expect original, cutting-edge movies. What Outfest's Kelley says about his festival's attendees is equally true of aGLIFF's: "A lot of folks, just in our audience, see a lot of mainstream gay features as concerning issues that they consider to be kind of behind them or that they've already digested." Unlike years past, festivalgoers will have more films to see, but fewer chances to see them. Because of the volume of films in the festival, most films are only being screened once. Particularly strong this year are documentaries, including a British documentary, Lone Star Hate, which investigates the 1993 murder of Nicholas West in Tyler. Or Barbara Hammer's The Female Closet, a foray into the function of the closet in three artistic lesbian couples' lives. Worthy Mothers follows two Travis County lesbian couples on the often embattled road to adoption.

Dinger went aggressively this year after quality speakers for the three Clip & Talk programs, which are video and film presentations in which industry experts such as MGM archivist John Kirk discuss, for example, costume epics made in Italy from 1958-65, which were "vehicles for male starlets with abnormal muscle development." Advertising Age reporter Michael Wilke will reveal the gay imagery in commercials, and porn filmmaker Wash West and porn star Jim Buck comment on "what pornography, in a smarter and sexier world, could be like."

aGLIFF's programmers stress that the "international" in aGLIFF's title is more apropos this year than in the past, particularly with the inclusion of Dakan, the first West African feature film to openly treat homosexuality; in fact, the film had to be shot in secrecy in Guinea. One shorts program, Yellow Fever, is devoted entirely to gay Asian sensibilities. Features from the United Kingdom make a strong showing: Love Story documents the surreal tale of Lilly Wurst, a "Nazi supermom" celebrated for producing four racially pure sons who finds herself falling in love with a 21-year-old, politically active German Jew. The incendiary intelligence of Tilda Swinton makes its customary appearance in Love Is the Devil, which examines the frequently tortured relationship between British painter Francis Bacon and George Dyer. Working-class Blackpool and London's openly gay Soho both have their turns in Like It Is, Paul Oremland's film about a preternaturally mismatched couple which also features the Who's Roger Daltrey.

For those who like parties with their films, there will be an opening night party directly after the screening of the opening night film, Relax ... It's Just Sex (directed by The Simpsons voice artist P.J. Castellaneta) Friday, August 28 at La Zona Rosa, where singer-songwriter Kris McKay will headline. Reno, the "gonzo lesbian stand-up comic," will attend the screening of Reno Finds Her Mom on Thursday, September 3 and then present her comedy act, Reno Finds Her Mind, at 9pm on Friday, September 4 at Saengerrunde Hall. Following her Friday show, at 10:30pm, New York-based DJ Phillip Patrick Kohl will provide music for the Absolut aGLIFF party. A Filmmakers' Brunch at Thai Passion, for which the general public can purchase tickets, takes place Sunday, September 6, 11am.

Whatever films and events turn out to be the biggest draws at aGLIFF, the truth of Dinger's assessment of aGLIFF will be apparent: "We've been lucky that it has made money each year, enough to pay its bills and have some money to start for the next year. ... Never is it, `Let's do it just like we did last year.'"

aGLIFF takes place August 28 - September 10. All screenings are at the Dobie Theatre (2025 Guadalupe), except for the opening night film, Relax ... It's Just Sex, which will screen at the Paramount Theatre Friday, August 28, 8pm.

aGLIFF is offering advance ticket sales this year, which can be placed by calling 476-2454 or in person at the Dobie Theatre. Regular tickets, which can be purchased at the aGLIFF box office at the Dobie Theatre, are $7/$4.50 for matinees, with discounts for aGLIFF members. For more info call the Festival Info Line at 476-2454, or see

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Clay Smith
The Insider's Outsider Guide to Texas
The Insider's Outsider Guide to Texas
Remembering Bud Shrake

May 15, 2009

Barlow the Ubiquitous
Daily Reviews and Interviews

March 20, 2009

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle