Taking On Another Identity

Lisa Kaselak, a straight woman, leads the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival into its 20th year

Taking On Another Identity
Photo by Celesta Danger

Few people have fought for inclusion with more fervor than Troy Perry, subject of the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival's opening-night feature, Call Me Troy. Founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, Perry performed one of the first same-sex marriages and sued for recognition of such unions. He'll spread the good word of equal rights in person at the documentary's world-premiere screening and at the opening-night afterparty at City Hall, a celebration of the films from 22 countries that made it to Austin this year.

From Israel, for instance, comes Eytan Fox's much-lauded romance amid Mideast turmoil, The Bubble. "It's just a great film about a great topic that happens to incorporate gay characters," says Programming Director Lisa Kaselak of one of her personal favorites. Another Kaselak-approved film, The Way We Write, depicts a unique family dynamic – a father, a gay son, and the distance in between – as seen through the lens of Taiwanese director Amy Wen.

It's films like those that make for the real party. In this, their 20th year, the aGLIFF once again throws open the doors of the Arbor Cinema at Great Hills and invites you to one of the most inclusive occasions on the calendar. Kaselak, in her first year, deserves the praise for casting a wide cinematic net and, just by being herself, an even wider sense of welcome.

She's perhaps the most interesting if not controversial example of aGLIFF's inclusiveness. As a straight woman, she's cut from strange cloth to be dressing this festival. "When the board interviewed me, I said, 'Is this a problem?,'" Kaselak recalls. "'What matters is can I effectively represent this organization as a straight person. If I can't, then I'm a liability to you as an organization.' ... Once we got it off the table in the beginning, it was a complete nonissue."

aGLIFF's Executive Director, Lucas Schaefer, agrees, adding that any issues are positive ones. "Having someone on board with a totally outside perspective is refreshing, because she leaves no stone unturned and doesn't presume to know everything about gay cinema," he writes via e-mail. "Nothing is automatically ruled out, and everything is initially on the table."

Kaselak: "As a programming director, what is really important is that I know how to do the job of programming a film festival. Can I take this group of films, listen to what the gay community is telling me, and incorporate all of those things into a program that makes sense and is well-curated? To that degree, I'm well-qualified."

Can the spirit of inclusion be taken to a point where identity is lost? Where are the films that speak to the smaller niches within the gay community? Three cheers for socially conscious docs and subtitled, ambiguous art flicks, but can a lesbian see some girl-on-girl action? Can a bisexual see any and all action? Can an asexual see no action whatsoever? Where's the stuff that's going to scare the straight people ... straighter? Where my niches at?

"With a niche, you're bringing in people who are interested in whatever that documentary is speaking of, but the really good thing is the festival basically creates this kind of film frenzy, and you'll get people in to watch stuff that maybe they never would have seen before," says Scott Dinger, who founded aGLIFF and led the fest for 17 years, gradually steering the program away from the early gay-male-centric perspective to include more LBT in the LGBT spectrum. "That kind of thing is what gives people something that's not entirely safe."

This has been most evident in aGLIFF's short-film selections, both during the Dinger era and today with Kaselak's arrival.

"I wanted to give just as much credence to short films as to feature films, because I love the short-film medium," she says. "I think it's a medium that really gets overlooked in the United States."

With groups of shorts titled Boy-o-Rama and Trans Journeys, you know there are sections of the gay community feeling validated, while some in the straight community might shift uncomfortably in their seats. Culled from the Sixties and Seventies – really the heyday for lesbian sleaze – comes the Best of Lezsploitation program. Say no more, and save me a seat to shift in.

And what of camp? "It was always a tough call, because you can [screen] a feature film that's a romantic comedy that'll fill the house," Dinger says. "The thing is that you're not looking at this as a financial thing; you're looking at it as a whole." Thankfully, crowd-pleasers are always in demand, and, God bless capitalism, with demand comes supply. Nothing screams camp like musicals, and this year's aGLIFF has a shorts program titled Expanamusicals!, featuring song, dance, and a video from the Skinjobs. In a similar vein, the UK supplies a romantic comedy with a touch of Bollywood in Nina's Heavenly Delights.

To balance the romps, socially conscious films touch on issues important to GLBTers and the world at large. "This year, one of the things that people seem to be really concerned with is fundamentalist religion and how that's been impacting the gay community," Kaselak says. "There were probably seven or eight films that were submitted that dealt with that as a theme specifically." The documentary We're All Angels, for instance, stars two gay Christian pop singers who find resistance from both the gay and religious communities they represent.

Docs Tell and Semper Fi: One Marine's Journey wear similar social-thinking caps, each questioning the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy while keeping a keen eye on who is most hurt by this form of discrimination.

"I think film festivals are representative of what the culture is putting forward," Kaselak says. "Filmmakers are just responding to what is going on in their lives and what's going on around them. This festival is a little bit of 'Let's remind ourselves where we've been for the last 20 years' and 'Let's look forward.'"

To represent where aGLIFF's been in the past 20 years, Kaselak called in backup to program the retrospective portion of the festival. "I worked with Andy Scahill, who teaches film history at the University of Texas," she admits.

Leading the retrospective pack is Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes' seminal 1991 film, Poison. Lambasted for its stark depictions of gay sex and concurrent funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the film, told in three parts, jumps from Fifties B-movie horror to documentary style in an effort to bring to the screen the writings of Jean Genet.

International to national, niche to universal, crowd-pleasers to art flicks: It looks like almost everyone is accounted for. Kaselak explains how to cover all of the bases: "Here's the thing that's really cool about film: It tells stories that show that pretty much everybody's the same. There are little details that change, but it's a really transcendent medium. We all have the same emotions." In the end, she says, "Is this a story that touches you in some way? It doesn't have to be a good way. It could be a negative way. It could be something that's controversial. It can be something that makes you happy or angry or sad or frustrated or inspired or motivated."

So did the newbie director of programming leave her straight fingerprints all over aGLIFF? "I'm just a conduit," Kaselak says. "This isn't the Lisa show. I've never thought of it that way at all. My job is to facilitate the process of bringing to the community what I hear the community asking for."

Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival

Friday, Sept. 28-Saturday, Oct. 6

Arbor Cinema at Great Hills screens 1 and 2 (9828 Great Hills Trail)

Admission and more information: www.agliff.org

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Lisa Kaselak, Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, Scott Dinger, Call Me Troy, Lucas Schaefer

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