Outside of Society

Inside out with LGBTQ film showcases: aGLIFF/Polari and the OUTsider Fest

aGLIFF Executive Director Aaron Yeats (l) and Program Director Jim Brunzell
aGLIFF Executive Director Aaron Yeats (l) and Program Director Jim Brunzell (Photos by John Anderson)

Six months have passed since opening night of the 26th season of the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival – redubbed Polari26 (aGLIFF/Polari) – last October, and to say a lot has happened in the Austin LGBTQ film and arts scene is an understatement as big as Texas.

The usual suspects were in attendance on that chilly autumn night: pretty people, creatives, the well-heeled, film geeks, the intelligentsia. While words like "palpable," "excitement," and "buzz" often nail the vibe of film festival opening nights, this particular evening was a far more intimate affair.

As the large assemblage of LGBTQIA film fans filed into the rows at the packed Stateside at the Paramount theatre, friends popped up out of seats like so many Whac-a-Moles to greet friends old and new. Along with a few other local traditions – Pride, Queer­bomb, the AIDS Walk – aGLIFF is an annual gay family reunion.

Going on 17

After the requisite "We'd like to thank the sponsors," pre-show spiel, Artistic Director Curran Nault announced the renaming of the aGLIFF/Polari Audience Award for festival founder and longtime program director, Scott Dinger, who launched aGLIFF at the Dobie Theatre in 1987. Nault got choked up as he talked about Dinger and gifted him with the original sign from the old aGLIFF office on 51st Street as a token of appreciation.

Perhaps for the first time since Dinger left film programming in 2004, things seemed to come full circle – aGLIFF history felt as vital as its present. Honor felt as important as a packed house. One decade removed, this reverse torch-passing was not the first time Dinger had met the young programmer. And it wouldn't be the last.

"He had this passion for the festival," Din­ger said about getting to know Nault during the lead-up to the festival's 2013 season. "He wanted it to be the best it could be."

Nothing Gold Can Stay

But less than two months after what many considered a banner year for programming, in early December 2013, Nault sent notice to colleagues that he'd resigned from aGLIFF/Polari. He assured them that he'd remain "very active in the LGBTQIA and film-festival worlds," and hinted at "some exciting news."

Before the feel-good, no-fault "artistic differences" bromide from both sides could work its wonders, a Facebook page announced Nault's new gig: the OUTsider Film & Arts Festival, showcasing "LGBTQIA film and art via unique festival experiences" and slated for the strange pocket (as far as film festivals go) within February 2015.

Little Son of a Gun

OUTsider Executive Director Annie Bush
OUTsider Executive Director Annie Bush

As Nault and his partner, local filmmaker PJ Raval, hustled at this year's Sundance Film Festival, taking in films and spreading word of OUTsider, another programmer, Jim Brunzell III (also in Utah for the fest) saw a notice for a job in Austin. It was for Nault's vacated position as program director at aGLIFF/Polari. Brunzell applied that next Sunday and got a callback on Tuesday.

The native Midwesterner, with a résumé boasting programming work for both the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) and the music-centric Sound Unseen, had never been to Texas or South by Southwest. He arrived in Austin on March 2.

Brunzell is one of those good-natured, friendly guys for whom the cliche "someone you'd like to sit and have a beer with" might have been invented. He shares big, deep dimples, a baby face, and what your mom would call "laughing" eyes with his dad – the retired professional wrestler "Jumpin' Jim" Brunzell, one half of the Killer Bees tag-team during pro wrestling's wonder years of the mid-Seventies to mid-Eighties.

For the younger Brunzell, a steady diet of Disney classics and a chance encounter with Stand by Me at the tender age of 6 – "It wasn't like anything I'd ever seen: swearing, violence, bad behavior all around" – hooked him. Later, he enrolled as a student at the University of Minnesota in 1997. Oak Street Cinema would become his neighborhood oasis; his intake of film began in earnest.

Years after college, Brunzell was at a local festival screening and noticed that the guy selling tickets was the same guy introducing the film ... then running upstairs to operate the projector. The young film buff offered to help. On his first volunteer shift, Brunzell recalls, "I get there and find out that [this guy's] buddy crashed his car on the way to the auditorium. The next day, the [same] guy opens the print for that day's show, and it's the wrong movie. So ... he left. He just walked out. AWOL. I had to manage the venue. This was my first experience working at a film festival."

Eventually taking a staff position with the fest, Brunzell would earn the benefits of apprenticing under Midwest film fest greats, like MSPIFF's founder Al Milgrom and programmer Adam Sekuler. Even the guy whose car was wrecked all those years before helped land Brunzell his most recent Minnesota gig, running Sound Unseen, where he was slotting rockumentaries like Anvil! Story of Anvil, Peaches Does Herself, The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jay, and Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey.

The Person in This Picture Is Really Me

In late March, two months after the Facebook announcement of OUTsider, the official website appeared, hinting at the intended scope of the new fest and revealing the group's deepest asset: its personnel.

OUTsider's founders are a who's who crew of local LGBTQ film scenesters: filmmaker PJ Raval, film producer Annie Bush (Before You Know It, Raval's latest documentary), and previous aGLIFF/Polari board members and principals – performance artist/actor Paul Soileau, longtime aGLIFFer Bobette Mathis (1997 through 2005), and aGLIFF founder and programmer Scott Dinger.

The 2013 aGLIFF season was instrumental in bridging generations: Mathis and especially Dinger began to see, firsthand, the current crop of the gay film festival's stewards in action. "I was very happy with what Curran programmed," said Dinger. "That's what got me re-engaged."

OUTsider Artistic Director Curran Nault
OUTsider Artistic Director Curran Nault

Nault also had the chance to see the drive and enthusiasm of Dinger and Mathis. "Scott had my position for the longest period of anyone who'd ever had it," Nault said, acknowledging the weird musical chairs of aGLIFF/Polari board members, programmers, and executive directors through the years since Dinger's departure. "I wanted someone to mentor me. Scott had expressed a lot of respect and admiration, which really blew me away.

"Bobette created a video honoring Scott when he left aGLIFF in 2004," said Nault. So he asked her to pull together a similar tribute for 2013 and had a chance to witness her "boundless energy and enthusiasm." Nault was so impressed with them both that he recommended them to the board. "It was a no-brainer."

"I filled out an application," said Mathis. "But 10 years later, aGLIFF is a different animal. Any roles that I would have liked to fill were filled. I didn't want to try to fit myself into something that already felt put together."

As Nault started talking about cranking up something new, Dinger was already on board. Soon, Mathis followed suit. "The last time I blindly followed a vision approved by Scott Dinger," Mathis laughed, "it changed every part of my life. I'd be foolish to turn down a ride on that train.

In their website launch, OUTsider also revealed an advisory board: a veritable Austin queer creative brain trust, including Madge Darlington (Rude Mechanicals), Dan­iel Alexander Jones (performance artist), Ron Berry (Fusebox), Chale Nafus (Austin Film Society), Sandra Martinez (aGLIFF, Project Transitions, Chances), and many, many more.

"On nonprofit boards, when magic happens, you can't create it," said Mathis.

He Sure Put Things Into Words Good

"The film programmers who came after me had a tough job," said Dinger. "The festival went through some pains. The programming at some points took a backseat.

"But you have to pay for the festival," Dinger acknowledged. "Sponsors pay for a lot of this. And sometimes, the more they get, the more they want." With large sponsors, programmers sometimes become burdened with concerns about demographics, what the sponsors want, and playing to an audience, Dinger said.

Yet during his years shepherding aGLIFF, Dinger never experienced pushback from any sponsors or found it to be an ongoing problem. "It was more internal pressure about ways to sell to sponsors," he said. "I think it's a perceived pressure – chasing the bucks."

No Jazz Before a Rumble

OUTsider Vice President Scott Dinger
OUTsider Vice President Scott Dinger

Speaking of bucks: Does the presence of aGLIFF/Polari and OUTsider mean that Austin is swimming in queer-art riches? Or will it thin out much-needed resources? Is Austin big enough to sustain two fests focused on LGBTQ film?

Executive director of aGLIFF/Polari Aaron Yeats says, "Why not? The city's big enough." He sees coexistence between the festivals. "February and September: They're complementary and far enough apart." He was quick to point out that Polari represents more than just the film festival. "Our Queer Youth Media Project is doubling the number of students this year. And our summer Family Screening Pro­gram revisits cultural classics everyone can enjoy."

OUTsider's Artistic Director Nault echoes the sentiment, "We do not want to be in competition." He also notes that OUTsider's distinction from other LGBTQ festivals is in intentionally mixing genres and not focusing on feature-length films. "In most fests, shorts are second-tier to features. We're looking for [films not] being showcased elsewhere."

There is also another queer festival to consider: The new StarGayZer Music Fest­iv­al happens at Carson Creek Ranch in East Austin atop some of the same dates as aGLIFF/Polari. "We had no idea," said Brett Hornsby, StarGayZer's founder, who assumed the film festival was still on the calendar for October. "We chose the specific weekend so that we wouldn't conflict with a list of things: Splash, Pride. We certainly don't want to compete, especially with any queer events."

Stick Together, Make Like Brothers

"He's far too humble," Yeats said of new aGLIFF/Polari programmer Brunzell. "He recognizes good film. Unlike myself; I'm the base. I've attended aGLIFF since 1997, and so yes, it's about playing to the sustainable base, but also showing people things they haven't seen and giving them something they connect with." Yeats, with his background in marketing, talks a lot about the base, which aGLIFF/Polari press info says is homosexual, male, Caucasian, and in the $50,000-99,000 demographic.

The festival's most exciting news, however, is its recent signing with Alamo South Lamar. The venue also happens to be proximate to aGLIFF/Polari's HQ relocation to Mercury Mambo advertising agency, festival sponsor and Yeats' employer.

Underneath All That Grease

"Right now, there are no rules," said Nault. "I've worked at festivals before, but I've never created a festival." OUTsider's multiarts approach seems to have more in common with a fringe fest than a traditional film festival. "We'll have programs that combine music, film, dance, and poetry all in one event, but also schedule these pieces next door to each other. We really want a carnivalesque atmosphere."

According to Executive Director Annie Bush, "Finding a central location for all of this is really key – having a space where that cross-pollination between different art forms [can happen], and for the lovers of those different art forms." OUTsider proposes bringing different artists and scholars from different disciplines to not only present finished works, said Bush, but to also come, be present, and create art during the festival, with plans for the audience to be a part of the mash-up, as well.

We Like the Same Sunsets

Bush is excited. OUTsider's first-ever event, MayDayGayDay, "will show a lot of what we want to do." Local artists known for a certain discipline will mix it up with unexpected modes of expression: Austin Film Society honcho Chale Nafus will DJ his first-ever set, filmmaker PJ Raval will perform a dance number, musician Gret­chen Phillips will show photography, and drag troupe Poo Poo Platter will butch it up. (See Gay Place for more about the May 1 event.) "It's a first taste of what we are," said Bush.

Stay Gold, Ponyboy

Despite a long absence, Dinger still feels the pull. "aGLIFF is my baby. From the outside looking in, I'm excited that they're bringing someone with such deep film background. I'm anxious to see what [Brunzell] is going to do. My hope is that they give him a lot of leeway.

"My feeling about supporting the programmer is this: You [the board] brought this person in; don't put parameters on him. From what I see, this person knows what to do. Let the artistic person do what they do best, and don't second-guess."

Scott Dinger feels good about the landscape of queer cinema in Austin right now. "It could be an exciting time." He feels good about the path he's chosen, as well.

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aGLIFF, Polari, OUTsider Fest, MayDayGayDay, LGBTQIA, Scott Dinger, Curran Nault, PJ Raval, StarGayZer Music Festival, Bobette Mathis, queer film

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