Don't overlook the "queens of the queer Texas film scene"
The OUTsider Film & Arts Festival, which runs Feb. 17-21, will host a stunning panel of filmmakers whose works run the aesthetic, budgetary, and thematic gamut. The event, organized by Artistic Director Curran Nault, will "screen new and classic works by the queens of the queer Texas film scene" at the Salvage Vanguard Theater. Nault's assemblage of star talent for the event is an important landmark, not the least because the panelists involved are some of this state's most acclaimed directors. The multi-arts screening also works to respond to a key question for the thinking filmgoer: Where is queer film now, three years out from B. Ruby Rich's classic New Queer Cinema rewrite?
The answer: Texas, U.S.A.
Rich's book details major paradigm shifts in LGBTQIA film communities from California, New York, the Pacific Northwest, and the South – but somehow, Texas and the Midwest slip largely through the cracks. Although OUTsider is a young festival, its developers could not be more aware of this historical lack, and Nault and team have invited artists from diverse backgrounds to try and address it. PJ Raval, one of the panelists and founders, said "Part of the mission of OUTsider in the first place is to bring in artists that have been overlooked," many of them from Austin. Although queer video and performance have been common platforms for local artists for decades, Raval – who has taught filmmaking at UT and won awards around the country – argues, "If you say 'Here's a queer filmmaker from Texas,' it still blows people's minds."
That is probably why, when political activist and documentarian Ellen Spiro moved from New York to Austin in 1998, it was "for what I thought was going to be a one-year gig" as a visiting lecturer at UT. Spiro had come to love the city while making Greetings From Out Here, in which her "one-woman, one-dog crew" filmed "lesbian punk bands like Girls in the Nose and Two Nice Girls." Not looking to settle, the filmmaker accepted the position for a little extra dough and the opportunity to visit friends in the burgeoning queer community here, expecting to head out in her RV shortly afterward.
Eighteen years and a tenured position later, the Oscar-shortlisted, "wandering queer Jew" is "back in action." She said, "I'm working on three new films that are all in beginning stages." Spiro's selection for the panel, Greetings, will represent a sort of homecoming with OUTsider Advisory Board member Gretchen Phillips of Two Nice Girls and Girls in the Nose. "I immediately recognized the fest as something refreshing for people that don't want to fit into a particular box. As soon as I fit into a box, my shape starts changing."
The panel itself represents an opportunity for filmmakers like Raval and Spiro to put their creative approaches into a critical dialogue. Another participant, Jonathan Caouette, agreed with Spiro immediately, saying, "I never really thought of myself as a 'queer director' or a 'gay director' because I did not want to compartmentalize myself." Yet the earliest signs of a "post-New Queer Cinema" in Texas probably percolated directly out of Caouette's MacBook in 2003. That year, he edited, produced, and directed an unclassifiable little feature called Tarnation, turning himself into the LGBT film community's golden child. "It was like a wormhole, a magical wormhole of circumstances, that could not have existed in any other time or space," said the Houston-born Caouette. Part gonzo autobiography, part collage-art project, Tarnation's debut was swept up into a discourse that included Sadie Benning, Ira Sachs, and Spiro herself. Eventually, the tide of acclaim culminated in Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell executive-producing the project.
Until recently, however, Caouette was a full-time New York resident. He and his husband David have since "officially floated" between NYC and Caouette's childhood home in Houston, after a "really long sabbatical" to prepare for a new film. Originally, he reached out to OUTsider with "a lot of stuff I'd like to discuss and get off my chest," but it was Nault's inspiration to place him on the panel. That night, he'll screen a wondrous found-footage short called "Cosmic Crystals" with "footage mainly derived from 'The Cosmic Crystal' by filmmaker Paul Falcone," an early inspiration for Caouette. The only non-Austin resident, Caouette's excitement to engage in discussion with Nault, Raval, Spiro, and local filmmaker Yen Tan after years away from feature directing is palpable.
While some of the filmmakers participating in this explosive moment for queer media exhibit a contagious hopefulness and energy, Tan – a legend in Austin for his award-winning graphic design business Otto Is the One – is appropriately skeptical: "It's still hard for LGBT filmmakers to make their next films ... if your films or themes are niche-oriented, people are not rushing out to make them." His own third feature, Pit Stop, a subtle, slow-burning drama about two Texan men orbiting one another, had its world premiere at Sundance 2013 and was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards. Since then, critical support and longstanding connections to Austin cinema have led to his participation in the Austin Film Society's Artist Intensive with a feature co-written by Clay Liford, the director of a SXSW 2016 narrative selection, Slash.
Though Pit Stop was widely acclaimed, Tan still sees room for improvement, and the panel will give him a key space to explain why. As a Malaysian-born, queer-identifying director, he said he feels that "what happens behind closed doors, the conversations that are happening between the people who really make decisions" make things "hard for everybody." His Dallas-shot short film, "The Outfit," which he co-wrote with Don Swaynos and which OUTsider will show at Salvage Vanguard, mocks the closed-door discrimination perpetuated by politicians, executives, and money-people. Still, according to Tan, things may be looking up: In preparation for the panel, he said, "The positive thing is that now, these things are more discussed and people are more aware of them."
OUTsider runs Feb. 17-21 at various venues around town. For more info, and to purchase a badge, see www.outsiderfest.org.