“Can you see the difference?” asks Shari Frilot, one of the programmers of this year’s Outfest, with a slightly nervous laugh about the festival. “I’m so glad you can. One of the reasons I think I was attractive as a programmer is because of my background. I think [John] Cooper [director of festival programming] thought I could make the festival edgier, bolder.” She pauses for a beat. “But do you think anyone will come?”

It’d be a shame if they didn’t. Frilot’s not only co-programmed, with Shannon Kelley, the best Outfest in recent memory, she’s helped elevate it to world-class status: This year’s showcase is the film festival, queer or straight, that L.A. has been starved for. But Frilot’s jitters are understandable. In years past, a slow pan of some British boy’s ass was the festival’s dose of innovation and exoticism, while American flicks, at least as demonstrated by hot-ticket, main-theater fare, became increasingly banal, infantile. The audience dutifully buckled up for those unbumpy cinematic rides, and, in the age of Kiss Me, Guido, it’s reasonable to ask if they’ll support anything more adventurous.

Outfest ’98 still has its share of crossover dreams (the much-hyped Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss) and determinedly indie flicks (the excellent Edge of Seventeen), but it’s the high number of Asian films (documentaries, features and shorts, foreign and domestic), films from Israel and Africa, Brazil and Germany, the high-profile slots given to experimental works, the easy balance between lesbian and gay titles, that bear Frilot’s stamp.

A Harvard/Radcliffe graduate who’s spent time in public television, written and directed her own award-winning experimental short film, A Cosmic Demonstration of Sexuality, and worked on various documentaries, videos and short films, as well as curated and co-founded several queer film festivals around the world, the 33-year-old Afro-Rican Frilot was most recently the director for MIX: New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, where for five years she honed her intertwined political and aesthetic sensibilities.

“We renamed the festival MIX because I wanted to create a festival on the gay circuit that talked a little more about race and class, as well as queer sexualities. This was in the early ’90s, when New Queer Cinema was all the rage, but nobody of color was looking at New Queer Cinema and seeing themselves or thinking that it had anything to do with them. That’s where the idea for MIX came from.”

Frilot moved from New York to California last year in order to be with her girlfriend and rekindle her film career. Within a few months, though, she was offered the gig at Outfest ’98, at which point she “hemmed and hawed, then looked at my bank account and took the job.” She also accepted it to heal an old wound. “Back in 1992, I came to Outfest with A Cosmic De monstration and when I got here, the artists [of color] were protesting the festival because of how poorly we were being treated. It wasn’t only Outfest. We went to several other festivals and got the same treatment — being told you’re really important because you add flavor, but not getting any respect for your work. But since then, I’ve been tracking the festival, and I think they’ve really come around. I think a lot of it has to do with the new blood — Morgan [Rumpf, executive director], Shannon and Cooper. They breathed fresh air into the programming.”

When asked what she looks for when screening works for the festival, Frilot replies thoughtfully, “I guess I look for three things, and they really have to come together: passion, intelligence and beauty. It’s important to remember that all kinds of films continue to get made. There’s the stuff that you get in mainstream outlets, like In & Out, but there’s also stuff that gives you new places to go, with a different perspective on things. People like Dr. Vaginal Davis, Dawn Suggs, Thomas Allen Harris and Cheryl Dunye make work that stretches the medium formally, and that talks about new and interesting things. With Outfest, what’s exciting is that we can give this work a venue, have it connect with people . . . I hope,” she laughs.

For more Outfest ’98 coverage, turn to the Film Calendar.

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