LGBTQ representation on screen has come a long way throughout the history of cinema. As studios made movies geared toward white, cisgender, heterosexual 18- to 34-year-olds, gay people have been reduced to stereotypes- the sissy, the villain, the perverted or the murdered. Then, in 1982, two UCLA students who were looking to see themselves on screen started a three-day media conference that has in the years since, become what we now know as Outfest Los Angeles. Los Angeles is home to the organization, whose mission is to promote equality by creating, sharing and protecting LGBTQ stories on the screen, and every Summer the festival seems to get bigger and more important.
“We have a fairly lengthy and robust submission process, and we broke our record by nearly 40 percent on the amount of submissions that came in this year,” says director of festival programming Mike Dougherty, in charge of putting together the programs for both Outfest Los Angeles and Outfest Fusion (the sister film festival for LGBTQ people of color). “We have both a senior programming team and an assistant programming team that altogether totals 50 to 60 people [who do] multiple watches of every film that comes in. We program according to the emerging themes that we see throughout the year and want to highlight every facet of the LGBTQ community, so everyone can see themselves represented in the stories we’re sharing on screen.”
Dougherty and Deputy director Kerri Stoughton-Jackson, who has been with the organization since 2000 (first as a contractor), attribute the increase in submissions to both the absence of the Los Angeles Film Festival and the fact that Outfest is a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards. “Our grand jury award winner in the short film contest is an automatic qualifier for the Academy short film competition. We take being a qualifier very seriously and I think a number of people submit to us knowing that,” says Staughton-Jackson. “I also think that digital filmmaking, even film filmmaking, has really democratized the process and opened it up to a larger pool.”
In terms of this year’s titles, Outfest really tried to find content that thematically fit into the festival. “One thing that we did want to be mindful of is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall was this year and we have this completely wild connection,” says Dougherty, who just joined the Outfest team this year. “And a lot of people want to move beyond the coming out narrative, which is, especially in mainstream queer films, where the story’s often lie. Not that coming out narratives do not play a crucial role in queer storytelling still, but we’re moving to a point where queer identity is crucial to the story but not the only driving force in it.”
So, what are some of the highlights for this year’s festival? To help break it down, we’ve divided the titles into three categories- event films, previous festival winners and original programming.
This year, Outfest will be holding four events at the John Anson Ford Theatres in Hollywood. “We’ve been lucky enough to be at the Ford now for close to 20 years and this is one of our stronger series of films to go into the Ford,” says Staughton-Jackson. “We’ve got some just really solid programs beyond just the films and, much like if you’ve been to the [Hollywood] Bowl, [the Ford is] a bring-a-picnic, bring-a-bottle-of-wine and just really enjoy the night type of venue. So enough can’t be said about that experience.”
The first film shown here on July 24 will be Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts about the famous RuPaul’s Drag Race alum and All Stars winner. “She is probably one of the most famous drag queens to come out of the RuPaul’s Drag Race circuit and the doc is about her story coming from nothing and becoming this superstar,” says Dougherty. “She is a drag queen comedian and chart-topping country music artist, and the film goes into all that, the behind-the-scenes of that. Trixie Mattel will appear live to perform both music and stand up prior to the film screening.”
Another famous funny lady appearing live to promote her film is Kathy Griffin, whose film Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story premieres at Outfest the following night. (It previously premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival.) “We are actually going to have kind of an updated version of it where she added some behind-the-scenes moments into it, but it is a standup special about her and the aftermath of her Trump photo shoot that got her into a lot of hot water and made her the target of the Trump administration,” says Dougherty. “And Kathy will appear prior to that screening for an onstage conversation, which is going to be moderated by Louis Virtel, [writer of Throwing Shade].”
The third night finds a touching documentary called Gay Chorus Deep South, which previously won the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. “The film is about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus when they toured the Deep South following the Trump election, when anti-LGBTQ legislation was kind of popping up in those red states,” says Dougherty. “They teamed up with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and did a tour of those states to bring a message of visibility and love and acceptance to the queer communities in those states. It’s a very beautiful, rousing film and we’ll be joined by members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. A large portion of them are coming down for this screening and will perform at the venue after that screening.” The final night is a unique documentary about LGBTQ icon Judy Garland called Sid & Judy. “It’s about the life and career of Judy Garland, told through the lens of her third husband Sid Luft,” says Dougherty.
Outside of the Ford screenings there’s another special event documentary called Queering the Script, which is about queer female representation on television. “We’re going to have a conversation after that screening with some talent including Angelica Ross from Pose, Amber Benson, who is one half of the Willow and Tara couple on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Isabella Gomez, who plays a very memorable queer character on One Day at a Time and the showrunner/creator of the reboot of The L Word, Marja-Lewis Ryan. [This is the kind of event] you can only really have in Los Angeles.”
The other special event documentary is called Scream Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, about A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, which as it turns out was a very homoerotic film, especially for 1985. “It focuses on the lead actor, Mark Patton, who was a closeted gay man in Hollywood in the ’80s and that film kind of outed him in a way and kind of made his career go away,” says Dougherty. “And we’re going to have basically the entire cast of that original film with Mark Patton and Robert Englund, [who played] Freddy Krueger himself, coming, as well as several of the supporting cast. So that’s going to be completely unique and fun night.”
Film Festival Winners
Although some of the films at the Ford have won awards at previous festivals, other Outfest films being screened did so as well. Before You Know It, the closing gala screening, was a Sundance Film Festival selection about sisters living a dysfunctional life in New York City. It was written and directed by Hannah Pearl Utt, who also stars in it alongside Alec Baldwin and Mandy Patinkin. Another Sundance premiere was To the Stars, a coming-of-age story in the 1950s, Oklahoma starring Malin Akerman, Shea Whigham and Tony Hale. The last film to highlight from Sundance is Adam, Transparent producer and Outfest alum Rhys Ernst’s feature debut about the lives of young lesbian and trans New Yorkers in 2006 (if you miss the Outfest screening, Adam is scheduled to open theatrically on August 23 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills).
Outfest also has a few titles that won awards at the Berlin International Film Festival. Brief Story From the Green Planet won the Teddy Award in Berlin, their official queer award. The film is about a young trans woman who is tasked with caring for her recently deceased grandmother’s closest companion, an alien whom she and her friends must safely return to its origins. A Dog Barking at the Moon won a Teddy Jury Award in Berlin as well. The movie follows an expectant mother who gets embroiled in her family’s ongoing feud on her return to China, triggered by her father’s gay affairs and her mother’s entry into a predatory cult.
Moving from Berlin to Austin, Outfest also has some South By Southwest winners. The Garden Left Behind is about a young trans Latino woman in New York City, and Saint Frances is a comedy from a first-time writer-director team about an unplanned pregnancy for the nanny of an affluent lesbian couple’s 6-year-old daughter. The Tribeca Film Festival is Changing the Game. “It’s our documentary centerpiece about some incredible high school trans athletes, including Mack Beggs, who was in a national news story,” says Dougherty. “He was made to compete in girls’ wrestling in Texas and was the two-time state champion for girls’ wrestling, although he is as a man. Mack is looking to join us, so that’s going be a great screening as well.”
Also from the Tribeca Film Festival, a much-anticipated L.A.-centric film will be featured on the Opening Night Gala: Circus of Books, which documents the Los Angeles queer landmark shop which was a “gay erotica emporium, cruising hotspot haven and unofficial community center on West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard and on Sunset in Silver Lake.”
While Outfest is featuring some great contenders from previous festivals, it also has a fair share of films to premiere itself. “One world premiere that I’m very excited about as a documentary called Pier Kids,” says Dougherty. “It was directed by Elegance Bratton, who is a fantastic filmmaker. He lived in and around the Christopher Street Pier for many years of his life as a homeless youth. And now he has made a film about the queer and trans youth living in the Christopher Street Pier these days. It’s very much the world that was highlighted in Paris Is Burning and now in Pose and it’s still going on today.”
Another world premiere is Tu Me Manques, a U.S.-Bolivia coproduction based on a play that was a smash hit in Bolivia. “It’s about a father coming to terms with his son’s life as a gay man and his son’s boyfriend,” says Dougherty. “It’s not unlike a Tony Kushner kind of play. It’s a really cool movie there.” From Bolivia to Japan, the international premiere of a documentary called Queer Japan highlights the diversity of Queer personalities in the country including politicians, performance artists and erotic manga arts.
Finally, there are 17 shorts programs that highlight a broad range from the LGBTQ community, some of which are premiering at Outfest for the first time as well while others that have had success on the festival circuit previously. I can’t recommend the Outfest shorts series enough. Whether American or foreign language, these succinct queer stories are always worth viewing.
“I think one of the things about this festival is we’re considered the preeminent LGBTQ film festival in the world,” says Staughton-Jackson. “One of the things that enabled us to do that and also be just a unique festival in the states is that we have this connection to Hollywood. So we’re able to curate and pull resources or connections to bring in some really remarkable conversations. We’re really grateful to have the kinds of opportunities that are specifically unique to this festival.”
Outfest Los Angeles takes place July 18-28. For tickets and more information please visit festival.outfest.org/2019/