A Straight View of a Gay Film Festival

Commentary by James Berardinelli
July 24, 1996

Aside from the run-of-the-mill, ordinary film festivals that are springing up all over the world, there are any number of specialized fetes, catering to specific audiences. These include African American film festivals, Womens' film festivals, Jewish film festivals, Family Values film festivals, and Gay & Lesbian film festivals. Over the past few years, this latter category has ripened and flourished, growing branches in nearly every major United States city. This year, I had an opportunity to attend the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, which is still in its infancy (this is only its second year). And, although I'm a heterosexual, I found the fare to be, in large part, challenging and interesting. Overall, the experience was culturally and cinematically enriching.

The Philadelphia Gay Film Festival took place in mid-July (coincident with Los Angeles' higher-profile event). Over a span of eleven days, 130 films (61 features and 69 shorts) were presented from fourteen countries covering more than thirty years of gay cinema. The split between male-oriented and female- oriented pictures seemed to be about fifty/fifty, with some movies featuring both gay and lesbian themes. Eight movies focused on interracial love. There was a John Waters retrospective (with the film maker present to introduce his films and discuss his views on motion pictures and life). Overall attendance exceeded 10,000, with numerous sell-outs. Seven local theaters participated in the festival, including the prestigious Ritz Theaters, which reserved the second largest of their ten screening rooms exclusively for the festival.

Obviously, I couldn't catch most (or even a majority) of what was offered, so this view is admittedly skewed and limited. Nevertheless, based on what I viewed and/or heard about over the week-and-a-half period, here's my take on the festival, including comments about a few key films.

Opening night was Stonewall (which I reviewed separately). The screening packed a 400-seat theater, with almost every prominent member of the Philadelphia area gay & lesbian community in attendance. Quentin Crisp (Orlando) and activist Barbara Gittings were on hand to introduce the film (although their comments weren't particularly enlightening), and, afterwards, both attended a party open to everyone paying the nominal $5 admission. Everyone I spoke to had nothing but praise for the film and the festival's organizer, Raymond Murray. In general, Stonewall seemed to be better received than last year's opening feature, Safe.

Over the course of the next ten days, a number of varied and interesting films were presented. Obviously, not everything was of high quality, nor was it necessarily intended to be (in fact, using my, 0-10 scale, the "average" film was probably about a "6"). A number of obviously-bad movies were included primarily for their value as camp classics. One of the most intriguing was something called Chained Girls, a 1965 "documentary" that exposes a number of "shocking" truths about lesbians. Viewed more than thirty years after its creation, the film is hilariously outdated in its overblown, homophobic probing of such questions as "Who are lesbians?" and "How do lesbians live?"

Certainly, one of the most hyped screenings of the festival was Man of the Year, Dirk Shafer's semi-autobiographical comedy. Shafer was Playgirl's 1992 "Man of the Year", and, as such, was expected to be the ideal representation of heterosexuality. One problem, though: Shafer is gay. The material is interesting, but Shafer's handling of it is sloppy and amateurish. His acting skills are limited and his directorial abilities aren't much better. Nevertheless, the audience laughed their way through the film, showing as much enthusiasm as they did for Stonewall.

The Midwife's Tale, from director Megan Siler, added a dash of medieval romance to the festival, exploring the relationship between a noblewoman and a midwife. It's an endearingly adult fairy tale, and one of the best-written entries. Since most of the features dealt with love and sex in modern-day gay & lesbian relationships (often with Generation X characters), this change-of-pace was welcome.

The best-recognized "names" appeared in Stephen Kijak's 1995 film, Never Met Picasso. Featuring Alexis Arquette, Margot Kidder (before her recent, unfortunate problems), Don McKellar, and Georgia Ragsdale, Never Met Picasso looks into the gay subcommunity of the Boston art world, dissecting the relationships of a painter and a historian, and a previously heterosexual woman and a young lesbian sculptor.

One marginally mainstream feature to adorn the festival's program was 1994's Suite 16, a British/Netherlands import from director Dominique Deruddere. Starring Pete Postlewaite and Antoine Kamerling, the tightly-scripted thriller builds tension between these two as they toy with each other's minds. It's a power struggle, with Kamerling possessing physical superiority while Postlewaite has the more cunning mind. Although "buried" in two afternoon showings, Suite 16 was one of the festival's highlights.

The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye's debut feature, which premiered at this year's Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, was granted a return engagement. Filmed in Philadelphia, and including a fair amount of local color, the feature is a lighthearted romantic comedy pairing a black woman with a free-spirited white lesbian mate. This film received an extremely enthusiastic response for each of its four screenings (three during the PFWC and one here).

Perhaps the most obvious observation likely to be gleaned from this sort of festival is that gay cinema isn't significantly different from its mainstream counterpart. The money isn't there, of course (it's rare for a Hollywood studio to back a film in which a gay character is positively portrayed), but the same sort of screenplay variability is. There are well-scripted gay films and horribly-written ones. There are lightweight romantic comedies and harder-hitting dramas about serious political and social concerns. There are thrillers and farces. Many of the films are made on such small budgets that they will never be shown outside of the festival circuit. In some cases, because the quality is so poor, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but there are a few gems that deserve to be widely seen. Stonewall, which was one of the festival's best, is receiving national distribution, and it's well worth a look. The film isn't perfect, but it gives a less-fatuous perspective of the drag queen lifestyle than was presented in the recent blockbuster, The Birdcage.

Ultimately, however, no matter how good or bad a particular film was, the most intriguing and rewarding aspect of the festival (as is often the case with specialized cinema events) was a unique perspective of a different culture. Coming from a middle-class, white background, I wasn't exposed to "alternative lifestyles" while growing up. Events like this are helpful not only in encouraging tolerance and understanding, but in expanding the horizons of those willing to look beyond the comfortable familiarity of one's immediate neighborhood. Everyone I spoke to at the festival's screenings was very open and communicative, and willing to answer just about any question I came up with. I count the hours spent at the 1996 Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival to be well worth the time and effort.

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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