Outfest's Lineup Challenges Boundaries

While mainstream Hollywood continues to grapple with the ins and outs of the closet, Outfest, the 19th annual Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, is knocking off the remaining hinges, continuing to push boundaries concerning gender, ethnicity and nascent gay rights movements around the world.

Outfest, which began Thursday, runs through July 23 primarily at the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood.

Thematically, says festival director Stephen Gutwillig, the presentations continue to stretch the parameters of sexual and ethnic identity. Transgender issues are featured in greater depth this year: Eight films explore the subject.

"Transgender themes have been building over the past couple of years, and this year they hit a critical mass," says festival co-director of programming Shari Frilot. "These films not only explore sexuality but the very nature of what is considered male and female," adds co-director of programming Shannon Kelley.

Interestingly, at the same time Outfest is focusing on these alternative voices, the studios and networks have noticed too. The opening-night film, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," about a rocker whose sex change was botched, was shown at Sundance this year and will be distributed by Fine Line Features, a specialty film division of AOL Time Warner's New Line Cinema.

The subject is also addressed in the fall CBS series "The Education of Max Bickford," which features a transgender character played by Helen Shaver.

As in years past, the mix is cosmopolitan, with entries from 23 countries. Of note is the deluge of movies from Africa, a continent represented in the past with only a handful of films, according to Gutwillig.

For countries such as Zimbabwe, with two films in the fest, Gutwillig says, "these films represent the extraordinary challenge queer artists face in a society where state-sponsored homophobia is the norm. Ironically, you get some of the most creative work in the context of intense repression. It's also ironic that these films will be seen and celebrated here and by audiences at gay and lesbian festivals around the world, but can't be exhibited in countries like Zimbabwe because the threat to the filmmakers and audiences is too great."

The relationship between race and sexuality also has become an increasingly important subject at the festival, with films and programs this year devoted to blacks, Latinos and Asians. Among the highlights are Barbet Schroeder's Colombian-made film "Our Lady of the Assassins," and "Metrosexuality," a Channel Four production set in London's East End that features a racially and sexually diverse cast and follows the same company's "Queer as Folk."

Outfest is also reaching out to the senior community with a program of shorts titled "Remember When."

Gutwillig stresses that these films are not simply for seniors, but re-create "a history we were never taught."

The ties between Hollywood companies and Outfest continue to grow. In addition to Fine Line's "Hedwig," "Our Lady of the Assassins" is being distributed by Paramount Classics. The documentary "Southern Comfort" was financed by HBO and the cable TV series "Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City" by Showtime. "Not only is it exciting to involve the industry by showing films that they've acquired," says Frilot, but it's gratifying to see "the interest they've shown in the films that are being screened for the first time at our festival."

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