The 2019 Outfest film festival casts a spotlight on L.A.'s queer scene past and present
In 1982, a mom and pop specialty bookshop opened in West Hollywood.
Run by Karen and Barry Mason, Circus of Books carried gay and straight nudie magazines, hardcore pornographic films and sex toys as well as international newspapers and classic literary titles until its close in February.
The store, which would become a legendary hub for Los Angeles’ LGBTQ community and a safe space to meet other gay people free from homophobia, is the subject of a Netflix documentary from the couple’s daughter Rachel that will screen as the opening night centerpiece when the 2019 edition of the Outfest film festival kicks off Thursday.
“‘Circus of Books’ is a perfectly timed story,” said Christopher Racster, executive director of Outfest. “It really takes us back to a point in time where we really needed safe spaces. And while the current social dialogue seems to be moving backwards around LGBTQ issues, it becomes even more poignant to look at that.”
The arrival of Circus of Books in 1982 coincided with the birth of the festival, started by a group of UCLA students with the intention of increasing LGBTQ visibility. Over the years it has evolved to become Los Angeles’ leading LGBTQ film festival, held over the course of 11 days with screenings and panel discussions attended by 35,000 to 40,000 people annually.
This year, the festival will screen four world premieres as well as more than 240 short and feature-length films. The festival received more than 1,300 submissions this year, a 40% increase over its next highest year. “The means of making films is becoming more egalitarian,” said Racster. “The roadblocks to entry are being eroded, and I think that we are seeing the fruition of that in this increased amount of really terrific queer content.”
Additionally, advances in digital media have allowed queer visibility to expand on streaming platforms and television even if the movies haven’t quite caught up yet.
“I think it’s a really exciting time to be a queer storyteller,” said Racster. “The past couple of years, especially with the advent of more and more nuanced episodic content, has been a real boon for our writers, directors and actors, who are able to tell really personal, authentic stories. To have the opportunity to be working in the industry and advancing and becoming more visible is incredibly exciting.”
Films are selected based on the underlying requirement that they represent and reflect the broad range of microcommunities across the queer community as much as possible. More than two-thirds of this year’s content was directed by women, people of color and trans filmmakers.
The programming team, led by director Mike Dougherty, take special care to live up to Outfest’s reputation for inclusion by featuring diverse stories not just in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation but also age, geography and “all those things that sometimes don’t get considered when you’re talking about true inclusion,” said Racster.
The festival’s breakthrough centerpiece, newcomer James Sweeney’s directorial debut “Straight Up,” was chosen for its challenge of the notion of identity and the performative aspects of sexuality.
“I kind of created a centerpiece section for ‘Straight Up’ called Breakthroughs, because ‘breakthrough’ just seemed like the right word,” said Dougherty. “It feels like a true discovery. The film is incredibly smart, incredibly well-written and incredibly funny. And the bonus icing on the cake is that it is Los Angeles-based and very in tune with the Los Angeles of today.”
Sweeney stars as Todd, a man struggling to determine where on the spectrum he falls while entering a relationship with a straight woman, played by Katie Findlay. “I like to refer to Todd and Rory as intellectual soulmates,” said Sweeney. “So they’re compatible with each other and check off all these boxes except for sex.”
“It felt incredibly smart about issues around identity and around not feeling like you fit in to what is expected of a queer person and how you rectify that with yourself,” said Dougherty. “And it’s told through characters that are witty and well-spoken. They speak in a rat-a-tat dialogue out of a ’30s screwball comedy or a great episode of ‘Gilmore Girls.’ I had to keep pausing and rewinding because I was laughing over some of the dialogue.”
Several standouts from this year’s Sundance Film Festival will receive screenings at Outfest, including the New York City-set family dramedy “Before You Know It,” featuring Judith Light, Alec Baldwin and Mandy Patinkin, which closes this year’s festival; the young adult romance “Adam” directed by “Transparent” alum Rhys Ernst; and the 1980s-set Mexican drama “This Is Not Berlin” starring “Roma” Oscar nominee Marina de Tavira.
Michael Barnett’s “Changing the Game,” spotlighting three transgender high school athletes, serves as the festival’s documentary centerpiece. Additional nonfiction highlights include “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts,” a profile of the popular contestant from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and “Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story,” detailing the fallout after the comedian’s controversial photo holding an artist’s rendering of Donald Trump’s severed head. Both Mattel and Griffin will be in attendance for their screenings.
Though progress has been made on the small screen and online, Racster cautions people from believing that no work remains to be done as far as queer representation in popular media.
“I think there is a challenge in the broader community where many feel the job has been done,” said Racster. “We have gay marriage, we see more and more queer representation on the shows that we watch on TV and streaming platforms, and sometimes people, even within our community, feel the job is done so what do we need a space like a queer film festival?
“The fact is we will always need queer film festivals the same way we will always need African American film festivals or Latinx film festivals. Communities want to be able to come together to celebrate, affirm and learn about each other. But we also need those places where stories and storytellers are discovered and encouraged. Not every story is going to be picked up and seen on TV or in a theater, so where else does that happen?”
What: Outfest Los Angeles
Where: Various venues including TCL Chinese 6 Theaters, 6801 Hollywood Blvd.; Orpheum Theater, 842 South Broadway; Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 South Broadway
When: Thursday through July 28
Tickets: $16 general admission; select screenings more
More info: (213) 480-7065, outfest.org
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