Outfest Los Angeles kicks off its 31st edition today, and through July 21 will bring more than 150 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender films to venues throughout the city.
From comedies and romances to dramatic features, shorts and documentaries that examine a wide diversity of concerns to the LGBT community, Outfest is nothing if not comprehensive. Fortunately, filmmakers have stepped up to the plate in recent years to cover a wider range of topics than what, not so long ago, defined the parameters of queer cinema, according to the festival's organizers.
"It's exciting to see the kinds of films that directors are making these days and the kinds of stories that they're telling," said Kirsten Schaffer, Outfest's executive director. "When you think about what was screened here over three decades ago and what filmmakers are making now, filmmaking has evolved, storytelling has evolved and, certainly, LGBT storytelling has changed."
"There used to be a trend in LGBT of coming out stories," said Kristin "KP" Pepe, the festival's director of programming. "The films in this year's festival reflect the changes taking place in the community. They're reflecting the issues that LGBT people are thinking about and what's close to them, from the personal stories of falling in love to the bigger stories of making political change on a worldwide level."
Subjects that multiple films touch on in this year's festival include marriage equality, conflicts with religion, bullying, homophobia in other parts of the world and growing old gay. Pepe said that the thematic spine of this year's festival, which emerged after she and her colleagues watched more than 700 possible entries, is heroes, films that focus on individuals who have made a difference.
"We saw documentary after documentary about some famous people as well as lesser-known people who are working so hard on LGBT rights or different contributions to culture," Pepe said. "'Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth,' is one of our centerpieces; 'deepsouth' is about grass-roots activists who drive through rural communities bringing information about HIV/AIDS; there's 'Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia'; Shane Bitney Crone in 'Bridegroom' . . ."
That last one is a documentary directed by "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade" producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason about Crone who, after being denied access to his deceased lover's funeral, made a YouTube video about his travails that became a viral cause celebre.
"This time right now is obviously a huge moment in history," Crone said, referencing the recent Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality that, had they come earlier, may have eased his situation. "It's incredible the progress that has been made, and I think we should all celebrate it. It's an honor to be at Outfest and screening this in my hometown. The lineup is very diverse, and it's nice to be a part of a group of films that are trying to help with equality and the movement."
Things are going the opposite way in other parts of the world, as Roger Ross Williams' "God Loves Uganda," a documentary about how American evangelicals' influence in Africa is leading to draconian, state-sanctioned homophobia.
"My message to the gay community all throughout America is that as we win marriage equality and the struggle at home, we've got to think globally about
our brothers and sisters around the world," said Williams, a minister's son who was the first African-American to win a directing/producing Academy Award for his 2010 short documentary "Music by Prudence."
"I've never been to Outfest before," New York-based Williams said. "It sets the gold standard for gay/lesbian film festivals. Because of where it is, because it's in Hollywood where there are so many gay people in the industry, it has the backing and the power of Hollywood to put on a really quality festival. It provides an opportunity, too, for this film to reach Hollywood. If we can engage people in Los Angeles and, especially, the entertainment community in the issue of global equality, that's amazing for what we're trying to do."
Outfest also offers lighter, if sometimes noirish, fare. Jamie Babbit, who's directed episodes of dozens of TV series since her first short film appeared at Outfest in 1998, is back this year with an L.A.-set crime thriller, "Breaking the Girls," that kind of imagines what Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Strangers on a Train" might have been like if its author, Patricia Highsmith, had been able to write out lesbian stories in the 1950s.
"I have seen it evolve just because the community has evolved, and I think Outfest is kind of a mirror of what's happening in our community," Babbit says of the festival she's attended for 15 years. "There are certainly more movies now about gay families, and more darker-themed movies. There used to be more kind of celebratory coming-out movies, and this year one of my favorite films is 'Concussion,' about a lesbian who is married with children who has a side job as a prostitute. It's fantastic; now we're looking at what marriage means for our communities, suburban ennui, the death of sexuality in a marriage -- all of these things that come along with the rights, like marriage, in our community."
Among other notable Outfest films this year are the comedies "Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?," the David Sedaris-derived Opening Night Gala "C.O.G." and Closing Night Gala "G.B.F.," about teenage girls fighting over who gets to have their high school's gay best friend. There will be films from the Middle East, Nepal and other unlikely spots, panels on animation and horror, a producers expo with former Disney Studios head Rich Ross as its keynote speaker and, of course, parties and more parties.
And a whole lot more. Go to outfest.org for complete schedules, details and ticketing information.
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