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The action started in 1999 with the founding of the event by Robert Rosenberg, local film activist and long-time member of the now-defunct Alliance Cinema; he also had a hand in the Queer Flickering Light Festival, a prequel to the present fest. With Rosenberg's vision, energy, and experience as director, the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival exploded out of the box its first year and grew steadily with every event, increasing its audience by more than twenty percent each following year.
The festival was a success by any measure, becoming one of the highlights on the city's cultural calendar and attracting some 13,000 people each of the last two seasons. The programming kept expanding as well, with screenings of some of the best film offerings out there in gay and lesbian independent cinema, putting the festival in a league with such established, long-running events as the 28-year-old San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
All was splendid, or so it seemed, until September of 2002 when Rosenberg was suddenly and dramatically given the boot as festival director. Accusations and explanations went back and forth between the festival's board members and Rosenberg, who had a reputation as difficult to work with -- too difficult, according to the board. The board took heat for turning out one of Miami's true cultural visionaries.
But amid all the flying fur, quietly assuming directorship duties was Carol Coombes, festival manager since November 2001, who came over from the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. And while the tremendous growth the festival has enjoyed since its inception has held steady these past two seasons, the offscreen distractions have subsided.
"I owed a huge debt and trust in confidence with Robert Rosenberg because he was the person responsible for getting me my alien work permit to work in America with the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, so I was in a very bizarre position last year," says Coombes.
Whatever anger and resentment lingered from Rosenberg's dismissal, it was aimed more at the board than a staff member such as Coombes with no voting power. But the biggest consequence for the festival may be the cutting of full-time staff from four to two, which presents a challenge to keep the event growing and vital. It's unfortunate considering the opportunity to expand at a time when gay life is more in the mainstream than ever, with the popularity of shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk.
Besides expanding the number of venues, from Regal Cinemas on South Beach and the Gusman Center in downtown Miami to the Shores Theater in Miami Shores and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, not much has changed from the Rosenberg years. There's still the same array of short films, documentaries, and independent features from so many countries (Iceland, Israel, Cuba) that the word "International" should be added to the festival's name.
But it's an American film that opens the festival to great fanfare and precedes the opening-night gala. Written and directed by Richard Day, Straight-Jacket follows the Fifties-era sexploits of Hollywood's leading man Guy Stone, played with wonderfully smarmy charm by Matt Lescher (think a likable Greg Kinnear). On the verge of a scandal that would out the actor, and ruin his chances to play Ben-Hur, Stone agrees to marry Sally, the unwitting studio secretary. Along the way, Stone falls for fresh-scrubbed writer Rick, and ends up in unfamiliar territory -- searching his own soul. The high-gloss film has the tone of the stage play from which it was adapted, with an intimate feel and a focus on character interaction, though it seems just as much a vehicle for Day's writerly wit and constant stream of irreverent one-liners.
No matter how good the film, festival-goers may be squirming in their seats in anticipation of the following blowout party (an aspect of the festival Coombes and Co. have put lots of attention and energy into). At $126 a pop, the shindig comes with a Fifties Hollywood theme, red-carpet runway, and a diva in Joan Rivers drag dishing on all who enter.
Another highlight of the festival, and one that gives it the indie cred it may lack with mainstream-friendly glossy comedies, is the film The Raspberry Reich and an appearance by its director -- the provocateur Bruce LaBruce. Typical of his other works, like Hustler White and Super 8 1/2, The Raspberry Reich is a dark-humored, biting satire, with hilarious scenarios and lots of raunchy and real sex scenes. The film is about Gudrun, the nymphomaniac leader of the revolutionary terrorist group the Raspberry Reich, who forces her male, straight followers to have sex with their kidnap victim, the son of a wealthy German banker, in order to liberate themselves from heterosexual repression.
It's safe to say The Raspberry Reich won't be an audience favorite, with a midnight viewing that reflects this. Coombes notes that people walked out of its screening at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as at a festival in Berlin.
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