By Ciara LaVelle
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I was sitting at the bar of the Yarrow Hotel during the Sundance Film Festival, escaping the theaters and warming up with some sustenance of the alcoholic variety. The most low-key and unassuming spots always turn out to be where you meet the film industry power players, and this night a well-known distributor was boozing alongside me. We ended up comparing notes about the festival's film selections.
I mentioned a queer film I really enjoyed called Keep the Lights On, a wonderful exploration of a relationship unhinged by meth addiction. My fellow imbiber heatedly agreed before adding, "And that's great, 'cause gay films usually really suck."
I chose not to take the unintentional bait that was set up for me, but found myself half-nodding in agreement.
Gay films can be really bad. Not just run-of-the-mill bad or got-lost-along-the-way bad, but the kind of train wrecks where you hope there are no survivors, because life afterward would probably be impossible to bear. A former colleague would describe this problem as the "My girlfriend gave me a camera for Christmas, so I should make a movie" syndrome.
These aren't so-good-they're-bad films — I am a big fan of schlock cinema, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I mean bad ideas that are badly made. Much like celebrities running amok because none of their lackeys has the chutzpah to pull them aside and say, "What the fuck are you doing?" many queer filmmakers are working without a net or anyone to tell them, "No, actually, that's not a good idea." Maybe it's because fewer established filmmakers are willing to take a chance on a gay film. Regardless, guidance is tantamount to success. So each year, inevitably, we get a sea of guidance-less cinematic shit — and among them a few treasures that are floating along, waiting to be saved.
That's where film festivals come in. They rescue the good ones — and drag along some of the mediocre ones for the ride. Whether they have a life going forward is up to the audience.
Last week, the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival kicked off its 14th edition in South Beach with little fanfare. It was once regarded as one of the top ten LGBT festivals in the nation. Those days have long passed, though, as the last few editions have seen declining attendance and little recognition for it locally or abroad. While the organization is struggling to stay relevant amid other highly successful local LGBT events, this year's program offers a gleam of hope for its future.
Films such as Vito — a documentary about Stonewall-era activist Vito Russo — and love story Mosquita & Mari are obvious choices, and strong ones with good buzz. Yet it's the inclusion of films such as Jobriath A.D., Speechless, and Angel that are most encouraging for the future of the festival. Those films focus on subjects that don't usually play well with traditional audiences: transgender identity, LGBT Asia, and underground music, for example. Their inclusion shows the festival is challenging Miami audiences to step out of their comfort zone and is tackling aspects of LGBT life that have been historically ignored at the cinema.
So put down the remote (Drag Race will be there when you return) and have a gay old time at the cinema. Will all the movies be great? Definitely not. No film festival can promise as much. But like a hookup on Grindr, you can't judge by just the pictures. Sometimes the biggest surprises are the ones unfurled in front of your eyes.
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