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A Quarter-Century of Queer Cinema: Outfest Turns 25

By David Becker

Outfest ( began in 1982 with three films, screened at UCLA to an adventurous audience. This week organizers will present 235 films over 12 days, with star-studded galas in nine venues across Los Angeles. Outfest has come a long way.

Over the past 25 years, Outfest has showcased a wide range of documentaries by queer filmmakers and about queer issues, reflecting the course of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community and the challenges it faces. Outfest has grown to include year-round programs such as Fusion, the Los Angeles LGBT People of Color Film Festival; and Access LA, which connects up-and-coming LGBT filmmakers to established industry professionals.

The OutFest Legacy Project provides access to the world's largest collection of queer cinema, and works to preserve important queer films. This year the festival will showcase the first Legacy Project restoration, Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances, the film that launched the career of Steve Buscemi. The next film to be restored will be the Mariposa Film Group's seminal 1978 documentary Word Is Out.

Outfest documentary programmer David Courier has selected a diverse line-up of nonfiction films for the 2007 festival. The program showcases the stylistic diversity of nonfiction film today and sheds light on the issues that resonate in the LGBT community and beyond.

Twenty-five years ago, creating a gay-themed festival was truly a trailblazing act. At that time it was rare to see any depiction of gay lives on film, positive or otherwise. It was a long way from the television universe of today, where gay and lesbian characters commonly make their way into the plot lines of network shows and where two dedicated channels vie for the attention of gay audiences.

 Like any traditionally oppressed community, gay and lesbian audiences have long yearned to see images on the screen. Outfest has provided a unique opportunity for audiences to gather together and witness stories that reflect truths about their daily lives, challenges and dreams.

Documentaries play a unique and important role in Outfest because they provide glimpses into real LGBT lives. Documentaries show the struggles and celebrations that define queer life in America and around the world. Nonfiction films often speak to the entire LGBT community and not just one letter in the acronym.

In the festival's early years, many documentaries addressed the issue that cast a shadow on the entire community: AIDS. Outfest became a place where the impact of AIDS could be seen and understood. Films combated the prejudices that HIV-positive people faced and provided a forum for the community to organize and fight for increased medical funding, support and acceptance.

While films focusing on AIDS and its impact on the community prevailed in the early years of the festival, Outfest programmers "just don't get them anymore," says Courier. "Now it's marriage and children, religion and immigration rights."

Documentaries in Outfest 2007 include Sebastian Cordoba's Through Thick and Thin, which looks at the challenges of gay couples who happen to hold passports from two different countries. Saving Marriage, directed by Mike Roth and John Henning, follows the firestorm ignited by the Massachusetts high court's historic 2003 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. Jerusalem Is Proud to Be Present, a film by Nitzan Gilady, examines the intersection of gay pride and religion in that volatile part of the world.

Not all the documentaries featured in Outfest 2007 address political issues head on. Several are emblematic of the increasing diversity of documentary styles. Red Without Blue (Brooke Sebold, Benita Sills, Todd Sills, dirs.) tells the story of two identical twins whose struggles in coming to terms with their identities take them to the brink of suicide and back. In Remix, filmmaker Dustin Robertson edits footage that he's taken of himself throughout his life into a compelling look at how he coped with his sister's cancer diagnosis.

Queer filmmakers are amplifying the voices of everyday people who ask for nothing more than equal treatment. The documentary films at Outfest this year represent a shift toward stories that call for basic human rights for all LGBT people.

"Docs have that power more than many other films because they spur you on, and let people know what's possible," says Courier. "People need to be enlightened about what's possible, and they are spurred into action."

 This year's festival shines a light on the intersection of religion and homosexuality, with several documentaries taking on this complex issue. The Outfest 2007 Documentary Centerpiece is Daniel Karslake's For the Bible Tells Me So, a passionate plea for tolerance and understanding within Christian families. Karslake's four-year process of creating the film began with a chilling message: "Last week I bought the gun. Yesterday I wrote the note. But last night I happened to turn on your show, and just knowing that someday I might be able to go back into my church, I threw the gun in the river. My mom never has to know."

This e-mail was sent from a boy in Iowa the day after Karslake's first segment for the long-running series In the Life aired on PBS. Karslake's piece, about Reverend Irene Monroe, an out lesbian theologian at Harvard University, inspired e-mails and letters from a wide range of people.

"People needed to know these stories," says Karslake, who promptly quit his job and set out to make his first feature-length film. The result is a moving and often surprising look at five Christian families who learn that their son or daughter is gay. Superbly edited by Nancy Kennedy, the film combines interviews with the family members, insight from biblical scholars, and archival footage that is by turns chilling and absurdly comical. Karslake captures the shock and pain each family endures, as well as the ultimate acceptance of both their Christianity and their children.

For the Bible Tells Me So, like most documentaries at Outfest this year, combines the personal and political. The film also yearns for a heterosexual audience, who will likely see themselves in the parents--or their loved ones in the children--featured in the film. It will probably find that audience, since it's a film most gay viewers will want to send to at least one strained relative or friend when it's released on DVD. (The DVD release of For the Bible Tells Me So is scheduled to follow the theatrical release in October, both through First Run Features.)

With films like For the Bible Tells Me So, LGBT filmmakers are reaching beyond their own communities and making a real impact on the culture at large. In this sense, Karslake's film is representative of Outfest as it enters its young adulthood. It's an important, still-growing festival dedicated to queer stories told passionately by committed filmmakers. Outfest continues to impact an audience both inside of the LGBT community and beyond.

David Becker directed the upcoming feature-length documentary Small Steps, about the creation of a new small public school in the Bronx, which will premiere on PBS this September. Becker also directs and produces the docu-series Magnetic Baby, which is available for free on iTunes and Myspace.