Films in German about two star-crossed male lovers, documentaries focusing on a transgender woman of color, and 40-minute re-imaginings of explicit S&M films wouldn’t be on the marquee at most cinemas. But this weekend, NewFest will bring these films—and more—to the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.
The LGBT film festival, which is now in its 25th year and partnering with the Los Angeles-based Outfest and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, comes at a time when LGBT issues are at the forefront of public consciousness. Some filmmakers believe that films with gay, bisexual, and trans* characters will soon enter the mainstream.
Yen Tan is one of the filmmakers whose work will be on display this weekend at NewFest. Tan’s third film, “Pit Stop,” chronicles the lives of two men in a small Texas town and the relationship that ensues when they meet at a gas station. “Pit Stop,” Tan said, was born from road trips he took that brought him to small towns.
“My fascination with the subject matter of small-town America sort of came about as a question for myself when I was just doing road trips and when I’d stop into gas stations in small towns,” Tan said. “It just dawned upon me that there were gay people that live in these small towns.”
In order to research the film, which was originally written a 2009 Outfest screenwriting lab and went on to win this year’s Grand Jury Prize at the festival, Tan interviewed gay people in small towns to understand what their lives were like.
“I felt like there was something very dramatically compelling about their lives and especially turning it into film,” he said. “It’s not something a lot of people think about a lot.”
In addition to Tan’s film, NewFest’s other features cover a broad range of LGBT characters, from a lesbian who becomes a prostitute for other women after being hit in the head by a baseball (director Stacie Passon’s “Concussion”), to a police officer who falls in love with his training partner (the German-language “Free Fall”).
For Tan, it’s incumbent upon festivals like Outfest and NewFest to showcase this kind of variety.
“I think it [NewFest] is important because there’s always people talking about how LGBT festivals are being phased out,” Tan said. “The regular mainstream festivals are beginning to program more LGBT films, and it’s like they’re becoming irrelevant to an extent,” he said.
But Tan doesn’t buy into that kind of thinking.
“The reality is that there’s still a lot of injustices and atrocities committed against the LGBT community ... so it’s just another platform for us to feel like we’re part of the community and it’s a way for us to unite. There’s still a lot of crazy shit happening,” he said.
Considering Russia’s crackdown on LGBT demonstrations and the recent death of a Harlem woman who the New York Daily News reported was assaulted for being transgender, Tan has a point. At the same time, though, films with LGBT characters are moving more into the mainstream.
The Museum of Arts and Design’s Director of Public Programs, Jake Yuzna, believes that the influx of LGBT characters has a lot to do with filmmakers who got their start around the same time that NewFest began.
He points to director Gregg Araki in particular.
Since Araki’s “The Living End,” a film about two HIV-positive gay men who hit the road after one of them kills a homophobic police officer, debuted at Sundance Film Festival in 1992, his work has continued to deal with complex, transgressive characters. His has come to be known as part of the New Queer Cinema movement, which Yuzna sees as part of the reason that LGBT films are moving into the mainstream.
“Gregg was one of a lot of different voices that were all sort of emerging at the same time, that were bringing queer issues to the forefront of American cinema,” Yuzna said. “Because we saw things like ‘The Living End’ … we begin to see lesbian and trans* voices for the first time … It was a real touchstone for that and it really spawned a change in cinema for what queer movies were.”
Since then, things have changed.
“If not for New Queer Cinema, we wouldn’t have ‘Brokeback Mountain’ or ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ or ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Yuzna said.
So Yuzna has created a retrospective of Araki’s work—”God Help Me: Gregg Araki”—to begin at the Museum of Arts and Design on Sept. 19. It will start with a screening of Araki’s little-known first film, “Three Bewildered People in the Night,” which Araki made on a shoestring budget. For Yuzna, the retrospective is a way to chronicle a director on the cutting edge of LGBT cinema.
“Gregg is an amazing unique voice in American cinema,” Yuzna said. “He’s someone who has taken these large genres that came out of America … and made them distinctly progressive by having them enter into honest discussion about gender, about sexuality, about trauma, and they become these very visually beautiful and extremely tender films.”
As studios see that there is an audience for LGBT films, Araki believes that commercial cinema will become more inclusive of LGBT characters.
“I think the commercial success of certain films—like ‘Brokeback,’ ‘Milk,’ etc.—encourage studios,” he said.
Representation of LGBT characters ultimately lies in the hands of producers, Araki believes.
Money is “all Hollywood ultimately cares about,” Araki said in an email. “A big studio movie has to appeal to the broadest cross section of the population, so I don’t think that means we’ll be seeing a gay Jason Bourne or anything in the near future.”
Tan shares Araki’s sentiments about the growing audience for LGBT films, but warns that the need for mass appeal will necessarily exclude some parts of the LGBT community.
“There’s always going to be a pocket that the mainstream is going to be unable to represent,” Tan said. “It still falls within a range of a certain type of gay characters. Nobody’s trying to show something that’s unfamiliar. There are going to be segments of the gay community that are still going to be underrepresented.”
Until then, Tan said, LGBT film festivals like NewFest will have a place—even if there comes a time when at festivals “they don’t say it’s a gay film anymore, they just say it’s a film.” Tan added that when that change comes and some groups are still underrepresented in the mainstream, “we’ll need ... diversity, but that kind of film would only fit in the pocket of an LGBT festival.”
NewFest screenings begin Friday night and run through Sept. 11, with features being screened at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, 165 W. 65th St. Admission is $13 and more information can be found at filmlinc.com.
“God Help Me: Gregg Araki” begins Sept. 19 at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, with a screening of “Three Bewildered People in the Night.” Screenings continue through Oct. 24. Admission is free with a CUID.
In this debut film from Gary Entin, Cameron Deane Stewart (“Pitch Perfect”) stars as Russell, who becomes involved with the also-closeted football player Kevin (“90210’s” Justin Deeley). Russell gets involved with the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (which poses as a geography club) and makes friends who help him accept who he is. Nikki Blonsky (“Hairspray”) also stars, and she and Entin will be on hand for a Q&A following the screening.
“Geography Club” screens Saturday at 11 a.m.
INTERIOR LEATHER BAR
Recent Comedy Central roastee and Columbia grad James Franco is a busy man, and he’s involved in NewFest this year. Franco has teamed up with filmmaker Travis Mathews to re-imagine 40 minutes of cut footage from the 1980 S&M film “Cruising.” In this film, Val (Val Lauren) explores the edges of his heterosexuality. Franco also stars as a character named James (yes, really). The film debuted at Sundance this year, and has been given a sexually explicit rating. Franco and Mathews will be present for a Q&A following the screening.
“Interior. Leather Bar.” screens Saturday at 9:15 p.m.
When a German police officer with a baby on the way falls in love with his training partner, he begins to realize that his attraction might not be entirely platonic. The two men must deal with what their relationship means beyond their trysts in the forest. In German and directed by Stephen Lacant, the film also screened at Outfest in July.
“Free Fall” screens Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
MOHAMMED TO MAYA
Filmmaker Jeff Roy’s crowdfunded documentary about a transgender Muslim woman chronicles both the lead-up to her gender reassignment surgery and its aftermath. Maya travels to Thailand for her surgery while struggling to reconcile her gender identity with her religion, and with the fact that her family refuses to accept her choice to have surgery. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Mumbai International Queer Movie Festival in 2012.
“Mohammed to Maya” screens Monday at 5 p.m.