25th Anniversary NewFest Filmmakers Speak Out

Stacie Passon's Concussion

The silver anniversary edition of NewFest is nearly here! New York's LGBT Film Festival opens for the 25th year this Friday with the New York debut of Stacie Passon's Concussion and features a wide range of narratives, docs and shorts. The fest closes on Wednesday, September 11 with Chris Mason Johnson's Test.

Ahead of the festival, FilmLinc Daily asked feature filmmakers to share some thoughts about their films, LGBT festivals, and themselves to give an overview of some of this year's offerings. Filmmakers were asked to respond to three questions: What's queer about you? What's queer about your film? Why do queer film festivals matter?

Not surprisingly, some people took issue with the word "queer" and, of course, not all "queer" films are made by "queer" people (and vice versa). Nonetheless, the variety of responses is an indication of the breadth of this year's lineup and the continued vibrancy of LGBT cinema.

Concussion, directed by Stacie Passon (Opening Night)

NewFest Description:
We're thrilled to kick off the festival with this sexy and beguiling Sundance gem from producer Rose Troche and up-and-coming filmmaker Stacie Passon that explores a suburban lesbian's erotic reawakening from happy housewife to high-class call girl.

Stacie Passon responds:
People ask me if my film is a queer film because they see it as sort of a commentary on marriage in general. But I think it's absolutely a queer film, I just think that audiences aren't that straight anymore -- in a good way. What I mean is that I think people who watch this movie can identify with it - straight, gay, whatever -- because really, this couple looks just like any other suburban couple. The movie is about two women who've managed to pull themselves up, make themselves wealthy, work hard, have two kids, and because of it - in their marriage - they lose their way. That search for legitimacy and acceptance has made life easier for them and their kids, but it has also stifled them, because life can't just be about being accepted on everybody else's terms.  Sometimes you have to do things on your terms. And I think that's a pretty queer idea.

Last Summer, directed by Mark Thiedeman

NewFest Description:
With echoes of Terrence Malick, Mark Thiedeman’s tone poem of a debut takes audiences into the final months of a vibrant love between two small-town high school sweethearts torn between staying together and moving on to bigger and better things.

Mark Thiedeman reponds:
What's queer about you? 
I think, maybe, the issue of identifying as gay has less significance to me than identifying as a gay Southerner. I have a large network of friends, most of whom are straight, who have always welcomed me and made me feel at home, but I am constantly reminded of how far we have to go in terms of general acceptance of the gay community where I live in the South. Recently, I've encountered hostility directed at me because of my sexual orientation that was so disturbing to me that, for a moment, I felt great unease and even a sense of threat. My film, Last Summer, imagines a South without this hostility, without the hatred. It's a world I hope we're moving towards.

What's queer about your film? 
Last Summer is a kind of fantasy. It takes place in the rural South, but its two lead characters—gay teenagers who have been in love for years—never suffer any backlash from their community. In fact, you'll never hear the word "gay"—or "queer" or "homosexual" or anything of the sort—in the film. Right now, our country is making great strides to ensure that gay and lesbian individuals will be accepted, loved, and treated with the same respect as anyone else. Last Summer, I hope, is an illustration of what this equality might be like. The pain that the characters suffer isn't because they're gay, it's because they're young and in love, which is something universal. Yes, the boys are gay, but they live their lives as any other teenager would, which is something that's becoming more and more possible for a younger generation.

Why do queer film festivals matter? 
Any festival that promotes the stories of LGBT individuals in any form matters, but I think what's special about queer film festivals in particular is that their lineups offer a diverse array of stories about our community. I think too often gay individuals are placed in a sort of category in which our experiences are seen as common, that they are more or less the same, but there is tremendous diversity in the gay community in terms of lifestyle, politics, and behavior.  It's great to see programmers offering audiences such a colorful variety of experiences and ideas, and it's a great pleasure to have my perspective included in the company of so many distinctive voices.

Interior. Leather. Bar., directed by Travis Mathews, James Franco 

NewFest description:
Travis Mathews and James Franco’s steamy and provocative documentary reimagines the 40 minutes of censored footage from William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 S&M thriller Cruising.

Travis Mathews responds:
"Prior to Interior I would have been more inclined to describe my work as "gay," and not queer. I think "queer" should be reserved for people and art -and anything else- that refuses to sit still, that is slippery, that challenges and provokes and makes us question things about ourselves. With Interior, we made such a film that both in its construction and its content is very queer. It's a docu-fiction that plays with boundaries of all sorts from personal, creative and sexual ones while dovetailing into issues of censorship. It definitely takes people for a ride and it might be the queerest film I ever made."

You and the Night, directed by Yann Gonzalez 

NewFest Description:
M83’s Yann Gonzalez evokes the pantheon of naughty queer European filmmakers Ozon, Almodovar, and Cocteau in his outrageous, sexy debut about an orgy thrown by a mysterious couple and their transvestite maid.

Yann Gonzalez responds:
What's queer about you?   
I really dig straight people’s lamest jokes but I sometimes have a boner watching "The Golden Girls."

What's queer about your film?   
I guess it has no boundaries when it comes to sexuality and genre. In my orgy/film, there’s a room for all kind of fantasies: an immortal straight couple, a blonde nymphomaniac, a whipping dominatrix, some incestuous flavor and a transvestite maid having sex with a stud cursed by his oversized cock.

Why do queer film festivals matter?  
Because they’re not scared by some of my favorite words: insane, cheesy, monstrous, porn, Lindsay, Lohan.

Hot Guys with Guns, directed by Doug Spearman

NewFest Description:
In this raucous gay action comedy, a handsome hedonist and his ex team up with a detective to investigate a series of robberies and murders at the sex parties of rich and powerful Hollywood A-listers.

Doug Spearman responds:
What's queer about you?  
Okay, first, here's my un-P.C. truth. Being called "Queer" pisses me off. I know it's a political term, I know there's a whole cinematic theory and genre related to the term. But it has the same impact on me as the "N" word. And it ignores the fact that I'm Black and that, in my experience, has been a bigger deal than being gay. 

What's queer about your film?
Strictly using the definition of Queer Cinema. The story is about a section of Los Angeles society where being gay is not an issue, it's a given. It also takes a series of established genres and moves the gay characters from the fringe to the center. 

Why do queer film festivals matter?  
The same reason Black or Asian or Women's festivals matter. Although, they can all be under the same umbrella and visa versa. They matter because gay people are part of the world, the fabric of our culture, which includes our race and gender and if we don't tell them ourselves and showcase the talent and bravery it takes to make them, maybe nobody will. 

Who's Afraid of Vagina Wolf?, directed by Anna Margarita Abelo 

NewFest Desciption:
In this eccentric all-female comedy, a charismatic filmmaker facing a midlife crisis meets an enchanting woman who becomes her muse and sets her on a path of self-discovery, creativity, and redemption. Winner of Grand Jury Award for Best Actress at 2013 Outfest Los Angeles.

Anna Margarita Abelo reponds:
What's queer about you?
You mean other than the fact that I possess 5 different life-size vagina outfits and have worn them publicly over the past 3 years? I'd say the fact that I cry alone at night thinking about the end of Terms of Endearment and my first-degree LOVE of Barbra Streisand. Also, my passion for Italian loafers, eye-wear, and grande-dame actresses. Perhaps, my deep conviction that we need more queer-feminist-entertainment out in the world makes me queer and that I believe I could be successful in creating it.  Or maybe that just makes me optimistic. Who knows? 

What's queer about your film?
We had a work-in-progress screening last April in Miami. The audience was divided in equal parts lesbians, gays, and Anna Albelo friends and family members! My 95 year old grandmother came, my brothers, their wives, my niece and nephew, a slew of high school friends and some of their parents. The fact that they all identified with my main character: a middle-aged, chubby, Cuban-American lesbian, living in a garage in complete desperation was a great sign that the queerness of my film was the universal honesty and appeal it conveys.

Why do queer film festivals matter?
I consider lesbian, gay, and queer culture in the same realm as let's say, French culture. Like the Alliance Française that preserves and promotes French cultural history, I believe that queer film festivals gather, highlight, and preserve ours. They curate work, give artists a venue and an audience to share it with. They bring us together with other filmmakers and cultural activists and give us an opportunity to connect with each other, as well as, the people who are interested in what we have to say. Queer film festivals give us the opportunity to jet-set and cross-pollinate different lands with our stories and experiences, all the while providing a chance to stay in cute hotels and meet enthusiastic locals. I always have a great time!

Pit Stop, directed by Yen Tan

NewFest Description:
The lives of two love-starved, blue-collar Texans intertwine in this dreamy and quietly sexy Sundance darling. Winner of Grand Jury Award for Best Actor(s) at 2013 Outfest Los Angeles.

Yen Tan responds:
What's queer about you?
I'm a gay Chinese American from Malaysia who now lives in Austin, Texas. My queerness and cultural background enables me to look at things more empathetically.

What's queer about your film?
It revolves around the emotional journeys of two gay men who live and love in a small Texas town, a setting we don't usually see in queer cinema. 

Why do queer film festivals matter?
Violence and inequality still happens everyday to the LGBT community, here and elsewhere in the world. Queer festivals remain a crucial platform for our voices and our experiences. It's one more thing to make us feel less alone.

Getting Go: The Go Doc Project, directed by Cory Krueckeberg 

NewFest Description:
When a sexy go-go dancer agrees to become the subject of an obsessive college boy's documentary, the line separating subject and filmmaker quickly crumbles in Cory Krueckeberg's explicit and thrilling debut.

Cory Krueckeberg responds:
What's queer about your film?
Getting Go, the Go Doc Project borrows a guerilla style I first appreciated in the films of the New Queer Cinema. And unlike my previous work, I approached this as a piece specifically for a queer audience. I had no interest in what might make it more appealing to the "mainstream." I literally made every choice hoping to make it more queer. It's not a gay teen comedy or a gay horror film or a gay super hero film - it doesn't ape any style but instead invents its own - which to me is pretty queer. In fact, one of the central themes is one extremely important to the current community of people who are not heterosexual. Should we continue to allow what makes us unique to be absorbed into mainstream culture or should we revolt and maintain our individual identity? Assimilation vs. individuality.

Why do queer film festivals matter? Today, every film festival matters. Distribution options for actual indie films are evaporating as "Hollywood" becomes greedier and more averse to taking risks while also co-opting "indie" as a marketing term for anything they feel is slightly outside the easily sellable genres. But, regardless of how the industry changes (and, as a result, the viewing habits of audiences), the best way to see a film is still in a dark theatre with strangers. The community experience of sharing a story is as old a tradition as storytelling itself and should never be lost. Sadly today, for most films, film festivals are the only way to honor this tradition. And luckily the queer community still appreciates this.

I do worry though that queer film festivals are losing the character they started out with to the same celebrity/ premiere obsession that has invaded even the most “independent” of mainstream film festivals. Very soon, truly indie films, queer or not, may have no outlet.

Test, directed by Chris Mason Johnson (Closing Night)

NewFest Description:
This hopeful, elegant and sexy drama about a modern dancer in San Francisco during the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis explores the moment when gay men began to relearn everything they knew about sexual behavior.

Chris Mason Johnson responds:
What's queer about you?
When I was in college the Queer Studies field was just emerging and “queer” had a highly provocative ring to it. It appealed to me because of its sophisticated ambiguity, which seemed better than the semi-comical “gay,” the clinical “homosexual,” or the equivocating “bisexual.” I’m happy though that “bisexual” is finally coming into its own as a viable identity after so many years of derision. So I guess I could say I’m gay sometimes, bisexual sometimes, but always queer.

What's queer about your film?
Most dance movies have been pretty fake and melodramatic, and the dance worlds within them have been caricatures, with gay male dancers either erased from existence or treated as sniggering jokes (men in tights, snicker snicker). In Test I wanted those boys to be taken seriously. That’s a subversive point of view and subversion is the heart of queerness.

Why do queer film festivals matter?
As a filmmaker there is no better experience than seeing your movie with a packed house at a queer festival. It’s an emotional high, and I like to think it’s good for the audience too! So there’s the deeply rewarding community/performance aspect. Plus, at LGBT festivals you see adventurous content that might not otherwise get broad exposure. There’s still a lot of stereotype-reinforcing comedy that sells tickets, but it looks like we may finally be evolving out of that mode, which I think of as our Uncle Tom phase. Don’t get me wrong, I love comedy! But it seems to me gay comedy isn’t queer enough and queer cinema too often lacks humor. Maybe we could meet in the middle…?

Valentine Road, directed by Marta Cunningham 

NewFest Description:
Marta Cunningham's riveting documentary investigates the roots of LGBT discrimination and bullying as well as the inherent legal flaws that keep true justice from being served through the true story of an eighth grader shot by his Valentine crush.

Marta Cunningham responds:
I grew up in gay culture before I even knew it was gay culture. I grew up in a ballet company and was professional ballet dancer at 14 years old. Everyone I gravitated towards was gay or bisexual, trans, multicultural or “other." I knew that my being bi-racial was already different from the norm. It is one of the main reasons I was attracted to Larry’s story. He was just beginning to own his gender expression, and he was also bi-racial. He was enjoying his true self. Even though it is a horrific tragedy that he is no longer here, the film celebrates the amazing child he was.

I believe whenever you are a part of a marginalized community it is up to you to make noise. To voice your opinions in art and culture. LGBT film festivals are very much forerunners of that principle. Without LGBT film festivals taking the time to tell our stories of difference they would not be seen on the big screen. Larry was an extraordinary and brave person. I see him as representing the change that is happening in youth culture, straight and LGBT. Kids are coming out and others are providing a very strong message of acceptance. We need more stories of difference being told as a part of the American fabric. We come from all walks of life and our stories deserve to be told, and celebrated.

Mohammed to Maya, directed by Jeff Roy

NewFest Description:
This absorbing, uplifting and surprisingly funny documentary follows a transgender Muslim woman as she journeys to Thailand for sexual reassignment surgery and examines her attempts to find inner peace on returning to the USA.

Jeff Roy responds:
What's queer about you?
My work surrounds issues of sexuality and gender identity, and their diverse expressions in different world cultures. I have a close relationship to the country of India, from which I recently returned while on the Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship to work on a documentary about the LGBTQ and Hijra (traditional male-to-female transgender) communities. Although my work focuses on queer individuals, my objectives through my work are not simply to advance LGBT issues, but to (1) inspire others through good art, (2) educate others through accurate depictions of real life, and (3) help create spaces for mutual understanding between individuals through shared experiences.

What's queer about your film?
Mohammed to Maya is my debut documentary film that explores the intersection of race, religion, sexuality and gender identity through the story of one person. Maya, 42 year-old devout Muslim from India, decides to undergo sexual reassignment surgery against her family’s wishes. When she travels to Thailand to take the final step, Maya deals with both the physical effects of the surgery and her conflict over her own devout beliefs on her path to achieving the freedom to be who she truly is. The documentary follows Maya on her inspiring, uplifting and, at times, funny journey.  

Why do queer film festivals matter? 
Queer film festivals are important spaces to celebrate the love of art in culture. For filmmakers, they’re essential spaces for showcasing the successful completion of monumental pieces of work, and network with other filmmakers on future projects. For buyers, they’re important markets. For audience members, they’re great places to feel at the cutting-edge of culture. On a larger scale, queer film festivals also help inform the general public about the value of “queerness” in mainstream culture.

The Most Fun I've Ever Had with My Pants On, directed by Drew Denny 

NewFest Description:
In her exquisitely shot and heartbreakingly humorous debut, writer-director-actress Drew Denny tackles grief, friendship, and sexual tension between two girls out on the road unsure of where their feelings for one another may take them.

Drew Denny reponds:
What's queer about you?
Just this morning I was sleeping peacefully and totally nude as usual when an armed immigration officer commanded me to get up so she could frisk me, and it took me several minutes to realize I wasn't fantasizing. Needless to say, I am very excited to see Kink.com documentary (If I get to re-enter the US in time for NewFest, that is...) Since I came out at age 13, I've identified as bisexual, femme, lesbian, pansexual and power bottom polyamorist. I'm interested in pleasure, equality, and choice so much of my work explores those themes - whether it's a doc about the sex trade, pro-choice activism, or a performance art piece in which I dress up as a talking vagina and make fun of Mitt Romney.

What's queer about your film?
The Most Fun I've Ever Had With My Pants On tells the story of a queer woman spreading her father's ashes across the desert while helping her best friend prepare to audition for the role of a vixen spy. It's a wild romp through the American Southwest, incorporating a critique of patriarchy into a dark comedy featuring military cross-dressing, topless cliff-diving, and an ecstatic celebration of nature. It's queerness is like mine, often invisible to those who don't know how to read the signs. I hope to continue representing complex queer characters, though my next project might be a bit more explicit ;)

Why do queer film festivals matter?
I am so proud and honored to be included in queer festivals like NewFest and Outfest! While I celebrate recent successes of equal rights activists, I know we need more queer perspectives, queer characters, and queer stories in this world... These festivals provide us both the opportunity to share our work and the motivation to make more. So they are not only an exhibition venue but a generative force, creating more queer content and queer artists every year. Thank you!!

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