One of my favorite festivals of the year returns this week, and returns to its original name [Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival], after two years as Polari. I’ve argued with many friends and colleagues about this name change (and change back) but there is no denying that the festival is one of the most important in the Austin calendar year. It is also the oldest. aGLIFF was founded in 1987, making it several years older than SXSW and AFF, both which hit their 21st birthdays this year. After two great years guided by Curran Nault, the festival welcomed a new Program Director this season, Jim Brunzell III. Brunzell must be considered a risk for the organization because he is both a non-native (hailing from the almost-equally awesome Twin Cities area in Minnesota), and a straight male. I had a chance to speak with Brunzell last week, as days were counting down to the open of aGLIFF27. I also was treated to a ton of the films about to screen at the festival, and I can assure you, this is not a festival you want to miss.
“Being a straight man and programming for a gay and lesbian film festival is obviously a challenge,” admits Brunzell. The new aGLIFF program director joins the Austin fest community with more experience than many of the programmers at other local festivals. He’s the Festival Director of Sound Unseen, a music film festival in the Twin Cities, he’s a programmer for Flyway Festival in Wisconsin, he’s programmed for the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, he’s advised for OUT Twin Cities Film Festival, and is currently on the jury for the Milwaukee Film Festival. He’s also a journalist, having covered film for the Twin Cities Daily Planet since 2007. “We’re lovers of film,” Brunzell says, “it doesn’t matter if it’s a straight story, a gay story. If its made by a queer filmmaker, if its made by a ten year old. I think cinema is important no matter who’s behind the lens.”
Brunzell brought this dogma with him to the program, and it shows. The slate for the September 10-14th festival is full of inventive films from all viewpoints on life and seems to hit ‘all the letters’ of L.G.B.T.Q. equally. Part of this came after discussions with people who knew the festival best. “I asked people on our programming and screening committee, I asked our board members, I reached out to people in the community,” says Brunzell. He asked them ‘what’s missing from aGLIFF?, and ‘what do you want to see more of?’ “The number ones were ‘I want to see more lesbian content,’” Brunzell says, and “‘I want to see more African-American content.’” The festival seems to satisfy both of these mandates, with fantastic Lesbian films like EVER and BFFS and moving African-American dramas like BLACKBIRD. In general, the program covers a wide thrust of issues, with characters and documentary subjects often overlooked at other festivals, and even those overlooked by other LGBTQ festivals. “There are so many stories in gay cinema where its coming-of-age or coming out,” says the program director, “and I think that’s always going to be a theme and we have that in the program this year, but again we have some really fascinating stories on transgender, documentaries and narratives and I come from a music film background, so we’ve got a couple music related films, [for example] one on Armen Ra who I’d never heard of.” WHEN MY SORROW DIED: THE LEGEND OF ARMEN RA & THE THEREMIN plays on Friday afternoon, and reminds me a lot of one of my favorite music doc, NOMI SONG about Klaus Nomi. The producer of the film will be in attendance. Austin is such a great music town, so a film like this is a perfect match, as is the hilarious closeted-Hall&Oates-like white-boy-R&B of ETERNITY: THE MOVIE.
Brunzell says he has really enjoyed immersing himself in Austin, one of the reasons he took the position at aGLIFF. “What’s really great about the Austin filmmaking community, Linklater, Rodriguez, Terence Malick, David Gordon Green, the Zellner brothers,” lists Brunzell, “these are all people that stay close to home and they have the resources, and the support.” Apparently, we don’t know how good we have it. Brunzell says of Minnesota: “we’re known for the Coen Brothers, but the Coen brothers have never really done anything for any other filmmakers from Minneapolis. They’ve never really served as ambassadors,” like Austin filmmakers do. The program director made it down just in time for SXSW this year, and then immediately went into screening films. All of the films in this year’s program are Austin premieres. “There were a couple LGBT films that I saw at SX, and it was a question of whether they were worth bringing back,” he says, referencing films like THE CASE AGAINST 8, or BORN TO FLY. “We met as a team, the programming and screening committee of roughly around 20 people and we had that conversation,” Brunzell says, “and it was like ‘these are good films but if we screen it at aGLIFF we’re actually turning down something that would be a premiere.’”
Another change for aGLIFF27 is the way the shorts programs were curated. “We have eight or nine different shorts programs and what they did in the past is they’ve done ‘shorts for the girls,’ ‘shorts for the guys,’ which I think is completely absurd because again you are separating your audience,” says Brunzell. He explains: “what if the filmmaker is a woman and she made a short about men and she wants reaction from women in the audience? That was actually like the first or second thing I did on the job.” This year the program director has grouped the shorts along genre lines like dramatic, comedic and of course, the one we all stay up for, ‘late night.’ “We’re putting the shorts together and having again all the audiences come together to see them,” he says, “we should all be able to enjoy the films at the same time and not have to separate ourselves like we’re going to the restroom or something.”
Previewing many of the films, I’ve enjoyed that quite a few of them just seem to have LGBTQ characters at the forefront of the story, even if their sexuality is not elemental to the plot. It is refreshing that characters who a few years ago might be defined solely by orientation can and should be as full and well-drawn as other characters and participate in any kind of story, being heroes, villains, sidekicks, or whatever the film needs. In a film like THE DARK PLACE, about a young man and his partner who return to his mother’s house after several years, only to find her remarried, the lead characters could have just as easily been a heterosexual couple. But they are not, adding to the depth of the film. My discussion with Brunzell allows me to ask what I ask all programmers working with a niche festival: what do you do about films made by LGBTQ filmmakers about ‘straight’ subjects, or straight filmmakers making films about LGBTQ subjects? “It’s a question about segregation,” he says; “Todd Haynes is one of my favorite filmmakers, Pedro Almodovar is one of my favorites, and they’re both gay men and they’re directors and a lot of their content has been straight. You’re telling me if you had an opportunity to screen [one of their new films] and it had no LGBTQ material you wouldn’t do it? I think you’re doing a disservice to your audience of opportunities to see these really great living filmmakers that really strive in the LGBT community and are doing great films.” Brunzell discusses the submission process, saying “if you or your producer or writer is gay, that’s fine by us, even if the content isn’t [gay], you wrote us a letter saying why you wanted it to play in aGLIFF. I don’t know how many of those films we have in the festival, but I would not look at them differently.”
This year aGLIFF will screen a majority of the festival at the brand new Alamo South Lamar, “buzz of the town right now,” according to Brunzell. Traffic and parking led to the shift away from last year’s theaters [closing night will still be at the State Theatre], but also the opportunity to take advantage of a new venue. “We’re the first festival in Austin to be there,” he says, “people want to see it.” Brunzell is also excited about the ‘secret screening’ Friday night, a first for the festival. “I think a lot of people are going to really enjoy and be very surprised by what it is,” he says, adding “it’s kind of a twist.” Another film Brunzell looks forward to sharing with the audience is Desiree Akhavan’s APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR, which premiered at Sundance and just got picked up for distribution. “Akhavan’s film is so lovely and insightful,” he says, “it’s funny but it’s coarse, I’m super excited to see how the audience reacts.” Also part of the program this year are a number of retrospective screenings. “It was important to me to bring in a couple films that I value as really great landmark LGBTQ films like MYSTERIOUS SKIN,” says Brunzell of the Gregg Araki directed, Joseph Gordon-Levitt starring 2004 film; “you watch Mysterious Skin and it’s powerful and its hard to believe its already been ten years but it grabs you around the throat.”
Overall, aGLIFF brings together international and national films, films with studio or distributor push and smaller independent films, shorts and features, festival hits and premieres. Twenty-six directors will be in attendance at this year’s festival, and many of these films, according to Brunzell (and I agree) “may never return to Austin; eventually you may be able to see them on Hulu or Netflix, but some of these films, we’re going to screen them once and that’s it.” aGLIFF is just as important to the filmmakers, because it “serves as a great launch pad for their films to branch out and hit other festivals,” says Brunzell. The program director says he’s very pleased with the lineup this year, but admits he doesn’t really know what to expect: “I need to see how it goes. It’s hard for me to predict the festival I’ve been working on with [Executive Director] Aaron Yeats and the board, when it hasn’t happened yet.” I asked Brunzell if there was anything he’d like to do differently or add next year if given the opportunity. “I would have liked to incorporate more panels or having filmmakers and actors converse or interact with audience members more than just your plain q&a,” he says, “they’ll be at parties, and viewing other films, but to do like an actual workshop and have them speak about the art of the filmmaking, and what it takes to get your film out there, being an LGBT director or someone in the industry.”
aGLIFF opens Wednesday the 10th, with the opening night screening of MATT SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE in two theatres at the Drafthouse, and a reception across the street. All-access badges are only $100, with individual tickets $10 or $5 for the early-in-the-day shows.
My Can’t Miss aGLIFF Picks
Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine
Wed. Sept. 10 at 7:00 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
With the director Michele Josue and Judy & Dennis Shepard in attendance, this powerful film will inspire and reignite a discussion that should never be silenced. Josue was a close childhood friend of Matt Shepard’s and though we can never really get past one of the most terrible hate crimes in America’s history, the 15 years since have allowed us new perspective and the ability to see the incident as an unfortunate milestone in an important journey.
Thur. Sept. 11 at 6:45 p.m
One of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time, Director Andrew Putschoegl’s film follows two best friends who get a weekend away at a couple’s retreat, only to discover they might have feelings for each other. The faux-then-fresh lesbian couple is played by screenwriters Tara Karsian and Andrea Grano, who, along with the director, will be in attendance at the festival.
Eternity: The Movie
Thur. Sept. 11 at 8:30 p.m.
It’s 1985 all over again, and Todd and BJ (who works at BJ Maxx’s and is a self professed lover of BJs) discover the smooth white-boy soul they can make together as ‘Eternity,’ a hopelessly awkward but amazingly tuneful duo that looks strangely like Hall & Oates. The music is fantastic, and the playful are-they/aren’t-they banter that runs through the whole film is amusing and sharp. This movie owes a lot to Napoleon Dynamite (and even has Jon Gries in it).
The Dark Place
Fri. Sept. 12 at 9:30 p.m.
A thriller of love triangles (or pentagons) about Keegan Dark, a man who can see every moment of his life in photographic detail. When he returns to his mother’s winery with his boyfriend and discovers she has remarried, he becomes instantly suspicious. What follows is a long ‘dark’ (sorry) journey into the family’s secrets and lies and ends in a shoot out. This is a slick mystery with a steamy side that never gives you a moment off and features Sean Paul Lockhart (aka former pornstar Brent Corrigan). Lockhart, costar Timo Descamps and Writer/Director Jody Wheeler will all be in attendance.
Fri. Sept. 12 at 8:00 p.m.
A beautiful romance about a girl, Ever, broken by life and disinterested in just about everything. Until she meets Emily, a photographer and powderkeg, who stops Ever from jumping off a roof. The two begin a relationship, Ever’s first with a woman, but sometimes the past cannot just be ignored. This is a really well crafted script with strong performances and an unbelievablely strong third act, something that’s getting to be a rarity in indie film.
Sat. Sept. 13 at 5:15 p.m.
A phenomenal love story masquerading as a documentary about one of the first same sex couples to be legally married in the US, which happened surprisingly in 1975. What followed was a 35-year battle to stay together as they fought deportation and bigotry. Honestly, I can’t understand how this film isn’t playing at Austin Film Festival, as three different producers from three different AFF films over the last two years worked on Limited Partnership, including the AFF Audience Award-winning LIFE AND CRIMES OF DORIS PAYNE. Score one for aGLIFF.
Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn
Sat. Sept. 13 at 9:30 p.m.
The US Premiere of the documentary of the Hollywood Cinematographer considered one of the most influential and groundbreaking filmmakers of erotic cinema. His films have played at the Lincoln Center in NYC and at the British Film Institute. He died this year, at age 90. Be forewarned, this film will be extremely explicit.
Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme)
Sat. Sept. 13 at 10:00 p.m.
This French-Canadian film may be the best in the program. The performances are masterful, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the tension is nerve-racking. In town for his lover’s funeral, Tom, played by writer/director Xavier Dolan, arrives at the home of his dead lover’s mother, a woman who he’s never met, and who didn’t even know her son was gay. Her other son takes a secretive interest in Tom and they begin a warped courtship as Tom feels himself pulled deeper and deeper into this rural prison of his own making. Also, it’s super hot.
Late Night & Sexy Shorts
Sat. Sept. 13 at 11:59 p.m
You know you want to.
Sun. Sept. 14 at 8:00 p.m.
Director Desiree Akhavan play Shirin, a Persian who can’t tell her family that she’s bisexual, and she can’t explain to her girlfriend why she can’t. When her brother gets engaged, pleasing her parents, she goes the other way, diving into every sexual experience she can. The film will be preceded by BI BI, a short by the aGLIFF sponsored Queer Youth Media Project.