The Portland Lesbian and Gay Film Festival may not be one of the most famous, but its 16 years in existence has been well attended and diverse. It started 20 years ago when the (straight) owner of Cinema 21, Tom Ranieri, wanted to showcase LGBT film in his hip Northwest neighborhood theater. He quickly worked on recruiting queer organizers and Gabriel Mendoza came on board for the first official festival 16 years ago. When I sat down with Mendoza to talk about this year’s films and the changing shape of a festival audience he seemed unsure about the continued relevance and success of gay-themed film festivals, but to me the Portland DIY spirit makes ours uniquely worth attending.
The changing entertainment landscape has seen more of us downloading movies in our homes rather than attending art house single-plexes. But, you can’t get the same level of interaction with Netflix. The energy of going to a 500 person theater filled with other queers who may laugh or throw popcorn at the screen at the same time is powerful and you have the opportunity to socialize and discuss the films at either the opening or closing night parties.
Indeed, Mendoza has always prioritized quality in the movies they choose to show, but is keen to make sure they continue to also be socially and politically challenging as we move forward. This is one reason the festival is moving towards a new name. It began as a completely unmarketable alphabet soup that had to be rebranded as the Portland Lesbian and Gay Film Festival to have any marketability. And although it won’t technically be changing its name until next year, they are beginning to rebrand once again as the Portland Queer Film Festival. “It should have been that for years,” Mendoza says, “but people were afraid of the word ‘queer’ so we had to go with ‘gay and lesbian’ even though some folks felt ostracized by it. It almost seems silly now that we have a ‘queer’ center; it’s so mainstream … but we’ve even talked about [the importance of having] a queer sensibility as well.”
This sensibility has become the norm, and things that may have shocked audiences just a few years ago are almost commonplace. Travis Mathew’s I Want Your Love, though not pornography, does show explicit sex. This seemed a big deal when John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus was here in 2006 but the same level of gossip and controversy is certainly not expected for Love although discussions about why Mathews chose to show real life sex and what impact that has on the story are already taking place. It certainly gives it a documentary, or at least true-to-life quality that Mendoza characterizes as also very Portland. It takes place in San Francisco but “… feels like they filmed a night at a party in Northeast … It has a weird authenticity.” Indeed, you’re likely to recognize a familiar face in local actor/performer/artist Wayne Bund, aka drag bear Feyonce. He, along with Ferrin Solano, who plays his boyfriend in the film, will be at the screening September 29 to discuss the film including the sure-to-be-asked question of what differentiates graphic sex in art films from plain, old-fashioned porn.
Other festival highlights include opening and closing films Gayby and Cloudburst. It’s unusual for the event to open with a comedy, preferring heady dramas or documentaries such as last year’s critically acclaimed We Were Here directed by local David Weissman. But this year switches it up with a flick that may actually be more familiar to Portland thirty-somethings than a national LGBT audience. Gayby follows two childhood friends, both of whom are single, one of whom is gay, who decide to follow through with a youthful promise to have a child together … the old-fashioned way. It explores the intersections of family, friendship, sex and co-parenting in a way that is sincere and relatable.
Cloudburst, starring the exceptional Olympia Dukakis, should also be a gem. Though the film is not about gay marriage per se, it brings this current political issue into a very personal realm of two elderly women desperate to stay together, humanizing a normally polarizing topic. Stella and Dot have been together for three decades, but as they begin to become unable to care for themselves their homophobic grandchildren try to break them apart, so they escape their nursing home for the marriage promised-land of Canada.
Through all the changes, in both name and culture, PLGFF has endeavored to represent a wide swath of our community and has included trans subject matter almost every year. This year Trans aims to combine the verity of documentary with the emotion of fiction, making it especially accessible to a mainstream audience. “You run the risk of falling into the ‘talking head’ trap,” says director Chris Arnold, “and because [trans] stories have such a powerful emotional quotient, I find myself turning to other storytelling tools of narrative features … like music.”
Queer film, like queer politics and society, has come a long way since PLGFF’s beginning nearly two decades ago, and this year’s fest is a good example of how we have moved on from the campy and flip gay romps of the 90s to rich and exciting features that would do well in any fest. Silly “gay flicks” may be a thing of the past but salient and meaningful queer film convocation is alive and well.
Check out the complete schedule at plgff.org
About Alley Hector
Alley Hector is proud to be a Q, a PDXer and Just Out's Editor-in-Chief.