Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival Turns 25 and Matures to Become Polari

By  · Published on October 8th, 2012

I have been attending the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) religiously for the last six years (and a bit more sporadically for the eight years prior to that). Sure, I do not consider myself to be lesbian, gay, bi or transgender, but I do have a soft spot for New Queer Cinema. I consider Todd Haynes, Gus Van Zant, Gregg Araki, Pedro Almodóvar, Jamie Babbit, Derek Jarman, James Cameron Mitchell, Céline Sciamma and Xavier Dolan to be some of the most adventurous and exciting filmmakers of the last couple of decades. Not only do they expand upon the traditional cinematic representations of sexuality and gender, but their films push the boundaries of the narrative form.

That said, I feel like my choices have been kind of limited when it has come to aGLIFF’s programming; because, to be brutally honest, there is such a thing as “too queer” for my tastes. I was clearly not aGLIFF’s target demographic, and I totally understand that; but, despite being an outsider, I have consistently walked away from each aGLIFF with three to five stand-out films that have ended up on my year-end lists.

This being its 25th year, aGLIFF opted for a major face lift. A clever new re-branding scheme changed the name of the festival to Polari, thus removing any gender-specific terminology (which seems to be in a constant state of flux anyway) in an attempt to make the festival open to everyone (not just gays and lesbians, as suggested by the aGLIFF name). Like the obscure British slang language that Polari adopts its name from, the new title for the festival will still be understood by LGBT insiders (at least those with a knowledge of LGBT history), but will not necessarily shine rainbow flags in the eyes of mainstream society.

The changes are clearly not in name alone, as Polari programmed a plethora of films from the queer film festival circuit that also successfully crossed over into the mainstream festival circuit. Suddenly, I found myself facing the same dilemma I have at most mainstream film festivals, an unconquerable list of must sees: Call Me Kuchu, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, Facing Mirrors, Four, Fourplay, Heavy Girls, The Invisible Men, Keep the Lights On, Mosquita y Mari, My Brother the Devil, North Sea Texas, Sassy Pants, United in Anger: A History of Act Up, and Yossi.

In fact, with each film only screening once, there were far too many films for me to see during Polari’s abbreviated five-day time span.

Here are some of the highlights from Polari 2012:

Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same – Hands down one of the funniest films I have seen all year, writer-director Madeleine Olnek’s Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same is a micro-budget nonsensical screwball farce about three bald lesbian aliens who are exiled to Earth in order to discover heart break thus saving their home planet’s ozone layer. Olnek plays off of the low budget nature of 1960s science fiction films, with über-campy costume (Linda Gui) and production design (Rebecca Conroy, Bryan Heyboer) that is cleverly accented with black and white cinematography (Nat Bouman). Susan Ziegler, Jackie Monahan and Cynthia Kaplan are outstanding as the three aliens who speak in unnaturally stilted monotone patterns with perfect comedic timing. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that CLSASS is destined to become a midnight cult classic.

Keep the Lights On – There seems to be a trend in New Queer Cinema of portraying LGBT characters in – what audiences have come to accept as – traditionally heterosexual contexts. It used to be that Queer Cinema set out to portray alternative lifestyles, but recent films such as Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright go to great lengths to prove that the love between LGBT characters is no different than if the characters were heterosexual.

This is precisely how writer-director Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On approaches the relationship between a Danish documentary filmmaker named Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and a literary agent named Paul (Zachary Booth). Whereas the fleeting romance in Haigh’s Weekend takes place seemingly in real time over the course of a weekend, Erik and Paul’s relationship spans an entire decade. As it turns out, this is a semi-autobiographical reflection on Sachs’ relationship with Bill Clegg, with whom Sachs opts to share the blame for their multitude of missteps and lapses of judgment. In Keep the Lights On, addiction is not one person’s fault, nor is it only one person’s cross to bear; addiction has many forms and therefore effects many people in different ways.

Mosquita y Mari – Yolanda (Fenessa Pineda) is a smart high school kid whose next logical step in life is college. Her parents (Joaquín Garrido, Laura Patalano) take full credit for Yolanda’s academic success because they feel like they have made all of the appropriate sacrifices in their lives to help promote an environment for Yolanda to succeed in – in other words, they keep Yolanda on a very short leash to keep her out of trouble. Then, Yolanda meets Mari (Venecia Troncoso), a new student who is struggling academically. Yolanda takes it upon herself to befriend Mari and tutor her; but it turns out that Mari has a lot of personal baggage, such as being the sole bread winner of her broken family.

Writer/director Aurora Guerrero develops Yolanda and Mari’s friendship with utmost care and tenderness. Nothing is done purposefully to tug at our heartstrings. There are no stirringly emotional climaxes or ridiculously happy endings. It is as if the narrative lives and breathes organically on its own, without the involvement of a directorial hand, and this is due in no small part to the unbridled realism of Fenessa Pineda and Venecia Troncoso’s performances.

Fourplay – An anthology of four short films by Kyle Henry, Fourplay serves as a provocative thesis on human sexuality and intimacy with each scenario set in a seemingly random city (Skokie, Austin, Tampa, and San Francisco). Fourplay is probably too subversive and shocking for most mainstream audiences, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think Henry deserves a hell of a lot of credit for having the cojones to make Fourplay (as do executive producers Jim McKay and Michael Stipe and producer Jason Wehling).

Personally, I think it is best to experience Fourplay with no prior knowledge, but I will say that the final chapter – “San Francisco” (which screened as a short film at aGLIFF 2010) – makes the entire 80-minute experience worth its weight in gold. Essentially a two-character one-act play, Paul Soileau’s onscreen chemistry with Gary Chason in “San Francisco” is pitch-perfect and together they give two of the best performances you will see all year.

A former Austinite, Henry – who teaches at Northwestern University in Chicago but has remained steadily involved with the Austin film community – directed Fourplay with an Austin-centric cast and crew including producer Jason Wehling, actor Paul Soileau and cinematographer PJ Raval. In addition to Fourplay, Paval worked on an astounding five other films that screened at Polari this year: Untitled Gay Retiree Documentary (director), Sunset Stories (cinematographer), Reverie! (director), Christeene African Mayonnaise Remix (director), and The Rookie and the Runner (cinematographer).

Austin Movie Events This Week

10/8 – Alamo Village – AFS’ Best of the Fests presents Kid-Thing with those wild and crazy Zellner Brothers in attendance for a Q&A. (More info)

10/8 – Alamo South Lamar – The Show! Austin presents God Thinks You’re a Loser with director Gary Chason in attendance for a Q&A. (More info)

10/9 – Alamo South Lamar – AFS’ Essential Cinema presents Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. (More info)

10/9 – Alamo Ritz – The Alamo Drafthouse pays tribute to the late Blake Edwards with this classic Cinema Cocktails screening of The Party featuring a bevy of delicious cocktails designed by Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris. (More info)

10/10 – Paramount Theatre – AFS presents George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire with a post-screening Q&A featuring producer-directors Paul Stekler and Daniel McCabe, along with Wallace biographer Dan Carter. (More info)

10/12–10/13 – Alamo Ritz – With David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis still rattling around in our subconscious, the Late Show presents what is probably the greatest Cronenberg film of all time, Videodrome. (More info)

10/12–10/14 – Alamo Ritz – Fantastic Fest presents three special reprise screenings of A Town Called Panic because – yes – this whack-a-doodle French animated film is just that freakin’ awesome. (More info)