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Out Night explores LGBTQ identity at film festival

Courtesy of Chris Vargas

By Cassandra Balfour, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 21, 2013

Wednesday night, the Ann Arbor Film Festival showcased films at the annual Out Night, which pays homage to queer historical legacies and, in some cases, reshaped them.

For over a decade, the Ann Arbor Film Festival has included Out Night, which showcases new films (and one archival film) that focus on LGBTQ experiences and perspectives. The theme this year is “History, Glamour, Magic,” honing in on films that deal with “queer/trans legacies.”

The festival’s Program Director, David Dinnell, said Out Night is a way to showcase personal films that represent a broad range of perspectives and aspects of LGBTQ identity.

“We show films throughout the festival by LGBTQ identified filmmakers, but those films aren’t necessarily about gay identity,” Dinnell said. "It’s a night to celebrate queer identity in all of its complicated ways.”

Dinnell added that Out Night is one of the most popular programs in the festival and that there's a range of tone and sensibility in the short films. Out Night films compete along with all of the other films in the festival for awards and, after the screenings, audience members and directors alike have a chance to mingle at Aut Bar for a post-screening party.

According to Dinnell, there havebeen films that honed in on queer experiences throughout the history of the festival. “Song for Rent,” by filmmaker Jack Smith, was the historical film shown on Wednesday, and it was considered radical when it was first screened back in the 1960s; somewere even used as test cases for obscenity laws at the time.

“Historically, throughout its over 50 years, the festival has been a platform for films from all kinds of very different communities, viewpoints, sometimes viewpoints from historically marginalized communities, as well,” Dinnell said. “I think there’s a profound lack of viewpoints and depictions of queer lives; there’s not enough.”

Chris Vargas, a young film and videomaker from Oakland, Calif. whose 2011 short film “Liberacion” was shown, used to idolized Liberace. After doing research that revealed his camp icon as a political conservative who used to pal around with Ronald Reagan, Vargas —who played Liberace in his own film — altered history by recasting the apolitical Liberace as a radical HIV/AIDs activist.

“I’m inhabiting and twisting history a little bit and using real biographical and historical truths and kind of embellishing them to fit my own motivations and wish fulfillment about the figures I’m portraying,” Vargas said. “I embellished his politics and made him sort of more radical. I made him the kind of queer role model that I was looking for.”

Vargas, who wasn’t able to attend the Film Festival this year, emphasized that he was excited to participate because he had heard that it screens a lot of experimental work.

“There is a lot of cutting edge work being made currently,” Vargas said. “And a lot of queer work gets kind of ghettoized at the gay film festivals, so it’s sort of nice to get some representation and something that is out of that gay ghetto because there is a lot of inventive work.”

Jon Davies, a Toronto-based curator, writer and cinema critic, was picked to curate this year’s Out Night. He described the crop of films as ones that recall queer legacies and as ones that invoke a call-and-response theme in which younger or contemporary queer identified artists “work with figures from the past.”

Dinnell said he wanted to reach out to much younger queer filmmakers because he thinks they’re creating interesting work. He added that some of the films Davies picked have a more performative aspect than in years past.

“It’s not like it’s going to be some coming out melodrama,” Dinnell said. “It will be something much more complicated and interesting, and that’s where a strain of that work is heading.”

Davies relished the freedom to pick recent films from both artists he already admired as well as from artists he stumbled upon while researching. He emphasized that queer identities and themes may become more common in the mainstream film industry and within independent film, but that he likes that there is a night at the Ann Arbor Film Festival that specifically explores a historically underrepresented demographic, as well.

“I like the idea of a program that’s set aside to specifically have that queer point of view, and be able to have that conversation among directors, the curator and the audience about what these histories and legacies mean today,” Davies said. “I like that queer themes are both becoming part of everywhere, but at the same time, it’s also great to carve out a space specifically for them as well.”

According to Davies, the mainstream film industry doesn’t yet represent the full spectrum of queer experiences, and independent film festivals like Ann Arbor’s can fill the void.

“I feel like there is a hunger for new stories and representations that weren’t necessarily as visible in the past,” Davies said. “Hollywood has always evolved a lot more slowly than people working more independently.”


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