18th film festival upholds traditions of diversity, controversy

Wondering what’s hot, feel-good or controversial about the 18th annual Pittsburgh International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival? Out went to the source: festival program director Laura Annibalini and guest relations coordinator Mitch Leib, who submerged themselves in videocassettes at home and celluloid at Toronto’s gay film festival in May to compile this year’s lineup.

        This year the festival runs Oct. 17-23 at the Harris Theater, downtown; and Oct. 24-26 at a new location, the Kelly-Strayhorn Community Performing Arts Center in East Liberty. Once again the youth program “Reel Queer” will be shown free for young people at the Margaret Morrison Building on Carnegie Mellon University campus; the women’s three-part miniseries Tipping the Velvet will also be shown free of charge.

Out: Let’s begin with the opening-night film, 9 Dead Gay Guys, about two cute rent boys getting way too involved in their work. In the past you started with “feel-good” films with wide appeal. This year’s opener has critics divided. Some say it’s outrageously funny; others say it’s just outrageous. What’s the story?

Laura Annibalini: It’s definitely a feel-good film. That’s usually our criteria for picking the opening-night film. We want people to walk out of the theater afterward feeling like they want to party. This is over-the-top funny. You really can not take it seriously. I don’t know why people are offended by it.

It’s won a number of awards: Montreal International Comedy Festival and Dublin’s gay film festival, so somebody thinks highly of it.

Annibalini: I haven’t heard any negative buzz about it since Cannes, probably the first place it showed. Maybe going into it they didn’t know what to expect. In the Toronto Film Festival program they spelled it out. I’m not prejudiced at all, but at some point I thought: Why are they doing this? Then: Wait a minute, don’t take it seriously. The SimpsonsSouth Park and John Waters can be offensive. Here it’s mostly ethnic humor. One of the characters is a Hasidic Jew…

Mitch Leib: And I’m Jewish. They pretty much hit everybody. Honestly, you really have to have no sense of humor to be offended by it. It’s a classic farce.

How did the Toronto audience react?

Annibalini: It was a midnight showing, and it was absolutely packed. They loved it. This is how they described it for Toronto: “Big dicks, cattle prods, dwarves and hidden fortunes.” Who wouldn’t want to see that?

Tell us about the film festival parties.

Annibalini: On Oct. 2 we’re going to Tuscany on Will & Grace night, our third year there for our kick-off party. Our programs will be hot off the presses, and we’ll be selling festival passes. People can buy a cup of coffee, pick up a program, sit and study it and circle what they want to see. The people who go there are definitely our audience. We’re also doing a kick-off party on Oct. 4 at the Eagle and our opening night party on Oct. 17 is also at the Eagle.

Leib: It’s going to be a great opening-night party. People will be able to get glimpses from different films we’re showing. We’re going to have great munchies—actually munchies is an understatement; it’ll be really good food. It’ll be on the first floor of the Eagle and just for people who attend the opening film.

Sounds like you’re getting a very positive buzz to the film festival itself.

Leib: We’ve been here for 18 years, and people expect to see us here. We’re part of the landscape, so to speak. But at the same time, there’s always the struggle to bring in more people and create a bigger buzz every year.

Annibalini: We have tremendous support from community organizations this year, and most of our programs have community groups co-sponsoring them. Also, we’re starting to establish ourselves as an arts event and not just a gay arts event. Our Rob Marshall fund-raiser in June really opened the eyes of a lot of straight people.

It is one of the oldest gay film festivals in the United States.

Annibalini: In the world actually—the fifth oldest.

OK, let’s talk movies. There’s always one film that has the men lined up down the block.

Leib: This year it’s Leaving Metropolis, the opening film at Toronto. It’s a love triangle, and the guys are real cute—especially the “straight” one. Sometimes the men’s films are popular just because they’re hot! This is extremely well acted, really well done. There’s an artist, a restaurateur, his wife and a pre-operative transgender character who’s HIV-positive. It’s a rollercoaster movie because it’s got really fun and really sad parts to it. It was brought to us by one of the directors of Queer as Folk; so you expect a really good caliber.

How about a crowd-pleaser for the women?

Annibalini: I’d say Tipping the Velvet. It’s three hours with a 20-minute intermission, but it doesn’t feel that long. It was shown on BBC America in the spring, but apparently they cut out 59 minutes for commercials, mostly the sex scenes. And there are some really hot sex scenes! It’s about a young woman who lives in a coastal town in Victorian England, played by Rachel Stirling, the daughter of Diana Rigg. A vaudeville show comes to town, and she falls in love with a male impersonator and joins the show. Later, disguised as a soldier, she becomes a rent “boy.” It’s funny, well acted and well produced. We’re going to do it as a marathon and show it free. But we will accept donations.

There’s an Israeli film based on a true story about two male officers who fall in love…

Annibalini: Yossi and Jagger. It’s beautiful and gets to the point so quickly. Very well acted and beautifully done. I saw that with my mother in Toronto, and I was sobbing.

What about Fleeing by Night?

Leib: It’s set in China and gorgeously filmed. It’s the story of a musician and his relationships with the woman he’s supposed to marry and a boy who’s part of a Chinese opera troupe. [Before seeing it] I was only marginally interested in the film. When I saw it, I was absolutely blown away by it. It’s so strong that I completely lost the fact that it was subtitled. The end is very shocking, really moving. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Gasoline sounds like a lesbian version of Pretty Poison and Bonnie and Clyde.

 Annibalini: A female gas station owner/mechanic and a rich girl who runs a cappuccino business end up on the lam after her overbearing mother dies accidentally. It’s a thriller, a ghost story and a sexy lesbian film.

The Australian Walking on Water?

Annibalini: It’s outstanding. It’s not your typical AIDS film because the person with AIDS dies within the first 10 minutes. Instead it deals with how his friends and family deal with his death. The woman [Judi Farr] who plays the straight friend won the Oscar equivalent in Australia for best supporting actress.

        My partner and I saw this film together, and during the film Brenda turned toward me and said, “Do you like this?” I said, “It’s really good. What’s your problem?” She was infuriated; after the movie I had to chase after her out of the theater. I’m in the minority since I haven’t lost anyone to AIDS, but Brenda has. She couldn’t sleep that night, and the next day she said, “Ohmigod, everyone needs to see this movie.” It’s about how people don’t deal with their loss. It’s not a happy film, but it’s definitely a must-see film.

Tell us about some of the documentaries, like Jim in Bold. I know Fred Phelps’ group protested it.

Annibalini: It’s very well done, very empowering and very sad. Three young men from Young Gay America are traveling around the country visiting different youth groups. They even talk to gay Mormon kids—I didn’t even know there were gay Mormon kids. All the kids have really positive attitudes about being gay and what their future’s going to be like and what they can do to change attitudes.

        The men also talk to members of Jim Wheeler’s family—he’s the gay kid from Pennsylvania who committed suicide. They talk to his family and friends and show his art work and read his poetry. And his poetry is phenomenal. He was an extremely creative young man—it’s very tragic. At the same time you’ve got these kids with a great attitude.

And what’s Laughing Matters about?

Annibalini: When it comes to comedy, if you’re straight you know Ellen DeGeneres and that’s it. The director deals with Kate Clinton, Marga Gomez, Suzanne Westenhoefer and Karen Williams, who are all lesbian icons. They talk about their careers and being out the whole time, and interspersed are bits of their comedy acts. And Suzanne Westenhoefer does mention Pittsburgh and a “muff diver’s” T-shirt given to her by two “sweet as pie” women, and I’m pretty sure I know them.

And Brother Outsider

Leib: A phenomenal documentary. What’s interesting about that film is that it’s about someone we all should know, but I didn’t.

Annibalini: I didn’t either.

Well, there’s a reason.

Leib: Right. We all know about Martin Luther King but not many of us know about Bayard Rustin. He had such an impact on the black community and the gay community, and I’m not sure how much either community knows about him. It held me the entire time. It’s a lot like last year’s film on Harry Hay. I didn’t know that much about him, but after watching the film, I felt so enriched by it and wished more people had seen it. So I want to get the word out now about Brother Outsider so that more people do see it. It’s our history.

The Gift…. If you practice safer-sex is there any  point in seeing a film about “bug-chasers” and “gift-givers”?

Leib: What we’re seeing now is complacency about [HIV] transmission. People still die from AIDS, but many live fairly normal lives. And many are tired of taking precautions. It’s a lot of work emotionally speaking, and people kind of long for the ability to just have sex and not worry about it. The guys who are seeking “the gift” are doing it so that they don’t have to worry about AIDS anymore. Some are pretty extreme. It’s important that everyone sees this because it reminds us that AIDS is still really present in our community. I’d be surprised if young people aren’t touched by it somehow.

Were there any films you wanted that you couldn’t get?

Annibalini: No, it worked out pretty well. Maybe distributors are becoming more savvy that there are a lot of gay film festivals in October. This year they’re not releasing their films mainstream or theatrically before the gay festivals. This is the jumping ground for them, and then they’ll open after us.

Leib: It’d be disappointing if we programmed something and then it hit Pittsburgh a month before our festival.

Annibalini: That’s not happening this year. I made a point of asking when they’re releasing theatrically. There’s no point in getting it if they’re doing it before our festival.

What about the opposite: when a film plays in the festival but isn’t distributed here?

Annibalini: Km. 0 was recently reviewed in The Advocate. Now people are asking if we’re going to bring it in. Well, we opened the festival with it last year.

I loved it!

Annibalini: We loved it too, but some people didn’t go to see it because it was subtitled and they hadn’t heard about it. Now it’s getting a lot of press, and they want to see it.

Km. 0 never came back to Pittsburgh, right?

Leib: Nope. Same with most of the short films. We saw some in Toronto that we showed last year. So you really get to see some things first here, things that might never come out on video. And it’s still different watching the film with 100 people than watching it in your living room.

Annibalini: One hundred gay people! You gotta take a chance.

Leib: They said this in Toronto, but it also applies here: Go to one film more than you normally would. Go see a film you wouldn’t normally go to. I think that’s a great idea because as part of the screening committee I saw films that I’m not sure I would have seen otherwise. In retrospect I’d be very sad if I didn’t see them. People need to challenge themselves.

How did your free youth program turn out last year?

Annibalini: “Reel Queer” will be at the Margaret Morrison Building on the CMU campus again, and it went well—double the attendance we had in the past. Someone [who didn’t go] said he didn’t want to see any “family films.” Well, they’re not. These films are hot!

What about the new theater?

Annibalini: The Kelly-Strayhorn Community Performing Arts Center is a beautiful theater with very comfortable reclining seats, and there’s lots of parking. We’re showing Leaving Metropolis there, and Radical Harmonies about the women’s music movement, and I think every dyke in the city should see that. The Renaissance City Women’s Choir and the drumming group will do a half-hour show right before the screening.

Other cities envy our film festival; yet I still know some people who have never seen a film at our festival.

Leib: Last year gay film festivals closed in Lisbon, Ottawa and Baltimore. There wasn’t enough interest. So, if people don’t attend our films.… If the community doesn’t make sure we’re still here, then who will?

At 18 years old, you’re doing something right.

For more information, or to volunteer to assist with the 18th annual Pittsburgh International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, call (412) 232-3277 or visit the Web site at www.pilgff.org.

The Q Archives and articles like this are republished here by the kind contribution of Tony Molnar-Strejcek, the publisher of Pittsburgh’s Out. Maintaining the cultural history of Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community is made possible by contributions by readers like you.