For the last 10 years now, I've been programming Out on Film, Atlanta's 31-year-old LGBT film festival. One of the things I learned quickly about staging an event such as this is that there's no manual, no how-to guide. I have long fantasized that a fairy godmother -- or perhaps a Titan model -- would emerge from the skies telling me what to program and what not to program. Other programmers around the country are eager to offer feedback. Much of it, however, is trial and error. What slays in one area can completely belly-flop in another.
A lot of folks have asked me what it's like to program a queer film festival in the South. First, let me say that I have lived in the area my whole life -- and Atlanta the last half. Atlanta is where a lot of LGBT folks in the South wind up, and it has one of the largest populations of LGBT individuals in the country. Fortunately, I have never had any hesitation about being out in Atlanta or showing affection toward my husband, Craig, in public. I do need to watch myself, however, when I venture OTP (an Atlanta phrase for outside the perimeter) because in many places different attitudes exist. Many of our festival patrons are in the metro Atlanta area, but we also welcome attendees from around the state and the Southeast. Some of them don't have the luxury of having places to go to be among similar peers -- or even the luxury of being out to family and coworkers. I think that is one of the aspects that separates Out on Film from other festivals.
Most major U.S. cities have an LGBT film festival, with the big ones in North America being in California (Frameline and Outfest) and Toronto (Inside Out). I've learned a lot by visiting some of them. I don't know that there is a dramatic difference in the work that we do, although those festivals have a much larger scale and reach.
I see a lot of my festival colleagues around the country getting wide press for their events, and I must say -- sometimes I'm envious. Out on Film gets solid coverage from both the local LGBT and mainstream press, but it can be a challenge. Atlanta has a huge sports community, a rich arts culture, and dozens of vital LGBT organizations as well as a hugely attended Pride that takes place shortly after our festival. It's been important for us to stand our ground and forge our own identity. Coverage from some local outlets isn't a given. Recently I experienced a situation that I never thought I would have to deal with in metro Atlanta.
After 10 years of futile pitching, I caved in and called a local TV station to see if I could find out why we had problems getting on air when other affiliates around the country did similar coverage. I expected the "too many good stories and not enough time to tell them" PR spin, but a news director didn't sugarcoat his answer. He told me no one around the state outside of Atlanta cared about a gay film festival and none of the talent I mentioned to him that we had in it would make an impression on OTP viewers. It was a slap in the face and a cold reminder that attitudes like this are still around. After several conversations with the station, I was later offered some on-air time for my guests, but sadly it seemed more like guilt press than a true interest in the value of what our festival has to offer a lot of people in the region.
Politically, Atlanta is an interesting spot. We are a largely blue area in a state that is largely red. We also have a booming film industry that has become one of the busiest in the world. In November, our state will either make a giant leap forward or take a gigantic step backwards. Georgia will elect either the first African-American woman in the country to be a governor or a man keen on bringing "religious freedom" legislation here. In previous years, our current governor has had to veto religious freedom legislation, but with him out of office, no one really knows what to expect. In Trumpian times, a lot of people look at the future with uncertainty and wonder what it means for arts and LGBT rights and issues. Certainly Georgia stands to lose a lot of film business if religious freedom legislation becomes a reality.
I've never looked at what I do as anarchic, but I do have people from around the state who don't really get what we do. My late mother was always supportive of me but didn't really have a true sense of what I did for a living. She would smile and congratulate me, but only after a serious talk did she realize I was not programming a porn festival. I'd probably be making more money if I did, but small indie films and documentaries are more my jam.
I have learned that programming a film festival is in itself a political statement. Many films in a festival are meant merely for entertainment, but others can deal with the issues of the day -- religion, marriage equality, homophobia. For the most part, we try to present programming at Out on Film that is cutting-edge and high-quality, diverse and inclusive, as well as work that showcases voices from around the world and our own backyard. Ultimately what we screen is what we stand for. My board has always given me a green light when it comes to programming what I want, but there have been times when we have all had to bite our nails. In 2017 we programmed one of the more divisive films of the year, the South African drama The Wound. It dealt with ritual circumcision and is a film that a lot of festivals shied away from. A comedy, it's not. I thought some of our patrons would have issues, but they didn't. Over the years, I have gotten away with some risque programming, but I certainly realize that if I programmed for other places in the state, I would not be able to be as bold.
Every film festival -- large and small -- has challenges, whether it's cultivating an audience, cultivating donors, staffing the event, or dealing with the political climate. Surprisingly, for being in the Bible Belt, what we program has never really caused a controversy. I am happy that our audiences are sophisticated and willing to go along for the ride. One of our major challenges has been arts funding. While we've been the recipient of grants over the years for our work, Georgia ranks dead last in the country for arts funding, even with all the new filming going on. It's a struggle for the arts to be taken as seriously as they need to be here. Another trend that seems widespread these days is festival politics -- making sense of why certain films play certain festivals and not others. Anyone who assumed -- like we did -- that a locally made mainstream LGBT film coming out this fall would be a natural fit for our event might be surprised.
LGBT film festivals are vital because they allow audiences to see themselves on-screen -- and to do it with other members of the community. Every time someone sees themselves on screen for the first time and realizes they are not alone, what we all do on the festival circuit is completely worth the time and effort.