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Outfest Opens Festival With a 'Changing of the Guard' in Leadership

Damien Navarro and Christopher Racster
Damien Navarro and Christopher Racster

The LGBTQ film festival began with an emotional send-off to Christopher Racster and a welcome for its new executive director, Damien Navarro.


Even in the world of film festivals, parting can be such sweet sorrow.

Christopher Racster took one of his final bows as executive director of Outfest at the LGBTQ film festival's opening night Thursday.

Racster has helmed the organization for four years -- and his popularity with the crowd packing 2,000 seats of the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles was evident. The audience rose for a standing ovation that lasted nearly 40 seconds before Racster, who was presented with a package wrapped in Tiffany blue, could give his final remarks.

"I have to say it really truly has been a joyous experience and also truly humbling to serve behind you -- er, beside you. Well, sometimes behind you!" Racster said with a laugh at his slip of the tongue. He went on to thank Outfest's board of directors, its small army of volunteers, and its members.

"I'm incredibly proud of what we've been able to do together and I'm incredibly excited to see Outfest continue to soar under new leadership," Racster said, adding, "Our new executive director has my deepest respect and entire support, and I cannot wait to see what he and the rest of Outfest do."

Outfest board co-president Terry Franklin had praised Racster's legacy just moments beforehand. "Outfest never fails to attract creative, passionate, and committed people to work on its behalf. Christopher is no exception to that rule. His love of storytelling, his commitment to broader inclusivity, and his work as a mentor to our fellows and our filmmakers define so much of his leadership at Outfest," Franklin said.

"Leading this organization can sometimes be a tough job, and during Christopher's tenure, it was also a job of joy, passion, and determination," added co-president Marissa Roman Griffith.

The opening ceremony, which kicked off the 10-day festival, was a "changing of the guard," as Franklin described, but it was also a reflection on the past and the future of the LGBTQ rights movement. In their remarks, the co-presidents noted the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The (excellent) opening night film, Circus of Books, provided further historical context for the evening. The documentary, soon to premiere on Netflix, centers on the story of gay liberation in Los Angeles, as seen through the eyes of the straight, married owners of a gay pornography shop and bookstore.

Damien Navarro will assume Racster's mantle as executive director later this month, following a months-long, nationwide search by Outfest's board that involved more than 20 candidates. "It was an exhaustive and some might say exhausting process," Franklin admitted in his introduction.

"The new executive director needed to be someone who could take Outfest into a new and more expansive future. We need a bold leader to carry our bold new vision," he added.

Navarro, a graduate of California State University, Fullerton, was formerly president of Vimby, a brand content agency and entertainment studio based in Burbank, Calif. Griffith described him as a "film buff" whose personal movie library exceeds 2,500 titles. He also co-owns Monkey Business Farms, which yields organic produce, with his husband, Adam Z. Kawalek, a physician.

When Navarro took the stage, he thanked the Outfest board in English and Spanish -- a bilingual gesture that drew some cheers. "As a lifelong lover of film and storytelling, it is both exhilarating and pretty, pretty overwhelming to be standing here in this theater with you guys tonight," said Navarro. "I'm probably the luckiest guy in the world tonight."

While Navarro acknowledged that he is not "not on the clock yet," he also began to outline his vision for the future of Outfest, one of the nation's most prominent LGBTQ film festivals, which was founded 37 years ago. He framed the organization as one that transcends the confines of a movie theater "to meet the unique challenges we have as a queer people in this moment," including the modern-day political forces attempting "to reverse the progress we have made and to silence our voices."

"This cannot stand," Navarro stressed. "We have to expand our reach, our impact, and our influence. That kid in that small town without a voice? We have to be the ones that provide them with one. The industry's rightful demand for a larger pool of diverse, authentic new voices and talent? We will find them for you. Those queer kids looking for careers in entertainment? We will mentor and train them."

"We are not just a regional film festival anymore," he said. "In fact, we haven't been that for decades. We are a festival of life where every silenced and underrepresented voice can be heard, expressed, and protected."

"We all know that change can be sometimes a little scary, but to be honest, I find it thrilling when it's done together," he said, concluding, "I have no doubt that we can do anything that we set our fabulous little queer minds to."

Watch Navarro's remarks below. And don't miss the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival, which runs from now until July 28.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.
Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.