For its 30th anniversary, Out On Film is showcasing a wide range of narrative features, documentaries and short works that share more than just an LGBTQ focus. A lot of them are simply terrific.
“I’ve been really surprised at the depth of films,” says Out On Film director (and ArtsATL contributor) Jim Farmer. “There are just so many this year.”
Among his favorites? “Everybody was raving [at other festivals] about God’s Own Country, so that wasn’t surprising,” Farmer says. A film that did pleasantly surprise him was Chavela, a documentary about the Central American singer Chavela Vargas. “I wasn’t familiar with her, and I wound up loving the film and loving her. But it was a little embarrassing: How could I not have known about her?”
He also favors three other documentaries, two about famous people (Hollywood producer Allan Carr and novelist Armistead Maupin) and a Georgia-made one, Happy, about a graphic designer in Augusta. Oh, and two feature films, Saturday Church and A Date for Mad Mary. (“That one is easily in my top five this year.”)
Fittingly for its 30th anniversary — and also just to accommodate the high number of movies — Out On Film will be the most ambitious yet. “We are throwing it out there,” Farmer says. “This is by far our biggest year ever.”
Spread over 11 days, Out On Film includes three venues — Landmark Midtown Art Cinema (September 28–October 5), the Plaza Theatre (October 7) and OutFront Theatre Company (October 6–8) — and 127 films. The landmark LGBTQ festival will be honored by ArtsATL in January with a Luminary Award for community engagement.
“There are so many more ways to watch films these days, including all the streaming services,” Farmer says. “You can watch a movie on your phone on your lunch break.” But don’t do that, OK? While there’s something to be said for that kind of content access, it can be a lonely business. Out On Film is as much about movies as it is about the endangered ritual of communal watching.
“We’re about bringing people together for these 11 days,” Farmer says. “It’s a safe haven. A lot of our patrons come from metro Atlanta, but we do get people from all around the state. It’s great to bring people together and have them watch these films as a community.”
A diverse community, he stresses.
“This is the tenth festival that I’ve programmed, and each year we start with a clean slate,” Farmer says. “We don’t have any specific parameters. We’re just looking for films that touch us or move us or entertain us. And I know it’s a cliché, but I think it’s important to program for an entire community. I don’t want to be a film festival that only programs for white gay men. I think that’s a bore.”
Here are some quick looks at some of the festival’s films I was able to screen in advance.
Chavela. If you’ve watched a couple of Pedro Almodóvar movies, you know the late Chavela Vargas, even if you don’t recognize the name. She’s the soulful chanteuse with the gravelly, grief-raked voice whose songs the director has used to emotionally underscore many of his films. This engrossing documentary tells the story of the butch, bawdy Costa Rican singer who built her career in Mexico, wearing pants and ponchos and hiding her sexuality in plain sight while not officially coming out until late in her rowdy life. The movie celebrates her talent and her life, particularly because Chavela came close to destroying both through decades of boozing, until tough love made her stop and opened the door for a great final act.
A Date for Mad Mary. She’s a mess, is Mary (Seána Kerslake). Just released from a short stint in prison, she’s put to work as maid of honor for her BFF, who’s getting married soon. Problem is, Mary herself needs a date to the wedding. She’s got no boyfriend, doesn’t really want one — or know who, exactly, she does want. That changes when she meets wedding photographer and musician Jess (Tara Lee). Is the angry, boozing Mary really able to handle an emotional connection, or will she screw it up like she does everything else? This engaging comedy-drama is a tale of awakening and redemption that earns its gentle, feel-good ending, largely thanks to smart performances by its two leads.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Part of the rioting crowd that transformed the 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn into the start of the gay rights movement, Marsha (born Malcolm Michaels, Jr.) was a New York City mainstay. Her celebrity in gay circles, though, didn’t help when her body was dragged from the Hudson River in 1992. The police declared her a suicide, and basically ignored friends and family who suspected murder. The documentary follows transgender crime victim advocate Victoria Cruz as she tries to reopen the case and get answers about the death. There’s no big reveal, but the film is convincing that malfeasance occurred — by criminals, and by the cops. A sort of double-portrait of Marsha’s close friend and activist Sylvia Rivera, who wound up living on the piers where Marsha died, the movie is also a look back at a once-upon-a-time Manhattan, when everyone could afford to live there.
The Fabulous Allan Carr. Big in every way, muumuu-wearing producer Carr hit big (box office smash Grease and Broadway’s La Cage Aux Folles) and bombed big (Grease 2, Can’t Stop the Music and the infamous Rob Lowe-Snow White Oscar ceremony). The documentary is an affectionate look at a fella who could be his own worst enemy but sometimes knew his limitations. An actor in one of his other bombs recalls Carr bawling after watching Gandhi, realizing he could never make a movie as good as that. But if you’re flipping channels and had to choose between Gandhi and Grease 2, which one would you rather watch? Be honest.
Freak Show. The only festival movie I disliked. Trudie Styler directs this tale about poor little rich boy Billy Bloom (Alex Lawther), a one-man parade of glitter-drag at his new high school. The idea of watching him battle the school’s norms (and bullies) by running for homecoming queen is a good one. Yet though we’re supposed to root for him, Billy is a brash, spoiled narcissist. (Young actor Lawther tries hard but can’t make the role work.) The valiant cast includes Bette Midler, Laverne Cox, Celia Weston, AnnaSophia Robb and Abigail Breslin, defeated by the movie’s cartoonish tone and hollowness of the script.
God’s Own Country. A British film with such thick accents, we need English subtitles. That’s the only downside. Folks are calling this a Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain, and it is, only (good news) without the gut-punch of that movie’s ending. Josh O’Connor plays Johnny, son of a sheep farmer so oppressed by his dad (Ian Hart), he almost seems like a feral animal. (He’s a little like the dominated boy of the Taviani brothers’ great Padre Padrone). His hostility remains intact with the arrival of a Romanian hired hand, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), whom he calls a gypsy. Things change, though, with some muddy sex out in the sheep fields. The movie is less about sexual awakening than Gheorghe’s civilizing influence on Johnny. But it’s also sometimes hot and violent . . . um, in a good way.
Happy: A Small Film with a Big Smile. The documentary focuses on the up-up-up attitude of Augusta-based subject Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman. A graphic artist, he fell in love, lost his partner, went through some shit, came out of it and started to spread a positive message through his art — The Happy Project. I could have used a little deeper dive into the specifics of Zimmerman’s life, less of the shiny-shiny, sometimes staged approach. (The movie often plays like a campaign ad for an undesignated office Zimmerman is running for.) In scary-lousy times like this, though, there’s something to be said for a cheery boost of energy.
I Dream in Another Language. Rumor has it that the two old men who live deep in the Mexican jungle refuse to speak to each other because they fought long ago over a woman. That’s only partly true. The linguist who comes to interview the elders (the last speakers of a native dialect) discovers the facts are more complex, and sexual. The movie parallels the story of what happened in the past with a romance between that linguist and the granddaughter of one of the men in a sweet tale speckled with magic realism.
Saturday Church. A joyous whatsit — equal parts After-School Special, no-budget musical and vogue extravaganza. It’s the tale of 14-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain) who’s constantly in trouble for wearing his single mom’s shoes and stockings. Both crackdown and deliverance arrive at the same time, in the form of his strict great aunt (Regina Taylor) and his embrace by a group of transgender glamazons led by Ebony (Mj Rodriguez), who introduce him to the New York vogue culture. Oh, and Ulysses also meets a cute boy. The last 20 minutes suffer from some logical lapses designed to create a dramatic crisis, but the movie’s good spirit nails the landing.
Signature Move. Since her father’s death, Pakistani-American Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza, resembling an Asian Tig Notaro) is caretaker of her traditional mom, who wants to find a nice Paki man to marry her daughter. Things get complicated when Zaynab falls for Mexican-American Alma (Sari Sanchez). Alma is out to her mom; Zaynab isn’t to hers. Mexican Lucha libre wrestling becomes a metaphor for it all. To me, the movie feels behind the times, like a 1990s, overly cartoonish comedy that didn’t get discovered until the 21st century. Still, it treats its characters with love, respect and a nice level of complexity and forgiveness. It’s hard to come down too hard on it.
Tom of Finland. The title may lead you to expect an over-pumped erotic adventure. But this Finnish biopic has moments of impressionist grace that make it deeper than you’d expect in the true-life tale of Touko Laaksonen, aka the artist who codified the leather-and-denim, giant-crotched image that influenced the gay-clone look of the 1970s. The film follows Touko (Pekka Strang) through his WWII service (where he developed his love of uniforms), tensions with his disapproving sister and finally international success. The movie dramatizes how powerful, and how extremely dangerous, Touko’s drawings were in closeted, Cold War Europe.
The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. Everybody loves Armistead. This affectionate documentary won’t change anyone’s feelings. Peopled by celeb pals like Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, who starred in the PBS version of Tales of the City, the movie recounts Maupin’s transformation from staunchly conservative Southerner to a man who helped bring LGBT stories into the mainstream. A central part of the movie focuses on the 1993 PBS adaptation — and the resulting culture war when D.C. politicians demonized the miniseries for being frank about sex. It’s sadly ironic that a series about the true meaning of family (the ones we make as much as the ones we’re born into) would be attacked by conservative groups like the so-called American Family Association. The documentary has moving memories of friends Maupin has lost over the years, but it’s mainly upbeat. Think of it as comfort food. Who wants to say no to that?