As the 39th edition of the world’s largest LGBTQIA+ film festival, Outfest LA 2021, opens this Friday August 13th—boasting 175 titles, with a mix of outdoor events, indoor screenings for vaccinated moviegoers, and online streaming options—Outfest’s Director of Festival Programming Mike Dougherty offers an exclusive insider’s guide to help you get acquainted with some of this year’s highlights. “You really have to delve into the lineup and make sure that you hit every corner of that program, because there’s something everywhere that you’d be interested to see”, he tells The Queer Review.
Opening and Closing Night Galas
With everybody coming back together in person, I thought it was important for the festival to kick off and close with a feeling of celebration and joy. These two films really give you that.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is one of the best musicals I’ve seen in a long time and it’s definitely a film that you go to a theater or to a communal space to enjoy with a crowd and dance along to and laugh together. As someone who is a fierce, longtime fan of movie musicals, a lot recently have disappointed me in the way that they adhere to the laws of time and space. Jamie doesn’t do that at all. When the musical numbers happen they cross fantastical boundaries and are visually resplendent. It’s just a glorious thing to watch. We’re really happy that we’re going to have the film’s lead actor Max Harwood there on opening night with us, along with Bianca Del Rio from RuPaul’s Drag Race, who has a cameo in the film. It’s going to be a really fun time at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery outside on the lawn. It’s the first time we’re doing that for opening night at Outfest, which opens the event up to a lot more people.
Our Closing Night Gala, Fanny: The Right to Rock, was actually a film that we had wanted to show last year but the filmmakers held off on the festival circuit due to COVID. That delay proved fortunate for us because what we are doing on closing night is the ideal scenario, with Fanny the band reuniting along with some special guests for a five-song rocking set after the film at the Orpheum. Fanny was a rock band in the 70s started by two Filipina American sisters in Venice Beach. They were the first all-female rock band with a major label release. They were critically acclaimed and admired by the likes of David Bowie, but industry racism, sexism, and homophobia meant that they didn’t get the fame that they deserved. This documentary charts their reunion decades later and them coming back together to record a new album. As you’ll see from the film they’re amazing women, and their music rocks hard. So if you’ve been missing rock concerts over this past year and a half, this is definitely the way to jump back in with both feet at the Orpheum.
COVID’s Impact On Queer Filmmakers
In terms of the pandemic being reflected in the lineup there are some ways in which you see it directly and some ways where you can feel the echoes of it. It’s more pronounced in the short film work and we have a full program of queer shorts made with boundless creativity during COVID, Postcards from 2020 including animation, drama, thriller, and comedy. LGBTQ+ creators were really clever with how they addressed the pandemic in their filmmaking.
On the feature side you do see signs of it in films that were clearly shot during the pandemic, although they don’t necessarily directly address it, such as Language Lessons with Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass. The film takes place entirely over video chats in such a cinematic way which I was amazed by when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. I so was impressed by the way that the filmmakers figured out how to make it work with the editing, acting, and the writing. It’s going to be really interesting to see films like that on the big screen at Outfest.
We’re also playing Noah’s Arc: The ‘Rona Chronicles that directly addresses COVID. It’s a reunion special of Noah’s Arc, which was a landmark series in terms of representation for Black queer men. It brings the original cast back together including Darryl Stephens and Doug Spearman, along with special guests like Wanda Sykes, Titus Burgess, and Wilson Cruz. As a curator, it’s very interesting to place these things in the theatrical context and see how an audience responds to it.
Protagonists who happen to be LGBTQ+
A recent recurring trend in queer film has seen a lot of central characters who are LGBTQ+ where the focus isn’t necessarily on their relationships. For instance, there’s We Need To Do Something, a horror film through and through about a family who are trapped in their bathroom after a tornado, then something supernatural occurs which attempts to turn them against one another. It’s a wild ride, completely nuts. The film’s lead is a queer teen who thinks she may have started this mayhem with her girlfriend when they tried to place a curse on a classmate. Increasingly, LGBTQ+ characters are getting to be at the center of genre films like this that have always been default straight and default cis characters. It’s pretty thrilling to see that. Many queer filmmakers are forward-thinking about the fluidity of sexuality and the fluidity of gender. If you’ve grown up in a world where that’s more accepted, that starts to reflect in your work to the point where it doesn’t need to be a big statement, it’s just what how it is.
We have a lot of world premieres this year and I’m really excited about all of them. I was blown away and blinking as if I was dreaming that we were able to world premiere the new film the legendary Charles Busch, The Sixth Reel, which he co-directed with Carl Andress. Busch wrote Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! and starred in the film adaptations of those plays, which are queer classics. He’s an idol of mine. The film is a hilarious comedy caper about movie memorabilia collectors who go in hard on that pastime. They discover that their recently deceased friend had hidden away a lost final reel of a classic horror film and they have to decide whether to share it with the world or cash in on a big sale. They all hatch nefarious schemes to trick each other out of the possession of that reel. Charles’s drag persona comes in, and Margaret Cho is in the film, along with Tim Daly. It’s a real blast.
The Sixth Reel is the last film that producer Ash Christian, a longtime friend of Outfest, worked on before he unfortunately passed away last year so the screening will also be a memorial tribute to Ash.
We also have the world premiere of I Am Divine and Tab Hunter Confidential filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz’ latest documentary Boulevard! A Hollywood Story which tells the story of Gloria Swanson’s attempt to make a Sunset Boulevard musical decades before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version with Glenn Close would hit Broadway. Capitalizing on the fame that her Oscar nomination for Sunset Boulevard brought her she decided to try and keep it going by adapting it into a musical. Her partners were a gay couple, closeted in Hollywood and a relationship triangle develops between them which causes chaos. It’s a fascinating story, especially if you’re an old Hollywood buff, not unlike the folks in The Sixth Reel!
The delightful, wonderfully acted genderqueer body swap comedy Homebody will also have its world premiere at Outfest. It stars Colby Minifie as a babysitter whose young charge, a genderqueer child, uses Transcendental Meditation to body swap with her so they can feel like what it would be like to be a woman.
We’re also world premiering the documentary Gemmel & Tim about Gemmel Moore and Timothy Michael Dean who were victims of Ed Buck, who was thankfully just convicted in court here in West Hollywood. It is playing in a double feature with another documentary, Crystal Diaries. Both these films examine the lives of Ed Buck’s victims, how their communities and their families were effected and the support network that grew, as well as the movement to hold Ed Buck accountable. It took far too long for him to meet justice and these documentaries tell a really important story for our community.
World Premiere Restoration
The Outfest Legacy Project is our preservation and restoration section and we always like to highlight films from past years in our festival’s history. This year we’re going to be world premiering a new restoration of The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. It’s a 90s queer classic that starred Laurel Holloman and Nicole Ari Parker. Director Maria Maggenti will join us and the film is going to look beautiful on the big screen at DGA1.
Spanish documentary Sediments captures a wonderful journey over a long weekend with a group of trans women who are traveling to the country. They are six of the most captivating camera subjects you’ll ever see. It’s a fly-on-the-wall film that observes them interacting together as friends, with their arguments and makeups, and their different personalities. All in their 60s or over, they have lived their lives as trans women in a society that didn’t always accept them and it’s so amazing to hear their stories.
We also have the US premiere of the restoration of another documentary from Spain from 1983, Vestida de azul, which recently came back to prominence because of HBO Max’s Veneno. Valeria Vargas who wrote the book that the series was based on, and who knew Veneno, also wrote a book about the importance of Vestida de azul highlighting how iconic it was to her community in Spain all those years ago.
I’m really excited that Outfest will have the LA premiere of a very special movie, Potato Dreams of America, which world premiered at South by Southwest. Wes Hurley’s film is a visually distinct, fantastical interpretation of his life story which involved moving from Soviet Russia to America as a young gay man. Russia is very stylized in the film, it’s an almost otherworldly place and reflects the protagonist’s active imagination. His grandmother is played by Lea DeLaria, while the Jesus Christ of his visions is played by Jonathan Bennett.
Firstness, which will also have its LA premiere at Oufest focuses on a non-binary child’s relationship with their single father and explores the intricacies of parenting an LGBTQ+ child. It’s set in New Mexico and is an ensemble film about the understanding community around these two people; the child’s friends, and the father’s cohorts at a therapy group that he goes to that does theatrical reenactments to help them deal with their issues. It’s an American indie that is part of this vanguard of films showing how gender expression and non-binary identities are becoming more pronounced in our world.
Other Documentary Highlights
Among the many documentary highlights in this year’s lineup, I’m particularly thrilled that we’re showing Invisible about the contributions of queer women to country music, which are many and varied. They’ve written some of the biggest songs, but don’t get the credit that they deserve because of their queer identity. The documentary reaches in and examines that and highlights some of their great songs. Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris are interviewed in the film along with many other country music stars. Some of the film’s subjects, like Mary Gauthier, will be at the screening to perform a few songs, so that’s going to be a pretty incredible experience at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Downtown Los Angeles.
No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics directed by renowned documentarian Vivian Kleiman features giants of queer comic book art like Alison Bechdel. In my world, I know many queers who love comics and this is a film that you don’t want to miss if that’s your flavor too.
North By Current, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, by trans masc filmmaker Angelo Madson Minax is a documentary about his family and a tragedy which they’ve endured, and how they make it through together as they accept one another. It’s a tough-as-nails family, the kind of folks that you don’t normally see on the big screen, and this is incredibly personal filmmaking that’s beautiful to behold.
Free in-person screenings
Among the free events at this year’s festival will be several in-person screenings, including the HBO Max documentary The Legend of the Underground about folks in Nigeria fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, co-directed by a longtime Outfest friend Nneka Onuorah. We’re also doing a free screening of one of my favorite documentaries of the past year Wojnarowicz: Fk You F*ggot Fker about the artist David Wojnarowicz who was very active in the 80s in New York. It’s incredibly made and incredibly told.
We’re also going to premiere the first episode of season two of Showtime’s Work In Progress by Abby McEnany, who is hilarious. In fact, this is one of the best comedies on television right now in my opinion, co-created by Lilly Wachowski. For the unacquainted, in the series Abby happens to meet Julia Sweeney from SNL, who play the character Pat, where the whole joke was you can’t tell if they’re a man or a woman. Because of that sketch Abby has often been called Pat, which she feels has ruined her life. As the two work through the problems that Julia caused her, a friendship develops. Julia Sweeney will be at the screening for a Q&A along with Abby McEnany.
Trans & Non-Binary Summit
Outfest LA’s fifth annual Trans & Non-binary Summit will comprise three separate events, bringing together filmmakers and activists for a discussion and to highlight work by those artists. The first event is a keynote speech by the filmmaker and activist Tourmaline, who made Happy Birthday Marsha. That will be followed by a panel discussion about the landscape for trans and non-binary representation after Pose. Filmmakers and artists like Our Lady J, Zackary Drucker, and Nava Mau will be on the panel. There will also be a short film showcase, and finally a sneak preview live read of season two of Razor Tongue, Rain Valdez’s Emmy-nominated web series.
A Spotlight on New Filmmakers
One filmmaker in particular who I was excited to discover this year is Lauren Hadaway, who wrote and directed our US centerpiece The Novice, which won Tribeca’s Grand Jury Prize, best actress for Isabelle Fuhrman, and best cinematography for Todd Martin. It is an incredibly made film and it was only after watching it that I learned that Lauren was a fellow of Outfest’s screenwriting lab a few years back before I joined the team. The screenplay is based on her own experiences in the world of college rowing and Isabelle Fuhrman plays a young woman who is asked to join the college rowing team and she really goes hard into being the best, sacrificing personal relationships, and her own personal safety. It’s been favorably and aptly compared to films like Black Swan and Whiplash. Isabelle Furman is amazing in the lead role, and it’s remarkable that this is Lauren’s first feature film as writer-director. I’m excited about what she’s going to do next.
On the international side, there’s a gorgeously made film from South Korea A Distant Place by Park Kun-young about a young man living in the South Korean countryside away from the people who have made him feel bad about his identity. He’s been taking care of his sister’s young daughter, essentially as her adoptive father, then his sister resurfaces in his life wanting the child back and creates problems for him. He has been reunited with an old lover and she’s unaccepting of him being with a man. It’s a beautifully told drama which I was really captivated by.
Another exciting feature debut comes by filmmaker Marley Morrison with the UK comedy Sweetheart. It is a distinctively told film about a young woman on a British beachside summer vacation with her family who strikes up a relationship with one of the workers at the vacation park they’re staying at.
Highlights at Outfest LA 2021 from Outfest Fusion QTBIPOC Film Festival
All Boys Aren’t Blue is Nathan Hale Williams’ adaption of the writings of the Black non-binary author George M. Johnson with three actors reading different portions of the work which focus on the expectations of Black masculinity on queer Black men at three different periods in George’s life. It’s stirring, emotional, and beautifully executed visually.
The feature will play along with a short that we also played at Fusion, How to Raise a Black Boy, which delves into some similar themes. It’s made by a young filmmaker Justice Jamal Jones, who recently graduated from NYU and became a Sundance Ignite Fellow. It’s told like a fable and is visually experimental and lush.
I’m also excited to highlight one of the features from Fusion that we’re playing at Outfest LA, See You Then. It’s the story of Kris (Pooya Mohseni), a woman who reconnects with an old lover, played by Lynn Chen (Saving Face), years after they were together and after Kris has transitioned. In the vein of Before Sunset, the film lingers on their long conversation over one night, as they discuss the hurt that they caused one another and where their lives have gone since. It’s wonderfully acted and beautifully told.
The short films are often where you’ll find the stars of Outfest festivals of tomorrow and these programs have always been extremely popular, that’s why there are so many of them! The 13 programs this year are divided thematically and by genre, with program themes that have stretched back decades at Outfest like Boys Shorts and Girl Shorts, along with trans identified short films, Transcendental, and non-binary identified films, Enby Portraits. Surrealness is our program of genre films celebrating the weird, and we also have a shorts program built around familial relationships, Family Affair. Then there’s our Platinum Showcase featuring avant-garde films delving into music videos, dance, and the experimental expression of queerness.
Away from the shorts, the Platinum section at Outfest includes some great features like We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, the great documentary Rebel Dykes, and the Platinum Centerpiece Socks On Fire by Bo McGuire; an Alabama Southern Gothic drag family drama unlike anything you’ve seen before.
As the art of drag continues to capture our imaginations, several queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race will be joining us. Our documentary centerpiece Being Bebe, which follows BeBe Zahara Benet—the first ever Drag Race winner—over fifteen years, from before she appeared on the series to now, as she reflects back on her journey. Meanwhile the filmmaker travels to Bebe’s homeland of Cameroon and meets people there who have been inspired by her. It’s a wonderful, captivating portrait of an artist who has overcome a lot in her life. Bebe will be performing live prior to the screening at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center.
Another Drag Race favorite, BenDeLaCreme, will host our Q&A for the documentary Baloney about a beloved San Francisco all-gay male burlesque review. They’ll be performing a live show after the movie. BenDeLaCreme is a huge fan of their show which combines song, dance, and erotica with social commentary.
Finally, another drag-focused film is Jump, Darling about a young performer who is having a tough time in his life who escapes to his grandmother’s secluded home. His grandmother is played by the late Cloris Leachman in her final film performance. There will be a memorial tribute to Cloris prior to the screening presented by Cybill Shepherd, her co-star in The Last Picture Show. That’s going to be a special night.
For the full Outfest LA 2021 lineup and to purchase passes and tickets, head to OutfestLA2021.com.