Outfest is 'In'

LGBT institution still edgy after all these years

With over 200 films, 50,000 expected attendees, and 26 years of history at its back, Outfest: the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival has reached a vintage that typically connotes old guard orthodoxy and establishment entrenchment. But if you ask interim executive director Kirsten Schaffer what makes L.A.'s longest continuously running film festival important, it's all about the newbies.

"The Festival is a launching pad for emerging queer filmmakers," Schaffer says. "This is the place to make connections with other filmmakers and industry, and begin to bring their careers to new places."

Because of Outfest's proximity to Hollywood, a certain amount of industry presence is endemic to the festival. (This year's sponsors include HBO, Universal, Paramount, Showtime, here!, Logo and ICM.) However, as director of programming Kimberly Yutani explains, the industry crowd is somewhat incidental to the festival's primary draw.

"Outfest is very much an LGBT community festival. Yes, there are people in the industry who are gay that come with an eye for talent, but they come as a member of that community."

The festival's neutral attitude towards Tinseltown is perhaps best evinced by its lack of a formal marketplace. As Schaffer puts it, "A lot of things get bought and sold during Outfest, but we're not the queer AFM."

This aversion to becoming a tradeshow is essential to the festival's commitment to showcase compelling work. "We're an arts organization, so we're not confined by profit margins," says Schaffer. "We can show movies that mainstream entities aren't dealing with."

That especially applies to Outfest's Platinum section, which focuses on avant-garde and experimental media. This year's Platinum programming pays tribute to underground punk mutineer Bruce LaBruce with screenings of his "Super 8 1/2" (1993) and new "Otto; or, Up with Dead People" (Strand Releasing) at REDCAT.

"I think a lot of people are frightened by the Platinum section," says Yutani. "They think it might be too weird. And we do program weird stuff, but it is also accessible."

Bringing counterculture art to the fore has been an evolving task for Outfest over the years. As gay and lesbian media gained wider visibility and acceptance, programrs have been able to include more work that addresses bisexual, transgender and other queer themes.

"One thing we're doing this year that we haven't in the past is showing two transgender films back to back, with a reception in the middle," says Yutani, a first that Schaffer agrees is significant and symbolizes Outfest's longitudinal effort to spotlight an otherwise peripheral subculture.

"We were showing films about transgender people long before Barbara Walters was doing a special on it," says Schaffer.

Because of the festival's mission to blaze cultural trails for LGBT cinema, it is not surprising that this year's highest honor, the Outfest Achievement Award, will go to filmmaker Donna Deitch, whose 1985 "Desert Hearts" made waves for its earnest and positive portrayal of lesbian romance.

Preserving film footage is important to Outfest, too, and since 2005 they have partnered with the UCLA Film & Television Archive to create the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation. The Project maintains a collection of over 8,000 titles, and last year's festival presented the first screening of a Legacy-restored film at the Director's Guild of America. This year's Legacy Project Gala will feature a screening of the restored 1978 documentary "Word is Out," book ended by pre- and post-parties at the DGA.

In addition to the Legacy event for restored film, Outfest elevates a small number of "centerpiece" films for Gala screenings. This year's opening and closing night galas at the Orpheum Theatre are 2007's "Breakfast with Scot" and 2008's "Tru Loved," both of which depict families helmed by gay and lesbian parents in tree-lined suburbia.

Yutani says some centerpiece films, such as the 2007 documentary "A Jihad for Love," are chosen not just on screeners' recommendations but also on public reception at previous Outfests. "We showed a 20-minute clip of 'A Jihad for Love' several years ago, and it created a buzz in the community."

Likely to create some buzz this election year are films in the "Outing Politics" series, including the Oscar-winning 1984 documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk," a narrative version of which will be released by Focus Features later this year, and Dan Butler's satire 2007's "Karl Rove, I Love You," which centers on an unknown actor's obsession with the Dubya handler.

"I think it's always hard to follow a milestone year," says Yutani of Outfest's 26th annual jamboree, though the piquant programming suggests little sign of infirmity. Whereas many fests aim for commercial or industry cachet as they age, Outfest's viability seems rooted in the creative boldness of its fare. That means hot-button politics, alienated sexuality, and an ever-increasing promotion of fresh artistic voices.

"Some years, you just get a little more excited about the talent," says Schaffer, "and this is one of those years."

Outfest Standouts
The 26th annual Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival invites Angelenos over the rainbow from July 9-21. Here are our top picks for films and events to leave the clouds far behind you.

"The Universe of Keith Haring"

Thursday, July 10 at 9:15 pm
Saturday, July 12 at 5:00 pm
Regency Fairfax Theatre
Even if you don't know social activist Keith Haring by name, you'd certainly recognize his cartoonish pop art from the 1980s. This new Franco-Italian documentary explores Haring's influential life, including appearances from friends Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, David LaChapelle and Madonna.

Fusion Shorts
Saturday, July 12 at 4:45 pm
Outfest has assembled half a dozen of the best offerings from their Fusion festival for LGBT people of color. Come see 2008's finest and a sneak preview of next year.

"Bi the Way"
Sunday, July 13 at 12:15 pm
Thursday, July 17 at 9:15 pm
Directors Guild of America
As part of Outfest's growing initiative to highlight the "B" in LGBT, this documentary investigates the unfolding state of bisexuality in America. A discussion panel moderated by American Institute of Bisexuality director Denise Penn follows the screening on July 13.

"Hamlet 2"
Sunday, July 13 at 7:00 pm
Directors Guild of America
In a desperate attempt to save the drama department, an Arizona high school teacher stages a musical version of Hamlet starring Jesus. 'Nuf said.

"South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" Sing-Along
Thursday, July 17 at 8:30 pm
John Anson Ford Amphitheatre
Quite possibly the coolest audience participation film screening since "Rocky Horror."

BOOM! Music Festival
Saturday, July 19 at 9:00 pm
The Troubadour
Outfest's inaugural queer music festival drops rock, hip-hop, and electronica grooves for two rump-shaking nights near the close of the festival. (Second night info TBA.)