How This LGBT Film Festival Spotlights All Ages, Media + History

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Photo Source: Kellie Spano

NewFest, New York’s LGBT Film and Media Arts Organization, is gearing up for its 29th annual LGBT Film Festival, a six-day event running Oct. 19–24 that spotlights stories reflecting the LGBT experience, from animated shorts to features starring big names like Alan Cumming and Lena Hall. NewFest programming and operations manager Nick McCarthy hopes viewers and attendees will react to the variety of identities portrayed in the works.

Are there any themes or messages the festival’s programming is spotlighting?
This year in particular, the programming is strong when it comes under the concept of self-expression through telling your own story. Our opening night film is “Susanne Bartsch: On Top.” She [has been] such a figurehead and ally to the LGBT community from the ’70s to [today]. Our closing night film is called “Becks,” with Tony winner Lena Hall, and it’s a beautiful drama about this lead character moving back to her old Midwestern town to restructure her life after a breakup. She finds that going to the local bar and playing an acoustic set helps her grow closer to understanding a full portrait of who she is. What I find interesting is the intergenerational cross-communication. How do we acknowledge the progress that’s been made with past generations within the LGBT community while also looking forward to see all the privileges we now enjoy because of activism from Stonewall on? We have to acknowledge the progress, but also the tools that were given to us.

How do you think filmmakers are incorporating that history into their work?
When I look through submissions, I’m always delighted by the sharpness of perspective and the timeliness. Certain films that came earlier in the submission process had a sense of what was coming. The later ones were more poignantly revolutionary and political. I think film is best served when it’s reflecting a reality and also showing a hope for what the particular filmmaker would like to see in reality.

What advice would you give to independent filmmakers and actors looking to get their work in front of a larger audience?
I think it’s very good to talk to organizations and people who are going through something that you may want to depict. It’s a lot about how to [clarify] the message of your vision well. As long as you know what you want to express, you’ll have a lot of supporters. This past year, we created a grant with the help of American Eagle Outfitters called the New Voices Filmmaker Grant. We ended up distributing $5,000 among four filmmakers between the ages of 15 and 24 from all across the country. We were able to see a full scope and breadth of the LGBT community even in the younger generation.

How do you think the LGBT Film Festival operates differently from other events?
I think a majority of festivals look toward the fact that they’re year-round nonprofits that host a festival as their signature program. I feel an excitement working in the LGBT sphere because storytelling serves beyond wanting to make a film; it serves one’s identity. I was so excited this year that we had so many strong short submissions. Being able to balance one story against another and have a complete portrait means so much more to show the complete collection of voices within our community. The LGBT community encompasses, especially now, every single background, race, and income level.

How do you think actors, filmmakers, and fans alike can get the most out of the festival?
Hang out afterward or be open to having a conversation while you’re waiting to get into the theater, or become a member so after, you can talk to these filmmakers. Participation beyond the screen is what I would recommend for actors and filmmakers. It’s all about giving visibility to voices. As a filmmaker and an actor, one of your duties is to get visibility for your own voice.

How important is it for you to get the community involved?
I feel like community is as, if not more, important as a lot of the programming we have. I’m really excited by the fact that the majority of our films are all presented with a community partner that we work with. We’ll reach out to community partners we’ve been in touch with before, like the Ali Forney Center—we held a benefit screening there in June—so we’ve been working with them for a while. When the festival comes up, we’ll be sure to allocate tickets to certain groups so they can distribute to their members, especially if there’s a film or a short program that very much overlaps with our mission and their mission.

What is the biggest takeaway you hope people walk away from the films and panels with?
I hope they walk away with an understanding of another life, even if they do identify with what’s onscreen. Being able to understand the experience of someone else and hearing their story is something I would love for audiences to take away.

Check out Backstage’s short film audition listings!