CAMA: Film Festival Connects LGBT Artists with Audiences

by J.R. McMillan, Board President, Columbus Film Council

Innovation is knowing how and when to break the rules. The same can be said of the increasing presence and power of LGBT filmmaking.

Like the city it serves, the Columbus International Film + Video Festival has long given voice to seemingly silent populations and perspectives. Having just completed its 61st year, what started as a small celebration of international documentaries and industrial shorts has become a forum for filmmakers to forge a path forward and question the status quo with intimate stories of isolation, acceptance, rejection and redemption.

Historically an annual competition festival, the CIF+VF and its nonprofit sponsor, the Columbus Film Council, have evolved to offer screenings, workshops and events throughout the year. Though LGBT-themed films have been entered and honored for years, 2012 marked the introduction of a unique LGBT division. That success and a growing promotional partnership with Stonewall Columbus were the inspiration for this year’s LGBTFEST, a “festival within a festival” to showcase the cutting-edge works of contemporary queer cinema.

“What was especially encouraging this year was not only the high quality of films that were submitted but also the wide spectrum of LGB experience that was portrayed in them,” explained Lori Gum, Stonewall Columbus Program Coordinator and board member of the Columbus Film Council. “For such a long time, mainstream and even independent cinema have focused only on the tragedy of our lives and the sensationalism of that pain to elicit social change while ignoring the complexity and richness of those lives as fully human.”

Despite an increase in both the quantity and quality of submissions, efforts have already begun to seek a broader set of submissions in 2014. The “Call for Entries” or CFE, as it is known in the industry, invites filmmakers to compete in the 14 divisions of the festival.

Unlike exhibition or invitational film festivals, the CIF+VF is a competitive festival, one that honors filmmakers whose work has been judged by a panel of jurors with a balance of film experience and subject matter expertise for each division. The CFE traditionally releases in early March with the final deadline for entry in early July.

“The disappointing aspect of our submissions this year was that there were very few films from transgender filmmakers or that dealt with transgender lives and issues,” Gum acknowledged. “I think it is very important to our LGBTFEST and our community that we specifically encourage our transgender artists to make films. We need to make sure the ‘T’ is included as this new era of queer cinema begins to blossom.”

This year’s Silver Chris statuette, the highest honor for the each division, was awarded to “Ying and Yang”, a poetic examination of sexual identity in the African American community and “living on the down low”.

“It’s such an honor for Ying and Yang to be represented in such a mainstream film festival — not only as an LGBT film, but as a film that truly tells the story of the human experience,” commented Devere Rogers, the film’s writer. “I feel whether you are a part of the LGBT community or not, you can identify with that struggle in some capacity. That is why movies like Ying and Yang can cross over and touch so many people, because they can identify with that struggle.”

Executive Producer Randall Sawyer added, “The major reason for producing Ying and Yang was to tell a story that I think is underrepresented — to give people a voice who don’t normally have a voice, or the mechanism to display their feelings. We had a great experience in Columbus and were blessed to have a vibrant audience with insightful questions at our screening.”

Connecting artists and audiences has become a more integral part of the Columbus Film Council’s year-round programming with the recent introduction of the Filmmaker Feedback series. Independent and emerging filmmakers frequently lack the marketing advantages and valuable insights of major studios during the creative development and distribution process. Through surveys, discussions and ongoing engagement, Columbus audiences now have the rare opportunity to interact with filmmakers in a groundbreaking new format.

“Being able to go to a mainstream festival like the one in Columbus is a huge platform for any short film, specifically because of the film’s interaction with an audience,” affirmed Dave Scala, writer-director of “Grotto”, Honorable Mention winner in the LGBT division. “As I’ve visited festivals over the past several months, I find myself watching the audience rather than the screen, and the unique way each audience discovers the film beat by beat.”

Scala also appreciates the balance the CIF+VF strikes as an inclusive film festival. “At mainstream festivals, when LGBT films are played alongside ‘straight’ films, the topics of queer culture no longer seem like outsider issues. I look forward to the day when LGBT-specific festivals won’t need to exist anymore, as festivals will include topics from all walks of life — to celebrate storytelling, rather than a specific agenda.”

“Coming to Columbus was a fantastic experience due to the personalized attention and true passion for films that everyone here has, from its volunteers to its showrunners. The feeling is infectious, and reminds us all why we started doing this in the first place,” Scala concluded. “The thing that excites me most about independent film right now is that places like Columbus are popping up, with tight-knit arts communities that want quality cinema, and are truly trying to help artists create their vision of success.