June 3, 2017 at 2:41 pm PDT | by Dan Allen
Outfest at 35 years: Great moments remembered

L-R: Drew Droege, Jamie Babbit, Jeffrey Schwartz, Joe Dietl,John Griffiths,Lucy Mukerjee-Brown, Christopher Racster

Next to Pride itself, no other summer event is as vital to LA’s queer fabric as Outfest, the city’s beloved and iconic LGBTQ film festival. This year’s edition marks Outfest’s milestone 35th birthday, with an action-packed 11-day slate that will kick off on July 6 with the Berlin- and Sundance-winning UK romantic drama “God’s Own Country,” and close on July 16 with “Freak Show,” an adaptation of the James St. James novel, co-starring Bette Midler and Laverne Cox.

Outfest Los Angeles will be held July 6-16, and screens at state-of-the-art venues including the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the historic Orpheum Theatre and Ace Theatre, REDCAT: Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, outdoors at the Ford Theatres, and Harmony Gold Theatre.

With Outfest 2017 just around the corner, we asked several local film luminaries to share their personal favorite film or moment from Outfest’s storied past.

Drew Droege, actor and comedian: A few years ago, Outfest (as part of their incredible UCLA Legacy Project) screened a restored print of the beautiful comedy “Parting Glances.” I had heard of this film all my life, but was embarrassed to admit that I’d never seen it. I sat in a packed theater at the DGA with gay people of all ages and was hypnotized by these entirely human characters, the film’s hazy ’80s design, and the bravery that it took to make a comedy that accurately portrayed our people and our voices in the middle of the AIDS crisis. I was warned about “that moment” in the film in which it’s impossible not to choke up, and of course, when we got to that moment, I was a mess. We all were. Being in that room with my people, witnessing a classic, sobbing at the truth of it, experiencing it together for the first time, I felt beyond lucky and proud to be a part of Outfest.

Jamie Babbit, director (“But I’m a Cheerleader” and “Itty Bitty Titty Committee”): My Outfest memory centers on an awesome summer night in 2003 — Richard Day’s outrageous comedy “Girls Will be Girls.” I saw the film at the packed outdoor Ford Theatre, and I was blown away by the jokes, the hilarious and very edgy comedy, and the awesome cast. A triumph in comedy that the audience went nuts for. So did I! Only at Outfest could such a movie be appreciated for how brilliant it is.

Jeffrey Schwartz, director (“I Am Divine,” “Tab Hunter Confidential,” and the just-released “The Fabulous Allan Carr”):I’ve been attending Outfest every year since moving to Los Angeles in 1995. This festival is a vital part of the queer film ecosystem, and brings the community together around our shared love of movies. At Outfest, we’ve all laughed, cried and been turned on together — and that’s a beautiful thing! I will never forget Outfest’s 30th anniversary opening night, when my film Vito had its premiere. We celebrated Vito Russo’s life together in one of Los Angeles’ grand movie palaces, the Orpheum. Vito Russo was an unapologetic Judy queen, so the fact that Judy Garland performed on the Orpheum stage when she was still little Frances Gumm is something he would have loved. In the early days of the movement, Vito Russo organized movie screenings to bring the gay community together. To watch a beloved film with fellow LGBT people was a unique and empowering experience. That night at the Orpheum, I felt Vito’s spirit was alive and the seeds he planted were in full bloom.

Joe Dietl, actor and co-creator of “Where The Bears Are” Throughout my years attending screenings at Outfest, two films really stuck with me. Both of them were from Spain and centered around the bear community, which has become such a big part of my life.

The first was 2005’s “Bear Cub,” directed by Miguel Albaladejo. This was a lovely and touching movie about a gay bear living in Madrid with an active sex life who takes in his nephew for a couple weeks and then fights to become his legal guardian. It was exhilarating to see big, hairy, gay men on screen in lead roles. I had never experienced that before. It opened up the idea that I could do something like that.  

The other film was Juan Flahn’s hysterical film “Boystown” in 2008. This film was campy, sexy, ridiculous and a mystery centered in Madrid with characters right out of an Almodóvar movie. I attended the screening with Rick Copp, and we were both just blown away. It was so funny, so well done and it kept us on the edge of our seat. I’m certain that it had an influence on our web series, “Where The Bears Are,” which just finished filming its sixth season.

John Griffiths, executive director of Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association: I’ve seen some memorable movies and docs at Outfest through the years — “To Wong Foo,” “Weekend,” the sad and sexy “Undertow” come to mind — but it’s the “Bound” screening way back in 1996 that really stands out. I’m a sucker for noir flicks, and I just thought its story centered on two wild lesbian lovers who were up to no good was electric. I remember being floored by its wit, its turns, and how hilariously devious Jennifer Tilly was in particular. And it was huge fun to see it with a big crowd of people who were obviously thrilled to finally see an edgy romp with gay characters actually directed with such flair and polish (by the Wachowski sisters, who at the time identified as the Wachowski brothers). Movies like that are still a rarity today. Oh, and seeing it in at one of L.A.’s grand and renovated old theaters — I think it was the Orpheum — may have been a first for me. What a fun night. 

Lucy Mukerjee-Brown, Outfest’s director of programming: My standout Outfest experiences come in triplicate. In the summer of 2006, I heard about Outfest Los Angeles. I knew I had to be there but I couldn’t afford to attend, so I decided to sign up as an official volunteer. As I ushered people to their seats at the various venues, I felt so happy to have discovered this LGBTQ film festival and to have found a way to be a part of it. The stories on the screen were an added bonus — what I was most focused on was the secret thrill I felt being in a theater with a bunch of strangers and knowing that they were all like me.

Six years later, I attended the Opening Night Gala at the Orpheum Theatre. Sitting in the audience on Outfest’s 30th Anniversary with my wife and mother-in-law, I experienced that same thrilling rush, and I fell in love with the festival all over again. I had tears pouring down my cheeks after watching Vito, Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary about Vito Russo. The way that film conveyed the impact of activism on queer history deeply moved me. It was the first moment I felt conscious of being out and proud.

The final bookend of this trio of experiences came in 2015 when I was standing on that same stage at the Orpheum Theatre. I’d been appointed the director of programming in January of that year, and was now introducing the Opening Night film. I’ve been told that I was beaming in that moment, and that doesn’t surprise me. I felt like I was exactly where I was meant to be. Outfest has been — and still is — a big part of who I am.

Christopher Racster, Outfest’s executive director: Outfest Los Angeles has always been the place to see myself reflected on screen and to see stories that have helped me understand the experience of others in our community. That alone has had an indelible impact on my personal development and sense of self. Understanding the power of our stories to create change led me to a filmmaking career producing only LGBTQ content. When my first feature film was selected to screen at Outfest Los Angeles, I finally felt like a filmmaker. Screening at the festival brought me opportunities to work with other writers and directors that I would have otherwise never had access to. The continued support of the festival programmers and the education and professional development I received through Outfest’s programs helped to launch what would be an over 12 year career as a producer. Outfest has had a profound impact on my life, and now as executive director, I have the opportunity to assure that the organization continues to shape, support and showcase the films and filmmakers that tell our stories, assuring that we are seen and heard around the world.

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