With the most attendees in more than a decade, the 38th annual Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival – which came to a close last Sunday night with a closing gala and screening in DTLA’s fabulously gothic Theatre at the Ace Hotel – can officially be called a success.
Screening more than 240 films from 33 countries, with more than two-thirds of them directed by filmmakers who are women, trans, and people of color, this year’s festival was focused on diversity and intersectionality within its lineup. The closing night crowd was jubilant and supportive as some of Outfest’s leadership opened the evening with remarks that often underscored the importance of that mission.
Damien Navarro, the new Executive Director of Outfest, started things off on an inspirational note by saying, “We are the magic that we create, and we are the changes that we envision.” He also teased possible developments in the works for Outfest’s future, saying that the Outfest organization is working on “really trying to understand, ‘How can Outfest be there for you always – always on, and always there.’”
Kerri Stoughton-Jackson, Outfest Deputy Director, joined Navarro to thank the board, staff, and volunteers that worked to make the festival come together, as well as the sponsors who made it possible. She also expressed her personal gratitude to the festival, saying, “When we come together to share our experiences, to share our differences, to share our struggles and our triumphs, that – that coming-together peace – is where we create community, and we remind each other that we’re not alone in this ongoing fight for LGBTQ equality, and we are also privileged to be part of this community.”
Christopher Racster, in the last day of his tenure as the festival’s outgoing executive director, also expressed gratitude for Outfest, saying, “I am humbled to be a part of Outfest’s legacy.” He also pointed to his own success as a filmmaker as an example of the organization’s importance in the fight for representation and equality, both onscreen and off. “For 12 years I thrived as a producer of queer film,” he said, “because there is Outfest. Outfest was behind me, Outfest stood beside me, Outfest pushed me – and helped me start and maintain my career. And I’m not alone in that.”
It was director Nisha Ganatra, the recipient of this year’s Outfest Achievement Award, who may have brought home the importance of the festival’s mission.
Ganatra is an Outfest alumnus, who made her feature debut with “Chutney Popcorn” and subsequently forged a career as a prolific television director. Her most recent work, “Late Night,” starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, was an audience favorite at this year’s Sundance before receiving a wide release earlier this summer. She was introduced by “Transparent” actress Amy Landecker, who said, “Nisha is not just a woman, but she’s also a woman of color, and a lesbian, and a mom, and that is a big fucking deal in Hollywood.”
In her acceptance speech, Ganatra eloquently explained the power of representation. “When we go see a film, when we watch a television show, we participate in a dialogue,” she said, “and one that can help us know ourselves and the world around us in a more deep and beautiful way. Making our art is an opportunity to transform the landscape of the culture.”
She went on to add, “When the conversation becomes about the civil rights of transgender people, or racism, or misogyny, or homophobia, it decreases the level of danger for our community. So, we’re celebrating our art tonight, but we’re also celebrating the inherent activism of simply being the artists that we are.”
After the opening speeches, the house went dark for the evening’s gala screening of “Before You Know It,” another Sundance favorite. In this Manhattan-set comedy, writer-director Hannah Pearl Utt stars alongside co-writer Jen Tulloch as a pair of sisters who run a Greenwich Village theatre with their father (Mandy Patinkin). More truthfully, it is Rachel (Utt) who runs the theatre, depriving herself of a personal life while her actress sister Jackie and playwright father seem only to create messes for her to clean up. After an unexpected development, the sisters find out the mother they thought was long dead (Judith Light) is still alive – and not only that, but a famous soap opera star. The resulting upheaval in their family dynamic provides the fuel for a smart, warm-hearted comedy about growth by trial-and-error.
The film offers an excellent model of queer representation and inclusivity done right, with a leading character in Rachel who is identified as a lesbian, but whose sexuality is merely a condition of the character and not a conflict or complication in the plot. With charming and funny performances from its two leading ladies, as well as a star turn from Light and scene-stealing appearances by Patinkin and Alex Baldwin (whose scenes as a deadpan analyst are among the film’s highlights), it was met with an enthusiastic response from the full festival audience.
Earlier on Sunday, Outfest announced the winners of its various film awards in a ceremony held at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood – the iconic venue which served as the central location for this year’s festival, putting queer visibility front and center in the middle of the movie industry’s historic hub.
Among the big winners were Alex Thompson’s “Saint Frances” (Audience Award, Best Narrative First Feature), Sofie Edvardsson’s “TOP 3” ( Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature), Michael Barnett’s “Changing the Game” (Audience Award, Best Documentary Feature), Tom Shepard’s “Unsettled” (Grand Jury Prize, Documentary Feature), Marie Kreutzer’s “The Ground Beneath My Feet” (Grand Jury Prize, International Narrative Feature), and Daniel Laabs’ “Jules of Light and Dark” (Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Narrative Feature). Performance prizes went to Juan Pablo Olyslager for “Temblores” (Grand Jury Prize, Performance) and Nicole Maines for “Bit” (Grand Jury Award, Performance).
The complete list of winners is below.
Experimental Short: FRAMING AGNES
Documentary Short: HOW TO MAKE A RAINBOW
Narrative Short: TIME & AGAIN
Documentary Feature: CHANGING THE GAME
Narrative Feature: TOP 3
Narrative First Feature (presented by HBO): SAINT FRANCES
GRAND JURY AWARDS
Prize for Best Documentary Short: SWEETHEART DANCERS, dir. Ben-Alex Dupris
Documentary Feature Special Mention: WHY CAN’T I BE ME? AROUND YOU
Prize for Best Documentary Feature: UNSETTLED
International Narrative Short Film Special Mention: I
Prize for Best International Narrative Short: THRIVE (United Kingdom)
U.S. Narrative Short Special Mention: SKIN
Prize for Best U.S. Narrative Short: BABY
Special Mention for Performance: Juan Barberini, Ramon Pujol, and Mia Maestro in END OF THE CENTURY (Argentina)
Special Mention for Directing: Lisa Zi Xiang for A DOG BARKING AT THE MOON (China)
Prize for Best Performance in an International Narrative: Juan Pablo Olyslager in TEMBLORES (Guatemala)
Prize for Best Screenwriting, International Narrative: Santiago Loza for BRIEF STORY FROM THE GREEN PLANET (Argentina)
Prize for Best International Narrative Film: THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET
Special Mention for Ensemble Performance: MOTHER’S LITTLE HELPERS
Special Mention for Directing: Rhys Ernst (ADAM)
Prize for Best Screenwriting: TU ME MANQUES
Prize for Best Performance: Nicole Maines in BIT
Prize for Best U.S. Narrative Feature: JULES OF LIGHT AND DARK, dir. Daniel Laabs
SPECIAL PROGRAMMING AWARDS
Emerging Talent: PIER KIDS
Freedom: QUEERING THE SCRIPT
Artistic Achievement: VISION PORTRAITS
Vimeo Staff Picks Award: CATHERINE OPIE, B. 1961
Hyundai’s Vision for Better Award: WONDER
HBO Award (Best Narrative First Feature Audience Award): SAINT FRANCES