The State of Marriage (AGLIFF Closing Night Film)
It’s fall in Austin and you know what that means. No, not that the temperatures finally go down below 100 °F, (go back to California you out-of-towners filling my freeway). No, Fall is festival season. In addition to ACL and Fun Fun Fun Fest, and whatever happens in around the city during Formula 1 (I try my best to stay out of the state), Austin’s fall boasts a number of exciting film festivals. There is a Fantastic Fest, arguably the most important genre festival in North America, there is the recently rebranded Austin Revolution Film Festival which focuses on super low-budget indie films, there is the Austin Asian American film Festival, there’s the Austin Screenwriting Conference and Film Festival which just announced they are honoring long time festival panelist Brian Helgeland, and there’s my own SciFi-themed other worlds Austin bringing the year to close in December. But kicking things off is the oldest film festival in Austin, the Austin Gay And Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) now in its second year under programming director Jim Brunzell III and 28th year overall.
“When we opened for submissions in January, little did we know at that time the things that would come together during our six-month submission period,” Brunzell tells me. I had a chance to chat with the man who picks the films about the program and a few of my top picks but also just about what became a monumental year for the LGBT community. Brunzell was acutely aware of current news that seemed to play as a preview for the films he was selecting for this years festival. “One of those announcements was the transition of Bruce Jenner becoming Kaitlyn Jenner,” he says, “and giving a voice to the transgender community.” Brunzell feels that the ‘T’ portion of the LGBT programming in the festival is better represented than in years prior. As a programmer, Brunzell can’t really tell me what his favorite films are but I made him pick five that I had to watch and FROM THIS DAY FORWARD was one that he thought especially captured this large story and expressed it in the small, personal context of a family. The documentary looks at Director Sharon Shattuck’s father, who made the transition from Michael to Trisha as the family moved to a small town in Michigan. Now with her own marriage just weeks away, Shattuck looks at what it means to love and how her mother could possibly have stayed with her father as he makes his journey. Says Brunzell, ““it says something about what family can be and there’s no definition of what it should be.”
Another issue that looms over the program is the one that has dominated headlines – the triumphant June 26 marriage equality decision from the Supreme Court. “That is something that will always be remembered as an important milestone in the LGBT community,” he says, “I wanted to make sure that we found films the reflected that in our program, especially with our closing night film, STATE OF MARRIAGE.” A two decade long story that built the foundation for the groundbreaking decision we have this year, Director Jeff Kaufman’s film follows legal pioneer Mary Bonauto’s partnering with Vermont lawyers Beth Robinson and Susan Murray to push their state to become the first state to grant same-sex couples legal recognition, despite fierce opposition. One of the heroes of the film turns out to be former presidential candidate Howard Dean, then Governor of Vermont, who worked with advocates to find a way to get something passed, even if it was just a first step. “It’s a 20 year story that starts just with trying to legalize civil unions to be recognized for healthcare reasons,” Brunzell says, “it’s 2015 and now all 50 states recognize same-sex marriage, this film really documents the beginning of that.”
Looking for a film with a Texas connection? “People may know the name Ray Hill, who is a Houston LGBT activist,” relates Brunzell, “and he’s the subject of a film called THE GUY WITH THE KNIFE.” In 1991 a high school student named John Buice was responsible for a homophobic hate crime murder. Ray Hill led the charge to make sure that the perpetrators went to jail for a long time and paid the price for committing the crime. “In a strange twist of fate,” explains Brunzell, “Ray Hill decided he didn’t want to lead the charge anymore and actually he wanted to help John Buice out of prison once he was sentenced because everyone else took plea bargains.” The film covers John last 20 years behind bars and how he has become a model prisoner – or is he just a master manipulator playing on the sympathies of others?
Brunzell says he had a lot to build on from last year, when attendance was up 40%. One of the things he attributed that to was the centralized location at the Alamo South Lamar, as well as the number of filmmakers in attendance at the festival. “It’s a lot to live up to try to create a program for the 28th annual,” he says, “hopefully the same if not better than last year’s program.” From just a quick glance there appears to be even more filmmakers in attendance this year than last year, including some jury members whose films played aGLIFF in years past (shout out to Andrew Putschoegl whose BFFs was one of my favorites as well as one of the audience’s favorites, taking home the audience award in 2014).
Another thing back this year is the secret screening, where last year THE OVERNIGHTERS confronted audiences with its stark and not necessarily audience-friendly subject material, although no one could question whether it was a great film. “People were surprised with what they were watching in the theater,” Brunzell agrees, “they weren’t expecting such an emotional and powerful documentary.” The film, which got a release through Drafthouse Films, looked at the living conditions in a rapidly growing fracking community in North Dakota. The LGBT connection only really surfaced at the end, and may have been a bit of a shock to festivalgoers. However it’s just that sort of programming that makes Jim Brunzell so good at his job. He’s picking films that speak to a community that is often fragmented and has many different concerns. The most important thing about a film festival selection is that it’s worth being talked about, because it gives the community an opportunity to get together and discuss art. “We are doing a secret screening again this year and the only clues that I can give is it’s going to be a narrative film,” he says, “I think it’s going to bring up a lot of the same talking points of people brought up during THE OVERNIGHTERS.” If last year’s experience is anything to learn from, this is not something you will want to miss.
There’re a few other changes at the festival this year, the biggest one being losing a day off the front end, and having all the screenings in one location. One thing people brought up to the programmer about last year is that they wanted to see shorts in front of features, which was something Brunzell has never really done before. The change will allow even people who don’t go to the fantastic shorts programs to see a bit of the short form. And speaking of shorts programs I have to give a shout out to the most random Austin connection in the festival, a brilliant James Bond parody, JAYSON BEND: QUEEN AND COUNTRY. Old Austin theater fans will recognize evil villain Ray Perdood as Paul Norton, our favorite British-accented actor graced many a Zach Scott, State Theater, and Austin Shakespeare play (I even got to direct him in a Zilker Hillside production of the Complete Works of Shakespeare Bridge. Fans of drool bondian humor and bad name puns will not be disappointed in this dazzling high production value mini-feature that plays in the late night comedy shorts program. My favorite character name has to be Alec DeCoque.
A few other can’t miss picks for the festival:
Opening Night Film: FOURTH MAN OUT – Four guy’s guys have grown up together, got drunk together, played poker together, and gotten more drunk together. Now turning 24, Adam decides it’s finally time to tell his friends he’s gay. A hilarious narrative Comedy starring Evan Todd and featuring Chord Overstreet (“Glee”) and Parker Young (“Enlisted”), FOURTH MAN OUT was one of my favorites from Seattle International Film Festival’s catalyst program this year. Comparing the film to last year’s opener MATTHEW SHEPARD IS A FRIEND OF MINE, Brunzell says “I wanted something a little lighter to set the tone and mood this year. FOURTH MAN OUT was a film I’d heard about, I read about, I saw that it got an award at Inside Out Toronto, won the audience award at Outfest Los Angeles. It’s kind of nice, crowdpleaser bromance comedy.”
Centerpiece Film: THE NEW GIRLFRIEND – Claire and Laura were inseparable in their childhood. Claire promises her friend on her deathbed that she will watch over Laura’s child and her husband. When she makes a surprise visit to their house she discovers Laura’s husband dressed in Laura’s clothes. Claire searches for her own understanding of her relationship with her new girlfriend as well as her own feelings for her lost friend. My favorite film in the program because it touches on almost every issue in the LGBT demarcation and yet tells the singular story that can only be the expression of a confident and particular director. Says Brunzell,“it’s a film by a director I really admire a lot, Francois Ozon, these really great films of the early 2000’s with Charlotte Rampling (UNDER THE SAND, SWIMMING POOL, 8 WOMEN). When I knew that this film was being released I was very excited for us to be able to get it, it does have this suspense element to it. I’m a big fan of films by Brian DePalma from the 70’s like SISTERS and OBSESSION and DRESSED TO KILL. It has that kind of sexy erotica thriller vibe to it.”
S&M SALLY – The third film in a bit of a trilogy by Michelle Ehlen, revisiting characters from earlier BUTCH JAMIE and HETEROSEXUAL JILL, this comedy finds the couple exploring the world of BDSM clubs, a world Jill has left behind, but Jamie now becomes fascinated with. Jamie, normally the ‘dom’ in their relationship, finds herself in unfamiliar territory and having to follow Jill’s lead. It’s funny and it plays with roles that exist in every relationship but tend to be more pronounced when stepping out of heterosexual gender norms. Says Brunzell, “It’s a film that’s a bit different than anything else we have in the festival. It’s a bit risqué. There will be a lot of laughs and it’s a different side of the lesbian community that we rarely see.”
GAME FACE – This sports documentary deals with the struggle for LGBT athletes by looking at two very specific cases, Fallon Fox, MMA’s first transgender pro fighter and Terrence Clemens, a promising college basketball player who once played high school ball with James Harden and struggles with whether or not to come out to his teammates. Without drawing the sort of broad conclusions often made in topical documentaries, the film delves deep into the issue and the personal relationships that these athletes have. I’m always a sucker for a sports doc, and with the Jason Collins and Michael Sam stories fresh in my mind, I found this dual portrait fascinating and inspiring. Says Brunzell, “it wasn’t really on my radar until I got to Frameline in June, after speaking with the director Michael Thomas and seeing it, and meeting Terrence and Fallon, I had to play it – they both really have different stories, two paths and two different athletes just trying to achieve their goals.”
BRIGHT NIGHT – A narrative drama with a genre edge, this little masterpiece finds two couples visiting a home from their past, and sexual tension that brings out the worst in each other. Faced with an outcome that will ruin their relationships and friendships, the world offers them a bizarre opportunity to correct it. For me, this is one of the most intriguing films in the program because the performances are so strong and the story plays out on such a surprising and yet still ultimately fragmentary result. Says Brunzell “They’re trying to decide what to do with the home and then suddenly time shifts, the supernatural element comes in, and I don’t want to give away the story, but it’s kind of this sneaky exciting German film that I didn’t know anything about until I turned on and I was completely enthralled from beginning to end. It tackles a lot of boundaries that we don’t see in gay and lesbian festivals.”
DESERT MIGRATION – This documentary peers into a group of men living out normal lives in Palm Springs, CA. The one thing that makes them different is that they are all HIV positive and have been for years. Once practically a death sentence, with proper medication and oversight, AIDS has become less the end of life and more just an everyday fact of living. But this is not a film about a medical condition, this is a film about strength and resilience and people making a new life for themselves in the face of something previously unfaceable. Says Brunzell, “a friend of mine who produced Desert Migration told me months back that they were getting ready to premiere it and it could be potentially ready for aGLIFF. I really bothered him and he finally sent me a link, I was really blown away by the story of this oasis of sorts for gay men living with HIV. People have been able to live 20, 30 years by taking these vitamin supplements and drugs and they’re leading normal healthy lives just like anyone else. It’s beautifully shot and told.”
CUT SNAKE – This tense narrative drama centers on a man who has put his past and prison behind him, but when his former cell mate gets released, and wants to pull one last job, he can no longer keep it hidden. Great performances and a story that plays out where the LGBT element is just one part of a wider series of issues, this is a film that I would call an art house gem, like last year’s TOM AT THE FARM and EVER. Says Brunzell, “it fit a need because it’s a period piece, a lot of the films in the festival are contemporary, at least the narratives. CUT SNAKE has a sinister element to it. As the pieces come into place and the plot unfolds, people see ultimately what causes the characters’ demise and what their motivations are.”
JASON AND SHIRLEY – One of the most experimental pieces in the festival, this film offers an imagined behind the scenes look at the pivotal documentary PORTRAIT OF JASON, Shirley Clarke’s 1967 film about Jason Holliday, a gay, African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret performer. Ingmar Bergman called it “the most extraordinary film I’ve ever seen in my life.” Did Clarke bait Jason into coming apart on camera, or was this Jason’s plan all along? Using the off-screen voices in the original film and layering fantasy and supposition about the twelve-hour shoot, Stephen Winter has created a cinéma vérité reimagining of the day’s events. Says Brunzell, “if you haven’t seen PORTRAIT OF JASON, I highly recommend you see it, but you don’t need to see it prior to watching JASON AND SHIRLEY, which is almost “what if” or reenactment. It’s such an interesting dynamic watching these people, sometimes how we are being interviewed we discuss whatever is being talked about but the interview is really part of a larger experience that no one gets to see.”
GUIDANCE – This comedy may be light on deep thoughts but its heavy on laughs. Pat Mills plays a former child star out of work and out of money who lies his way (or acts his way) into a job as a high school guidance counselor. Giving the students the worst advice possible, he also gives them confidence and actually listens to them. A journey of self-discovery, the film is also a bit meta as writer/director/lead Mills himself appeared on “You Can’t Do That On Television” back in the mid 80s. Says Brunzell, “when you’re watching it you wonder “why is this film in aGLIFF?” It’s something that bears fruit at the end of the film, as his character is in denial of what’s going on around him and what’s happening in his life, and his sexuality is a big part of that.”
The Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival opens September 10th and continues through the 13th. Badges and more information are available at Agliff.org.