Breaking free: Indianapolis LGBT Film Festival 

click to enlarge A scene from 'Big Gay Musical'.
  • A scene from 'Big Gay Musical'.
"Controversy typically permeates queer cinema," explains Indy's LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Film Festival Director Mark Harper. However, this year's films are not aggressive or agenda-driven and neither is their audience.

Harper believes this is a direct result of the festival's recent partnership with IUPUI.

"There's something about an academic environment that seems to invite open-minded audiences and that creates an atmosphere conducive to open-minded discussions and reactions," he said.

Initiated by Campus Center Director Dan Maxwell in 2008, this partnership thrilled Harper.

"Moving the festival to IUPUI meant finally moving the festival downtown, a destination that many of our patrons had been requesting since the festival first began (in 2000)," Harper elaborated via e-mail.

Maxwell shares the excitement about IUPUI's involvement because as he points out, "the Campus Center, in many ways, is like a community center and like a community center we want to welcome all members of the community to enjoy this space, come together to celebrate and benefit from all that IUPUI has to offer."

With the festival now downtown, another art venue is extending its hand: the Indianapolis Museum of Art. IMA Assistant Director of Public Programs Anne Laker explained, "Since Indy is lacking in non-commercial venues, we seized the chance to be its place for film." The festival will mainly take place at the IMA's newly renovated Tobias Theater, but as Harper points out, "the LGBT fest organizers were so happy with IUPUI's participation that they scheduled the Sunday (Nov. 15) portion of the program to take place at its campus center."

This finally brings us to the films. The line up is provocative, but also subtle - and hopeful. Take Amancio: Two Faces on a Tombstone, a documentary about a young gay man who was brutally murdered in Yuma, Arizona. This film has every right to be angry and vengeful. Instead, it searches for light through the darkness.

Hannah Free is similar in that it deals with finding comfort, even in death.

The true lighthearted nature of the festival is most evident in its 33 short films. The titles speak for themselves: Queerantine!, Tools 4 Fools, Queerer Than Thou, Shafted, Nailing Jello, the list goes on. In an era where the queer community is often synonymous with hardships, these films offer catharsis. The great thing about this year's LGBT fest is that this catharsis lasts long after the lights go up in the theater.

Parties

The big party is on Premiere Night (Nov. 13) at 10 p.m. after a screening of the fun, flamboyant Big Gay Musical. The location? Italian restaurant, Agio (635 Massachusetts Ave). Hors d'oeuvres will be served and a cash bar will be available.

The Saturday, Nov. 14 after screening party fittingly takes place at the popular gay bar, Greg's Our Place (231 E. 16th St.) at 11 p.m. Free drink coupons for this party are included in the gift bags for those attending the Friday night screening.

Preceding this event on Saturday is the Kweering Up Naptown showcase featuring queercore music from Soce the Elemental Wizard, Nicky Click and 8 Inch Betsy. The concert will be held in IMA's Deboest lecture hall at 9:30 p.m. More information on these artists can be found on www.myspace.com/kweeringupnaptown.

Directing Hannah Free

This gentle heartache of a film stars Sharon Gless (Cagney from the popular '80s cop show, Cagney & Lacey) as a dying woman looking back on her lifelong love affair with a small town housewife. Sounds like a Hallmark commercial, but don't worry - it is far from that. The director, Wendy Jo Carlton, sat down with us to talk about everything from why you should see Hannah Free to why queer cinema, as well as the entire movie industry, needs to be turned upside down.

NUVO: What attracted you to the script?

Carlton: The dark humor. Also, I'm a sucker for a good love story especially one that is flawed, where the characters are flawed and make mistakes.

NUVO: You wrote all of the films you directed before this, so what was it like directing someone else's script?

Carlton: It was a refreshing challenge. I found it freeing because you can be objective in that the material is not as precious to you as your own script. You can be more objective in terms of narrative and see strengths and weaknesses more clearly. My job from there was to make the film more visual, more cinematic, and to get subtleties in character by working with the cast on performance.

NUVO: How did Sharon Gless get in the mix?

Carlton: Sharon had worked with our screenwriter, Claudia Allen, in a radio play and a stage play. So, when Claudia and I were thinking of actors to take on the powerful and complex character of Hannah, she was on our wish list of fantasy actors to play her.

NUVO: What was it like working with her?

Carlton: She has worked in television and film before, but this was her first time playing the lead, title character in a feature film. So, she had a lot of lines, responsibility, and pressure and was nervous. I was intimidated too in working with her because of her experience level, but then we both realized that we didn't have enough time in the shoot to be intimidated (laughs). She made it easy, though, and was very down to earth.

NUVO: What was the biggest challenge of making the film and how did it compare to the films you have made previously?

Carlton: Having to manage a larger crew and direct a much bigger cast. We shot the film in 18 days and only had two months of pre-production, so anyone that knows what I'm talking about can appreciate that challenge (laughs).

NUVO: Since this film is part of the LGBT Film Festival, how do you think gay cinema has evolved over the past few years?

Carlton: In the past few years there seems to be more of a queer sensibility represented in more mainstream content if not overt queer narratives. In terms of narrative films, I think queer cinema is prime for a renaissance. The same things are happening in queer films that happen in traditional romantic comedies. Boy meets boy. Girl meets girl. But I'm hoping to see more queer films that have a deeper level of sophistication and complexity.

I'd like to see queer features spend more time in the incubator. More and more filmmakers want to be players in the game but don't have the patience for development. After the success of Hannah Free, the goal for my next couple of features is to write stories with queer characters who have issues and desires that aren't about sexual identity but more about class divisions and access to knowledge.

NUVO: What films have inspired you as a filmmaker over the last few years?

Carlton: I like Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog. I'm also a big David Lynch fan. In terms of other recent films, I liked Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I really appreciated the care and attention that was brought to make it such a beautiful and effective film.

Note: NUVO is sponsoring Hannah Free. It is playing at the IMA's Tobias Theater Saturday, Nov. 14 at 3:30 p.m.

Big Gay Musical Review

3 stars, NR

A title like Big Gay Musical suggests the kind of satire South Park employs. Big Gay Musical is deeper than that, sometimes to its disadvantage. For the most part, though, the film, filled with effective performances and clever writing, charms.

The opening scene is nearly comic gold. Gay, venerated columnist, Michael Musto sits in a theater, bored to tears watching a clichéd, heterosexual love story play out. He then storms off, stopping only for a moment to scream out his creative desire: "a BIG... GAY... MUSICAL!" And we're off. The film launches us into a fun, flamboyant musical.

That musical is called Adam and Steve Just the Way God Made 'Em. It's a humorous chronicle of homosexuals' origins in religious history, but it's also something more - a deft, biting satire of homophobia. It's at once lighthearted and angry, offering up visions of hypocrisy that will make you giggle one minute and get your blood boiling the next. We see Christians putting homosexuals on trial and creating strange, otherworldly camp programs to turn them straight. It's all great stuff. Then, the film goes backstage.

We see that most of the cast members are actually gay. "Adam" is played by a young actor named Paul (Daniel Robinson) and "Steve" is played by Eddie (Joey Dudding). The film delves into their personal lives. Nothing particularly eye-opening here. Eddie's parents are coming to opening night, but he hasn't told them what the show is about or, more importantly, that he is gay. Paul's boyfriend becomes suspicious of him after hearing a rumor that Paul is HIV positive, and they break up. The characters struggle with their identity and so on, so forth. It's not that these conflicts aren't compelling, it's just that we've seen them before. The matter-of-fact manner in which the film shows the characters being tested for HIV is unique, though. It's shown as a simple part of their everyday lives, which makes it even more tragic.

The film aims to give weight to its satire through revealing this backstage drama. The satire already has enough power on its own, though. So, instead of making the humor of the musical more potent, this lofty material puts a damper on it.

Like the characters, directors Casper Andreas and Fred M. Caruso seem unsure of themselves. As they try to transition between biting satire and sensitive drama, their cinematic teeth get soft and the film struggles to stay balanced.

I'm reluctant in giving the film only three stars, though, for despite its flaws, it is often quite enjoyable - not only in its clever, satirical material, but in the acting as well. Robinson delivers a charming, tender performance as Paul and Dudding is equally poignant as Eddie.

Big Gay Musical is not perfect, but it is definitely worthy of kicking off this year's LGBT Film Festival. It screens November 13, 8 p.m., at the newly renovated Tobias Theater in the IMA.

Quick movie reviews

"Amancio: Two Faces on a Tombstone"

4 stars, NR

On May 6, 2005, Amancio Corrales was found brutally murdered. This intimate and often devastating documentary follows the events leading up to his death in his home town of Yuma, Arizona. It focuses particularly on Yuma resident Michael Baughman's efforts to raise awareness of Amancio's tragic death in the gay community and solve his murder. This film succeeds in evoking the emotions it aims for. It's provocative and chilling. Its major achievement, though, is that it manages to be both a disturbing depiction of evil and a rousing celebration of the human spirit. 63 minutes.

"Buttery Top"

3 stars, NR

Cute, quirky fun. Written, directed by and starring Catherine Crouch and Kelly Hayes, this short film perfectly captures the awkwardness of a first date. More importantly, it does so with a unique visual style. The 8mm camerawork makes you feel as though you're seeing everything through a nostalgic haze. Buttery Top is only 4 minutes long, but that nostalgia will stay with you long after the last shot.

"Hannah Free"

4 stars, NR

The anchor of this film, its crowning achievement, is Sharon Gless' performance. She has a natural, powerful screen presence. Her character's presence is equally commanding. Hannah, a lesbian and proud of it, refuses to tip toe around her relationship with a small town housewife. That woman, Rachel (Maureen Gallagher) is just as stubborn about hiding it. The film, gracefully directed by Wendy Jo Carlton, shows their decade-spanning struggle (Kelli Strickland and Ann Hagemann play their younger selves). Thankfully, the low budget does not put too much of a damper on that epic scope. It may look like a Lifetime movie at times, but Hannah Free has all the emotional sophistication and intensity of a film worthy of the silver screen. 86 minutes.

"I Can't Think Straight"

3 stars, NR

This film needs a different title, one that suggests melodrama instead of quirky fun. I Can't Think Straight tells the story of Tala (Lisa Ray) and Leyla (Sheetal Sheth). Tala is an independent woman who speaks her mind. Leyla is more restrained, secretly writing to express her true self. Leyla meets Tala through her boyfriend and begins a passionate love affair with her. What's interesting is that Tala is not only the woman she loves, but the woman she wants to be. Even more interesting is that Tala is a Palestinian Christian and Leyla is a Muslim. Both have families that are quite strict when it comes to the bureaucracy of love and marriage. Interesting conflicts, solid acting, solid film. 85 minutes.

"Misconceptions"

3 stars, NR

A Southern, bible-beating Belle (A.J. Cook) opens her heart and mind to become a surrogate mother for two gay men (Orlando Jones and David Moscow). The film's decision to go for broad comedy is jarring, bordering on offensive, at first. Then it becomes oddly charming. The characters' thick southern drawls and the gospel soundtrack add a delightul layer of irony. The film's edgy comic spirit could turn people off (it had that effect on me for the first 15 minutes), but I kept watching and I'm glad I did. You will be too. 95 minutes.

"Straightlaced"

3 stars, NR

This doc would fit right along with MTV's best program: the poignant look at teenage life, Made. Like Made, Straightlaced may not be incredibly eye-opening to a teenage audience, but it is enjoyable nonetheless. What is most appealing about it isn't its statements about gender stereotypes and identity, but the upfront honesty of the teens making them. We see them bare their souls about gender confusion, sex, peer pressure, trying to fit in. Vulnerability, it's inspiring stuff. 66 minutes.

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