You can't tell a book by its cover, but you can judge a film fest by its opener. And in the case of the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, now known as Clip, you can draw some conclusions from the closing-night selection as well.
Ruby Blue kicks things off, a well-acted if occasionally heavy-handed portrait of a lonely widower (Bob Hoskins) in an English seaside community. It's not clear until well into the film what the gay connection might be, and even then it's only part of a larger theme of prejudice and forgiveness.
The closing-night attraction, Were the World Mine, is another bird altogether: a gloriously, unabashedly queer fantasia on such familiar gay tropes as the all-boy prep school and the healing power of over-the-top musical numbers.
These two very different films suggest the broad ambitions of the festival. Now in its 19th year, the event is a must for local GLBTs, yet it wants to appeal to straight folks, too. In fact, the fest's new programming director, Stephen Mintz, is openly heterosexual, so Clip is clearly straight-friendly. (Or at least "heteroflexible," as a character labels herself in World. "I'm straight," she says. "But shit happens.")
These two films are a clue to the range of this year's lineup. There was some grumbling in 2007 that the quality of TIGLFF's selections had declined; Joseph Cook, programming director from 2005-2006, complained to me last year that the more "challenging" films were being marginalized in favor of "formulaic narratives and slightly-above-mediocre filmmaking." Neil Williamson, a former volunteer on the programming committee, didn't like that Cook's successor in 2007, Roberta Munroe, wasn't based in Tampa. "Every [gay] community has a different demographic. It's different here than in Miami and San Francisco," he says. Williamson believes that Tampa's locally based programmers tried to reflect that in their choices.
Mintz, as it happens, is not based in Tampa, either; he lives in Fresno, Calif., where he programs the ReelPride gay filmfest, also in its 19th year. But past programmer Cook, for one, says the 2008 lineup is "a little bit better balanced" than last year's. A professor of sociology and film at Polk Community College, Cook tracks film fests around the country and says a lot of the movies he's been hoping to see are on this year's Tampa program.
Still, questions remain for Stephen (pronounced Stefan) Mintz — not least of which is, how did a straight guy like you wind up in a film fest like this? We wanted to talk to him directly, but he'd lost his voice during the ReelPride fest, which wrapped on Sept. 22, and had to communicate via e-mail.
First, I wanted to ask about the selection process for opening and closing films ...
After traveling to many other film festivals and watching about 400 films, I selected about eight films for the Clip board to choose from and place in the key slots (opening, closing, centerpiece, showcase).
What helped Ruby Blue and Were the World Mine rise to the top of your list?
I have to think about the crowd, the fans. Is the film compelling? Appealing? If it's not a direct statement about the genre or the needs of the audience, is the film just so fantastic we can't NOT show it? A fan expecting deep, meaningful GLBT themes might be looking at their watch during Ruby Blue, waiting for the GLBT "meaning" of the film to appear. It's our job to express to folks with our marketing that Ruby Blue is just a fantastic film with a stellar Bob Hoskins. ... Were the World Mine is a crowd-pleasing musical. ... Closing night should make the film a total hit, with the electric energy of the room meeting the lush visuals and acting from the film.
I'm also interested in how these films fit into a discussion of what makes a gay film. Ruby Blue doesn't automatically reveal itself to be about gay or transgender issues, whereas World is fabulous from the get-go. I assume there will be gay audiences for whom Ruby won't be gay enough, and World will be too too much. How would you respond to such reactions?
I try to write/orchestrate the film descriptions to be as truthful as possible. Clip has a very diverse and smart audience, including youth, elderly, straight-identifying, etc. They'll only show concern if they've been lied to by the description/marketing. I'm careful in how I portray a film, but sometimes I admit to wanting to lure folks to a film with the marketing, because I know afterwards how happy they'll be for having seen such a dynamic and fulfilling piece of cinema. Newcastle is barely gay, but is evocative and gorgeous (and does feature Australian surf-boys). Goodbye Baby has two strong and genuine gay characters, but I'm hoping young straight/queer girls will attend as well.