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.
What makes you fall in love with a film?
Generally, I need to be touched by at least two of the elements, be it production, acting, story, depth, drama or something different. I can tell you what I DON'T love. ... Films that are too long, poor editing, terrible acting (and directors who insist the acting was great) and ego-driven producers/directors. Especially if that is the same person. I'm always wary when I see one name tackling three or more tasks in the opening credits. A director should avoid being the producer (negotiating and worrying about money), and the director/producer should NEVER be the editor. Ever. Never. No. Never. I don't care about you not having money. Never. Ever. Ever.
With the proliferation of gay-centric TV networks, straight-to-Netflix gay films, gay characters on mainstream TV shows, and an increasing level of tolerance, or at least co-existence, in the gay/straight communities, what purpose does a gay film fest still serve?
Any film festival serves the indie film fans. Despite the so-called proliferation of gay films, we're still seeing straight people play gay roles (Brokeback Mountain), and where else can people see these powerful documentaries and short films? How else would anyone think to see XXY or to give a chance to other foreign films? Manuela Y Manuel and Nouveau Monde (New World) wouldn't ever be rented from Netflix unless you'd seen or heard of them in a festival setting.
Almost as important is the chance to gather together. To share stories, to watch films and to socialize in a safe, protective, welcoming environment. It's still pretty hard to come out at work, to walk down the street holding hands with whomever you love and to marry who you want. You can come to Clip without fear of discrimination and don't have to "hide" in your living room to watch films that might have a special meaning just for you.
Can a gay film fest survive on GLBT audiences alone? Your note in the program guide suggests otherwise, with its appeal to gay filmgoers to bring their straight friends along.
Diversity should be welcome, and again, many of these films are compelling no matter what the crowd members identify themselves as being. Just because we're a genre festival shouldn't preclude any and all film lovers to enjoy some of these masterpieces (XXY is a masterpiece).
Related question: Rumor has it you yourself are openly heterosexual. (Gasp.) Is that true? And if so, what drew you into the world of curating gay film fests?
Those damn rumors! No, it's true. But I'm pretty gay. I got my degree in theater arts, I can sing every word from both Rent and Spring Awakening, and I love my Project Runway.
By chance I met the director of the Fresno Reel Pride film festival 10 years ago, and at the time I was praying to work for a film festival and a charity, and this met both of my prayers. Hey, I'm also openly Caucasian and would have loved to have marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King! Fresno Reel Pride was and is the largest and best film festival in the Central Valley of California, so there weren't any other choices. And to be honest, it's much easier curating a genre festival, so I don't have to consider every film ever made in one year. ... I can concentrate only the 2,000 or so films made each year to fit this particular genre.
How frank can the on-screen sex be in a gay film fest without scaring the horses, or at least the conservatives (both gay and straight)? I've seen Shortbus at TIGLIFF and a 3-D version of vintage porn (the glory hole scene was hilarious) at the Philly gay filmfest — neither caused much of a ruckus. But have you ever run into any situations where you had to reject a good film for a gay fest because it was too graphic?
Ken Park (by Larry Clark, director of Kids). His actors were underage at the time of filming sex scenes, and we'd be arrested for showing the film. That's a definite boundary. Otherwise, with proper truthful descriptions, we should be fine. We have no intention of breaking the law, and we have to be quite sensitive to our particular audience concerns. Pedophilia is still slightly taboo, and it's broached perfectly well with taste and care in Clapham Junction. Rape scenes can be very disturbing, so I'm careful with that. Still, people who are identifying queer are identifying their sexuality choice. At some point sexuality has to come into the equation. ... and the film.
How local should a gay film fest be? What are the benefits/drawbacks of living in California while programming a festival in Tampa?
Benefits and drawbacks are strictly personal. ... They don't have to put up with me in their face all the time, and I get to skip a long meeting or two. The drawbacks have been slim. Personally it was kinda tough to have two programs due on the exact same date, but we made it.
The benefits of the collaboration were huge, as Fresno and Tampa were able to share costs for the film selection process, and it helps me to negotiate with distributors when I'm offering two festivals for their film.
How'd you come to be connected with Tampa?
When they started their national search for a programmer, they wrote to me asking for the contact info for a programmer I knew. I said "Hey! I want the job!" Six interviews and months later, and here I am. The Tampa board was very careful with their selection, and I expect to continue to get much better once I can attend Tampa's fest and learn about their audience tastes/concerns.
Still, the board of Clip is a pretty good swatch of Clip's audience members, and I asked many many questions before making film selections, and cleared everything with David Gonzalez, the board member in charge of programming.
Which films are you not so sure about this year?
I want to see how the audiences react to Newcastle and Goodbye Baby. These films are slightly "less overtly gay," but I find wonderful elements to them both. I hope audiences give those films a chance and come out to see them. Also, the Director's Cut shorts program is for experimental film fans only. These are not all films with a storyline. There's some thinking involved there. And finally, I'm sure about the family day Saturday, but I hope our audiences are sure as well. I hope to see lots of kids and parents together for Dottie's Magic Pockets, middle/high school kids for the wonderful Youth Shorts and HS/College kids crying together at Equality U!
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misstated the years of Joseph Cook's tenure as programming director. The error has been corrected above.