Reeling in the years
The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival takes a break
06/20/2012 10:00 PM
In the 31 years since its inception, the organizers behind Reeling: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival have had little time to catch their breath.
“It’s been sort of a chronic issue,” said Brenda Webb, who has directed the festival — the second oldest festival of its kind in the world — since the beginning, while juggling her role as head of Chicago Filmmakers, a media arts organization that puts together cinematic events and programming in the city.
Last month, the folks at Reeling announced that they will be taking the year off; during its self-imposed hiatus, the festival will focus on fundraising and strategic planning, as well as finding some new talent to take the reins when the event returns in 2013.
Skyline caught up with Webb to talk about where the festival has been and where it’s headed.
Skyline: How did the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival get its start?
Brenda Webb: When I started the festival in 1981, Chicago Filmmakers’ main mission was to show experimental films, and the organization was screening movies to a fairly small, consistent audience of devotees. I realized at that time that a lot of the really important early American avant-garde filmmakers happened to be gay and a lot of the content had a gay and lesbian focus, and whereas the experimental film community knew about these artists I wasn’t sure if the LGBT community knew about them. It really kind of started out as an effort to reframe these films to reach a new audience.
We sold out every screening for the first festival, which was made up largely of experimental and classic European films, like Mädchen in Uniform. The audience response was so great, and it felt like there was definitely a need in the community for work that reflects gay and lesbian experiences, so it became kind of a mandate that very first year.
In what ways has the mainstreaming of gay culture in the past few decades affected the tone and atmosphere of the festival?
It’s meant that the audience has changed a bit; there was a period of time in the ’80s and early ’90s when we actually had larger audiences because there really weren’t alternatives for places to see these films. As gay and lesbian films became more available, I think the festival audience became more of a devoted film buff audience, which I think is true of a lot of film festivals.
The mainstreaming has also meant that there is a broader range in the kind of films being made. Whereas at one time it was mainly “coming out” films or stories about people being in the closet, now it sort of runs the gamut through all genres, from horror films to romantic comedies.
A few years ago you screened I Love You Phillip Morris, a Jim Carrey movie about a tumultuous gay couple that — though pretty entertaining — doesn’t seem like one that would come up at a film festival. How do you determine what films get cut or included in the festival?
Between features and shorts, we have about 800 films that are submitted to the festival each year; I have personally looked at all the feature films, and we have committees that evaluate the works, so it’s kind of a group process.
It’s hard to say what the standard is, because all of that is very subjective, but we certainly reject a lot of work that we feel is subpar. If it’s a documentary film, we’re evaluating it based on whether it is covering new ground. For narrative films, we generally look at the acting, writing, and cinematography. But then there’s the question of whether it has heart: Sometimes a film can be compelling and wonderful even if it doesn’t have all the technical qualities, but if it really has something else going for it that’s a little harder to define.
When you’re programming you try to balance between the challenging works that you might like versus films that the audiences want to see. Phillip Morris had been anticipated for several years and had been hung up by distribution problems, so we definitely wanted to take the opportunity to show the film given its status.
As part of the hiatus, you’ll be looking for someone to take your place as director of the festival. What prompted your decision to step down?
Organizing the festival and being the executive director of Chicago Filmmakers has been a pretty demanding job, so it’s kind of partly burnout. Secondly, it’s about wanting to find a fresh perspective — someone to come in and run the festival with renewed energy and vision.
The obstacle has been that the producing the festival has been very expensive, so at the end of the day it hasn’t generated enough revenue to cover a full time, year-round director’s salary. I haven’t had time to fundraise for that position because six months out of the year I am busy putting the festival together. Part of why we took the year off is to focus on generating that money.
According to a statement on your website, one of the things you’ll be working on during the break is considering how the festival “might expand or evolve to better address the changing needs of LGBT filmmakers.” Can you explain what that means?
Traditionally film festivals have had a specific role, and that’s being the gatekeepers for identifying work that’s worthy of being brought to the public’s attention. Part of the economy of film festivals is that they don’t pay artists to show their work, the idea being that the festivals introduce the films into the marketplace, and then the film would get a distributor who would pay to take it on.
Over the past several years, the availability of pirated films has impacted DVD sales and independent films are being shown less in the commercial marketplace. That’s created a condition where the festivals — and there are about 100 LGBT film festivals in the world now — have come under increasing pressure to serve as the de facto theatrical release for a film. So there has been increasing pressure for the festivals to pay.
Since our organization is very much imbedded in the notion of supporting filmmakers, it kind of creates an internal conflict. We’re trying to figure out what our role can be in assisting the film makers, because the old models don’t work anymore.