You would think living in Los Angeles means that we all have been to multiple film festivals. Is that the case? Not necessarily. I haven’t been to one ever. I’ve been around them but have never actually gone. I always imagined that they are a series of screens under a giant tent for a camp of cinephiles to geek out over movies. Last night’s Outfest Opening Night Gala was a little bit of what I expected but very much wasn’t. It was fun, it was touching, it was loud, it was crowded, and it was familiar: film festivals are a celebration of film by and for community, which–in this case–is the LGBT community.
The gala took place at The Orpheum Downtown. Another admission: I’ve never actually been to an event here. Sure, spit and hiss all you will: I’ve never been to the venue as I A.) Hate concerts; B.) Don’t like crowds; and C.) Am a homebody. Boring, I know. We walked up through rain spittling down on us and made our way around the Outfest orange carpet to grab our tickets and head in. The carpet was fairly tame at 7:40PM and there weren’t very many people the photographers were going wild for. I assumed that it would be insanity and full of heavy security and that we’d be underdressed but, surprise, we fit in just perfectly. (And, thank heavens because we didn’t know what to expect.)
There was a tiny sized crowd within the very old and ornate theatre entry. As we kept walking, we discovered where most of the people were: in the bar area grabbing pre-Gala drinks. We went in and joined the party and stood around surveying what was going on: there were lots of little groups of men and women chatting and included everyone from Jonny Knoxville to Lance Bass to Bruce Vilanch to my former apartment manager. We meandered through the room and into the lobby again which had swollen around 7:50PM to an almost unbearable degree. Everyone in Los Angeles arrives at the last possible second, apparently. We took a minute and tried to figure out where we would enter and noticed many banners for HBO films and a few familiar faces that spanned from filmmakers whose work we are sharing in our Outfest Interviews to people we’ve worked with before to friends’ ex-boyfriends to some of our own ex-boyfriends. What a treat to see them!
The inside of the theatre itself is absolutely beautiful, obviously. It reminded me very much of the Henry Fonda and even The Tabernacle in Atlanta, these very classic and extensive spaces repurposed for any function you want. Obviously, the space was to function as a movie theatre and exhibiting space as–duh–it’s a film festival. We took our seats around 8PM, which were a very tight fit. Although the space is beautiful, the seating are a bit cramped unless you are on the end. I suppose it is because the people the theatre were built for were smaller, shorter people? No clue.
We sat in our seats for a good ten to fifteen minutes as everyone just seemed to stand and congregate in the space. At this point, we realized that it was a very cliquey crowd in the sense that everyone stayed with their people, standing and gabbing, as all the non-clique persons sat wondering, “Sooo…are we going to start this?” We were one of the non-clique people likely because are not “in the industry” and many of the people chatting were undoubtedly producers, writers, directors, and even long term Outfest supporters.
The opening ceremony began with various speakers, all of whom were great. The first were Outfest Co-Presidents Jon Larson of the DGA and producer Laura Ivey who spoke about what it meant for the festival to be up for thirty years, what the future of Outfest looked like, and their partnership with New York LGBT film festival NewFest among others. They even gave Drew Droege a mention! Following them was Ricki Lake, which was a bit of a surprise until we remembered that writer, director, performer, and all around best man John Waters was being honored with the 16th Annual Outfest Achievement Award. The award is very well deserved but seemingly late since we would have thought he’d already be honored before, considering they noted past recipients being Gus Van Sant and Jane Lynch (both of whom are great but, you know, are much younger than Waters). Waters gave a very funny, very inspiring speech about how the LGBT community still needs to push boundaries and that it’s our responsibility to keep being weird and absurd in our art in order to make it normal. As someone who grew up with a worn VHS recording of Hairspray on Cinemax that I would watch three times a week from ages four to seven, this was a dream fulfilled even though I did not get a chance to shake his hand and thank him for making my childhood happy.
Two more Outfest board members spoke, both of whose names I do not remember. One wore a blue dress and had very sparkly shoes (to which an audience member yelled out, “THOSE SHOES!!” as she walked on stage) and spoke about the future of the festival, including efforts to spread their work around Los Angeles. The other Outfest woman was a very sharply dressed and small and spoke about supporting the festival and assured that, yes, she was the next to last speaker before Jeffrey Schwarz took the stage, the director of opening film Vito.
Schwarz kept his speech short and sweet and all about Vito Russo, cinephile, LGBT rights activist, AIDS activist, and subject of his documentary. We didn’t know much about the film but after hearing in speeches that it was going to be released on HBO later in the month we knew it must be something good. The film started and we were blank on what it was: Vito Russo looked very familiar however his name and work in film didn’t sound familiar at all. As the movie progressed to share his upbringing and discovery of his sexuality, our lack of knowledge of this gay forefather began to disappear. Vito had such a vigor and brashness to him and was an inspiration: he saw Stonewall, he helped found the GAA, he fought for equality throughout all regions of the LGBT community, chronicled LGBT film history with The Celluloid Closet, fought for AIDS activism, was one of the founders of GLAAD, and eventually passed away from the very illness he was fighting for and against. The movie casts this net of events and happenings that all appear to be very innocent but form in knots that are the struggles Vito fought to untie. It is a moving, heartbreaking film about a man who had more love for the LGBT community than any other person I have heard of. It’s a brilliant film and it will surely inspire a new legacy of film and activism surrounding him. In the film festival setting, the audience cheered and clapped and hissed at the screen. Seeing the film in this setting awoke comedy and tragedy at moments other viewers may not see. I learned in that moment that film festivals are in fact the tent of screens that I believed them to be: they are places for communities to congregate and celebrate themselves and each other.
By the end of the movie, I was in tears, Bobby was in tears, and everyone else looked to be in tears as well. There was an after party and silent auction behind The Orpheum at this time which we thought for a minute we should attend but because we were so distraught, tired, and hungry we opted to head home to pet dogs and catch up on RuPaul’s Drag U. We talked a lot last night about what we do for the LGBT community and we–like many of our peers–need to do so much more: we are no Vito Russo or Harvey Milk and, sadly, may not ever be. Even though it’s a little thing, we’re honored to be able to share our Outfest Interview series with you guys for the next week: that is our small contribution to this community. Yeah, the interviews aren’t the most revolutionary thing happening in the LGBT community–but they are a look at LGBT and allied filmmakers who are sharing stories of our culture that must be seen and heard.
That, friends, is what we live to share.