By Derek Horne
Against the Current
My life’s journey has gone against the flow since the day I was born. Instead of retiring in Sarasota, Florida, like everyone else… I was born there and spent my early childhood there. After my parents divorced, I moved to Utah and spent all those miserable dry winters of the school year there with my Mom and spent the hot muggy summers in Florida with my Dad. (I guess that’s why I actually like summers in Florida… reminds me of summer vacation and freedom from oppressive Utah). But one good thing came out of Utah… that’s where I got my start in film festivals… the Sundance Film Festival
I started attending Sundance while in college in 1994 and have never missed a year since. This year was the first year I didn’t make the annual pilgrimage to Park City, only because the festival was held online due to the pandemic.
I started volunteering with Sundance in 1998 and ended up working in the Filmmaker Services department seasonally for six years until I began my job at Chapman University’s film school where I ended up taking classes to the Sundance Film Festival for all 11 years that I worked there.
My primary job as the Film Coordinator at Chapman University (now ranked the #4 film school in the country) was to submit student films to festivals and I ended up advising such now famous alumni as the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things), Justin Simien (Dear White People) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Summertime).
After so many years of being on the submitting end of film festivals, my curiosity got the better of me and I took the leap into the wild and unpredictable and completely unstable world of film festival programming. Since then. I have programmed nearly every type of film and genre for nearly every type of audience. I’ve had my fill of documentaries after five years programming the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas. I programmed all short films at the DC Shorts Film Festival in Washington DC. I even curated a web series program at the Sarasota Film Festival.
When it comes to diversity, I curated an annual Native American and Indigenous shorts program at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. I programmed the African American Experience and the Jewish Experience showcases annually at the Annapolis Film Festival. One year to satisfy an Academy-grant for a festival, I curated a Latin Women’s showcase. And while at Chapman, for three years I organized a pan-Asian and Korean film festival in conjunction with Busan called the Busan West Film Festival. It was only a matter of time before I programmed an LGBTQ+ festival.
When I was hired as the new programmer for the Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival last year, it was at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I was still in lockdown at my sister’s house in Maryland where I had just finished moving the Annapolis Film Festival online after having to cancel the live component. It was extra heart-breaking for me because I had curated my best lineup ever for the festival, complete with a red-carpet appearance by my favorite actress Kristen Scott Thomas who was set to attend our opening night screening of her film Military Wives along with director Peter Cattaneo. We even had an actual choir of military wives ready to perform a live concert after the screening.
After months of traveling to film festivals from Toronto to Sundance to Palm Springs and Santa Barbara (on my own dime) to scout the best available films for a program that would have to be dismantled was devastating. When the Covid-lockdown became a reality in March of 2020, we had two weeks to transition the entire festival online to keep our initial dates of March 26–29 but in the process we lost all of our big feature films due to hesitant distributors not yet wanting to put their films online.
By the time I started with TIGLFF that spring of 2020, I was already well-versed in the new film distribution landscape and very experienced in streaming platforms.
I knew how to upload films and moderate live interactive Q&A’s online. I curated a free virtual screening of comedy short films that May called Laughter in Lockdown which caught the attention of the Film Festival Alliance and they did an encore screening for Pride month in June 2020 and streamed the program to dozens of their member festivals across the country.
By August, TIGLFF hosted the virtual Florida premiere of Stage Mother a feel-good comedy film by my favorite gay director Thom Fitzgerald which starred two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver and the famed drag queen Jackie Beat (who I interviewed in a Q&A during an encore presentation during the festival last October). (View the film here:)
One of the few silver linings in 2020 was the rich supply of quality queer cinema available to program. For Opening night, I secured the U.S. premiere of Port Authority which had played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and was produced by Martin Scorsese and starred the young heartthrob Fionn Whitehead and trans model/actress Leyna Bloom, who I interviewed for our virtual opening night presentation. (View the film here)
For Closing night, I programmed the French film Two of Us which went on to be nominated for a Golden Globe and was on the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Film. (View the film here )
The quality of programming was so high that we went beyond just being a niche festival for a queer-only audience, but a festival that could be enjoyed by anyone. I kept telling people to tell their straight friends about us…. these films are not to be missed.
As one of the few film festivals in the Tampa Bay area to actually follow through with a festival in 2020, we were one of the few quality alternatives to binge-watching Netflix and the other streaming services. In an attempt to further diversify our audience, TIGLFF launched a separate transgender film festival and a QTBIPOC (queer trans Black indigenous person of color) festival.
Not as much film production occurred in 2020 due to the pandemic, so I was worried that the supply of new content would be dwindling in 2021. Luckily, I was able to find a quality slate of films that I am very proud of for this year’s festival. I did all of my film scouting virtually this year as Sundance, Berlin and Frameline held their festivals and industry screenings online.
I must admit that this is one aspect of online films that I hope is here to stay because it is much more convenient and cheaper than having to travel to all of those places. That’s great for work, but as for the fun and “festive” element of a film festival, nothing beats the live, in-person experience with a group audience.
This year’s opening night film Language Lessons and closing night film Glob Lessons are more queer-adjacent since they both focus on friendships between a gay man and a straight woman. My friendships with straight allies have always been very meaningful to me and I am happy to celebrate the value of friendship in this year’s festival. (As Bette Midler sings, “Cause you gotta have friends.”) Plus, I’m hoping the films will attract both gay male and lesbian audiences since neither film focuses exclusively on a romantic relationship between women or between men.
It’s always tough to decide whether to program two films on opening night… one to appeal to the women and one to appeal to the men, or risk alienating one audience if you only program one film. I am hoping that Language Lessons will appeal to both groups at the same time. The director and lead actress Natalie Morales has publicly come out as queer in the past and her character of the Spanish-language tutor is never defined as exclusively straight, so perhaps the female audience can enjoy her presence in the movie as much as the gay men will enjoy seeing Mark Duplass finally portray a gay man (after his tease in Humpday back in 2009.)
Plus, the story really underscores the importance of human connection as these two people form a meaningful friendship via online computer sessions, which is so relevant to our socially isolated and technology-dependent time. I find it so ironic that last year we put all these big cinematic movies on the internet for people to watch at home on their computer or TV screens, and this year we are taking a film that was completely shot on computer screens and projecting it onto the big screen at the Tampa Theatre.
The Closing Night choice of Glob Lessons takes us beyond the computer screen and onto a road trip through the Northern Mid-Western states following a duo who are touring elementary schools to perform children’s theater productions. I fell in love with this film and the characters of Alan and Jesse who are portrayed by life-long BFF’s Colin Froeber and Nicole Rodenburg who co-wrote the film together and she directed it. Even though it’s not a romantic relationship, they have such chemistry together and comedic timing.
When I first saw the film (which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival) I couldn’t help but be reminded of Billy Eichner and Aubrey Plaza, except the kinder gentler versions of both of them. Colin and Nicole are planning to attend the Closing Night screening of Glob Lessons at the Sundial Theaters in St. Pete. (Read about the film here)
In between these two lesson-filled bookends is a whole array of fabulous films to explore. The inspiring documentary Invisible is about lesbian musicians pursuing their dreams in the notoriously homophobic and sexist country music business and the playfully provocative documentary Baloney about the gay men’s burlesque troupe in San Francisco. In a less Covid-ful year, I would have loved to have live performances from the talented stars of both of these films follow the screenings onstage at the beautiful Tampa Theatre, but in this unpredictable year we decided to play it safe and skip the live events and just enjoy the experience of being back in theaters to view films on the big screen.
However, for those people who still enjoy viewing films at home, we are utilizing our streaming platform of EVENTIVE once again this year to present all the short film programs and several of the feature-length documentaries online during the weekdays.
The online lineup includes two double-features – one pairing two documentaries about ACTIVIST HEROES Connie Norman and Ric Weiland and the other pairing two documentaries about DRAG SUPERSTARS Bebe Zahara Benet and Mrs. Kasha Davis who were both contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
We are also hosting the world premiere of the trailer for the upcoming locally-based reality TV series entitled The Tampa Baes that follows the lives of lesbians in the Tampa Bay area which according to the publicists at Amazon Studios is “Florida’s LGBTQ+ hub and the place to see and be seen.” This trailer will be shown with an introduction by the producer and show-runner and it will play before the documentary feature Rebel Dykes a documentary bout the punk lesbian feminist scene in 80’s London.
My favorite element to curate at any festival is always the short film programs. This year we have seven jam-packed programs for all interests and tastes. The first program that kicks it off is “It’s A Queer World After All” which is a sampling of some of the best international shorts from this year as selected by our screening committee.
There are two documentary shorts programs – “Life’s A Drag” which explores the lives and struggles of drag performers and “Pride and Prejudice” that contrasts LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations with socio-political conflicts around the world.
An exciting new addition this year is an animated shorts program I titled “Queer-toons” and a fun, hilarious and thrilling genre shorts program called “Dreams and Nightmares” which contains comedy horror and sci fi short films.
Of course, the shorts programming would not be complete without the traditional shorts exclusively for a female audience or for a male audience. Because audiences at gay and lesbian festivals tend to be very gender-segregated when it comes to watching romantic action on the screen, I have one program for the gals and one program for the guys, and cheekily named them “Sugar and Spice” and “Snips and Snails.”
Although I am currently based in Los Angeles, I plan to travel to Tampa and hope to be at the festival in person to introduce the films this year… barring another lockdown or a zombie apocalypse.
You can explore the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival here