With an influx of gay and lesbian themed films making their way into mainstream America, via both TV and the multiplex, you would think that running a gay and lesbian film festival in this country would be a money-making breeze, right? Well, sort of.
As the second largest LGBTQ film festival in the country, Chicago’s Reeling Film Festival is truly a groundbreaking event. Although the festival first began as a venue for avant-garde moviemakers to showcase their work and make their unique voices heard, Reeling has evolved over the years, targeting a wider range of audiences to become an all-inclusive event rather than a niche festival.
As she geared up for this year’s fest, which will take place November 2nd to 12th, Reeling’s festival director, Brenda Webb spoke with MM candidly about the ups and downs of running a festival for over 25 years, the importance of balanced programming and why attending Reeling can sometimes be a true, albeit unexpected, outing.
Lily Percy (MM): You started the Reeling Film Festival in 1981 as a way to introduce experimental moviemakers to the gay community in Chicago. Through the years, how has this initial goal changed and grown?
Brenda Webb (BW): Our programming has diversified and expanded to include all genres of film. In fact, the experimental films, which were the original inspiration for the festival, have become a very small part of the festival over the years.
The first year of the festival, all the screenings in our little 90-seat screening room sold out. Most of what we were showing was experimental film and a few narrative films like the historically important classics Olivia (The Pit of Loneliness) and Maedchen in Uniform, and the camp classic Glen or Glenda. As programmers of experimental film, we were not at all accustomed to selling out our shows!
The audience response made us realize that we had tapped into a deep need for lesbian and gay audiences to see films that reflected their lives. It gave us a profound sense of mission and a mandate to continue the festival annually as a venue for lesbian and gay work. So, though we were initially mainly pushing our agenda to expose more people to experimental film, we realized that first year that we had become responsible for something that had a broader social mission beyond what we initially set out to do. Serving an audience became a driving and motivating force, not just serving the needs of filmmakers to reach out to new audiences.
MM: As the second oldest GLBT film festival in the country, what have been some of the most difficult issues that you have faced?
BW: One tough issue has been financing the festival, since ticket sales alone do not fund us. A huge amount of our energy goes toward building financial support, particularly raising corporate sponsorships and bartering for goods and services. It would be great if we could just focus on programming and promoting the festival, but that isn’t the reality of producing this kind of event.
Hand in hand with the financial constraints is staff burnout. Because there just isn’t the money to staff the festival anywhere near the degree we need to, great demands are put on the people who work on the festival—lots of overtime and stress. Most of the workers are seasonal, so there is constant staff turnover and retraining every year. Of course, these are issues not unique to our festival, as running film festivals in general seems to be a particularly crazy endeavor.
MM: Although you feature GLBT films at your festival, how important is attracting Chicago’s heterosexual community to the festival? How do you face the challenge of including as “mainstream” an audience as possible without losing your own identity?
BW: This is something I used to obsess about a lot in the early years—how to get more straight people to come to the festival. It had become very important to me that we get press coverage in mainstream media outlets, for example. (Not just to reach straight people, but also to be taken seriously as a film festival that should be given the same attention and coverage as any other festival.) And a frequent question the writers of those stories would ask was, “Why should people who aren’t gay come to this festival?” Like, “What’s in it for them?” I felt all this pressure to justify why these films would be of interest to people who aren’t gay. I think I resented that question, because I couldn’t imagine them asking why white people would want to come to an African-American film festival. Wouldn’t that be an insulting question? I never understood why straight people wouldn’t be interested in gay stories… after all, [they’re] all part of the human experience.
At a certain point, I decided I didn’t want to keep justifying why straight people should come to the festival because this was an event celebrating gay culture, not necessarily an outreach event for the straight community to get their acceptance or validation. But certainly it is an interesting question for renewed speculation, given the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon. Is there a growing straight interest in gay culture, or was this just a particular instance where the interest in the film somehow transcended any interest in gay culture? I don’t know. The question is: Are straight people interested enough to take the next step beyond going to the gay film in the local mall, where there are lots of other straight people (and where their identity doesn’t have to be questioned), to seeing a gay film within the context of the gay community and thereby maybe having their own sexual/gender identity up for speculation?
The fact is, it isn’t even easy for some gay people to attend the festival since just coming to the festival itself can be an act of coming out. I have been told over the years by many gay and lesbian people that coming to our festival was their first public act of coming out.
MM: How has attendance changed throughout the years? What has affected these changes?
BW: Attendance has increased steadily over the years, and continues to do so, but not at the same rate of speed that it did in the first decade. The dramatic explosion of audience attendance during that time was overwhelming sometimes. To meet that need, we kept expanding the festival, putting it in bigger and bigger venues and adding on more programs. Then, we started to become concerned about the festival getting too big to manage. It was getting too costly to produce. We were concerned about making compromises on quality to fill the programming slots, and we didn’t want to start spreading the audience too thin. So, a few years ago, we actually cut the festival down in size so we could emphasize quality over quantity. It was a good move and now we just have to resist the temptation to keep adding on more programs because there really is so much good work out there now.
There are many more outlets for gay and lesbian films now that didn’t exist 25 years ago: Queer television, lots of art-house fare, commercial movies, gay and lesbian characters on television, DVD releases, etc. So, I think LGBTQ people with more mainstream tastes are less an audience for us than they were in the beginning. Back then, people would put up with a subtitled French film because there weren’t many other opportunities to see gay and lesbian films, so that’s what they would see. Now people who don’t like to read subtitles don’t have to. I’d say our audience is probably more sophisticated now, [with more] people interested in independent and foreign films. They want films that go beyond the traditional coming out story. Of course, though, it is still the American-made romantic comedies that get the biggest audiences.
MM: What are some of the films and programs that you have in store for this year’s festival?
BW: There will be about 70 different programs, including over 100 films. We will be opening with Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds, billed as the first gay sequel. The first Eating Out was a hit at our festival a few years ago and, since we are thinking about the theme of this year’s festival as one that refers to some aspect of our past, it seemed fitting to open with it. Plus, the director, Phillip J. Bartell, is a former Illinois filmmaker and the film is great fun, with appeal to both male and female audiences.
In honor of our anniversary, we will be screening some of the early experimental films that inspired the founding of the festival, by artists such as Barbara Hammer, Kenneth Anger, Michael Wallin and Curt McDowell. We will also screen a recently made documentary about the experimental filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith called Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis.
MM: What would you ideally like any festivalgoer who attends Reeling to walk away with?
BW: Ideally, the feeling that they’ve seen a work of art that is thought-provoking that they just can’t forget about. Maybe even something that haunts them or connects with them in a very personal way.
I’d also like them to feel that they were part of a community experience, that their attendance at the festival wasn’t just another night at the movies, but that it was an opportunity to demonstrate that they care about LGBTQ culture and want to be counted as supporting it in a public way, whatever their own sexual orientation or gender identity might be.
For more information, visit www.reelingfilmfestival.org.