Carolina Theatre reopens for the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival | Film Review | Indy Week
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Carolina Theatre reopens for the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival 

Coming-out ball

North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Aug. 23-26

click to enlarge Laura Fraser (left) and Shelly Conn in Nina's Heavenly Delights, which screens 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25, in Fletcher Hall and 3:10 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26, in Cinema One - PHOTO COURTESY OF REGENT RELEASING
  • Photo courtesy of Regent Releasing
  • Laura Fraser (left) and Shelly Conn in Nina's Heavenly Delights, which screens 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25, in Fletcher Hall and 3:10 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26, in Cinema One

There is a coming out taking place at this year's North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, but not the kind you would necessarily expect.

After shuttering its doors for repairs in early June, Durham's Carolina Theatre reopens in time for the 12th annual edition of the second largest gay and lesbian film festival in the Southeast. While most of the much-needed maintenance will not be apparent to patrons—fixing the roof, HVAC ductwork and the like—the delay in completing the work and reopening the theater, which was originally scheduled for Aug. 3, afforded festival organizers an opportunity they have contemplated for years.

"One of the most frequent questions we've received from festival regulars through the years is why we don't wait a few weeks and open the festival in late August, after college students have returned to school for the fall semester," says Jim Carl, Carolina Theatre senior director and longtime director of programming for the NCGLFF. According to Carl, the answer is not a matter of reluctance but logistics. For years, NCGLFF had to navigate around the schedules of competing queer film festivals, particularly Austin, Texas, the largest gay and lesbian film festival in the Southwest, which traditionally took place during the second week in August. While different festivals' audiences do not necessarily overlap, the scarcity of prints for films already lacking widespread distribution made it necessary for festivals to avoid conflicting with each other for fear of losing the ability to screen certain well-regarded movies.

However, in 2006, Austin moved their festival to September, and that, combined with this year's construction delays, forced NCGLFF to shift their start date from its traditional early August spot to Thursday, Aug. 23. Organizers are hoping that the schedule change will enhance the number of festival attendees, which exceeds 10,000 annually.

Another change from recent years is the noticeable absence of special side events. NCGLFF's 10th anniversary in 2005 featured an opening night performance by comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer. Last year, fortune brought a visit from 1950s heartthrob Tab Hunter and a concert by comedian Margaret Cho.

For Carl, these events were more a result of happenstance than an intentional change in programming. "We tried to do something special for our 10th anniversary. Then the visit by Tab Hunter fell into our laps and with it the appearance by Margaret Cho. If another opportunity for a special event came along, we'd certainly welcome it. However, we don't go out looking for them because our focus remains the quality of our films."

Carl attributes an increase in that quality over recent years to the proliferation of gay- and lesbian-oriented films, filmmakers and festivals. When NCGLFF first began in 1996, Carl received approximately 20-30 film submissions for a program comprising 10 movies. By 2001, the number of submissions had skyrocketed to an unwieldy 450 films. This year, Carl relied mostly on word-of-mouth and reputation to fill his schedule. He estimates that this year's program of 76 films—20 features and 56 shorts—consists of two-thirds invited films and only one-third unsolicited submissions, which he says makes for a stronger overall lineup.

Although the strategy of inviting proven crowd-pleasers to the NCGLFF may be sensible from a business standpoint, it's questionable whether edgier, artistically adventurous dramas can find exposure in such an environment—think of last year's Mysterious Skin, had it been produced by unknowns rather than director Gregg Araki and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Elisabeth Shue.

Although there's nothing like Mysterious Skin this year, there is always room—and an audience—for coming-out, coming-of-age melodramas and comedic sex romps. Indeed, our unofficial award for favorite film title goes to a short named Menopausal Gals Gone Wild. Thankfully, the bulk of the festival's programming is more diverse and grounded, including a feature film lineup that divides itself evenly among jaunty, love-worn romances and equally heartbreaking tales of acceptance in the gay and heterosexual communities.

FEATURES

click to enlarge Eytan Fox's The Bubble is one of the strongest features in this year's festival: (left to right) Ohad Knoller, Yousef "Joe" Sweid, Daniela Wircer and Alon Friedmann - PHOTO COURTESY OF STRAND RELEASING
  • Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing
  • Eytan Fox's The Bubble is one of the strongest features in this year's festival: (left to right) Ohad Knoller, Yousef "Joe" Sweid, Daniela Wircer and Alon Friedmann

One of the festival highlights is an Israeli import, The Bubble from director Eytan Fox (Walk on Water; Yossi & Jagger). As a kind of "Middle East Side Story," Bubble examines a forbidden romance between an Israeli soldier, Noam (Ohad Knoller), and a Palestinian (Yousef Sweid) living illegally in Tel Aviv against the backdrop of real-world political, social and religious strife. We are witness to Noam's circle of friends living together in the city's trendy neighborhood as they fight to interject youthful idealism into the entrenched, harsh realities of their region. This is a smart, expansive and well-made film.

The acting and dialogue in East Side Story is a bit slipshod, but director Carlos Portugal's experience writing for daytime soap operas shines through. However, this year's Emerging Film Award as Best Men's Feature captures an intriguing tableau: the gentrification of predominantly Mexican enclaves in East Los Angeles caused by the infusion of gay gabachos (the preferred term among L.A. Latinos for "gringos"). Through the framework of a fairly standard love triangle, Portugal deftly navigates coexisting ethnic and sexual conflicts.

This year's Women and Men's Centerpiece selections are brightly colored love stories in which the protagonists are forced to fully expose themselves to the fears and vulnerabilities of embarking upon full-blown relationships. Director Anthony Caldarella's What's Up Scarlet? explores this theme when a successful L.A. matchmaker, Scarlet (Susan River), finds herself bunking with a vagabond foreign actress who accidentally rear-ends her automobile en route to an audition. A funny and delightful look at discovering a new sexual orientation and stepping out from under the discerning eye (and judgment) of one's family, this film paints a commendable picture of self-discovery in a modern world. Caldarella also depicts a woman's romantic universe with acuity, leaving lust nearly out of the picture as the two women form emotional ties from shared experiences and intimate conversations.

On the other side of the comedic spectrum sits director Casper Andreas' A Four Letter Word, a splashy man-hunt in which a flamboyant Manhattan night clubber named Luke (Jesse Archer, reprising a character from Andreas' first film, Slutty Summer) believes in lust between the sheets but divorces emotional attachment from his sexual engagements. But where What's Up Scarlet? is a tender, slow-burning romance, A Four Letter Word caters to the visual aesthetic of a smut-house romp in a misguided attempt to illustrate the realities of Manhattan gay culture. Where the film does succeed is its diversity: Homosexual, heterosexual and interracial couples all confront their own unique struggles throughout the film.

The refined French drama Another Woman is notable for its portrayal of a transgendered person named Nicolas who attempts to reconnect with family after transforming into Lea. Encompassing issues of societal assimilation and domestic acceptance, the film connects the fibers of familial love through the lasting relationship between Lea and her son. This is a true-to-life portrait of the struggle to survive and the painful remnants of an unforgotten past.

DOCUMENTARIES

A healthy slate of documentaries again adds perspective to the program. Foremost among them is Bob and Jack's 52-Year Adventure, the half-century love affair that spans their meeting while serving as Army grunts in post-World War II Germany to operating a postage-stamp-sized AM radio station in the Pacific Northwest. The talking head format is accentuated by vintage photographs and recordings. Mom's Apple Pie is an informative piece about the battles waged by lesbian mothers for their child custody rights during the 1970s. Eye On the Guy: Alan B. Stone and the Age of Beefcake, The Seven Secrets to Perfect Porn and The Best of Lezsploitation document various instances of homosexuality in the world of art and entertainment.

Transgender discourse is a prominent theme in two of the most intriguing documentaries. Gender Redesigner is a part of Rainbow America, an ongoing documentary series exploring the queer geography of the United States. The film follows a young performer named Fae as he transitions from female to male while living at home in rural Pennsylvania. The doc takes a look at all aspects of Fae's transition from the painful process of chest reconstructive surgery to his parents' unwillingness to accept his new gender. The film also provides an excellent chronicle of gender assimilation in rural America, where stereotypes and negative reactions to homosexuality are more prevalent. Kaden provides a look at the psychological aspects of transformation as Kaden Rushford prepares for transformative surgery and considers the impact this surgery will have on the way he perceives himself and the way others view him. 

SHORTS

Foremost among the remaining shorts is The Red Front, a story set in 1933 Nazi Germany that follows the son of an underground Communist leader and the deadly choices he must make. Other shorts worth seeing include Family Reunion, in which Katrin, a lesbian living in New York, returns home to Iceland where she must hide her sexual identity. But when she confides in an ex-lover, she assumes the whole town has turned against her until a family member reveals their own homosexuality in a public setting. Flowers at the Park does not deal with familial acceptance, but instead focuses on self-denial and self-acceptance. Two Spanish lesbians meet in an Internet chat room and decide to make a public date, but one woman is shy and unwilling to admit that she actually is interested in women. A series of meetings at the park and conversations full of witty wordplay become the epicenter of the short as the women explore their attraction to one another. Beautifully shot, Flowers at the Park crackles with precision as the black and white film stock and narrowed spatial area provided by a series of close-ups allows the viewer to focus solely on the women rather than their environment.

Finally, Raleigh-based teacher and filmmaker Veda Renfrow offers two shorts: The Bad Girl Made Me Do It and Xena On Dating: Part 1, which screen Saturday at 2:40 p.m. in Fletcher Hall as part of the "Lights! Camera! Action! Babes!" block of shorts.

Tickets can be purchased at the Carolina Theatre box office, by telephone at 560-3030 (or toll-free at 888-241-8162, or online at www.carolinatheatre.org. Single tickets are $8, and a pack of 5 tickets is $35.

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