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At 20, Outfest Has Joined the In Crowd

Onetime fringe festival has mainstream clout now but remains committed to fresh takes on gay life


Outfest has come a long way, baby. Since its humble beginnings in 1982 as a fringe media coalition started by a quartet of UCLA-grad film students, Outfest, the L.A. gay and lesbian film festival, has skyrocketed into the mainstream as one of the largest and most successful film festivals in Los Angeles. Over the years, filmmakers as diverse as Gus Van Sant, Cheryl Dunye, Gregg Araki, Rose Troche and Todd Haynes have used the festival as a launching pad. And at Thursday's opening-night gala, highlights from their and others' films will be featured in a 20th-anniversary retrospective.

"The early '80s were a time when there was pervasive censorship of the gay and lesbian experience in mainstream media," says Stephen Gutwillig, executive director of Outfest for the last three years. "And that is certainly not the case today. Gay and lesbian film festivals like Outfest, the audiences that support us and the filmmakers that create the work, share a lot of credit for changing the visibility of queer lives in the mainstream."

But while this year's Outfest acknowledges and celebrates its past including screenings of two seminal films from 1982, "Making Love" and "Lianna," and four programs that depict the impact of AIDS on film, it also looks to its future. There's still a host of campy highlights including the "Gong Show" event (fest-goers submit personal videos and taped oddities from other sources) and participatory screenings of memorable howlers, this year represented by "Xanadu" and "Showgirls." What's changed is the festival's canvas. Showcasing a range of 241 international films from 30 countries as far apart as Senegal and Slovenia, this year's is the largest and most international Outfest.

With her film "Guardian of the Frontier," an edgy femme riff on "Deliverance," director Maja Weiss is not only the first director from her native Slovenia to depict lesbian relationships, she's the first female from her country to direct a full-length feature, period. "While there's rampant homophobia in Slovenia and a transitioning Eastern Europe, it's a universal subject," she says. "People from all over have related to it--that's what a good film is supposed to do."

It's all the more fitting considering that this year's Outfest Achievement Award is going to Strand Releasing. While not quite as old as Outfest--Strand is celebrating its 14th year in business--the indie film company has released more than 100 titles that pushed the envelope, from Gregg Araki's blistering AIDS road movie "The Living End" to Francois Ozon's kinky, comic "Criminal Lovers."

The company also has been an Outfest mainstay, and this year is no exception, with Strand offering four titles including the awards-night presentation of "The Cockettes," Bill Weber and David Weissman's documentary about the 1969 San Francisco LSD-dropping drag queen troupe, and the July 22 closing night feature "Lan Yu," a love story set in late-1980s Bejing.

"It's such a honor," says Strand co-founder Marcus Hu. "We just wanted to form a company that supported not just gay and lesbian films but auteur-driven films ... where you really see the hand of the director in every frame of the movie. We look for visceral things, and what better thing could there be [than] to be honored by an organization that promotes visibility of gay films?"

Strand co-founder Jon Gerrans concurs: "It helps justify the things that we do."

One of the conspicuous omissions at this year's Outfest is domestic features with theatrical distributors in place. For the first time, the opening-night gala is a compilation of 20 years of festival highlights, and the other big-event presentations are either documentaries or international films. There's no breakout mainstream feature, no "Trick" or "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" or "Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" as in festivals past. "There's a definite lull" in terms of higher-profile features, Gutwillig concedes. "But this will give audiences the chance to see a lot of great, to-be-discovered features."

For a festival celebrating its 20th birthday, Outfest's biggest trend this year seems to be breaking from tradition. Some familiar indie faces are returning but in different ways. Director Jamie Babbit showcased her feature "But I'm a Cheerleader" in 2000, but this year she returns to Outfest with a black-comedy short called "Stuck," about the literal crossroads that emerge between a senior-citizen lesbian couple. Babbit says the shorts program is a great calling card to get attention from Hollywood heavyweights. "One of the reasons I wanted to do a short was to do something darker in tone than 'Cheerleader,' " says Babbit. "But I think it can be more than just a calling card. I really like the short-film format because I love short stories."

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