One of the most consistently compelling sections at Outfest, L.A.'s annual gay and lesbian film festival, has been its "4 in Focus" category, which spotlights the works of four first-time feature filmmakers.
Though this year's selection — "The Evening Dress," "Grown Up Movie Star," "Open" and "Undertow" — come from directors who ostensibly have little in common (collectively they are gay, straight, male, female, American and foreign), each film finds its own way to examine human desires, emotions and love.
"This year we just really wanted to show films that we were really passionate about and loved and wanted to support," said director of programming Kim Yutani. "They're great stories made by incredibly talented filmmakers and I'm interested in exposing our audience to films that are slightly more challenging."
All four films enter Outfest (which runs through July 18) having already received acclaim elsewhere. The festival's International Centerpiece "Undertow," which screens Tuesday, won the World Cinema audience award at Sundance and has gone on to pick up numerous audience prizes at other festivals.
Set in a tiny, picturesque Peruvian fishing village, the film touches on multiple themes and ideas — including the possibility of the supernatural — as a man grapples with his responsibilities and affections for his wife while also facing the growing passion and love he has for a local male artist.
"I talk about it as a love story," said writer-director Javier Fuentes-León, "but it is also a story of coming to terms, a coming of age if you want, but not as a 15-year-old kid but as a thirtysomething-year-old man. It has elements of magic and fantasy. But I'm not going to deny there's a big gay romance in the middle of the whole thing."
With "Open" (which screens Sunday and Wednesday) writer-director Jake Yuzna artfully tells a series of stories set amid the transgender community of Minneapolis, creating an at-times unsettling mix of love and medical technology. The film picked up a Teddy jury prize (given for gay and lesbian films) at the Berlin Film Festival.
"From the beginning I realized the subject matter can seem so extreme to people, we didn't want it to be a freak show or 'look at these weirdoes,'" said Yuzna of his efforts to humanize his characters at all costs. "My point-of-view is that the diversity of humanity is one of the most beautiful things about our existence. The core thing that allows people to bridge those differences is those sorts of universal emotional truths. I really wanted all of the characters to be relatable. I wanted people to empathize and really understand these characters that at face-value can seem so unknowable."
In "The Evening Dress," directed by French filmmaker Myriam Aziza (also screening Sunday as well as Saturday), a pre-teen girl finds herself dealing with the emotional tumult of her new crush on a charismatic female teacher. The film, in which first feelings are portrayed as vibrant and fragile, was screened as part of the highly selective New Directors/New Films series in New York City.
In "Grown Up Movie Star," screening Thursday, a teenage girl with acting aspirations and a yearning to break free of the judgmental small Canadian town where she lives, learns to use her emerging feminine wiles to get what she wants. The lead role is played with burning intensity by Tatiana Maslany, who picked up a special jury prize for her performance when the film premiered at Sundance. The girl's father, a former hockey player grappling with his own developing gay identity, is played with conviction and compassion by Shawn Doyle, recognizable to audiences for his work on TV's "Big Love."
"I think what links their performances is that I wanted to explore that we can have sexual awakenings at any age in our life," said writer-director Adriana Maggs. "It's never too late. I wanted a father to be going through a sexual awakening at the same time a daughter is going through a sexual awakening and I wanted to explore how people need to explore their own selves whenever they find a window to do that."
While the gay festival circuit may be opening up to broader ideas of what makes for a "gay film," or perhaps more importantly what LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) audiences are willing to accept, the business of film distribution has perhaps been a little slower to adapt to those same changes.
"Sometimes we joked that if we had a couple hot muscle-bound guys rolling around in the first five minutes we'd have been able to sell it eight times already," Yuzna said. "But we were interested in showing something that's different. It's a little harder sometimes to find an audience, but when audiences find it they're excited and supportive."
Outfest is using the "4 In Focus" as something of an advance party in a continued effort to broaden the perception of what films of LGBT interest can be about. For a filmmaker like Maggs, a straight mother with two young sons, being included in the program is both a slight surprise and a sign of cultural headway.
"I love that gay and lesbian festivals are embracing it as a story," said Maggs. "I knew it had gay content, but I never thought of the film as a gay film. It's really beautiful to me that the gay and lesbian community could accept a film in which some people are straight, some are gay. But that's our lives, right?"