Tom Cullen and Chris New star in "Weekend." (Quinnford & Scout )
Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Outfest, believes many of the films in the 29th edition of its Gay & Lesbian Film Festival have mainstream appeal and crossover potential.
"We expect all of these films to have a healthy life post-Outfest," she said.
Though there is lighter fare such as the comedy "Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same" in the festival, which begins Thursday evening and continues through July 17, the majority of the features, documentaries and shorts hit political hot buttons for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender audiences, as well as others interested in such issues as gay marriage and anti-gay bias.
Two examples are the short "Thank You for Your Call," which examines the plight of survivors of same-sex partnerships who cannot collect Social Security, and the documentary "Wish Me Away," about the fallout from country singer Chely Wright's decision to come out.
The oldest film festival in Los Angeles, Outfest attracts an audience of about 40,000 over 10 days. This year, there are 164 films — 67 are features.
The opening night film, "Gun Hill Road," screened at Sundance earlier this year and at the San Francisco LGBT festival, Frameline. Esai Morales, Judy Reyes and newcomer Harmony Santana star in this drama about a man who returns to his home in the Bronx after a three-year stint in prison to find that his teenage son has become a transgender woman. The drama, which opens theatrically Aug. 5, is the first feature from former actor Rashaad Ernesto Green.
"This is my first time at Outfest," said the New York-based filmmaker, who had made several short films. "I'm very honored to know that the film has touched the programmers in a way they feel it is right for their audience."
What is unique about "Gun Hill Road" is that Santana is in real life a transgender female. "I think it is one of the first times at least in American cinema we are actually getting to see a transgender main character played by a transgender person," said Green. "She was just at the beginning of her transition. She just started to take hormones. Since the character has to play both male and female in the film, I needed someone who was not physically developed just yet."
The U.S. dramatic centerpiece on Tuesday at the DGA is Maryam Keshavarz's first feature, "Circumstance," which revolves around two teenage girls who fall in love in contemporary Tehran. The film took the Audience Award: Dramatic at Sundance.
"She has been at Outfest before with a short film," Schaffer said. "This is not a movie that you could get a couple of friends together and shoot down the street from your house. You had to find locations that looked like Tehran but wasn't."
The British love story "Weekend," which screens Wednesday at the DGA, is the international dramatic centerpiece film. It won the 2011 SXSW Emerging Visions Audience Award this spring. The drama from filmmaker Andrew Haigh focuses on the romantic relationship that blooms between two young gay men after a one-night stand. "It is exceptional," said Schaffer. "I think it's one of the best films I have seen in years. This is a very intimate film that captures those moments when you are first falling in love — and in a very universal way."
The closing night gala film, "The Perfect Family," screens July 17 at the Ford Theatre. Directed by another first-time feature filmmaker, Anne Renton, the film stars Kathleen Turner as a perfect Catholic mother whose daughter (Emily Deschanel) is about to marry her lesbian lover.
Schaffer says that even as her staff plans this year's event, they are gearing up for next year's 30th anniversary festival. "We started planning six months ago," she said.
For more information go to http://www.Outfest.org.