This year, the Outflix Film Festival is celebrating its 20th year of bringing LGBTQ films to the Memphis. To say the festival flew under the radar for the first few years is an understatement, but producer Mark Jones, an Outflix board member, says one factor shows how far they've come. "This is the first time we have had a letter from both the city mayor, Jim Strickland, and the county mayor, Mark Luttrell, in our program."
It sounds like a little thing, but it's the kind of symbolic gesture that means a lot in terms of acceptance of Memphis' gay community by the larger culture. It certainly wasn't like this back in April 1997 when filmmaker Brian Pera founded the Twinkie Museum Gay and Lesbian Video Festival. "I liked Twinkie Museum, because like a lot of queer lingo, it had refracted meanings, sort of a code logic," Pera says. "I knew the name was provocative, but hoped that it would create the possibility for conversation. To me, the most important thing was the title's reference to Harvey Milk and the story of the Twinkie Defense used by lawyers for Dan White, Harvey Milk's assassin."
White's lawyers had argued that he killed Milk, the most prominent, openly gay elected official in the country, not because of homophobia, but because he was having mood swings from eating too much sugar. The jury's acceptance of the argument, which led to a paltry five-year sentence for a double political assassination, was perceived by many in the LGBTQ community as a slap in the face. Pera's reclamation of the word echoed the way the former slur "queer" has now become an acceptable, even preferred, term of address among those who do not conform to binary gender stereotypes.
- The Outflix Film Festival is at Ridgeway Cinema Grill through September 14th.
Jones was a volunteer the first year, when a few-dozen people gathered to watch gay-themed films in the University of Memphis' psych auditorium."I think the first year was scheduled over Easter weekend, so there weren't very many people on campus. Plus, it was the first ever gay film festival in the history of our city," says Jones. "Back then, it was really hard to get gay films. ... It was just sort of word of mouth. ... We got a few submissions, but just the availability of high-quality films, it didn't really exist that much."
The next year, a screening of Ira Sachs' The Delta put the festival on the map. In 2002, after relocating to the Digital Media Co-Op at First Congo Church, the committee decided on a new name. "The Twinkie Museum, not everyone got the joke," says Jones. "So we changed it to Outflix."
Still, the festival led a precarious existence. In 2004, it was not held at all, due to lack of funds. Will Batts, now the executive director of OUTMemphis, stepped up to take the reins, and by 2008, when the festival moved to its current home at Malco Ridgeway Cinema Grill, attendance had more than tripled.
Outflix 2017 is the most ambitious program in the festival's history. "Will Batts and I think this might be the strongest lineup we've ever had," says Jones, who helped put together a program of 46 narrative features, documentaries, and short films out of hundreds of entries from all over the world. The opening night film is Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America. "It is as timely as today's headlines. It is a documentary about a young man who came to America undocumented when he was 2 years old. He tells his story of growing up and finding out he was queer in rural North Carolina. ... Sadly, it's horrific, as the president is looking to do away with the DREAM Act."
Other documentary highlights include Jewel's Catch One, the story of pioneering California nightclub owner Jewel Thais-Williams and her four-decade quest to provide a safe space for all orientations and races; The Lavender Scare, a documentary about the Eisenhower administration's campaign to purge homosexuals from the federal government; and Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, a portrait of the beloved author of Tales of the City.
The festival's most significant local offering is "He Could've Gone Pro," the short film by McGhee Monteith that, in 2016, took home the first Memphis Film Prize. "I could watch a close up of Cecilia Wingate smoking and talking on the phone for 15 minutes," says Jones. "She is great, and the entire film is incredible."
Outflix 2017 will run from September 8th through 14th at the Malco Ridgeway Cinema Grill. For tickets and a full schedule, go to Outflxmemphis.org. The Memphis Flyer will be bringing more in-depth coverage of selected films throughout the festival on our website, memphisflyer.com.
"Of all the features over 19 years, I can count on one hand — probably using two fingers — the number of feature films that have come back and played Memphis on the big screen," says Jones. "No one else is bringing these films to Memphis but us."