Panel discusses queer issues in contemporary film

On Saturday, as part of Pride Days, the people behind the films shown at Images’ “Looking Queer” series discussed the evolution of the media’s portrayal of sexuality and their experience with the process of experimental filmmaking. Sitting on the panel were Showtime business executive Gene Falk, independent filmmaker Laura Nix and Ioaniss Mookas, co-curator of Muslim and Middle Eastern Queer Films and director of the MIX New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival. The panel discussion was moderated by Liza Johnson, filmmaker and assistant professor of art at Williams.

Gene Falk, who spearheaded Showtime’s initiative to launch a GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bi Transexual) cable channel, opened the session by showing a clip of television’s earliest treatment of gay issues: a laughably ignorant news segment from 1967 titled “CBS Reports: The Homosexuals.” This was considered the first “positive” media discourse on homosexuality, as it cast a sympathetic light on the gay community and, while not necessarily a vanguard for the advancement of gay rights, promoted media awareness of issues dealing with sexuality. A number of television shows have since incorporated gay and lesbian characters since the ’60s, and some revolve more specifically around themes of sexuality. But whether they are widely enjoyed (“Will and Grace”) or not enjoyed at all (“Ellen”), the fact remains that they are produced for the mainstream audience. Falk commented that the virtue of cable as opposed to network television is that it enables producers to turn the reigns over to gay and lesbian filmmakers and offer the viewpoint of the minority, specifically targeting a minority audience. Though these films will reach a much smaller demographic and the economic gain is minimal, channels like Showtime are the only venues in which films like “Bobbie’s Girl,” a family movie about a lesbian couple, can be aired. While Falk admitted that Showtime was “still programming for a mainstream audience in some ways,” the fact that it is a cable station gives it the “opportunity to tell more different stories with more different storytellers.” When asked whether the launch of a channel that shows exclusively gay-themed programming would cause other networks to take their similar programming off the air, Falk responded with confidence that if the channel were successful, it would likely incite networks to increase their own gay-themed programs. “Rather than discourage, I believe it will encourage,” he said. He did, however, express his concern that in certain areas, potential gay audiences might be hesitant to subscribe to the channel for fear of others knowing.

Nix spoke next on the process of making her film, “The Politics of Fur,” a dark comedy about a lesbian who, because of her misguided priorities, ends up losing everything she has (everything in this case being a rock star lover, a pet tiger and a manservant named Dick). Nix said that she wrote the “The Politics of Fur” “as an elegy to codependence,” and noted that, in contrast to many other films screened at gay and lesbian film festivals, “the fact that everyone [in the film] is queer is taken for granted.” It was important to Nix that none of her characters ever talked about being gay, and in fact the word “gay” is never used in the film. Nix described the process of searching for funding and how she was forced to deal with the politics of groups who fund women as well as those who fund gay and lesbian filmmakers. The amount of funding she received hinged on whether these organizations found Nix’s films to be a positive or negative portrayal of the gay community and, in the case of the groups that fund women filmmakers, whether or not the subject matter was found to be appropriate. This would not have been a problem if Nix, as she put it, “had been a woman making a film about a journey with my grandmother,” but “The Politics of Fur” is not about redemption, and there are no positive lesbian role models in the film, a red flag for the gay and lesbian organizations. Most of the budget for the film, then, had to come directly from Nix’s pocket. She began to see the rewards for her efforts, however, when “The Politics of Fur” won the Grand Jury Prizes for best American narrative and best actress at Outfest, a gay and lesbian film festival.

Nix is currently looking for a distributor for the film, another difficult endeavor, as most distributors will accept only what is palatable to a mainstream audience. Though Nix has found the process of making her film to be discouraging in many ways and mentioned that, on occasion, she would be watching war coverage on CNN and wonder why, at a time like this, she was “even worried about queer media.” But calls that she receives from places like Norman, Okla., asking her to help found a gay and lesbian film festival, assure her that her art and that of her colleagues is needed.

Mookas spoke last about MIX, the longest running gay and lesbian experimental film festival in New York. “MIX is unique in that most queer film festivals have a mandate to show whatever comes down the pipeline,” he said, whereas his film festival takes “a thematically driven approach” and works within a framework that is redesigned each year. MIX has shown a long-standing commitment to diversity and Mookas said that the festival has principally been an organ for younger artists and artists of color to display their work. In addition to gay and lesbian issues, MIX deals with race, class and gender-identity, in a hope that it will “continue to complicate ideas of what queer issues are.” As co-curator of Muslim and Middle Eastern Queer Films, Mookas’ primary focus has broadly been sexuality in the Middle East, and specifically sexuality in Asian societies. Many of the films at MIX turn the spotlight on various gay and lesbian diasporas throughout the world, and are better labeled as intervention than entertainment. These films attempt to open a discourse not only on gay and lesbian rights, but also colonization in the Middle East. Mookas hopes to show that the gay and lesbian community have come to “no agreement on who we are,” and wants audiences to realize the various facets of the situations presented by the various films shown at MIX.

A number of questions were raised about the introduction of experimental films to mainstream audiences and were met with a degree of disagreement between panelists. Nix said that the American idiom prevented experimental films from entering the mainstream, mostly due to a lack of funding. She cited a Canadian filmmaker who was funded by the Canadian government to produce an 11 minute short, “Canada Sperm Bank of Satan.” It can be surmised from the title that such a film never would have received funding in America, least of all from the government, and it is Nix’s contention that the constraints of her medium are entirely financial. Falk, on the other hand, said that in order to find an audience, a film or television program must compensate for being presented in an experimental form by having content with which audiences are comfortable. The Showtime series Queer as Folk, for example, pushes the envelope in terms of its sexual content, but is presented in a familiar, soap opera style format. Even in the near future when information technology will give audiences access to whatever media they wish to find, experimental filmmakers like those whose work is shown at MIX will still be limited in terms of what they can disseminate over the Internet because funds only exist for mainstream work.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *