Surviving a full decade of anything—from marriage to restaurant ownership—is admirable. But putting together an independent film festival that lasts long enough to have a 10th anniversary is something just shy of miraculous.
This week, the 10th annual Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival will rip the curtain back on more than a week’s worth of features, documentaries and shorts. Organizers will be screening more than 100 films from 20 countries. Add to that guest appearances and panel discussions by directors, producers and actors, and you’ve got a fest that cities twice our size would be envious of.
Looking back 10 years ago to that innaugural event, however, festival director and primary programmer Roberto Appicciafoco remembers things weren’t quite so grand. “We had about 16 films at the time,” he says. “Nine of them were features, and we had seven shorts. Just one venue. Three days. And then slowly from there we just kept building up and up.” Over the years, the festival grew from a few days to a full week. “Now, with it finally hitting the 10th year,” says Appicciafoco, “we’re jumping the gun and saying, Let’s just do 10 full days!”
Last year, the fest ushered nearly 4,000 people through its doors. It’s likely that 2012 will break that record.
“When we first started it back in 2003, we weren’t sure,” confesses Appiciafoco. Even he wasn’t entirely convinced Albuquerque was ready for a full-fledged gay and lesbian film festival. “We were reading the reports that New Mexico has a very large GLBT community—even though it wasn’t very apparent. We don’t have, as in other bigger cities, a gayborhood or specific areas where the gay and lesbian audience populate.”
An opportunity came to test the waters when local cinema arts organization Basement Films offered a screening of Bill Taylor’s ironic, antique collection of anti-queer “educational” shorts to Closet Cinema, the soon-to-be creators of the Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. “They tossed it to us, and we said, Well, let’s try it. We basically almost sold out.” When the Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival did come to fruition three months later, nearly 1,500 people showed up—an impressive feat for a freshman effort. “It solidified the fact that: Yes, they are here, they are craving something more than they are used to, and it hasn’t been available to them,” says Appicciafoco. “Slowly but surely every year it seems to grow.”
Over the last decade, the fest has broadened its appeal, drawing in audiences from all demographics. “We have a large base of art film people who just want to come and check it out,” says Appicciafoco. “We do these surveys every year to identify our audience. A lot of them identify as straight. They just basically want to come and see international film.” Appicciafoco believes that the festival is no longer solely for the gay community. “In its own sense, it’s an international film festival. Even though the focus is GLBT, our audience is much more wide and varied at this point.”
Of course, the primary mission is still reaching out to the GLBT community throughout New Mexico. Also added to this year’s anniversary programming is a collection of short films aimed at teenage audiences called Queer Youth United! The festival has been working with New Mexico Gay-Straight Alliance Network and other groups to help shape this year’s youth-oriented programming. “Looking at our demographics,” notes Appicciafoco, “we see that below the 21-year age range is a market that we haven’t been able to hit very hard. So we wanted to put a special focus on that this year.”
Surprisingly, assembling so many films—including several new programs—wasn’t that much of a strain. This year saw the biggest deluge of submissions ever. In the neighborhood of 500 films passed though the hands of Closet Cinema’s screening committee. “It was seriously insane this year,” admits Appicciafoco, “the amount of submissions and how everybody was just sending us stuff every which way they could.” As a result, he characterizes the lineup as “some of the strongest films we’ve been lucky to score.”
Among the highlights of the 2012 schedule is Ira Sachs’ drama Keep the Lights On, which won the Teddy for Best Feature at the Berlin Film Festival. The boldly emotional, semi-autobiographical film traces the relationship between a gay filmmaker and a closeted lawyer in early 2000s Manhattan.
Somewhat more exotic fare comes in the form of Facing Mirrors, the first feature-length transgender film from Iran. The movie holds a special significance for Appicciafoco, who was lucky enough to be selected for a special jury at this year’s San Francisco International GLBT Film Festival. There, he and directors from the Melbourne and Boston fests chose Facing Mirrors for the Jury Prize award. “I’ve been very happy that we’re able to bring that film here,” says Appicciafoco, adding—quietly, like a father afraid to offend his other children—that Facing Mirrors is his “all-time favorite.”
Of course, amid the soul-searching, gender identity issues and angst, there’s still plenty of room for fun. Programmers are bringing back the popular midnight movie screenings with this year’s offbeat offering, Varla Jean and the Mushroom Heads. It’s a campy, music-filled comedy about a wildly inappropriate children’s show run by a New Orleans drag queen. Appicciafoco calls it “oh-so-dirty and bad in so many ways.”
Finally, the Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival would be nothing without its mainstay parties. The opening night shindig will be held at Desert Fish restaurant in Nob Hill on Friday, Sept. 28. “Culinary delights” and local DJs are promised. Ten days later—on Sunday, Oct. 7—the festival will close out, sweaty and happily exhausted, with a party and award ceremony at Effex Nightclub. To make things easier, organizers will be running a shuttle service from Guild Cinema to the Downtown area for the close-out celebration.
With 2012’s opening night looming, Appicciafoco compares preparations for this year’s epic anniversary event to years past. “It seems in some ways more effortless,” he says. So far, the film prints have arrived, the guests are booked and the passes are flying out the door at a brisk pace. “But for me, it’s always like the nerves of hosting a party. You always hope everybody comes.” So what are you waiting for, New Mexico? Buy a ticket, grab a seat and join the celebration.