Monday, 05 August 2013 12:16

Never To Be Outdone - The Five Visionary Directors of OutFest 2013

Written by Chavonny Tillotson
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It seems like the wait for OutFest, now in its 31st year, gets longer and longer with every passing film festival, and this year was certainly no exception. For eleven days, I danced, mingled, laughed, and wept during some of the most tingling and enticing films in queer cinema history.

Covering topics that ranged from homo-genocide in West-Central Africa to gay-targeted censorship and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this year’s 155 films from over 30 countries worldwide will serve as the openers for a global dialogue towards a world where differences don’t routinely equate to dislike.

And on the front lines of this peaceful yet powerful movement towards a new earth are five filmmakers with films sure to change attitudes and challenge concepts: Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G.), Michael Mayer (Out in the Dark), Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann (Born This Way), and Travis Mathews (Interior. Leather Bar.).

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez of C.O.G. 

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If you are a David Sedaris fan, you know that Sedaris, while feeling empowered enough to bare his soul on the pages of an essay or short story, has never warmed to the idea of exposing himself on the big screen. That all changed after Writer/Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez approached him during a book signing with his debut feature film Easier with Practice in hand. “Easier with Practice was based on the writings of Davy Rothbart, a contributor of the Public Radio International showThis American Life,” Kyle shared during our phone interview. “And I knew that David would be familiar with his work, so I had a little bit of an in there.” He handed Sedaris a copy of his film, and within a few months, Sedaris responded via email. Kyle saw this as an opportunity to sell Sedaris on the idea of adapting his essay C.O.G. into a feature film much in the same way he adapted Easier with Practice- meaning: it would be a film that could exist on its own, independent of the David Sedaris name. C.O.G tells the story of a time in Sedaris’ life when he went from working on an apple farm in the Pacific Northwest to carving stone into clocks in the shape of Oregon, teaming up with an eccentric co-worker who describes himself as a "C.O.G." (Child of God).  And because it’s a story that doesn’t feature Sedaris’ family, Kyle had much more freedom to be creative with the details.

"I didn’t set out to make a David Sedaris movie,” he said. “I read the story when I first became a fan of his work, and the motivation for me wasn’t driven by wanting to see his work on screen, it was driven by the story; he just happened to have written it. And that was the attitude I took when approaching him.” It was also this attitude that took him all the way through finishing the film, starring Jonathan Groff of Glee, which dazzled audiences at this year’s opening night at OutFest. The film will be released in theaters September 20th, but Kyle was in no hurry to come down from the high that screening for a packed audience on opening night does to a filmmaker. “Since I’ve lived in L.A., I’ve spent so much time at OutFest,” he shared. “I’ve gone every year to watch films. And my first film wasn’t quite right for the festival, but for C.O.G. to get an opportunity to play on such a wide scale was an amazing feeling.”

Kyle first fell in love with Sedaris back in high school when he was just 15-years old. A gay teen obsessed with film, Kyle felt a sense of disconnection from his community that paralleled with some of Sedaris’ work. “I was living in a conservative neighborhood, and I wasn’t raised religious, but I grew up around a lot of very religious people,” Kyle commented. “And I remember feeling left out, and it was a strange feeling because I knew that religion wasn’t something that spoke to me- but I wanted the community that everyone else got from it.”

Reading Sedaris’ book of essays titled Naked, Kyle came across C.O.G., and the story immediately gripped him.  “When I read C.O.G., it dealt with religion in such a fun and interesting way,” Kyle explained. “It was a story about a gay guy who finds God, arguably. And I thought it was so interesting because it dealt with this idea of what happens when somebody who doesn’t think they need religion ends up really needing it.”

Kyle never forgot about C.O.G. even during his time at the University of Miami where he graduated cum laude with a degree in Motion Picture Production and English Literature. He got his first Hollywood job assisting Warren Beatty before writing and directing Easier with Practice, a character study about an introverted writer who substitutes phone sex for true intimacy. And it was in the middle of filming Easier with Practice that Kyle was struck with the idea of adapting C.O.G. for his next project- this time, exploring human sexuality from the point of view of a gay man.

“Some may see C.O.G. as a coming-out story, and I’m okay with that. Obviously, I didn’t guide the story in one way or the other, but what’s different about this story is that it’s about someone who was already comfortable with themselves,” Kyle shared. “We see him openly flirting with men in the film, he’s not necessarily repressed in the physical sense. But I think there’s another side to him. There’s some angst that the character is going through because he’s in this rural area, and there’s this anxiety about what people will think of him. And that’s what I was really interested in, that sort of grey area between being in the closet and out of the closet.”

Next, Kyle will be directing a film that he didn’t adapt or write himself, and though it will be challenging, he’s certain to bring something fresh and unique to the work. “I’m trying to find a way to put myself in it because that’s what’s gotten me to a place where I can make movies. I have to embrace my perspective and, hopefully, make movies that are as good as the ones I fell in love with growing up.”

For more information, visit cog-movie.com.

Co-Writer/Director Michael Mayer of Out in the Dark

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“The BBC estimated that there are about 300 to 350 gay Palestinians hiding out in Israel at any given time,” said Co-Writer/Director Michael Mayer during our meeting at the Directors Guild of America. “And the people in Israel who work at the gay & lesbian center are not necessarily the same people demonstrating for Palestinian rights. But when a 16 year-old Palestinian kid who’s just been beaten up and kicked out by his family comes through the doors and needs a place to stay, or medical assistance, or legal assistance- the center steps up to the plate, and they help him.” And with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict still in full swing, extending as far back as 1947 when the United Nations General Assembly approved a plan to split Great Britain's former Palestinian mandate into Jewish and Arab states, many of us- both inside and outside of the conflict- may find such compassion-without-borders surprising. That was certainly the case for Michael, who first became present to the undisputable humanity of others by accident.

“I was having dinner with a friend who was visiting from Israel, and he told me that he had been volunteering at the gay & lesbian center in Tel Aviv. And one of the things they did there and still do is give support to gay Palestinians who are illegally hiding in Israel. And I was born and raised in Israel, but I had no idea this was even going on,” Michael said. “We hear so much about the conflict, but very little about these smaller, human stories, and these instances where people are working together. And the fact that these were gay men and women helping each other due to the shared experience of being gay, that felt really moving, and I knew I had to tell this story.” And with his perception having been shifted, Out in the Dark was born. A romantic, political thriller, Out in the Dark takes us inside the lives of Nimer, an ambitious Palestinian student in the West Bank, and Roy, an Israeli lawyer, as they embark on a journey of forbidden romance. But as they grow closer, their relationship is tested by the rejection Nimer faces in Israel because of his nationality combined with the danger he faces in Palestinian society due to his sexual orientation.

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An official OutFest 2013 selection- and Michael’s very first feature film- Out in the Dark opens domestically in theaters this September. It’s already opened in Israel, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Taiwan. HBO will be airing it in several Eastern European countries, and it’s been screened in 70 film festivals. But Michael admits he’s been attending OutFest every year since his move to this country in the late 90’s for a reason. “I always kind of joked that OutFest is the only festival I’ve ever wanted to be in,” he said, “but there’s a big chunk of truth behind that. We got into the Toronto International Film Festival, and we couldn’t have asked for a better festival to open the film, but OutFest has always been the one I wanted.”

One of the things making the film such a major international success, in addition to the stellar writing and superb acting, is the level of authenticity captured while shooting on location in Israel. The height of discernment cast upon gay Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza only accenting the authenticity of the film, as it played a major role in the story and behind the scenes. “Tel Aviv is pretty liberal in terms of homosexuality,” Michael explained, “so we were good shooting there. But there are Palestinian villages within Israel, and when it came to the subject matter in those locations, we just didn’t tell them it was a gay film.” They only shot in Palestinian territories what they absolutely could not cheat somewhere else- crossing the border, without permits, over into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Everything else, they shot within Tel Aviv.

“The situation is so complex,” he confessed. “There was one incident where one of our art directors was putting up political posters involving Palestine, and the neighbors were coming out to ask him to take them down. So there were a lot of complexities in terms of shooting in certain locations that were problematic.”  But in the end, Michael’s commitment to raising awareness through this project proved infallible. “The story that I am telling on a narrative level is about a man who wants out of Palestine, out of the area, away from the conflict, and he just wants to better himself,” Michael shared. “And the fact is the places we’re from and the labels people put on us, whether they are just or unjust, they are unavoidable in a way. But maybe, without being too much of a romantic, maybe love can conquer all and there is hope. There are people working together that, on paper, should be sworn enemies, who have found a common language.”

And considering that his production consisted of both Palestinians and Israelis all working together towards a common goal, Michael has perpetuated the very thing that left him inspired to do this work in the first place. “I’m a bit like the characters in the story,” he admits. “They try to float above the political, but throughout the movie, they become more politically involved. And that’s what happened to me while I was working on this film. I feel like I’m more aware and educated about this issue. And I don’t think my opinions have necessarily changed; I apposed the occupation then and I appose the occupation today, but I feel I know the people better.”

Leaving his hometown of Haifa, Israel, to attend film school at the University of Southern California, Michael graduated in 1999, promptly beginning a successful career cutting movie trailers and working on campaigns for films like X-Men and Little Miss Sunshine to name a few. He expanded his talents in 2008 producing the feature documentary Driving Men, which premiered at the 2009 Visions du Reel festival in Nyon. In 2010, Michael directed the short film Fireworks, which screened at numerous festivals, including the 2011 Lucerne Film Festival in Switzerland. And with Out in the Dark, his first feature narrative, having dramatically surpassed expectations, Michael is hard at work putting any suspicions of beginner’s luck to rest, embarking on his next two films: a murder mystery taking place in Southern Ireland, and a post-Holocaust period piece centering on a Jewish man who travels back to Germany after the war to find his family.

“I’m having a great time, and I’m really enjoying this ride, but the only thing I’m wanting is another movie,” he admits. “And it took me a while to let it all settle in because there have been all these marks along the way: our first sale, getting U.S. distribution, being written about in Variety. We won an award at Frameline, so every time something major happens around Out in the Dark, it’s great, but all I care about is making another one.”

For more information, please click the following link: Out in the Dark.

Directors Shaun Kadlec & Deb Tullmann of Born This Way 

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Not unlike the Palestinian occupied territories of Israel, the Republic of Cameroon- a country in West-Central Africa- also harbors great disdain for homosexuals, topping the list for the country with the most people imprisoned for homosexuality. Offenders face as much as five years in prison, and the dehumanizing abuse doesn’t stop with the law. Gay and lesbian Cameroonians face harassment and even attempts against their lives on a regular basis. But even with so much to lose, the LGBT community in Douala- the largest city in Cameroon- manages to find camaraderie and support at Alternatives Cameroun, the first LGBT center in Cameroon, which doubles as an HIV/AIDS clinic in an attempt to keep the haven truly safe. And with great concern and vigilance, filmmakers Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann take us into the underground world of gay Cameroonians as they struggle to survive crippling homophobia in between moments of laughter, creativity and romance in Born This Way, winner of the 2013 Outfest Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature Film.

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Shaun and Deb first became aware of Alternatives Cameroun after meeting founder Steave Nemande at a Human Rights Watch event in Los Angeles. There, he illustrated how staff members at Alternatives Cameroun provide HIV and AIDS treatment and crisis counseling while, at the same time, covertly putting on fashion shows and dance parties to reinforce the significance of community. “They sounded like they had a passion that felt very familiar to me, having been in Africa before,” Shaun recalled during our interview at the party for Born This Way. “But, at the same time, a passion that is so different and intense compared to what we often feel here in the gay and lesbian community. Of course, there’s been a tremendous amount of passion recently in the U.S. around Prop 8, but over there, it’s life and death.”

And when focusing on subjects living inside a life and death situation, it’s easy to categorize such exploration as activism, but Shaun and Deb don’t quite see it that way. “There’s the activist angle in exposing something that really needs international attention, but we identify as storytellers that have a sensitivity to the individual experience in the way that the filmmaking becomes invisible,” Deb stressed. “So we were looking for a story to tell that would be a good fit with that style. We didn’t want to have a lot of talking heads, but, instead, something that felt very real and very immediate- giving people a visceral sense of what it’s like to be gay in modern Africa?”

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And knowing that they couldn’t give something they hadn’t gotten for themselves, Shaun and Deb quickly went to work raising money and, oAnd knowing that they couldn’t give something they hadn’t gotten for themselves, Shaun and Deb quickly went to work raising money and, on tourist visas, visited Cameroon on an intended research mission. There, they spent time familiarizing themselves with the city of Douala as well as with the employees at Alternatives Cameroun, where Nemande introduced them to subjects Cédric and Gertrude. Cédric, who wanted to come out to his mother, had been receiving death threats, and Gertrude- who was embarking on a new relationship- wanted to come out to the Mother Superior who raised her in a Catholic convent. “When we talked to Cedric and Gertrude, there was such a connection with them, and they were dealing with all these really big issues, but in a really personal way,” Shaun said. “It was a mixture of us seeing the potential for a story that people could engage with, and also them being willing to trust us and be excited about sharing.”

Fortunately for them, after two weeks of research and meetings, they’d shot half the film. “And we didn’t expect that,” Shaun admitted. “We didn’t know if shooting undercover would even be possible, but we got there and felt it out, and we saw that you can really hide in plain sight in a lot of ways.” In order to avoid outing their participants, Shaun and Deb decided to forego obtaining filming permits because it would’ve potentially led to government officials snooping around during shoots. Instead, they did a lot of shooting inside the homes of their subjects and inside Alternatives, and used very small cameras while shooting in public. They even managed to sneak cameras inside a courtroom during the trial of two young women accused of “lesbianism and witchcraft,” where human rights lawyer Alice Nkom served as their defense attorney.>

And although they were somewhat unprepared, unable to speak French, the official language, with limited knowledge of the cultural differences, Shaun and Deb were committed to telling a story that was authentic to the experience of gay Cameroonians- and a reasonable amount of danger was necessary. “One of the things that started out being very difficult, but ended up being a huge proponent of the film, was the fact that Shaun and I felt very much in danger ourselves while shooting outside of the center,” Deb remembered. “We had a sense of looking over our shoulders. And we weren’t so much concerned about going to jail; our real concern was about our footage getting confiscated. Or what if our subjects were endangered by what we were doing? That was a very real fear that evaporated whenever we went inside the center. And that is, in some ways, our subjects daily experience.”

That experience may be the norm for the subjects of the film, but like Shaun and Deb, it didn’t stop them from moving forward and participating. And in the case of Gertrude, being a participant of Born This Way was an empowering motivator to keep fighting. Gertrude, who was also in attendance at the party, shared, “Nobody knew me before Born This Way. And I didn’t have the same strength and courage that I do now. I wanted to express myself, but I had no voice. Now, I have that courage.” Gertrude, who experienced sexual assault as a result of being a lesbian, is in no way taking the opportunity she’s been given for granted. She’s shown up as a fighter, and with her first trip to the United States having been such a powerful one, she’ll return home a leader.

“The fight is on,” she said. “Right now, I’m recharging my battery and building my strength. Being here for the screening and seeing people walking around free, it energizes me. And, yes, I’m afraid, but I’m going to keep fighting anyway.”

And as documentary filmmakers, Shaun Kadlec and Deb Tullmann are no strangers to perseverance either. A Carleton College graduate with a degree in Musicology, Shaun fell in love with documentary filmmaking while in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright Fellowship. “It was after the tsunami, and I was there with a group of people researching how the reconstruction was going,” he recalled. “There was this videographer in the group who didn’t want to do his job, and I was very drawn to the camera and asked if I could try it out.” That was all the incentive Shaun needed. After his trip, he returned to the U.S. and immediately started taking classes and volunteering on projects.

And after several years of International Development and Public Health work in Latin America, Mongolia and Thailand, Deb realized her passion for filmmaking in an Intro to Documentary Filmmaking class. “I ended up with a little camcorder, and I was following around these priests in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco, in the middle of the night, while they helped homeless and drug addicted people,” Deb remembered. “I would go with them into bars, and they would know everybody. And filming these conversations, having the sense that I was experiencing a sliver of reality that I would never have any reason to otherwise, it felt like such an honor and a gift.” It ended up being the gift that spawned an entire career, leading to Born This Way.

And though the filming of Born This Way may be over, the impact of their work has just begun. “The film catalyzed something, but now it’s like the film has gotten out of the way,” Deb Shared. “We see the attention going to Alice Nkom, the human rights lawyer in Cameroon. And after screenings, people are asking how they can help her and donate to Alternatives. So there’s the sense that the film has sparked something, and we’re now seeing this ripple effect that is really inspiring, but it’s not so much about the film at this point.”

Since the film’s premier in Berlin at the Berlinale Film Festival,they’ve both met with American Ambassador to Cameroon Robert Jackson, who is now looking to make LGBT rights a priority as a result of Born this Way. He even invited President of Cameroon Paul Biya to the premiere on behalf of the U.S. State Department. President Biya was not in attendance, but his ambassador to Germany met with Shaun and Deb and the American Ambassador to Germany to discuss the plight of homosexuals in Cameroon.And if international audiences help to dispel misguided attitudes about homosexuality by continuing to change policies in their own countries, Cameroon could potentially follow suit.

I think what we’re seeing, not only in the aftermath of the film being released, but also in our recent Supreme Court decision, is that even thoughcountries are making independent decisions about sexuality and equality, there really is a global community that cares,” Deb said. “And I feel that knowing about what is happening in Cameroon is giving people here in the U. S. more courage to fight. And when Gertrude travels here, for example, it changes her perspective and the way she relates to the issue in her country because she now sees what is possible.”

For more information on Born This Way, visit http://www.bornthiswaydocumentary.com.

Co-Director Travis Mathews of Interior. Leather Bar. 

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And from the interiors of Alternatives Cameroun to the interior of a gay S&M club in North Hollywood, California, Co-Directors Travis Mathews and James Franco wage war against censorship in the fight for sexual freedom in Interior. Leather Bar. If I had to describe it, I would depict it as a reimagining of 40 minutes of lost S&M footage that had originally been cut from William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising. But in all honesty, that wouldn’t be totally accurate. It’s more like a dramatic, cinematic expression that rests somewhere between a reimagining and a remake.

And while Cruising focused on an undercover cop, played by Al Pacino, who ventures into the underground world of gay S&M to catch a serial killer, Interior. Leather Bar. focuses on Val Lauren, a straight actor playing himself as he is forced to confront his own ideas about sexual freedom while unassimilated gay sex happens all around him in the same way Franco and Mathews imagined it happened in the 40 minutes that was cut from Cruising.

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Most likely, Val- along with the other cast and crew members- wouldn’t have been there had it not been for the commitment that James Franco had to this project. It was the summer of 2012, and Franco had been looking to film a project based on William Friedkin’s Cruising. In a statement taken directly from the Interior. Leather Bar. website, Franco said, “I wanted to explore the beauty of queerness, beautiful because it is counter to everything normal. As ‘straight’ becomes the new ‘gay,’ I wanted to find places where the anti-normative still thrived.” This was at the same time that Travis’ film I Want Your Love, about a gay man forced to leave San Francisco to move back to the Midwest, had started garnering attention in the festival circuit, partly for its erotic nature.“James approached me based on the work I had done on I Want Your Love because he wanted to collaborate with someone who was already using sex as a story-telling tool, and he wanted to use Cruising as a touchstone.” Travis said. “We had a few conversations, and it was clear that we were on the same page in terms of ideas and things we wanted to explore. And we both knew Cruising well; we knew its history and all the controversy surrounding it. But the one thing we both discovered together was the idea of the lost 40 minutes.”

The next step was to bring an actor on board who could play the Al Pacino character, and Franco immediately thought of Val Lauren, a long-time friend, and someone whom he had worked with previously on his 2011 film Sal, where Val played legendary teen idol Sal Mineo. “The movie lives and dies on the arc of the Val Lauren character, which was meant to parallel the Al Pacino character in Cruising,” Travis shared. “And whether it was in the behind-the-scenes footage, or in the scenes that ended up being the re-imagined 40 minutes, it didn’t matter to me as long as the story showed Val Lauren’s arc.” And the film did this successfully, manipulating scenes around Val where graphic sex between anonymous partners takes place, then- at the peak of his resistance- challenging his judgments with a particularly intimate scene between partners.

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“And while there is a lot of sexuality and, sometimes, explicit sex in the work that I’m doing, including Interior. Leather Bar., I don’t pursue it for titillation,” Travis said. “And for a lot of people, that’s not going to matter one way or the other because they’ll see something sexual, and the conversation will end right there for them. But that’s a risk I take. And I have a lot of respect for OutFest for not shying away from that kind of potential controversy.”

With a Masters in Counseling Psychology and a background in documentary filmmaking, Travis’ interest in the study of human behavior has been a theme in much of his work. “I go towards subject matter with a anthropological eye and a kind eye that’s just curious,” he shared. “And you can see that in my In Their Rooms series and with Interior. Leather Bar.”  HisIn Their Rooms series acquired much attention due to its honest and raw depiction of the intimacy real gay couples experience while spending time together in their bedrooms. And I Want Your Love started out as a short, winning the 2010 TLA Award for Best Short- prompting Travis to turn it into his first feature film. Next, Travis is working on another feature film, which he promised “will be more inclusive, including women in prominent roles.” As for Interior. Leather Bar., it will continue to enjoy a very successful run in the festival world until its limited theatrical release towards the end of 2013.

And for Travis Mathews, having the opportunity to make films at all is where the real success lies. “I needed to make films out of a frustration of feeling like there weren’t images and stories of ‘regular’ gay men that were absent of the gay crisis troupes that we’re all familiar with, like AIDS, or homophobia or bullying. But just regular, everyday gay guys where you’re dropped into their world. I wanted to see those stories, so I just started making them myself.”

For more information on Interior. Leather Bar., visit  http://www.interiorleatherbar.com.   

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