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Chicago’s Reeling LGBTQ+ film festival looks back and forward

In April 1981, a year before “Making Love” and “Personal Best” cautiously ventured into the world of mainstream studio dramas featuring queer and bisexual characters, Brenda Webb, managing director of Chicago Filmmakers, launched a festival known as Reeling.

By most accounts, this is the second-oldest LGBTQ+ film festival in the United States, behind San Francisco, which started in 1977. At the time, Webb says, “Mainstream movies portrayed homosexuality either negatively or in fundamentally pathetic ways. Everyone was a victim. You always knew the gay character was going to die. The stereotypical impression was that men were fairies and women were predatory lesbians. You know. “It’s not a pretty picture.”

Over the past two generations, queer representation on big and small screens has gradually expanded and turned into a much larger canvas, which is also reflected in our cinema history. Reeling festival features programmer Morgan Jon Fox, whose debut film “Blue Citrus Hearts” won best film at Reeling 20 years ago, sees many reasons for hope. “Youth today want to see themselves represented in movies; “There is a movie for almost everyone,” he says. Comedies. Tragedies. Horror movies. There are stories about every definition of family.

Reeling 2023 opens Sept. 21 with “The Mattachine Family,” about a gay couple played by Wilmette native Nico Tortorella and Juan Pablo Di Pace navigating uncertain emotional waters after giving their stepchild to the child’s biological mother. “Schitt’s Creek” co-star Emily Hampshire.

I spoke with Webb and Fox at the Chicago Filmmakers complex, housed in a stylish renovated fire station on the North Side. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Fox: I grew up in Memphis and worked at Blockbuster when I was 17, 18. I remember stocking the shelves, this desperately closeted kid reading the backs of cassette boxes, looking for anything that could potentially point to a gay movie. I usually started with the foreign section (laughs). And then I found “Wild Reeds” by André Téchiné It was about a group of friends and one of the characters was coming to terms with being gay. I remember taking the video home and watching it. And this was my moment. I knew who I was and decided to make films.

I don’t think I had watched any American movies that appealed to me at that time. “Will & Grace” was on TV (starting in 1998) and I knew about the movie “Philadelphia” (with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington), but I stayed away from it. Back then, watching something was a more intentional and public act. If I was sitting with my family and there was something even remotely gay on TV, I would go out and play in the garden.

Kristen Bush and Rebecca Ridenour "American Parent."

– Webb: I’ve heard from so many people who have come to our film festival over the years and this was their first real coming out act. Conversely, I have also heard from people who never came to Reeling because they were afraid to be there. Or from straight people who are uncomfortable with it.

Chicago Filmmakers and Reeling have their roots in experimental films, and that’s what really excited me. The first year we showed films by Kenneth Anger, James Broughton and Barbara Hammer. There were a fairly proportionate number of lesbian and gay filmmakers doing great work in American avant-garde cinema at the time. Reeling really started when I asked the question: Is Chicago’s gay community aware of this study? These films had a following in experimental and academic circles, but the real challenge was connecting with the broader LGBTQ+ community. Then the first year we had great success with movies of all genres. We jokingly called it the “first annual” festival because we didn’t know if there would be a second one.

In the ’80s, we had a hard time getting some films into our festival even though they were gay-themed, because the distributor didn’t want to frame it as a gay movie, thinking straight people couldn’t do it. come to see When I went to film festivals like Berlin to watch films, most of them were just guesses based on program descriptions. “…and then he discovers something about himself” you know (laughs).

Joni Ayton-Kent stars in Australian indie series "T Blockers."

Fox: In fact, in a very short time, queer films have begun to embrace much more than stories defined by the pain of who you are (whether that stems from oppression, fear, or internal strife). That’s the power of this year’s Reeling; We are entering species we have not seen before. There’s everything from “Ganymede,” the U.S. premiere of true Gothic horror from Chicago-based Colby Holt and Sam Probst, to “T Blockers.” This is the third feature film from 18-year-old Australian trans filmmaker Alice Maio Mackay, which follows a teenager and her trans friends as they battle a zombie horde that is literally spreading bigotry. It’s not very worn, it’s not flashy, but it’s incredible.

Phillips: Brenda, do you remember seeing something you couldn’t see for the first time as a young moviegoer? Negative Are you reading as gay?

webb: It’s not exactly a strange movie, but “Becket” starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. It was released in 1964 and there is a moment in this movie that, in my opinion, tells an epic love story between two men; King II O’Toole, as Henry, says to his friend the Archbishop of Canterbury (Burton): “I would. I gave my life for you. Only I loved you and you didn’t love me. This is the difference.” I just remember crying over this. Epic romance filmed when it was still illegal to be gay in the UK.

Phillips: What do you hope for Reeling ten years from now?

webb: Of course, more experimental films! This is actually the final frontier. For me anyway. We see a lot of experimental techniques and directions in mainstream films that adapt elements from experimentation, but I’d love to see more. For me it’s all about slowing things down. It’s about being silent and the act of seeing. It’s almost meditative. So much of the culture now is about speeding up, fast images, faster and faster. I think that makes you a buyer for the film, not an active seer.

Phillips: I’m getting the idea that the word “storytelling” isn’t the be-all and end-all for you.

webb: No, it’s not real.

Fox: Oh, guilty! I use this word a lot (laughs).

Phillips: What about you, Morgan? In 10 years?

a scene "All the Colors of the World Are Between Black and White."

Fox: I want to see more and more people in society telling their own stories. All kinds. That’s why I love “T Blockers” so much. It’s a wild kind of movie that has something to say. We have some great work to show people this year. “American Parent,” Emily Railsback’s film about two moms dealing with parenting and much more. This is a local Chicago project. I love “All the Colors of the World Between Black and White”, which is about two men in love. From Nigerian filmmaker Babatunde Apalowo. Every frame is gorgeous and the slow burn is truly effective.

This is great for me. Twenty years ago my first film entered Reeling, won an award and changed my life. And now here I am, helping to decide whose work will be selected for the exhibition – who knows? – can change theirs.

Shocking 2023: 41st Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival, Sept. 21 through Oct. 8 at Landmark Century Center Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.; Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; and Chicago Filmmakers, 1326 W. Hollywood Ave. Tickets $12-$15; five selection passes are $55; Pick-10 passes are $100. Some movies are available for online viewing. For more information, visit 773-293-1447 and reelingfilmfest.org

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.


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