Kansas City’s LGBTQ Film Festival
by Joel Barrett
From June 22 to 29, Kansas City’s LGBTQ Film Festival Out Here Now celebrates 18 years of telling stories through film. However, there are many stories yet to be told. This year, the festival will give voice to untold stories not only on the silver screen, but also in facilitated conversations and for the first time ever, in a live storytelling event called Tales of Kansas City featuring six local storytellers.
“For so long, especially in the very beginning, other people were telling our stories,” explains festival director Jamie Rich. “Then all the stories were about our victimhood or for shock value. It was always like ‘Look! They’re gay!’ Then for a period of time the AIDS panic was very common in stories.”
Rich, who has directed the festival for the last 17 years, recalls a time before digital technology when the festival was sometimes forced to show movies sight unseen. Opening a file drawer, he pulled out a black-and-white film festival flyer from 2000 containing dozens of little-known movies.
“There’s a reason you haven’t heard of most of these films,” he laughed. “It’s because most were pretty bad.”
Pointing to a lesbian film in the flyer, he said, “The joke back then was, ‘Why do the lesbians always have to die at the end of the movie?’” The answer: “Largely because these stories were being told by men. And in many cases, they were being told by straight men.”
Things have changed for the better since that time. This year’s selections feature compelling and entertaining stories in both personal narrative and documentary styles. Rich believes that “when someone else is telling your stories, they get filtered. When you start telling your own stories, there is this sort of shock value that kicks in because it’s a little in your face.”
This year’s film festival is all about bringing untold stories to life.
Tales of Kansas City, a live storytelling event curated by Joel Barrett of Joel Speaks Out, will take place on Saturday, June 24. Six diverse LGBTQ storytellers will share their own tales from life in our city in the spirit of the wildly popular novels “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin. This event is a companion piece to the screening of “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” which examines the life and work of one of the world’s most beloved storytellers, following his evolution from a conservative son of the Old South into a gay rights pioneer and successful gay author.
The theme of Untold Stories continues in a conversation with lesbian filmmaker Lisa Evans, who will discuss the making of her feature film “Legacies of Lesbian Literature.”
“We need to tell our stories to create a positive influence among ourselves as we express the issues of the LGBTQ community,” Evand said.
Her documentary explores the impact and history of lesbian literature over the decades beginning in the 1920s.
“All these worlds we don’t know about because we haven’t been told about them. We haven’t learned about them because that history has been made invisible,” Evans said.
Evans has a history of bringing stories of Kansas City and beyond to the big screen. In previous years she has been commissioned by the festival to create the documentaries “OutWrite” and “When You Knew.”
“I choose subjects whose lives, as a whole, seem far from the norm,” she said. “By presenting their lives in pieces, I find viewers are able to relate in some aspect, wherein lies a connection. Thus we are not so separate.”
Rich proclaims that “we are living in the golden era of documentaries” since “nearly half of this year’s films will be documentaries.”
The festival will open with “The Lavender Scare,” which tells the little-known story of an unrelenting campaign by the federal government to identify and fire all employees suspected of being homosexual. In 1953, President Eisenhower declared gay men and lesbians to be a threat to the security of the country and therefore unfit for government service. In doing so, he triggered the longest witch hunt in American history.
The film is this year’s recipient of the Out Here Now’s 2017 Celebration of Courage award. Because the film uses the work and research of a Ph.D. dissertation, the screening will include a companion discussion with Austin Williams, a Kansas City filmmaker and doctoral student at UMKC.
Williams will share elements of “The Ordinance,” his movie in the making based on his own Ph.D. dissertation about Kansas City’s three-year struggle to pass the Gay Rights Ordinance introduced in 1990.
“To this day, no piece of Kansas City legislation has gone through as much public testimony or debate than that,” Williams explains. “It became so contentious because it attempted to rewrite the civil rights ordinance to include sexual orientation as well as people with HIV. It was during this fight when Fred Phelps emerged on the scene, which illustrated the reason why such an ordinance needed to be passed.”
The Westboro Baptist Church and the late Fred Phelps have remained in the national spotlight to this day. The movie focuses on the stories of individuals involved.
“I want to help tell their stories. The oral history interviews will be permanently archived in GLAMA for future historians to use,” Williams said.
A Kickstarter campaign designed to help fund the making of his documentary will be launched on opening night of the festival.
This year’s feature film brings to life the work of a young fiction writer who spent most of his teen years in the Kansas City area. Jay Bell is the author of the “Something Like…” series of gay fiction. The first book in the series, “Something Like Summer,” is now a full, feature-length movie that makes its Midwest debut at Out Here Now.
“Something Like Summer” is based in part on Bell’s own experiences and observations as a young gay man in Texas, Kansas and Kansas City. He reflects on exploring Kansas City and gay culture as a young man.
“I began reading gay stories and watching gay movies. They all felt like the stories either revolved around someone coming out, and then after they came out the credits roll, or they were more like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which is very flamboyant and fun to watch, but perpetuates the myth that there is a gay lifestyle,” Bell said. “When I sat down to write, I wrote stories about what I was used to and what I experienced in the hopes that there would be other people who read the stories who went through similar experiences.”
Bell quickly found a market full of readers who identified with his realistic stories.
“To my surprise, I’ve gotten a lot of mail from people who say ‘This is my life! You wrote my story. It’s as if you wrote my life’,” Bell said.
When asked what he hoped people would take away from the movie, he replied, “If anyone watches this movie and feels a little less alone, that makes me happy. Maybe even be encouraged to get out there and try to find love.”
Bell will be at the screening and will be joined by Ben Baur, star of “Hunting Season, “who also stars in “Something Like Summer.”
“We tend to focus on films that inspire conversation,” Rich states.
Whether it is the unexpected love story of two lesbians who share a kidney in the documentary “Bean,” or the adorable, animated tale of a school boy’s first crush “In a Heartbeat.” Comedy or a drama, documentary or personal narrative, short or full length, emerging filmmaker seasoned craftsman, there will be plenty of conversations inspired by this year’s offerings.
“I want people to have a deeper understanding of the diversity of our stories,” Rich reflects. “I want people to see the rich diversity of our stories and universality of the LGBTQ experience on the entire population. Our stories have power. It’s what connects us.”
See the entire festival schedule at outherenow.com and prepare to be entertained and inspired by “Untold Stories.”
“That’s the greatest thing that films can do, is tell the untold story and make them universal,” Rich said.