To mark the occasion of the opening night of the 24th New York Queer Experimental Film Festival, the festival’s co-founder Jim Hubbard has generously allowed us to reprint the following essay detailing the origins of the festival, first published in French to mark the 15th anniversary of Scratch Cinema in Paris in 1999. Much has changed within the festival since this article was first written, but the history of its birth remains the same.
Sarah Schulman and I were smoking pot one cold night in February 1987. As Sarah passed me the joint, she said, “We should do a lesbian and gay experimental film festival.” I said, “I’ve always wanted to do one. When should we do it?” “September.” “Do you think we could do it for two weeks?” “No, one week is more than enough work.” And so, the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival was conceived.
When we approached Howard Guttenplan, director of Millennium, to rent the space for the festival, he asked us if we thought there was an audience for this work. I replied that I had no idea, but we were going to find out.We have often said that we started the Festival because at the time there was a body of work that was not being shown in lesbian and gay film festivals because it was labeled experimental and considered “difficult,” and “hard to program,” and thought not to have an audience. Programmers did not consider it their responsibility to cultivate an audience or even to make the extra effort to curate interesting shows that included experimental work. Conversely, curators at museums and avant-garde showcases were ignoring the work because of its lesbian and gay content. They were happy to program gay classics of the avant garde (Kenneth Anger, George Kuchar, James Broughton etc.) and would have programmed Jack Smith, Andy Warhol and Gregory Markopoulos, if their work were available– and this is a contradiction I’ve never full understood – but could not see the value in more recent work. Now all that is true, but the fact is that our success in influencing other curators has been limited. Eleven years of trying to convince people of something that they don’t quite get would have left me more frustrated than I began if there weren’t other compensations.
Our guiding principal has always been inclusiveness, though the meaning of that notion has evolved over the years. First, although we do show separate boys and girls date night programs, we have made a special effort to create co-gender shows. We have always held that men and women have a great deal to say to each other, that it is important for men to see women’s points of view and vice versa. Further, we believe that this context enriches the work by contrast and comparison. A show of work by both men and women confronting a particular subject in a myriad of ways offers the audience a far richer intellectual experience than a show of work by men who happen to live in the same geographical area.
Festivals, especially lesbian and gay ones, have always complained that it is difficult to find work by women. Because we concentrate on personal and experimental cinema, we have never had this problem. Since the third festival, the work of women has predominated and in more recent years, the work of people of color has become a dominant force. This is simply because women and people make personal cinema. This is the one arena where their voices can be heard, where they can express their interests and concerns. Clearly, experimental film has served this purpose for gay men for over 50 years and that permission to freely express deeply held but socially unacceptable feelings have remained the foundation of this festival.
Another crucial aspect of the festival is to encourage the making of work. Because the festival exists and the work has an opportunity to be shown, many people make work especially for the festival. Numerous first time filmmakers and a number of older filmmakers who had given up film have made work specifically for the festival.
Because we adhere to strong democratic principles, try not to privilege one genre over another (especially not the very over-privileged feature film) and work hard to curate programs that show off each work to its best advantage, the quality of many individual pieces comes through and a 90-second work has as much chance of becoming a hit as a 90-minute one.
The first four years of the festival we presented only film. At the time, it seemed that video was taking over, that it was much more highly prized and that it was experimental film that was really endangered. Also, there was the practical issue that as a filmmaker I felt more comfortable with film equipment. It was hard enough putting on a film festival let alone dealing with video equipment as well. Gregg Bordowitz was an early and consistent critic of this policy. We first stuck our toe in the ocean of video presentation with the Fourth Festival, really starting showing video with the Fifth Festival and stopped making any distinction with the Sixth.
So our inclusion of video reinvigorated and rededicated the festival in several ways. Suddenly a whole universe of exciting work opened up to us. In the first few years, Sarah and I struggled to unearth the 50 or 60 films we showed. Last year, the committee looked at more than 400 works in film, video and on computer. These days when people shoot on video, edit on Avid and end up film or shoot on film and end up on video, this distinction seems a bit old-fashioned. The real distinction remains between moving images that are a means of personal expression and that grow out of a true sense of community and moving images that are part of a vast worldwide money making machine. So-called independent films may not be backed by the immense sums of Hollywood, but their makers are too often more interested in creating generic features than in individual expression.
One of the early criticisms of the festival was that we were not showing many makers of color. Our defense that we showed every single experimental filmmaker of color was true, but tautological, at best. The inclusion of video did indeed open up the festival to a large number of makers of color. In fact, now the majority of our makers are makers of color and their work is exciting and explores many different concerns and explores subjects in myriad new ways. And isn’t that the very meaning of experimental? Shouldn’t lesbian and gay makers be critiquing our dominant notions of “true love,” not re-creating them with same-sex couples?
Another example of inclusion is our use of outside curators, a practice that has been taken up by numerous festivals worldwide. This was a system first devised by Jerry Tartaglia for the Sixth Festival. It was a scheme that made it possible for the festival to continue after Sarah’s retirement, but it also had the felicitous and continuing effect of bringing many new people into the festival. This includes not only those who continue to make new work and curate new shows for us, but also new audiences who might have been reluctant to come to a festival labeled experimental. The festival succeeds most when it expresses a vital part of the experience of diverse groups of people. We would be stupid not to embrace diversity. It has made the festival a much more exciting and invigorating experience over the years.
Creating and re-creating the Festival has been a struggle over the past 11 years. There is, of course, the huge amount of work that any festival entails, but beyond that we have faced other obstacles. The huge disinterest in work called experimental. The utter lack of understanding of both the mainstream and alternative New York press of the intersection of lesbian and gay concerns and experimental media. The truly awful funding situation that allows, for instance, a lesbian and gay festival in a provincial city in Canada get more funding from the government in its first year than we have received in our entire history.
Lack of money has meant that the Festival has remained largely a volunteer effort. This has created the necessity for us to re-invent ourselves several times. Sarah and I ran the Festival, more or less, by ourselves for the first five years. After the Fifth Festival, she decided to retire to devote herself to her writing. I knew I could not make the Festival by myself. Fortunately, Jerry Tartaglia and Marguerite Paris joined me to create the Sixth Festival. Through the system of outside curators, Shari Frilot and Karim Ainouz were brought into the Festival. Shari and Karim co-directed the next two Festivals and Shari directed the Ninth and Tenth Festivals on her own. Raj Roy who started as an intern is now director of the Festival. [Note: Today, Stephen Kent Jusick is the executive director of MIX, while Raj Roy is the chief film curator at MOMA.] These transitions have always been painfully difficult and caused us to re-examine our ideals, our motives and our actions, but they have served to keep the Festival young and vigorous.
Last fall, I had the pleasure of watching two shows at the London Film-makers’ Co-op new Lux Theatre. The first was a show that I had curated of films from the first five years of the Festival. The second, curated by Shari Frilot consisted of video – and one film – from the second five years. The experience of the first show was the delight of spending an hour and a half with old friends and their strong, complex ideas. Although I could appreciate the quality of the fine work in the second show, I did not experience the same intense emotional connection. Suddenly, I understood how curators and critics became cemented in their devotion to the same makers and the same films they continue to show and write about all their lives. I also understood the great dilemma and the great achievement of MIX – to maintain a tradition of recognizing those makers who have continued for decades to produce trenchant, complex works of lesbian and gay culture, while encouraging and supporting the latest exciting work that propels that culture toward the unknown new.
The opening night program of MIX “Using My Sexual Energy as a Tool to Fight the State is as Good a Tool as Any Other” features films by Tina Takemoto, Kelley Spivey, Liz Rosenfeld, David Jones, and many other talented filmmakers. Tickets to tonight’s screening and all other screenings are available here.