Call it the Julia Roberts/Rupert Everett effect: A recent article in Variety, the show-business bible, reports that there isn't a script in development for any major female star that "doesn't have a stylish and witty gay best friend." In the recent Eyes Wide Shut, audiences howled as Tom Cruise was baldly cruised by a rapacious Alan Cumming. The list of television shows with gay characters would be impossible to imagine only five years ago: NYPD Blue, E.R., Dawson's Creek, Spin City and, of course, the ubiquitous Steve Kmetko of cable channel E! Even better, Will & Grace has hurled America into the post Ellen-era by portraying all the gay folks as just as neurotic, confused and lonely as their straight pals. In an unprecedented and hilarious leap of affirmative action, even the straight people on Will & Grace are uncommonly stylish and witty. In American entertainment, suddenly the closet door has swung wide open, and who knew? It's a lovely walk-in cedar.
So, in such a context, is a gay-and-lesbian film festival still necessary? Linda Serafini, who has been working with the St. Louis International Lesbian and Gay (SLILAG) Film Festival since 1993, offers an emphatic yes as she speaks during a break from the final preparations for this year's festival, which begins Sept. 8.
"What's nice now," she begins, "is that lesbian and gay films don't have to honor an onus of responsibility. Because there are more images in the public eye, each gay character doesn't have to represent all gay people, which it sometimes was in the past. Films can explore our demons, as it were, or show that all people aren't nice. There is a greater depth of honesty now, and it's refreshing to see that in so many films. It's actually making them richer and more interesting.
"Also, time has given us a greater variety of lesbian and gay films," she continues. "It used to be this was a gay man's film, this was a lesbian film, and they were pretty distinct in style, audience and images. Now there is much more mixing, and there is less of a need for specificity based on a type. Our opening film, for example Bedrooms & Hallways is about gay men, but it was directed by a lesbian, Rose Troche. That would have been unheard-of only a few years ago.
"I've also seen a change in our audience," she says. "While it's grown each year, they've also come to expect more. Yes, we will always have one or two romantic comedies that everyone hungers for, and there are always some people who don't want to deal with drama. But more and more, people encourage us to get challenging films, films that make them think and still have a great time. I guess it's all part of the growth in the audience and their tastes. Even the straight people who come and you'd be surprised how many do seem to enjoy some of the more complex material."
This year's festival, the eighth annual, will have more than 30 programs, including feature-length films, documentaries and collections of shorts. All programs will be shown at the Tivoli Theatre on Delmar Boulevard in University City. Highlights of this year's festival include Edge of Seventeen, a well-received coming-out story that is in wide release around the nation; Better Than Chocolate, a lesbian first-love tale; and Bedrooms & Hallways. The not-to-be missed documentaries include It's Elementary and After Stonewall.
Serafini notes that even though there appear to be more gay and lesbian films around than ever before, finding them is not easy. "Sundance has some gay and lesbian films, there's the "Queer Mardi Gras' that features some, and some other film festivals around the country," she explains. "The selection committee tries to find and read as much information as possible, and the Internet is a big help. But most of what we want may not have a distributor yet, so we have to track down the filmmaker or the producer, which can really delay things. I've been amazed at the number of contacts we've made with individual filmmakers who end up FedExing us their work. It should be easier for them, but it's not."
Serafini is also grateful for the support the festival has received in St. Louis. "In 1996, we had 15 programs; this year, 31," she says. "So we've grown. While we're not always sold out, we average about 80 percent attendance, which is really good for a market like St. Louis. We'll probably stay at this level for a few more years, and then see if the number of films and the demand increases. This year, we've tried hard to choose the time slots for the greatest accessibility. We had a fundraiser for the festival with the film Trick a few weeks ago, and we sold out, so we think that interest is high this year.
"What's great is that no one expects us to please everyone anymore," she says. "The diversity in the lives of gays, lesbians, bisexuals is so great, and their stories so varied, that our audiences know that they can't have real strict expectations. They come to experience it all, to enjoy and even to learn a bit, which is something that our festival offers.
"And now that it's known that there's an audience to support gay and lesbian films," she adds, "there is more money and, overall, better production values. Independent filmmakers continue to struggle, of course, but it seems that now they are able to make films the way they want to. Their vision and voices are what make a festival truly fun."