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ImageOut's 10 day festival of LGBTQ+ films is part of a bigger push for acceptance

Three people laughing as they walk together in the woods in this still from the movie "May-December-January."
Provided
A still from the movie "May-December-January."

Rochester’s ImageOut film festival opens this week, with the same question that most arts organizations now face: How to rebuild after two years of COVID?

“As the pandemic starts to wane a little bit, we’re hoping to start really building community again, and bring people back together into the theater and other venues,” says Braden C. Reese, ImageOut’s managing director.

So that starts, of course, with a party.

Thursday’s kickoff party at the Inn at Broadway is sold out. But there’s the 5:30 p.m. Monday “Spilling the Tea” film conversation at Equal Grounds Coffee House. And the closing-night party at 9:30 p.m. Oct. 15 at the George Eastman Museum, even though the festival spills over into the following day with four more films.

As we have grown accustomed to over the last couple of years, these films will be screened at a hybrid of live and virtual events.

And the films are the point here. Ten days of LGBTQ+ movies.

“Really a great mix of films, a great lineup of films,” says Reese. “Not only films from all around the world, but also films that speak to all sorts of different life experiences, and identities, within our community.”

This year’s festival coincides with the national release of what is perhaps the first, and certainly the biggest, mainstream film featuring gay characters, played by gay actors. Heavily promoted, with good reviews from critics, “Bros” nevertheless bombed at the box office when it debuted last week.

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How could that be? Reese says it seems as though half of his friends on social media have seen “Bros.”

“But obviously, my friends list is very heavily LGBTQ+,” he says.

It’s an inequality that illustrates the reason why ImageOut, in its 30th year, remains necessary.

Reese, who took over as the organization’s managing director 1½ years ago, is its only full-time paid staff member, with an office in Village Gate Square. In his free time – there seems to be some overlap in his professional and personal life – Reese is also active as a community organizer.

The rest of ImageOut is volunteers. And it’s more than a film festival, which includes a smaller spring event. Although the pandemic stalled some of these activities, ImageOut is a broader arts and culture organization presenting shows, gallery exhibits and a literary magazine, “ImageOutWrite.”

“Our festival is an LGBTQ festival, but we don’t consider it a festival for just LGBTQ folks,” Reese says. It is “a gem for the Rochester community,” and a rarity for a city of Rochester’s modest size.

For its own modest size, ImageOut seems to have racked up a few big scores among these films, airing at both The Little Theatre and The Dryden Theater. The Filipino film “May-December-January” turns up in Rochester just two days after it premieres in its home country. One of its main storylines is about a man’s best friend sleeping with his mother. It's a controversial twist for a character who, as the festival program notes, “may not be ready to see his close buddy become his stepfather.”

Yes, relationships are complex.

And ImageOut features what Reese says were “submitted as Oscar-worthy films.” From Belgium, that’s “Close,” the story of two 13-year-old best friends, presented in Dutch, French and Flemish. And “The Blue Caftan,” set in Morocco, and in Arabic.

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Provided
Braden C. Reese

All three of these films are subtitled. While the bulk of the ImageOut films were made in the United States, programming director Michael Gamilla has assembled a list of films drawn from around the world.

The increase in films being produced with LGBTQ+ themes is both a blessing and a curse for ImageOut.

“In the old days, there weren’t a lot of films,” Reese says. “But nowadays, a lot of things go straight to streaming. Which is great for accessibility, but it makes it a little more difficult for film festivals.”

Film festivals aside, the apparent box-office failure on “Bros” – with a cast made up almost entirely of gay men, which Reese calls “unheard of and groundbreaking and amazing” – suggests LGBTQ+ films are a long way from mainstream acceptance.

It is the kind of romantic comedy that we’re used to seeing. Except, we’re a little bit more used to Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in the rom-com roles. As “Time” magazine reviewer Stephanie Zacharek writes, “But what’s wonderful about ‘Bros’ is how un-different it is. The bewilderment of early love, the insecurities, the confusion over what sex ‘means,’ or doesn’t—all of that is universal, which is exactly the point.”

“As more of them start getting produced, they’ll start doing better at the box office,” Reese says. Kinda hopefully.

“My perception of it is, is that the LGBTQ+ community really turned out for the film,” Reese says. “But perhaps you’re right, the mainstream community, the straight community, did not necessarily turn out in as large numbers as were hoped.

“But that’s kind of the battle in society whenever you’re pushing for change, and pushing for acceptance, whether it’s films with mixed-race relationships or whatever the case may be, they’re not always successful early on. But it’s still so important that they’re produced. Because that’s part of ImageOut’s mission, too; we screen these films and bring these films from all around the world to Rochester cinemas. Because part of our mission is to educate, change minds and open minds to different experiences other than their own.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts and Life Editor. He can be reached at (585) 258-0343 or jspevak@wxxi.org.

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.