ImageOut 2020 comes down to the final reel
The task of booking films for Rochester’s ImageOut LGBT Film Festival has been unfolding like a good thriller: It’s all coming down to the final reel.
The coronavirus pandemic’s chokehold on the arts has not ignored the film industry. For the most part, this year festivals have gone virtual, of course, with ImageOut running Oct. 8 through 18, in your living room.
One of the event’s centerpiece films has already won accolades at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It’s called ‘The Obituary of Tunde Johnson,’ and it’s like ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” says Michael Gamilla, referring to the 1993 film starring Bill Murray. “You know, where things keep happening over and over, but it’s about the struggle of a young man facing police brutality.”
In “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson,” the conflict is not a narcissistic weatherman’s existential struggle with himself, but a gay, Nigerian-American man’s tragic encounter with police.
“I think it’s very timely, especially with what’s going on in our own backyard,” says Gamilla, ImageOut’s program director.
Now in its 28th year, the festival’s acronym has unofficially expanded to LGBTQ+, reflecting a wider conversation on sexual identities in recent years. But the field of available films has contracted. Festivals are caught in the uncertainty of what films will be made available. Release plans are changing altogether.
“It feels like the filmmakers and distributors keep making up the rules every day,” Gamilla says. “Some films decided they’re not going to participate in virtual festivals after all, and they’re going to wait until next year. When, hopefully, theaters are going to be open.
“Sometimes you have to work with what you have.”
In past years, there would be travel to other festivals, networking with other festival promoters, checking out the buzz films of the season. ImageOut’s selection committee would meet twice a week over a four-month period, watching films together, discussing them through e-mail threads. Or better yet, the committee would express thoughts as soon as the final credits had finished rolling.
The coronavirus pandemic put an end to most of that.
“This year we were limited to just doing things online,” Gamilla says. “There’s a difference in the interaction of people watching films together and discussing films afterward, than just watching things on your own.”
And virtual film festivals often aren’t as accessible as live festivals. Gamilla points to the idea of “geofencing,” or “geoblocking,” where “the audience is limited to certain geographical areas, usually by state.”
Yet, despite geofencing, or films being pulled from release or consideration by some festivals — there are filmmakers who insist on their work being guaranteed premier slots — plenty of entries remain for consideration. Gamilla estimates that for this year’s festival, ImageOut screened its usual 600 shorts and feature-length films.
“Most of the films still have the same themes about coming out and love, activism surrounding LGBTQ issues,” he says. “We still have documentaries about historical figures and their struggles of being LGBTQ people that, in their time and era, these things are not acceptable. We still have all those, we have films for the youth, we’re still going to keep our Next Generation Series where we offer youth films for anyone under 25, especially those in high school and college, for free.”
A film that made the cut this year has a strong local connection. “Tahara” was shot entirely in Rochester’s Temple Beth El, the synagogue attended by the film’s writer and one of the producers, Jess Zeidman, when she was growing up in Rochester. Zeidman wrote it as an assignment for a college course and worked with local crew and actors from western New York, as well as film students from Rochester Institute of Technology.
One film will not be presented virtually. “Ammonite,” starring Kate Winslet as a fossil-hunting woman in 1847 England, will be shown at a local drive-in theater.
And one film produced during the pandemic, “Hello Stranger,” is from The Philippines, and is actually an episodic series.
“It’s a window to how films will be made moving forward,” Gamilla says. “Like, people will have to shoot around being quarantined, you’ll see people wearing masks and concerns about COVID and being quarantined and isolated. And on the production side, the production team has to live in a bubble, and so they can’t go out and about because they’re shooting a film.”
It’s shot in the actors’ homes, sometimes with a phone camera or laptop computer. Zoom and video chats “have become part of the script, because that’s how people interact most of the time now, socially,” Gamilla says. “I wanted to show something reflecting how things are. Not just how we live, but how limited it is to make things in the film industry.”
The complete ImageOut schedule, as well as ticket information, is at imageout.org.
Jeff Spevak is WXXI's arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.