Out at the Movies

The times they are a-changin’, but the goal is the same for Three Dollar Bill Cinema-Seattle’s premier queer film fest producer.

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It was a different world in 1996, when the Capitol Hill-based nonprofit arts organization Three Dollar Bill Cinema (TDBC) produced the first Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (SLGFF). The Queer Eye craze was seven years away and Ellen’s landmark coming-out episode had yet to be scripted. Gay-themed entertainment was decidedly less mainstream. But artist and activist Skylar Fein—a transplant from San Francisco, where a lesbian and gay film fest has been rolling since 1977—was nevertheless stumped by the absence of a gay-themed festival in Seattle. In October of 1996, he founded TDBC as a means of starting one. The success of SLGFF’s debut, according to former executive director Justine Barda, confirmed Fein’s instinct that Seattle’s film arena had an unfilled niche.

Barda signed on with TDBC from the start—first as a volunteer, then replacing Fein in 1998. She resists calling the prevalence of gays in today’s media a victory. “There are more queer films being made now,” she says. “But the size of our community is certainly not reflected in mainstream theaters.” Equally frustrating, she adds, is the reluctance of filmmakers with crossover appeal to risk being pigeonholed by showing their work in gay and lesbian festivals. Still, such festivals are indispensable for films with overtly queer content. SLGFF is especially vital to the local arts scene, Barda emphasizes, as it encourages more Seattle auteurs to make gay-themed films.

Barda left her part-time job with TDBC in June to pursue full-time work, handing the reins to New Yorker Rachael Brister, who wanted to tackle a larger market after successfully running Rochester’s queer-themed ImageOut Festival. Brister sees TDBC’s mission as unchanged by shifts in pop-culture perceptions and stresses that “queer film festivals exist to give a voice to films you wouldn’t get to see anywhere else.” They expose mainstream audiences to truer representations of the gay community, and Brister believes SLGFF has succeeded in doing this.

As for this year’s fest, Brister says it’ll feature more than 150 offerings from around the world. It’s likely that not all of these will have the highest production values or commercial charm, but that’s to be expected in a specialized film festival. Some of the more buzz-worthy prospects: Beautiful Boxer, a gorgeously shot biopic from Thailand about a male kickboxer who literally fights to become a woman. The straight-guy-pretends-he’s-gay comedy Eating Out marks the feature debut of former Seattleite Q. Allan Brocka, best known for his Rick & Steve animated shorts. Films with a rebel theme are topped with a screening of Carole Bonstein’s 2000 documentary, A Swiss Rebel, about famed lesbian and political rabble-rouser Annemarie Schwarzenbach—a timely topic, given the recent media spotlight on the governmental battles over same-sex marriage. Then again, as Brister points out, much of this festival will focus on what mainstream media does not. And that’s pretty much timeless.

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Originally published in Seattle magazine, 2004

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