These days, programmers Brenda Webb of Chicago Filmmakers and former Windy City Times film critic Richard Knight Jr. consult with other LGBTQ festivals to find potential titles (the online resource queerfilmfestivals.org lists nearly 250 annual exhibitions around the world) as well as soliciting submissions from independent filmmakers and queer-focused distributors. The event’s short films mostly come from the submission process.
“It certainly is different from the early days where there really were no films to solicit,” says Webb, who’s worked on Reeling from the beginning. “Back in 1981 when we started, there weren’t other festivals to network with, and certainly there weren’t that many American gay or lesbian films; what there was was experimental, avant-garde.” For features, early organizers had to look internationally, and in the days before the Internet and home video became prevalent that meant Webb personally attended general-interest festivals abroad.
“Back in the ’80s, it was difficult to know what an LGBT film was, because they weren’t generally labeled as such. That wasn’t a term that was used in promotion,” Webb recalls. “So you often had to read between the lines of the description to guess if a film had gay content. I would go to Berlin and see a description like, ‘and then he discovered something about himself,’ or ‘then a forbidden relationship ensues.’ I ended up seeing a lot of films that were about incest or something.”
Thanks in part to fests like Reeling, that’s no longer the case. This year’s slate kicks off with opening-night film Hello Again, an episodic musical about 10 love affairs of various gender combinations, enacted by the likes of Audra McDonald, Martha Plimpton, Rumer Willis and T.R. Knight. After Louie stars Alan Cumming as an AIDS activist experiencing survivor’s guilt, while quirky comedy Freak Show, the first feature directed by Trudie Styler (a.k.a. Mrs. Sting), follows a small-town boy’s campaign for homecoming queen. On the Chicago-made front, Tadeo Garcia’s En Algun Lugar stars local actors Nelson Rodriguez and Andrew Saenz as a young couple whose happiness is threatened by the risk of deportation.
With an ever-widening marketplace for LGBTQ movies, Webb sees Reeling’s role as evolving and still vital. “There may be 10,000 LGBT films on Netflix now or whatever, but there’s still the value of festivals to direct attention. That curatorial process is still important.”