Reeling Film Festival Reels in Viewers with Visions of Progress

By ARTS & CULTURE REPORTER

The 33rd annual Reeling Film Festival opened on Sept. 17 at the Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport Ave., focusing on LGBT filmmakers and films. 

The week-long festival, which debuted in April 1981, showcases feature films, documentaries and shorts, celebrating “identities for a community too often misrepresented or ignored in mainstream film and television,” according to the festival’s website.

This year’s lineup includes nearly 40 feature films and more than 60 short films, many of them Chicago premieres. Among the highlights are Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall,” which depicts the early days of the gay rights movement; “A Sinner in Mecca,” Parvez Sharma’s controversial tale of a homosexual Muslim’s pilgrimage to Mecca; and a retrospective showing of Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain” in commemoration of its 10th anniversary.

In recent decades, the LGBT community has made tremendous progress, and the films shown at Reeling reflect the diversity of LGBT life in ways seldom seen in commercial film. One example is “Leftovers,” an experimental documentary about an elderly lesbian couple, directed by Michelle Citron, Columbia College professor emeritus, which was shown on Sept. 20.

Citron noted the films operate on a variety of levels and have broad appeal.

“Films often speak to politics,” Citron said. “But really good films speak to an audience beyond the narrow definition of their audience. There should be a universal, human quality there.”

Eve Studnicka, a junior cinema art + science major and director of  the short “The Night Smokers of Chicago,” shown on the same night, expressed similar views. 

“I’ve always believed that if you want to send a message, you should use a telegram,” Studnicka said. “I like films that document very small, individual human stories that can unfold into an awareness of a broader, more universal truth.”

“The Night Smokers of Chicago” follows this pattern. Studnicka wandered the streets of Chicago with her camera between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. to find strangers outside smoking cigarettes and asked them intimate questions about their lives.

“It was late, they were tired, maybe a little bit drunk,” she said. “I was amazed at how candid and vulnerable people were willing to be.”

Studnicka’s film has social relevance, but as a side effect of her examination of individual truths.

“The film doesn’t really throw any specific cause or issue into your face, but if the human leverage raises awareness of something larger, that’s great,” she said.

Another film shown on the Sept. 20 program was “Skye,” directed by Chicago filmmaker João Queiroga, who simply stated, “I wanted to make a film about wonderful human beings.”

The documentary’s title is taken from the surname of its main character, a transgender woman named Eva Skye, who lives in a newly opened Boystown senior center, which she calls her first real home.

“Before I’d get cruel, hurtful remarks, cold stares and sneers. Now I get ‘hellos’, smiles, and hugs,” she said in the documentary.

When Queiroga moved to Chicago in 2009, he was mesmerized by the degree of difference in America’s cultural atmosphere. After living in Portugal and India, he found the prospect of an LGBT film festival utterly foreign.

“To see billboards and magazines featuring Reeling was earth-shattering. I had never before imagined that there was a space where you could celebrate your identity,” he said.

However, Queiroga added, “It’s not just local; it’s global. Reeling represents filmmakers from all around the world.”

The festival’s greatest strength is that it allows often marginalized individuals to showcase experiences that would not normally be heard, said Brenda Webb, founder of the festival and executive director at Chicago Filmmakers.

When Webb started the festival in 1981, it was only the second LGBT film festival in America—created after San Francisco’s Frameline. Initially, Webb intended to start an experimental film festival, but she quickly realized an overwhelming portion of the experimental work being submitted came from LGBT filmmakers. 

For a marginalized population, the only acceptable vehicle for LGBT creative expression was an equally obscure form of cinema, she concluded.

“I reframed these artists into the context of lesbian and gay expression, and it made me feel as if they really needed to be connected with a larger community,” Webb said. “[I asked myself], ‘Does the larger lesbian and gay community know about these artists? How can we help this marginalized form of cinema to reach a larger LGBT audience?’”

Being able to come together as a community and see LGBT stories on the silver screen proved to facilitate a tremendous capacity for healing. Richard Knight Jr., features co-programmer for the film festival, described the community as a “family of necessity.” 

Reeling’s lineup demonstrates the U.S.’s growing acceptance of the LGBT community, bringing an underground phenomenon into mainstream cinema. Knight said the festival has recently shifted away from traditional “coming-out” films and progressed toward genre cinema. 

“We’re seeing gay murder mysteries, comedies and horror films,” Knight said.

Previously, the development of VHS video and other technologies made the filmmaking process more accessible to the general public. Webb said the democratization of the medium—coupled with the grim social climate of the AIDS epidemic—revealed itself in an entirely new culture of filmmaking which explored darker themes.

However, Webb said she is less concerned by the shift in content and more absorbed by the hardships suffered by the community.

“It was heart-wrenching,” she said. “We would fly a filmmaker into the festival, we’d befriend them and enjoy their work, and then we would lose them.”

In the festival’s early days, the only narrative LGBT films being shown were European, but as LGBT cinema gained traction in the United States—largely as a result of festivals like Reeling and Frameline—narrative LGBT cinema took off as well, Webb said. These festivals actively helped to bring LGBT culture out of the shadows and into the mainstream eye, she said. 

“We were suddenly selling out all of our seats and we had to turn people away,” Webb said. “We tapped into a raw need within a community that had been deprived. It was overwhelming. People were crying because they couldn’t get in.”

The Reeling Film Festival will continue to screen films at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N Clark St., through Sept. 24. Visit reelingfilmfestival.org for show times and more information. 

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