Lumpkin and Morris on Frameline's Big Picture

Susan Gerhard June 11, 2007

Frameline’s SF International LGBT Film Festival arrives in June every year with a surplus of films to please and displease its extremely involved San Francisco audiences, and that’s the way the festival likes it. With a pair of controversies bringing attention both welcome and unwelcome to the festival this year, artistic and programming directors Michael Lumpkin and Jennifer Morris have learned to appreciate that with community engagement comes the engagement of a community — and that the Bay Area’s revolutionizing forces consider this particular festival a target for ever more revolt is a testament to its continuing relevance. I spoke with Lumpkin and Morris about what to look forward to in Frameline31, as well as the challenges of programming a festival like this one.

SF360: I see the festival is 31 this year, and it amazes me to realize you’ve been with the festival for most of that time, Michael. What do you think is the single biggest change in the festival that you’ve seen in the past three decades?

Michael Lumpkin: I’ve been with the festival since number four — and when we started, there were not a lot of queer films, and there was very little access. Our festival was one of the few places you could go see these films, what few there were. Now, I think with LGBT media being much more accessible on TV, computer, DVD, and theaters, that it’s really changed. The amount of material and the access to that material has just grown so significantly — it’s a challenge to keep up with that, and keep the festival relevant in this media explosion age. I think all film festivals are dealing with that in general. And I think even more so for LGBT festivals.

SF360: When did the gay/lesbian festival circuit expand, and what distinguishes Frameline’s from the rest?

Jennifer Morris: We began in the mid ’70s, but really I don’t think it was until the early ’90s that there was an explosion of queer festivals, not only in the U.S., but also globally. It mirrored the numbers of LGBT films available, and the increasing access to the films. There were a lot of volunteer-run film festivals. There started to be more queer film distributors, who were more friendly to queer film festivals and allowing these films to screen. Also, the explosion of the Internet: before, trying to call or fax someone in Russia was very different. With the Internet, you shoot off an email, and all of the sudden someone in China is sending you off a film. It had a major impact for filmmakers finding festivals and the festival finding filmmakers. Part of this is sponsorship. It costs money to run a film festival — and now there’s more marketing money geared toward the LGBT community, allowing smaller festivals.

SF360: Has your budget expanded a lot over the past decades?

Lumpkin: I think our fastest growth was definitely in the late ’90s. We’ve got a lot of different measures that you can look at: attendance, sponsorship, membership. And I’m sure it’s true of lots of businesses and organizations and film festivals — our curves mirror the dot com boom and the dot com crash in terms of the wealth or availability of disposable revunue, whether from individuals or companies.

SF360: Festivals in general seem to offer an alternate form of distribution right now.

Morris: Especially now with the mini majors, there’s hardly room down at the art theater multiplex for films to screen, especially international films, so film festivals have certainly become an alternate form of distribution — we’re in every major city.

Lumpkin: It’s true in general, even more with queer films. The circuit is so large, it presents the option of becoming theatrical exhibition — an opportunity for filmmakers to make money, which does go against the traditional function of festivals, which is to bring films in, to create bzz with audiences and press, so that distribution can then be secured and then go into the community phase. Now except for the most upper tier film festivals, that’s not the case.

Morris: There are about 60 LGBT film festivals in the U.S. alone, and 100 worldwide.

SF360: Are any of those worldwide LGBT film festivals in unlikely places?

Morris: They keep struggling in Korea. They get shut down; it happened once or twice. Even in China — they also got shut down. Other places that have festivals are Latvia, Philippines, Eastern Europe, South Africa….

SF360: Have you gone to some of these?

Lumpkin: With a very limited travel budget, we have to go to find films for our festival — we’re on the front edge — most of the other festival are showing things we’ve already screened. The times I have been able to attend other festivals, it’s really great to go to see how other communities are organizing and how they’re doing things.

SF360: What I find unique about SF’s Frameline Festival, both within this city and in the world context, is the engagement with the community — the ownership the community here feels for this festival — to the extent that anger and activism surround some of the programming choices every year.

Lumpkin: I think it’s true, and I’ve been struck by that when I go to openings of other festivals and see the difference. We’re very fortunate to have that kind of connection with our audience and the community — and, at times, that can present challenges. You need that community support to be able to do the kind of festival we do at the level we do it, but you also have to respond to the community and listen to the community and make sure that it’s working for them. They’re ultimately the ones who are making the festival what it is. So much of what makes our festival what it is is the audience — how they interact, how they support us, how they interact with the filmmakers.

SF360: So let’s get to that activism. One protest this year involved the programming of ‘The Gendercator,’ which you’ve withdrawn. Another involved the Festival’s use of the Israeli consulate to help bring filmmakers here. ‘The Gendercator’ — which I haven’t seen it — seems like a film that might have initiated conversation….

Morris: We’ve shown films in the past that deal with difficult topics — ‘The Gift’(bare-backing), and there was the infamous lesbian riot in the mid ’80s. The perception was there weren’t a lot of lesbian films screening in the film festival — the reality was there weren’t a lot of films made in the mid-‘80s by lesbians. One film screened made by a lesbian included gay men and straight people; it was called ‘Ten Cents a Dance,’ from Canada.

Lumpkin: Lesbians were talking, straights were having phone sex, and gay men having sex in a toilet.

Morris: They weren’t ready for that coming from a lesbian filmmaker, and they got up and said ‘No!’ They wanted the film turned off. It was a great moment, because it was a moment where the festival listened to the community, opened up, and changed some of the things that were happening in the festival. They brought on women programmers….

Lumpkin: The organization realized that we had been operating more from a passive position of — there aren’t many lesbian films, we’ll just show what there is. We came out of that realizing we have to be more proactive about supporting lesbian films and lesbian filmmakers, and doing something more to change that instead of just throwing up our hands. That was a significant point for the organization, realizing we have to change the way we do this. We can influence this, we can change the situation.

SF360: That’s what’s fascinating about the festival. It’s actively changed what’s on the screen. Do see other trends in queer filmmaking you feel you can take some credit for?

Lumpkin: Early on, I saw it happen locally with our festival, and it started happening on a larger scale: Just the simple fact that there were lines of people waiting to get into the Castro Theater to see queer films locally made theater bookers, owners, and distributors, the people deciding what was on movie screens, book them — that’s what talks to the business. They see it at a festival like ours, they’re going to want to book films. Our first year at the Castro theater, right after that there was a noticeable interest: ‘Ooh, gay films.’

SF360: Jennifer, I remember you just as much as a DJ as a film festival curator. What was the most surprising element to film festival programming once you got deeply behind the scenes.

Morris: (I’m still a DJ!) The community — one of the most interesting things about programming the festival — yes, you love film and you are a curator — but you also see a community and what the needs are in that community, and see that it’s really important that the stories of the real people of our community get out there and are seen. Seeing the impact of screening those kinds of films have on the audience, and how important those kind of films are for the audience. Realizing the importance of representation for everyone in the community, not just the gay white male romantic comedy, but docs by people of color, docs looking at issues for the transgender community. All these films are very important. The other side of programming — the artistic side of great films, is important — but so are the messages that are in those films.

SF360: You both mentioned a few names in the film festival press conference, but what are you most excited by in this year’s festival?

Lumpkin: One thing for me this year is the number of premieres, North American and world premiers of significant films, which we’ve never had like this. We’re not one of those festivals that demand the premiere to show it. We don’t approach it that way at all. It’s not a priority, but the fact that we do have a significant number premieres, I think, is a signal of the importance of our festival, that distributors view us as a place to launch their films.

Morris: Filmmakers want this to be the place where they premiere their film, too. One of the films I saw that I was most excited about was our opening night film, ‘The Witnesses.’

Lumpkin: Any film of that stature, the North American premiere of that film is a significant thing.

Morris: Closing night’s film, ‘Itty Bitty Titty Committee’ is perfect for San Francisco, a revolutionary film from Jamie Babbitt that’s also very fun, exciting. RuPaul’s going to be here for a screening of ‘Starrbooty’ on Pink Saturday, which is sure to offend everyone.

Lumpkin: It’s a take off on the ’70s, blaxploitation. It’s crazy— it showed at New Festival. People loved it — we’re hoping for a raucous post-screening with RuPaul….

One film I’m happy we’re showing is ‘Rock Haven,’ a gay feature made locally, and we don’t get a lot of those, where you can have the world premiere here as well. I’m just really proud that that’s part of the festival.

SF360: How much is queer cinema expanding internationally?

Morris: Every year, we get so many films from Asia, and we’re screening an amazing first feature from Korea, ‘No Regret.’ We’ve got two films from Taiwan, ‘Spider Lilies,’ an amazing feature by Zero Chou. There’s also ‘Eternal Summer,’ ‘Love Man Love Woman,’ a doc from Vietnam. We even have a doc from the Czech Republic about the first gay wedding that happened there. The grooms will be here. One of whom is a huge gigantic musical theater star. Pavel Vitek — we’ve characterized him as the Hugh Jackman of the Czech Republic. When the big shows roll through, ‘Les Miz,’ ‘Phantom,’ he stars. He’s one of their first big celebrities.

There’s some interesting people coming. We’re showing a doc, ‘The Godfather of Disco,’ on Mel Cheren, who pretty much created the first 12-inch record ever. Founded West End records. Mink Stole is coming.

SF360: What’s the emotional trajectory of settling an issue like ‘The Gendercator’ this year?

Morris: It was hard.

Lumpkin: ‘The Gendercator’ incident — it was probably one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make. It was also the largest community response we’ve ever received for any film — and this before the film has ever screened.

Morris: It’s a dark science fiction film about one woman’s anxiety around an issue. Not a lot of people had seen the film, and she posted a director’s statement on her web site, and the director’s statement was viewed by many as transphobic. We got this huge response — we reached out to the leaders in the transgender community to find out from them how they felt about the film, how they felt about our situation.

Lumpkin: I think us quickly talking to the community, through leaders, is one of the things that allowed us to make the best decision on this. These kinds of controversies often remind you how important Frameline and the Festival is to the community. So when we’re in that position around a controversy, like we did with ‘The Gendercator,’ we want to resolve the problem, do the right thing. Within those discussions, our long history of working with all parts and aspects of the LGBT community and engaging people and working with organizations for years, when these things come along, we were fortunate enough to have them with us to help us make the right decision. If we hadn’t been able to engage them in the middle of trying to figure this out, I don’t know that we would have made the right decision, or the best decision. The community really cares. It’s their festival. It’s in moments like these that that really becomes evident, and it’s that actual thing that really helps Frameline work.