Where Hollywood Fails, LGBT Film Fests Shine

By Jase Peeples

Originally published: The Advocate 8/18/15

On the surface, LGBT representation in Hollywood appears to be stronger than ever. From out teens on shows like Faking It and gay dads Mitch and Cam on Modern Family to the range of LGBT people featured on Orange Is the New Black, it isn’t hard to rattle off a sizable list of current TV characters who register somewhere over the rainbow.

However, the modern landscape of queer characters at the local cineplex is a different scene altogether.

According to GLAAD’s third annual survey of LGBT representation in Hollywood movies (released in April), only 17.5 percent of studio releases featured queer characters, and many of those appeared only fleetingly. Additionally, major releases such as Exodus: Gods and Kings, Horrible Bosses 2, and the Will Ferrell comedy Get Hard featured damaging attitudes and stereotypes.

With the notable exception of last year’s Oscar-winning The Imitation Game, searching for positive LGBT representation in the recent cavalcade of films churned out by Hollywood’s biggest studios can feel like flipping through the pages of a Where’s Waldo? book. But the ongoing efforts of those who produce film festivals such as San Francisco’s Frameline (kicking off today), L.A.’s Outfest (July 9-19), and the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival (which celebrated its 26th year earlier this month) are continuing to provide an outlet where LGBT stories can take stage center stage — and the current state of mainstream cinema proves they’ve never been more important.

“LGBT film festivals are important because they provide an opportunity to educate the larger community through a universal medium and can help to normalize LGBT culture in a safe, nonthreatening manner,” says Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival president Dylan Arrieta. “We rarely see LGBT films in the theaters here, and it’s disappointing that a lot of the films we program during the festival will never be available on popular streaming services [such as Netflix].”

Arrieta, who remembers the positive impact the Asian-American lesbian film Saving Face had on her own life, points out the potential such stories have for shaping the outlook of queer youth — especially “in a geographically isolated location like Hawaii.”

It’s a point with which Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival director Brent Anbe enthusiastically agrees as he easily recalls the first LGBT-centered film that made an impact on him in his youth. “Trick came out during the time when I was finding my place in the world,” he says. “I had seen other LGBT films prior, but being of that particular generation and being able to see characters that were my age that I related to has stuck with me. It’s one of my all-time favorite films.”

Such stories are one of the most important aspects of LGBT cinema, but film festivals not only provide a safe space where such tales can be told, they help foster something no individual movie or streaming service can — a community.

“There is no beating seeing a film in a group setting with your community and peers. That can never be replaced by streaming films on the internet or seeing them in your home,” says Anbe, adding that film festivals bring “different LGBT generations” together as a collective.

However, it’s the impact such organizations can have on individual lives that Anbe says he finds most moving, noting he was reminded of that at this year’s festival when an attendee, a Hawaii native, approached him. “He shared with me that seeing the films in the past festivals had inspired him to become a filmmaker, and he hopes to put his Hawaii stamp on the LGBT film world,” Anbe says. “As a filmmaker myself, that stopped me in my tracks and reaffirmed why I personally have worked and supported the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival for the past 15 years.”

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Film festivals also provide moviegoers the opportunity to meet and interact with LGBT pioneers, allies, and personal heroes — such as out Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, whose appearance at this year’s Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival (pictured right) in support of his award-winning documentary Back on Board was an emotional experience for one attendee.

“Watching Greg come back from that accident to win the gold at the ’88 Olympics was truly inspiring, but to learn a few years later what he had to overcome as a gay person to get to that moment made him a hero to me,” said one festival attendee. “Getting to meet him today and tell him that was so important to me. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

At a time when Hollywood’s lack of diversity is receiving an increasing level of scrutiny, Anbe dreams of a day when LGBT cinema will no longer be seen as “niche” and hopes bigger studios will not only soon follow in the footsteps of film festivals by presenting a wider range of content that both resonates with and more accurately reflects the diversity of today’s audiences, but actively partner with communities as well.

“It is fantastic that [we’re beginning to see bigger studios produce films that] include queer representation, but that’s just the first step,” he says. “The next step would be to directly partner with LGBT film festivals and community-related organizations to premiere such films [where] a portion of the proceeds could go towards the support of nonprofit organizations in local communities.”

Until then, he asserts long-running organizations like the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival will continue running with the ball Hollywood has fumbled to score effective and lasting change for the LGBT population on the silver screen.

“Diversity is a main initiative of our programming,” he says. “Our festival line-up each year provides a hard truth in some cases, which not only showcases the beautiful and romantic side, but also the realities and importance of being LGBT. We have provided all shades and gradients of the rainbow for our festivalgoers over the past 26 years and look forward to seeing how the next 26 develop.”