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From Bug Chasers to Quietly Devastating Dramas, NewFest Offers Varied Program in 15th Year

Tommy Nguyun

A box-office staffer at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival — also known as NewFest, housed this year at NYU’s Cantor Film Center and The New School — passed along this lively anecdote about a particular festival-goer who called the box office in somewhat of a panic. Apparently, many of the films were selling like hot cakes, and the caller wanted to know if the film he wanted to see, “Barebacking,” was still available. (For those who don’t know, barebacking refers to unprotected gay male sexual intercourse.)

Imagine the staffer’s confusion as he ran his index finger down this year’s list of titles (over 60 feature films and videos, nearly 200 if you count the shorts) and didn’t find the title. Even though the staffer had been selling tickets all week, it seemed reasonable, if only for a moment, that the caller knew exactly what he wanted. The reasoning: For a film festival celebrating its 15th year exploring the provocative issues and potentially zeitgeist moments facing a contemporary gay and lesbian community, why wouldn’t there be a film called “Barebacking” at this day and age of the festival?

The staffer gave up. He recalled saying, “I don’t think we have a film that goes by that name, sir. Maybe you have the film confused with something else?” The problem wasn’t confusion; it turned out that the caller was merely preoccupied, which seems to have happened to many Newfest ticket buyers this year. (True, almost all the films sold out eventually, but the very first films to sell out invariably featured one young shirt-less guy in a promotional still.) Such a film title like “Barebacking” can only mean one thing and, of course, the idea of gay single men having deliberate and rampant unprotected sex can’t be good for any community. That lead both the staffer and the caller to conclude that the mystery film in question was indeed Louise Hogarth’s hot-button documentary “The Gift.” It was certainly the must-see feature at the festival, so must-see that I, along with the caller, couldn’t get a ticket to see it. Variety film reviewer David Rooney told me he enjoyed the film, but he seemed reluctant to talk more about it. Perhaps, for many people, the unimaginable can be equally unspeakable: the film shows how certain gay men (called “bug chasers”) purposely seek out unprotected sex with HIV-positive men (“gift givers”) so that they can be infected with the virus, either as an erotic turn-on or an act of extreme brotherhood.

The film shared the jury’s award for best documentary feature, which doesn’t really say much about the collective reaction of festival audiences, many of whom are probably still reeling from the controversial Rolling Stone article about bug chasers published earlier this year that allowed a jarringly suspect quote from one doctor go uncontested. (The doctor said that he believes 25 percent of new HIV cases in the U.S. are a result of bug chasing, which amounts to roughly 10,000 people each year.) The festivalgoers I spoke to who both saw the film and read the article said they preferred the documentary’s treatment of the subject matter over the Rolling Stone piece. Though it’s uncertain whether it was because of the documentary’s actual content or the persuasiveness of its visual medium, it’s clear that bug chasers, whether they’re just a handful of nitwits or a true underground culture, will increasingly be talked about it in mainstream dialogue, and future Newfests will be an important venue for any other explorations into the subject.

“The Gift” shared the documentary feature award with Peter Barbosa’s “I Exist,” which looks at the obstacles gays and lesbians of Middle Eastern decent face in America. It was just one among the rich assortment of narrative films and documentaries focusing on Arab or Middle Eastern society. In fact, Remi Lange’s “The Path To Love,” about an Algerian-French student’s search for other gay male Muslims, won a special mention in the best narrative feature category.

Winning the best narrative feature category was Steven Woodstock’s “Between Two Women,” a quietly devastating drama set in an English working-class town of the 1950s, about a woman falling in love with her son’s teacher. I sort of expected that the jurors would double-up on this category as well, since the emergence of a separate gay male cinema and a lesbian cinema is becoming increasingly apparent. This can be interpreted as a sign of progress — queer cinema is becoming so large that it now has the luxury to pinpoint and cater to specific demographics within the queer community. Still, there’s something unsettling about attending a community-based film festival where almost all of the screenings are divided by the gender of their audience.

“I think it’s a consequence of having a niche,” says Basil Tsiokos, the festival’s director for the last three years. “Filmmakers are recognizing the fact that they can have a lesbian audience and a gay male audience. It’s not easy to mix the two, and sometimes they don’t mix well, but it certainly can be done. I think many gay male filmmakers feel that if they are going to make a gay male film anyway, they might as well make it appeal to a gay male audience as much as possible.”

“Let’s Love Hong Kong” filmmaker Yau Ching would agree with that assumption; if she didn’t say it herself, her film’s determinedly experimental and somewhat audience-specific foray into lesbian isolation certainly did. But what she’s concerned about is the growing disparity of opportunities among her film-festival counterparts in finding film financing. It took Ching five years to complete her film — a production with all-volunteer cast and crew — and even with just a DV budget of $40,000, Ching is still in “deep, deep debt.” “It’s easy to find funding if you’re white gay male filmmaker and making a film for a white gay male audience,” Ching says. “If you’re a lesbian filmmaker making a film about Chinese women, forget it.”

Tsiokos says he sees the ultimate remedy in his favorite festival films, like Alain Gsponer’s “Kiki and Tiger” and Diego Lerman’s “Suddenly” (which won the Showtime award for breakthrough film), films so good that they’ll appeal to anyone. But it was hard to tell which films the audience thought were good and bad, because they were all applauding the credits at every single screening I attended. When I cheered for my two favorite films of the festival (Lanse Da Men’s “Blue Gate Crossing,” a tenderly hilarious film that reminds us that young Taiwanese lesbians and the boys who adore them do the darnedest things; and “My Life On Ice,” a boy’s coming-of-age film that also marks the coming of age of the brilliant and strikingly alert French directing team of Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau), I soon realized my support meant nothing because this same crowd was also applauding jaw-droppingly cliché films like “Danny In the Sky” and “Leaving Metropolis.” If you can’t be a little discerning and critical about gay and lesbian films at a gay and lesbian festival featuring nearly 200 titles, I ask you, where else can you be critical?

Sure enough, the audiences free-wielding applause was just showing support for the whole festival itself, since their real moment truth was revealed with the audience-award winner “Brother Outsider.” Directed by Nancy D. Kates and Bennett L. Singer, the documentary focuses on the civil-rights leader Baynard Rustin, who once mentored Martin Luther King, helped propel the March on Washington, but was dismissed from his leadership role and subsequent discourse on American history because of his sexual orientation. It’s one of those remarkable untold stories you have to look for, and hopefully the programmers at NewFest will keep up their good vision so that they can continue to look for us — until, at last, it’s all been told.

Barebackers included.