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Film festival serves up the best new independent LGBT cinema

Kevin M Thomas September 16, 2015

One of the best LGBT film festivals is upon us as Cinema Diverse in Palm Springs celebrates its eighth year this month.

Hard to believe that this relatively new film festival has become my favourite in the course of just two years. It’s the perfect mix of excellent content, manageable schedule and great food options at the on-site restaurant.

The fact that there’s a restaurant at the theatre makes attending this festival worth the trip in of itself. The first time I went, I thought I would be making meals of popcorn, candy and, if lucky, perhaps a hot dog. Not at the Camelot Theatre, the host theatre to this festival.

There’s a café that has wraps which are easy to eat during the movie and blow away any typical snack bar option, which are also available. Then upstairs, there’s a full restaurant. So you have time for a meal between movie screenings.

Then there’s the awards. All movies can win a prize provided the audience thought they were worthwhile. There is no best picture or best actor. Simply, the ballots are tallied and any movie with an 8 or higher gets an award as Festival Favorite. Last year, there was an amazing 43 movies (out of 64) that received that honor.

This year, it looks like there may be even more. Here’s a few highlights of movies I’ve already have had the chance to screen.

“Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte” is a sequel of sorts from Billy Clift, who won praise and prizes for his other Bette Davis-inspirited film “Baby Jane?” This time he re-teams with Matthew Martin who should have won an Oscar for playing Bette Davis in Clift’s last film and he channels her again in this riotous drag remake of “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.”

He’s well matched by Varla Jean Merman in the Olivia de Havilland part as well as an array of wonderful supporting actors including drag superstar Heklina, “RuPaul’s” Raja Gemini and, in an equally award worthy performance, Mink Stole, who puts her stamp on the Agnes Moorehead role. Cinema Diverse is the first outlet for this film, having also screened at Cinema Diverse’s film festival at sea.

“Those People,” which I loved at San Francisco’s Frameline, is a well told story of unrequited love about a young man who doesn’t seem to get the attention of his socialite Upper East Side best friend while shunning the advances of a sexy free spirit, played by the wonderful Haaz Sleiman.

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Director/writer Joey Kuhn paints a many layered portrait that is sexy and uncomfortable while star Jonathan Gordon brings the sweetness out in the story.

“Liz in September” also challenges its characters with desire as a young straight woman’s car breaks down and she is forced to stay the night at a small hotel that is filled with lesbians celebrating Liz’s birthday.

Our young woman may not be as straight as she appears as it doesn’t take much for her to succumb to Liz’s charms. Played by model-turned-actress Patricia Velasquez, it’s easy to see how one can fall for the appealing Liz.

“All About E” is an Australian take on perhaps a “Thelma & Louise” as DJ E ends up on the lamb as she takes something that didn’t belong to her and before getting a chance to return it, she’s being hunted down. Her road trip takes her to some interesting locations and the humour aspect is brought to a high as she brings along her gay BFF.

“The Surface” is an interesting tale of an innocent young man whose life gets interwoven with an appealing older gentleman. It turns out he learns a lot about the older man when he watches the film he found in a camera he bought at the gentleman’s father’s garage sale.

“Winning Dad” is a tense and honest story of a family that has an obvious divide when an out-and-proud son pushes his religious father too far at accepting his sexuality. Director/writer/co-star Arthur Allen has devised quite an interesting way to push this story to quite a dramatic peak, causing many relationships to be affected by this action.

“Like You Mean It” is elevated by real dialogue that is shared between lovers during pillow talks, discussing moments of intimacy and at the therapist, talking about the ups and downs of people who aren’t necessarily on the same page.

“Drown” is a tense story of surfers that show bullying and homophobia mix worse than even swimming and drinking. A lot of ground is covered in this 90 minute drama.

Documentary wise, “Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story” provides us with titillation, information and realism as it tells of the man who become rich from his gay porn empire and finds himself both embraced and shunned by society. While mixing with the elite including hanging out with the Clintons, he also remained an anonymous donor to many charitable organizations who wanted his money but not the notoriety that goes with it.

“The Cult of JT LeRoy” is also a fascinating portrait of a shy young man who became an infamous writer as he shares his stories of drugs and sex from his 16 year old point of view, only to discover years later that he himself was fictional, which lead to trials of fraud.

In “his” heyday, LeRoy was the young version of Andy Warhol, with followers including Debbie Harry, Carrie Fisher, Susan Dey and rocker Lou Reed. Besides similar media attention, the big difference between two social icons is Warhol was real.

“Upstairs Inferno” is a hard to watch movie that has more questions than answers. It depicts the New Orleans fire that took over 30 LGBT lives. At first, it seems like a hate crime against the Metropolitan Community Church.

Then the culprit is changed to one individual who had nothing to do with the MCC. But it also shows how shocking and hateful people can be, with some making jokes about gays deserving to die and other sad moments in which most churches wouldn’t allow services to be held on their premises.

“Reel in the Closet” is a wonderful, historic movie that can only share in its success with our gay forefathers (and mothers) who documented their own personal lives on film. It’s a beautiful flashback to days of home movies, showing some early days of gays dancing, frolicking, parading, protesting and simply being themselves.

Many of these movies have been preserved by mostly amateurs filmmakers, documenting their own times of their lives. Others had the foresight to know what they’re documenting is important and has been retained as a record of our LGBT history, including moments of footage that had been cut before TV whitewashed some important news stories.

“Out in the Tracks” ends the festival with an uplifting and simple documentary that spotlights a recording session by Guyanese soul singer Nhojj and his groundbreaking “Made To Love Him” sessions. His beautiful voice that can hold a note as long as Barbara Streisand shows Njojj was willing to record same sex love songs, even back in the day.

Cinema Diverse is the ultimate film festival that is worth planning an annual trip around. You get to see only the best LGBT films and in a short three day period. Get tickets and more information at www.cinemadiverse.org.

More: Festival, Film Reviews, LGBT, PAlm springs, US

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