Three decades on, UWM’s LGBT Film Festival focuses on families in flux

Matthew Reddin, Staff writer

The Milwaukee LGBT Film/Video Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary and festival director Carl Bogner is looking forward to the biggest program in recent memory. Over 11 days, he and UWM’s Peck School of the Arts will bring more than 30 feature films and shorts programs to the city, all centering around LGBT themes — but many not defined exclusively by those themes.

Bogner hasn’t been involved with the festival for all three decades — 2015 marks his 17th year — but in his time, he says, LGBT filmmaking has come leaps and bounds, and that’s reflected in this year’s work.

Early LGBT film festivals, he says, were often disproportionally filled with international films because U.S. filmmakers weren’t turning their lenses on LGBT stories. They also focused most often on lesbian and gay stories, ignoring more nuanced tales of sexual identity or stories about trans individuals.

Times have changed and, this year especially, films are expanding beyond their LGBT protagonists to tell stories about the families and communities surrounding them.

Take this year’s opening film is From This Day Forward. The documentary follows filmmaker Sharon Shattuck’s Midwest family, reuniting to plan her wedding. Her father Trisha, a transgender woman, came out while Shattuck was in middle school, but Trisha and Shattuck’s straight-identified mother, Marcia, were able to stay together. Years later, Shattuck’s film is like a home movie, tenderly exploring the dynamics of the family unit and trying to parse out how her parents’ marriage lasted.

It’s the first time, Bogner says, that the festival has opened with a trans-focused film, and it’s a decision that’s long overdue. Last year, the festival ended with a screening of 52 Tuesdays, a feature film about a transgender man and his daughter that featured a similar pairing of a central trans character within a broader narrative about family. “Films about the trans experience have become more varied and complicated and harder to pigeonhole and as rich as any other film,” Bogner says.

While it’s a big step for the festival to open with From This Day Forward, Bogner says part of the reason he was drawn to the film and selected it was because of its low-key tone. “It might seem like an atypical opening night film, just because there’s something quieter about it. Making it opening night might be the most sensational thing about it.”

Bogner says that, if the festival is defined by anything, it’s “deliberately eclectic selections” — everything from historical work to boundary-pushing experimental films to coming-of-age tales to painfully essential documentaries. From the outset, he says, he’s tried to make the festival a place where you can come across films you might not otherwise consider making part of your personal canon. “Canon formation always seems like a curious process,” he says. “The festival, maybe to the irritation of some, always had the desire to introduce new work, or get things in front of people that they might not have seen.”

To further that goal, this year Bogner’s experimenting by making tickets free for all students, from UWM and otherwise. It’s a gamble — as he says, he could suddenly walk into a theater to see all 300-odd seats taken up by students — but one he thinks is worthwhile as a way to help develop an appreciation for the film festival among younger generations, who he says may not feel the same compulsion to seek out LGBT cinema that their predecessors did. “Their whole lives, they’re probably felt like they’ve had access to queer media,” he says.

With more than 30 films and programs, there’s too much packed into the LGBT Film/Video Festival to cover in this space — so Bogner provided a few highlights, along with his thoughts on why they’re suited for this year’s festival.

Milwaukee LGBT Film Festival recommendations

‘From This Day Forward’

Thursday, Oct. 15, at 7:30 p.m., Oriental

A documentary about a transgender parent and the transformational capacities of love and understanding, From This Day Forward is a moving portrayal of a Midwest family coping with one of the most intimate of transformations. On the occasion of her own wedding, filmmaker Sharon Shattuck depicts her family, including her transgender father Trisha and straight-identified mother Marcia, in an attempt to understand how her parents stayed together and absorbed the changes that could have separated them.

Carl’s Take: “I love how delicately observed the film is. There’s nothing sensational about it — it’s matter-of-fact; it’s frank. I think people will be able to inhabit it well because it feels like a home movie and they’re good people. It’s just really beautifully made.”

‘Nighthawks’

Friday, Oct. 16, at 9 p.m., Union Cinema

The first significant out film in the U.K., the 1978 film Nighthawks depicts Jim, a grade school teacher who makes no efforts to hide his sexuality from his colleagues and cruises the gay pubs at night. Often likened to a documentary, this film’s politics reside in its details of daily routine, until the astounding near-final scene when a student confronts Jim about his sexuality.

Carl’s Take: “The politics of the film seem determined not to sensationalize the main character. It has a ‘we’re just like everyone else’ approach. What makes it amazing to me is this penultimate scene that takes place in school, where one of his colleagues is sick, so his classroom is overcrowded with kids, and one of the kids challenges him on his sexuality and begins asking all these inappropriate questions. And he answers them. It just seems like an act of queer radicalism.”

‘The Summer of Sangailé’

Wednesday, Oct. 21, at 7:30 p.m., Oriental

This movie (in Lithuanian with subtitles) that literally soars shares a wondrous tale of a 17-year-old girl’s overcoming her crippling doubts to realize her dreams of being a pilot, and her relationship with a more instinctively daring girlfriend who gives her the necessary wings. The relationship of Sangailé and Auste is a delight to encounter and the film is a winning tale of transformative love and a portrait of dreams risked and realized.

Carl’s Take: “One of the things I was struck by is it’s really beautiful and whimsical. I took pleasure in the way the resolution for this heroine is not just that she’s in a couple — that’s bonus — but the way she takes some risks that she hadn’t been able to take before. It’s a really satisfying film.” 

‘Tongues Untied’

Thursday, Oct. 22, at 5 p.m., Union Cinema (FREE!)

Marlon Riggs’ still-powerful, 1989 film is an artful collection of voices and performances around what it means to be African-American and gay. A chorus of poetry, recollection and song testify to experiences of marginalization and activist resistance.

Carl’s Take: “The film department owns a couple of prints (including) Tongues Untied, which I can’t show enough. It remains, I think, the model of what a poetic manifesto about identity can be. … What’s great about it is it’s about the hardships and the marginalization that these men face by being black and gay, but also it’s a convincing celebration about the community that these men find and also the joy that they get in their identity. It’s a remarkable document.”

‘Stories of our Lives’

Thursday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m., Union Cinema

An urgent and strikingly artful anthology of five short films about the experiences of lesbians and gays in Kenya, a nation where homosexuality is criminalized. The stories unfold in high schools, urban centers and fantastical landscapes and feature rebellious high school girls, personal declarations, a black man wondering about the touch of a white guy and resistance to government oppression through dreams.

Carl’s Take: “This film has been banned since its release last October for promoting homosexuality. I must confess, when I heard about the film, I thought it was essential viewing but I was also expecting a serious collection of public service announcements. But it’s really beautifully made, really well acted.” 

‘Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party’

Sunday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m., Union Cinema

An enthralling, beautifully made drama that revolves around the birthday party of one teenage boy, growing up in a Christian household and questioning his sexuality. At a pool party thrown for Henry’s 17th birthday by his parents, including his father, the newly ordained pastor of an evangelical church, the intersection of numerous contradictory characters offers each a chance to negotiate their public self, as Henry remains swim in the emerging possibilities of ways to be.

Carl’s Take: “It’s not just about Henry. The action sort of revolves around him. In many ways I feel like it’s an essay film on the variations of the closet. For a lot of characters it has to do with issues of faith. I thought it sounded like such a stagey premise; however, it’s really well made. I think it’s a real accomplishment.”

On Screen

The 30th annual Milwaukee LGBT Film and Video Festival will run Oct. 15-25, sponsored by UWM’s Peck School of the Arts. Performances will be at either the Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., or the UWM Union Cinema, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd.

Tickets for Oriental Theater shows are $15, $10 for seniors and students. Tickets to Union Cinema shows are $9 general admission, $7 for seniors and Union Cinema members and, for the first time, free for all students; select films are free to all. To order, visit uwm.edu/lgbtfilmfestival.