For more than 20 years, the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival – hosted by the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham – has been one of the signature artistic events in the Triangle. What began as a tiny film series attached to the North Carolina Pride March has grown into one of the largest regional film festivals in the South.
The NCGLFF celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, but this year may be the biggest, busiest and most important festival yet.
It’s no secret that North Carolina is squarely in the spotlight these days, in regard to LGBT issues. The HB2 controversy has drawn national and even international attention to the state. Organizers expect this year’s NCGLFF to attract a record number of visitors.
In anticipation of all this, festival curator Jim Carl has programmed a record number of films.
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“Last year was the big anniversary and we had 150 films, our highest number ever,” said Carl, senior director with the Carolina Theatre. “This year, we jumped up to 167.”
Films were selected from more than 700 submissions, setting yet another record.
“The damn films just keep getting better and better and it’s harder and harder to make cuts,” Carl said. “We had to cut a lot of good films – like, award-winning films from other festivals.”
Because Carl programs screenings in carefully calibrated viewing blocks – narrative films, documentaries, features, shorts, animation – some submissions must be declined because of the weird specifics of scheduling. Carl also tries to maintain a balance among genres, and among the fest’s three broad categories – men’s films, women’s films and transgender films. It’s a testament to the size and scope of the fest. It’s also a serious juggling act.
“This year, I actually had to revise and personalize rejection letters to explain: ‘It’s not the quality of your film, it’s just that we had too many romantic comedies, too many of this or that,’” Carl said.
While films come to the NCGLFF from literally around the world, several submissions this year have direct North Carolina connections – including two highly anticipated feature-length projects.
“Deep Run” is a flat-out fascinating documentary feature from director Hillevi Loven, which chronicles one transgender man’s experience growing up – and transitioning – in the small North Carolina town of Deep Run, just outside Kinston. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, really – told in vérité style and filmed over a period of seven years.
Speaking from her home in Brooklyn, Loven said she initially started the film project in New Jersey, as an exploration of contemporary Christian culture among millennial teens.
“I came along on tour with a Christian punk band and that’s how I ended up in the South,” Loven said with a laugh. “I just really connected with this small community in rural North Carolina.”
That’s when Loven met “Spazz,” a 17-year-old lesbian trying to maintain her inclusive vision of Christianity among intolerance in her church and community. By the end of the film, Spazz is Cole Ray Davis, a 24-year-old transgender man.
“I didn’t set out to make a trans story, it just happened to take a long time and fall into this timing when the media and the culture are coming around to trans issues,” Loven said. “Cole and his circle represent Americans on a political spectrum that we don’t see represented. People who are more complicated than red states and blue states.”
Hillevi won’t be able to attend this year’s NCGLFF, but she hopes “Deep Run” will attract viewers in North Carolina, ground zero for both her film and the so-called “bathroom bill” debate.
“I hope that it will bring people into this microcosm and this idea of how very complex American identity can be.”
“Deep Run” won a very influential new fan just last year when Susan Sarandon saw the film at an early rough-cut screening and agreed to come on board as executive producer. Sarandon has her own unique North Carolina connection, of course, thanks to her role as staunch baseball advocate Annie Savoy in the immortal comedy “Bull Durham.“
“She’s been really wonderful and supportive,” Loven said. “It makes a difference, to have her name on the project. It’s like a calling card.”
Another NCGLFF film with strong North Carolina ties comes from director Tim Kirkman, who made the celebrated documentary “Dear Jesse” in 1998. That film, Kirkman’s first, documents his experiences growing up gay in North Carolina and is structured as a kind of cinematic open letter to North Carolina lawmaker Jesse Helms.
Kirkman has since made several feature films in Los Angeles, including the 2005 Sundance favorite “Loggerheads,” set in North Carolina and starring Bonnie Hunt and Chris Sarandon. His new film “Lazy Eye” is a romantic drama about reconnecting with lost love.
“I wanted to make a movie where being gay was not the obstacle – in fact, it was beside the point,” Kirkman said, speaking from his home in L.A. “The main characters are a male couple, but it could be anybody; a man and a woman, two women. It’s kind of a post-gay-marriage, post-equality film, I hope.”
“Lazy Eye,” already winning good buzz on the festival circuit, will make its North Carolina debut at the NCGLFF. Kirkman plans to accompany his film, and participate in the festival’s traditional post-screening Q&A sessions.
With the HB2 legislation putting a such bright light on North Carolina and transgender issues, Kirkman said he feels it’s particularly important to bring a film to the NCGLFF this year.
“Everything that’s happening in North Carolina right now is a reminder that films are always going to be relevant,” Kirkman said. “We need to all rally for the T in LBGT. They’re battling the same things the L, G and B dealt with 20, 30 years ago.”
‘Everybody is welcome’
Of course, there will be plenty of time for fun, too. Film festivals are rather notorious for encouraging adjacent parties, and organizers at the Carolina Theatre fully expect that festivities will spill over into downtown Durham, as usual.
“People do all kinds of parties and events that are not officially part of the festival,” Carl said. “There are lots of businesses in the area that are LGBT friendly.”
And as with previous fests, the Carolina Theater’s development department has invited LGBT groups across the Triangle and the state to set up community outreach tables in the lobby of the theater.
“We invite a lot of people,” Carl said. “Everybody is welcome.”
North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival
Where: The Carolina Theatre, 309 West Morgan St., Durham
Cost: Individual tickets $10; $85 for 10-movie pass
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org