Jim Farmer knits together an LGBTQ community with Out on Film

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

35th annual festival brings 143 films from 27 countries to town for 11-day event.

In the summer of 1969 the Ansley Mall Mini-Cinema screened the Andy Warhol spoof, “Lonesome Cowboys” several nights running.

The movie features a cross-dressing sheriff and the amorous exploits of gay buckaroos, all presented in Warhol’s deadpan style. It had already been monitored by the FBI and sparked arrests in London.

One night during the Atlanta run, the Police Department raided the theater, blocking the exits and arresting and photographing many of the patrons.

The bust, which is credited with helping galvanize the Gay Pride movement in Atlanta, showed how fearful the straight community was of gay-themed films, especially those that deal with sex — even those as obviously satirical as Warhol’s.

Times, said Jim Farmer, have changed. Farmer is director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s pre-eminent LGBTQ film festival, an 11-day feast of drama, comedies, shorts and horror that this year begins Sept. 22 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

These days instead of drawing attention from the police, the festival has caught the eye of the Academy, and is an Oscar-qualifying event. Prize-winners in the live-action short film category are eligible for consideration by Oscar nominators.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of Out on Film, which has weathered difficult times, including a worldwide pandemic when almost all screenings went virtual. Before COVID, the 11-day festival drew an audience of more than 12,000 to screenings at several locations in the city.

The pandemic, along with an industry-wide trend of shrinking theatrical audiences, are concerns. But Farmer, and his husband Craig Hardesty, who is board-chair of the festival, are confident in Out on Film’s future.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

This year the festival will be both in-person and streamed online, and it is a touchstone for Atlanta. It draws a diverse audience, many of whom might see each other only once a year, at one of these screenings.

The events serve as an anchor and a unifier for that community, say fans of the festival. There are many opportunities to watch movies in your living room, but there is nothing like watching with a group of people who understand your life.

“You’re with your people, you’re with your tribe, watching your stories on the screen,” said journalist Richard Eldredge, who is a juror and moderator for the festival. “You can’t capture that at home.”

Beginnings

Out on Film was created in 1987 by the Southeastern Arts, Media & Education Project, an LGBTQ arts organization, and was later absorbed by IMAGE (Independent Media Artists of Georgia, Etc.), which became the Atlanta Film Festival.

Getting community involvement in the Out on Film series was a challenge for IMAGE, said former managing director Paula Martinez. “There would be times when we would have a screening and we would only have 10 to 15 people in the audience,” she said. “And that’s embarrassing, especially if we have the filmmakers there.”

In 2008 the Atlanta Film Festival turned Out on Film over to Farmer; Hardesty became board chair the following year.

“It was the absolutely right choice,” said Martinez, now with the Nashville Film Festival. Farmer “was a rock star at it. It’s in so much better hands. We recognized it from the beginning.”

Farmer, a writer and reporter who contributes regularly to ArtsATL, had been marketing director for Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema. He and Hardesty felt that the film festival would be a great adventure. “Neither one of us had any idea how much work it took,” he said.

Credit: Kelly West

Credit: Kelly West

A day with Jane Fonda

One can learn a great deal about the impact of cinema on Farmer’s and Hardesty’s lives by visiting the Avondale home they share with their rescue dog Douglas, aka Boo-Boo.

The downstairs is scrupulously neat. The upstairs is crammed with DVDs, posters, movie swag, memorabilia and screens. This is where where they previewed the 1,200 submissions they received this year.

On a bookshelf is a special limited edition of the so-tacky-it’s-good “Showgirls” in pride of place. Nearby is a souvenir full-size cricket bat from the zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead.”

The bat looks like a convincing weapon, and Farmer, 57, claims it’s valuable for self-defense. “When Craig is out of town, I keep it under the bed.”

On the walls are mementoes of fan-boy moments from the past. In one photo from 2005 Farmer poses with Jane Fonda who he squired around for an afternoon when she visited the Midtown Art Cinema to help promote the David Zeiger documentary “Sir! No Sir!,” a movie about the anti-Viet Nam War movement within the military.

“That was the best two hours of my life,” he sighs.

Growing the festival

When Out on Film was created, the Ansley Mall police raids of 1969 were almost 20 years in the past, but discrimination wasn’t dead. The notorious Bowers v. Hardwick ruling by the Supreme Court had, in 1986, upheld Georgia’s law making sex between men a felony. Privacy rights in general and LGBTQ rights in particular were under assault.

“It was literally a time when we were criminalized,” said Farmer.

He recognized that the film festival gave his community a reason to gather and a way to demonstrate that they were human beings, too. “We have stories to tell.” he reasoned. “We need to come together with positive portrayals of who we are.”

He also acknowledged the need to broaden the appeal of the film festival, which had focused on white males.

With help from Turner Broadcasting, Farmer and Hardesty grew the five-day festival to 11 days, and added other sponsors, bringing the yearly budget to about $120,000-$140,000.

This year’s festival offers 143 films from 27 different countries; they tell the stories of old and young, male and female, gay, straight, non-binary and trans, representing a patchwork of colors and ethnic backgrounds.

Credit: Out on Film

Credit: Out on Film

Live on stage

The festival also stages live events to amplify the messages of the movies: Farmer and Hardesty bring in filmmakers and actors for panel discussions, question and answer sessions, parties and informal get-togethers.

Among those who have appeared at the festival are “Tales of the City” author Armistead Maupin, Stephen Moyer of “The Laramie Project,” Madonna dancer Carlton Wilborn and vocalist Niki Haris (both of whom appeared in “Madonna: Truth or Dare”), “Pink Flamingos” filmmaker John Waters, native Atlantan RuPaul (of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) and Randal Kleiser, “director of “Grease,” “It’s My Party” and many other films.

“We have to focus on events, on making things more than a movie,” said Farmer.

It seems to work. Staged during the weeks leading up to the Atlanta Pride celebration, the films and the discussions they promote are a fitting warm-up for that city-wide expression of LGBTQ solidarity. “It is the perfect opening act for Pride,” said Eldredge.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

And while Pride is about parades and fun, Out on Film is more about thoughtful exchanges, which makes it a valuable thread in the fabric of the community, said Atlanta filmmaker Chad Darnell.

“It’s so much about conversations, at the festival, at parties, at the Q&As,” said Darnell. “It’s the reason Out on Film wins community awards year after year. It’s not just about going to see the movie, but it’s seeing everybody in the lobby afterwards.”

It can also help a filmmaker’s career. Darnell was relaxing at Apres Diem with Farmer and Hardesty after a screening of his 2012 short film “Groom’s Cake” when he mentioned that he needed funding for his next project. An investor sat down and introduced himself. All of a sudden Darnell had the money for a full-length feature, a sequel to “Groom’s Cake” called “Birthday Cake,” released the following year.

Farmer and Hardesty like to take chances with their programming. Eldredge recalled the time they scheduled the downbeat documentary “Bridegroom” as the closing movie of the 2013 season. The movie is a documentary about moviemaker Shane Bitney Crone and his life partner, Tom Bridegroom. After Bridegroom died in an accidental fall, Crone was swept out of the picture by Bridegroom’s family and wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral.

Produced and directed by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason of “Designing Women,” the movie was “a risk” as a final encore, said Eldredge. “It was a downer. But they got Shane to come to the screening, and I’ll never never forget walking down the aisle with him as the credits are rolling and the entire audience is in tears, and we’re trying to conduct an interview. That theater was packed out for this documentary.”

Tending your own garden

The Out on Film festival also recognizes local talent. In 2017 the festival screened the documentary “Three Decades of Queer Atlanta: The American Music Show,” about Atlanta’s much-loved, low-budget, public access cable show that featured goofy comedy, music from bands such as the Now Explosion and some of RuPaul’s earliest recorded performances.

“They were queer in the truly subversive sense,” said Andy Ditzler, cinema historian and curator of the rare film series, Film Love.

After the screening, filmmaker Matt Terrell took the stage at the Midtown Art Cinema and by phone conducted a Q&A with the American Music Show creator, an ailing Dick Richards. Terrell remembers holding the phone up to the microphone so the audience could hear Richards’ responses.

Ditzler said, “I remember Dick’s advice to people wanting to make films and video: ‘Don’t let technical things get in the way.’ To hear someone say that, against all the relentless professionalization and technological excess of the movie industry, was not just hilarious — it was meaningful and moving. And that was the last time I heard Dick’s voice.” Richards died of leukemia shortly afterward.

“I’m just glad that Out on Film is still here, that Jim Farmer is doing this work,” said Ditzler. “It’s real work, a real act of faith, to keep providing this forum for filmmakers, to keep making space for people to watch films together, in the face of all the difficulties.”


FESTIVAL PREVIEW

Out on Film. Sept. 22-Oct. 2. $12; $185 all-access pass; $125 virtual pass. Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive NE, Atlanta, and at Out Front Theatre, 999 Brady Ave. NW, Atlanta. outonfilm.org

Festival highlights

“Bros.” Directed by Nicholas Stoller and co-produced by Judd Apatow, the opening night feature is the first romantic comedy released by a major studio about two gay men; co-written by and starring Billy Eichner and presented by Universal Studios. 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 22, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

“Black As U R.” The documentary asks the question: “Why do we as a people protest racial injustice, but disregard the injustices experienced by Black queer people?” Directed by Micheal Rice. 7 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 25, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

“Pat Rocco Dared.” The documentary sheds light on a pioneering moment in film history as it revisits the films of Pat Rocco, responsible for the first gay films shown openly to the paying public in the late 1960s. In contrast to the darker films coming out of New York, Rocco’s work featured sun-dappled beaches and happy faces. 9:15 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 25, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

“When Time Got Louder.” Connie Cocchia’s drama follows Abbie, who is breaking away from her parents and family but is torn between her new life and her bond with her brother, who has autism and is non-verbal. 7 p.m., Monday, Sept. 26, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

“Mama Bears.” From Daresha Kyi, this documentary is about the conservative Christian women who fiercely defend their LGBTQ children. It follows Sara Cunningham and Kimberly Shappley, whose love for their children turned them into fierce advocates for the entire queer community. 7 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 27, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

“Chrissy Judy.” The closing night film from Todd Flaherty examines the onstage partnership of a mismatched pair on the verge of splitting. “After hustling for years together in the New York City bar scene,” reads the introduction, “Judy is convinced that this is the summer their two-queen drag act will finally get its big break.” 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 2, Out Front Theatre.