Note: Thanks are expressed to Professor Baden Offord and Dr. Erika Kerruish, supervising my PhD at Southern Cross University, Australia, for their generous feedback on an early draft of this paper.
1Having not always lived in a regional area, but being born and bred in Australia’s largest and gayest city, Sydney - the Emerald city as we call it - home of the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival & Parade gives a sense that the world is queer and accepting. Sydney queers are a socially and culturally privileged species, something you never really think about that much when you live there. There is Mardi Gras, and there are parties, support groups, and a large gay and lesbian film festival. You see other queers on the streets and in coffee shops, and you really never feel isolated. But once you leave the city the horizon changes rapidly. In regional areas there is entrenched homophobia still frequently encountered (QFFF Archives; community feedback and personal experience), as well as misunderstanding about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer (GLBTIQ) people. The experience of leaving Sydney after years of social inclusion within the gay community and moving to the regional area of the Northern Rivers created a profound disjunction in my social and cultural experiences. This accords with what Halberstam (2005, p.16) calls a “dislocatedness” for queers, who may experience being ‘out of time and place’ when located in a ‘rural over urban’ setting. In leaving Sydney, there had been the long-held dream of the rural idyll; living with my partner on a small acreage, planting fruit trees, dwelling closer to nature. We moved to an area approximately 35 minutes’ drive (32 kilometres) from Lismore, having originally met in this area many years’ earlier. However, leaving Sydney this time, after living in the heart of the gay community in Newtown (Sydney, Australia), was unexpectedly alienating. Due to this, I was receptive to being involved in developing the regional GLBTIQ community culture and embarking upon an ambitious project: to create a public screen event to enable queer lives to be recognized and celebrated via film. The Northern Rivers has the highest GLBTIQ population outside the urban areas in Australia (Lismore City Council 2005), though distance makes queers quite invisible the majority of the year.
2In 2009 a regional gay and lesbian community group (Tropical Fruits Inc.) approached with a personal invitation to consider establishing a local GLBTIQ film festival. I had recently returned from working as Assistant Director on a well-established, independent film festival in Sydney and was a trained filmmaker with experience in screen business and an understanding of film culture and curatorship. Over the summer, between New Year’s Eve 2008, to late January 2009, I contemplated the invitation to create the film festival. This involved research and consideration of key production issues: how to fund a regional GLBTIQ film festival; how to source the films; and the central question: would international filmmakers submit their films and support a festival in an unknown regional area? After a series of meetings with the local community group and telephone calls to state screen funding bodies, I decided that the festival might be successful locally due to the influx of tourists each year to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
3It was in this way that Queer Fruits Film Festival (QFFF) was born in Lismore, in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales (Australia) in February 2009. The massive task of producing the festival in real time, for a New Years’ series of screenings that same year followed. Major support came immediately from the Australian screen industry, with government agency Screen NSW supporting the 2009 festival. In 2010, 2011 and 2012 the support program was moved to another government agency, Arts NSW. Lismore City Council supported the 2010-2012 festivals. Major support also came from local community sectors, with the Lismore and District Worker’s Club and other local businesses and community providing a range of in-kind support as partners and sponsors. In particular, the Lismore and District Worker’s Club is acknowledged as a temporal queer space that supports the community in an inclusive way. Lismore gay and lesbian community group Tropical Fruits Inc. is acknowledged as a Founding Partner of Queer Fruits Film Festival (QFFF). Initially, the festival was in partnership with this local community group, but after an agreed start-up period, QFFF became independent (QFFF Archives 2009-2012).
4From inception, my role was defined as an independent Festival Director, with responsibility as the main film programmer. To enable the vast challenges of producing a film festival to succeed, it was essential to gather a small core creative team, who collectively embraced creating this new regional queer event. This core team included internationally respected digital pioneer Virginia Barratt as Web Producer; awarded filmmaker Elka Kerkhofs as Animation Director and all-round support from Zan as Front of House Supervisor. It was this close creative team who continued on in partnership to produce the festival throughout each festival season. These highly trained screen and arts professionals also formed part of the film Selection panels, beside members of the local GLBTIQ community. In addition, a team of GLBTIQ volunteers was sourced, that held specific roles on Festival days (such as ushers and catering team).
5From the beginning the festival had an open policy for film submissions from regional, national (Australian) and international filmmakers and was immediately embraced and supported by filmmakers around the world and by the New South Wales screen industry as a key regional event. This is the first independently produced and screened queer film festival in a regional area in Australia, challenging and countering the trend of culture emerging from the cities and ‘touring’ to regional areas.
6The experience of working as the Festival Director of this significant GLBTIQ film festival between 2009-2012 provided the impetus for my current doctorate that focuses on “Transgender Representation in Mainstream and Independent Films”. This paper is the beginning of a self-reflexive exploration of creating the Queer Fruits Film Festival space.
7The concentration of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (GLBTIQ) populations and resources are centred upon urban spaces around the world. This has often led to disenfranchisement for GLBTIQ people who dwell in non-urban, regional and rural environments. Distance, social invisibility and entrenched homophobia is intensified through invisibility within the media and other cultural outlets and through the hegemony of heteronormativity encountered on a daily basis and which must be challenged in order to achieve balance in society. Creating a queer space, such as a queer film festival, accords with Halberstam (2005, p.1) that there is a ’queer time and space’ separate to heteronormative places and expectations. A queer film festival is a site, which intentionally and explicitly offers and promotes an inclusive, non-normative, non-binary gendered, activist, sexually and culturally non-biased event.
8In this paper the use of the word ’queer’ follows the way that the idea of queer was utilised and circulated throughout the Queer Fruits Film Festival, as an embracing term inclusive of all GLBTIQ filmmakers, following established national and international queer film festival practise and ideas of ‘queer’ as a form of “postmodern identity” (Halperin 2003, p.340). This conception of queer meshes with independent, contemporary GLBTIQ screen culture. Within independent GLBTIQ screen culture, queer is utilised and recognised as an identifier and umbrella term for GLBTIQ films and filmmakers. It is acknowledged that use of the term ‘queer’ in this way by the festival may have differed from many current uses of the term as meaning ’non-heteronormative’. Part of the reason why the use of the term ‘queer’ was so important in this inclusive and embracing way, is the regional location of the film festival and the circulation of ‘queer’ as a global GLBTIQ film festival branding, easily recognisable and distinguishable from other independent film festivals. When making an international call for entries to filmmakers each year to attract film submission, ‘queer’ is a recognisable calling card. Internationally, there are many film festival precedents for using the term ‘queer’ in this GLBTIQ-inclusive manner. The currency of ‘queer’ as shorthand for GLBTIQ within screen culture is such, that prestigious film festivals such as the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival are now considering festival name changes to include ‘queer’ and whether using terms such as ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ are sufficiently inclusive and representative in the present day (Robinson 2014). Part of the mission statement of Queer Fruits Film Festival identified the importance of films being by, for and about GLBTIQ people (QFFF Archives 2009).
9Queer Fruits Film Festival was established in the regional area of Lismore, which “is a mixed urban and rural community at the heart of the Northern Rivers. The city is situated on the Wilson River and covers an area of 1,290 square kilometres” in total (Lismore City Council 2008, p. 6). The area is known in popular culture and promoted by the local Lismore City Council as the ‘Rainbow Region’ (Tansley 2010; Lismore City Council 2014). The origins of the term go back to a boat called the ‘SS Rainbow’, which sailed the Wilson River in the late 1800s. The idea of a ‘Rainbow Region’ was reinforced in 1973, when the counter-culture Aquarius festival was held in nearby Nimbin and people travelled from all over Australia to attend the festival, later staying in the area after the event to dwell in communes. This included the first gay male commune ‘Freecloud’ that was established locally (Wilson 2003). The queer geographies of the area are now recognized, through re-appropriation and re-positioning of the idea of the Rainbow Region in the local imagination by the GLBTIQ community, who represent diverse genders and sexualities and also use the international Rainbow Flag (and rainbow colours), as a means of recognition and safety at public events.
Figure 1: Approaching Lismore, welcome sign.
Photo: Akkadia Ford 2013.
10The regional population at the 2006 census was 44,225. This increased by 1.89% between the 2001 and 2006 censuses. Of significance is that 61.2% of the population lives in the urban area, 34.6% in rural areas and 4.2% in surrounding villages (Lismore City Council 2008, pp. 6-7). Lismore’s population is expected to continue to grow over the next ten years (Lismore City Council 2008, p.7), creating a continued need for social and cultural amenities across all population sectors.
11Significantly, Lismore has the highest GLBTIQ population in Australia outside urban areas (Lismore City Council Social and Community Plan 2005-2009). Fortunately, Lismore City Council has a clear and inclusive policy and outstanding track record for supporting the queer community in the region. This has included funding support for local GLBTIQ community events such as Queer Fruits Film Festival. The Mayor of Lismore City Council, Jenny Dowell also welcomed audiences, opening the Festival in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
12The regional location and limited economic opportunities due to geographic isolation and rural position, have led to high levels of unemployment and poverty. “The Northern Rivers came up fourth in the list of the 30 most disadvantaged areas in Victoria and NSW” (Lismore City Council 2005, p. 7), with government financial assistance (in the form of social welfare payments) a significant issue locally. The median family weekly income in Lismore is 22% lower than the NSW figure (Lismore City Council 2008, p. 9). It is appreciated that this percentage is low in comparison with the current economic crises in Europe and the up to 60% youth unemployment that is currently devastating local communities. However, the percentage is significant by Australian standards and also in relation to the regional position and population demographics of Lismore. This has led to Lismore receiving a score of 964 in the Index of Relative Socioeconomic Disadvantage by Local Government Area (SEIFA Index), which is below the national Australian standard of 1000, as derived from Census variables related to disadvantage, “such as low income, low educational attainment, unemployment, unskilled occupations and dwellings without motor vehicles” (Lismore City Council 2005 and the Department of Community Services).
13The large GLBTIQ community, coupled with the lower socio-economic position, makes the creation of queer spaces even more important in regional areas such as Lismore and created a unique opportunity for a regional queer film festival to fill the cultural gap that existed. State government screen funding agencies recognised that the Queer Fruits Film Festival could play a vital role in developing regional screen audiences for GLBTIQ content and provide much-needed queer media representation locally. The festival could not only play a role in vitalizing the local economy in being a drawcard for tourism and employer of local creatives, but in providing public recognition and support for the local GLBTIQ community. As Festival Director, I was able to broker a unique partnership between the festival, local GLBTIQ community and state screen industry and funding bodies.
14The geographies of queer film festivals internationally and research on queer film festivals internationally has been undertaken, particularly by Skadi Loist in Germany, who has mapped Queer Film Festivals Globally (1977-2013) (Loist 2013). This comprehensive map currently shows 299 GLBTIQ film festivals existing globally since 1977, with regular updates to the festival listings. The map has utilised a colour coded pin system to designate different phases of the historical development of queer film festivals, following the 4 phases proposed by Ragan Rhyne in her PhD thesis Pink Dollars: Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals and the Economy of Visibility (2007). The online version of the map is interactive; when a coloured pin is hovered over/clicked, the name/location of the festival is revealed:
“A pin with a dot inside shows a still existing festival, while an empty pin stands for terminated festival. The historical development of the LGBT/Q film festival circuit is represented by color-coding, each color indicating a specific period.” (Loist 2013)
15Queer Fruits Film Festival was added to this international mapping project on August 16th, 2012. A violet-coloured pin denotes the festival, corresponding to the current phase of festivals’ development, which according to Loist “is largely characterized by network building” (Loist 2013, Map Addendum).
Figure 2: Festival logo. Original Design by Elka Kerkhofs, Queer Fruits Film Festival Animation Director.
©Queer Fruits Film Festival 2009-2014.
16Significantly of the 299 festivals, there are very few - such as Queer Fruits Film Festival - that are wholly regional and that exist outside the major cities/urban areas. The phrase ‘wholly regionally’ highlights the difference between a queer film festival that is established and produced independently in a regional area and a film festival that is programmed by an urban festival curator and then presented as a ‘touring’ program to a region by an established city-based film festival. The difference is subtle, but profound, in terms of the planning strategies that need to be employed in understanding the regional audience demographics and, foremost, in terms of the needs of regional GLBTIQ audiences due to their lower socio-economic environment. The map reveals the geography of queer film festivals to be urban, based around the major cities. There is a combination of factors for this, based around the resources and economics of film festival production and the tenuous, partially paid (and unpaid) conditions in which film festival directors regularly work (as noted by Loist and Zielinski 2012). From my personal experience of running Queer Fruits Film Festival, it is a matter of dedication and a resolve to produce the highest possible quality festival while working with inadequate amounts of funding and relying upon volunteer and in-kind support. It entails maintaining an ethical position towards all stakeholders at all times, and simultaneously being fully accountable and creatively inspired, while often wondering how it will all come together. But it does - and that is the magic of queer community working at its best. It is also thanks to the core team of dedicated creative partners who supported the process from inception.
17In particular, the work ethos to ‘keep moving the festival forward’ was of especial help in the founding year of QFFF, when filmmakers were contracted, a venue advance booked and lower funding than requested did not appear from the screen funding body until mid-August and was inadequate to run the December event. At this stage, an urgent meeting with the local GLBTIQ community group enabled the gap in funds to be provided as a form of production loan to the festival, secured against (and to be repaid from) annual box office. This was necessary to run the festival, but had the unfortunate effect of meaning that all-year work on the festival resulted in no income being generated to forward fund the next years’ festival (as all box office revenue went to repay the community group for the festival production advance). It is difficult to describe, but worth acknowledging, the pressures a Festival Director is placed under when running an independent film festival; you have the expectations of the queer community, Event Partners and Sponsors, filmmakers and businesses, all of whom the festival is under contract to produce the annual event.
18Yet despite the hurdles and challenges, film festivals play a significant role in presenting alternative cultural, social and political representations of gender and sexuality, which disrupt dominant (gender-normative) paradigms and counter the hegemony of heteronormativity. It is not simply about ‘entertainment’. Queer film festivals in particular, are politically potent and centralise social justice and human rights issues. As Festival Director, it is essential to be continuously aware of balancing the realistic aspects of GLBTIQ human rights issues (such as marriage equality, health and housing), with films of a lighter tone. The festival “advocates the need to ‘work towards bringing about shifts in our societal foundation matrix’” Hakeem (2010, p.150). Film has the power to play a unique role in bringing about this shift and, in particular, independent film leads the way in innovation.
Figure 3: Queer Fruits Film Festival posters 2011 (left) and 2012 (right). Exceptional filmmakers, 36 countries, Australian & International premieres.
19The necessity for GLBTIQ representation in marginalised regional communities has been highlighted when, every year, the Queer Fruits Film Festival posters were removed from the public noticeboard in the main street of Bangalow, a village nearby to Lismore (around thirty minutes’ drive) and considered to be quite ‘tolerant’ by local queers, who live and work in the area and based upon no significant incidents of homophobia being reported. That does not mean nothing has ever happened, nor diminishes the negative experiences of being visibly GLBTIQ in a small town. As part of routine festival work, I repeatedly replaced the festival posters each year on the main street ‘community noticeboard’, but it was clear that some locals did not like a queer event in their backyard.
20It is also significant that filmmakers from non-Western countries and in particular, outstanding Eastern European filmmakers, often also do not receive the wider recognition and screening opportunities that their films deserve - even within the critically and politically located sites of queer film festivals. In this regard, the work of Romanian filmmaker Florina Titz, who directed and produced the independent queer feature film Trip (2010), is worthy of highlighting. Trip is a landmark queer film in terms of narrative (it is a post-Communist psychedelic road trip for the mind), with very queer and non-normative characters (including all shades of gay/lesbian/bisexual/queer) and happily, with an open ending - Titz carefully crafting the narrative and eschewing any compulsion to a bitter/tragic ending that is the recurrent narrative convention of the road movie genre. This film revels in the concept of queer as an open-ended journey and queer life in Romania, in particular, as one that is being created by individuals. As Festival Director the potential of this film (it seemed destined to be a queer cult classic) and the quality of Titz’s work was immediately recognised and Queer Fruits Film Festival was proud to be one of only two film festivals in the world that selected Trip for screening: that is out of a staggering 282 queer film festivals that existed at the time. This experience seems to echo and parallels the marginalisation of Eastern European scholars, often overlooked for publication within Western academia, that was highlighted by Robert Kulpa in his opening keynote address at the 2013 II European Geographies of Sexualities Conference in Lisbon (Kulpa 2013).
21The overlooking of screen creatives from non-hegemonic countries is a very disappointing statistic given the dedication of independent queer filmmakers who devote years to writing, directing and producing films and largely fund the productions out of their own pockets. Without any guarantee of screenings at the end of production, they are fuelled by the hope that the wider GLBTIQ community will support their work through providing screening spaces and opportunities.
22Over the four years (2009-2012) Queer Fruits Film Festival received film submissions from filmmakers from over 36 countries internationally. From this pool of inspiring texts, programs of outstanding films across all genres and styles were selected, leading to highly diverse and engaging curated sessions. There was a conscious programming mix of texts from around the world, screening in their own languages, within the programme. These films were never separated out as ‘arthouse’ or ‘foreign language’ films, or any of the other festival programming tropes that are used to marginalise non-Western content, rendering the audience as incapable of understanding anything beyond English-language programmes, which is of course nonsense. The festival screened a large number of Australian and International premieres, with an independent Distinguished Festival Jury selecting a range of films for awards, including the annual QFFF Jury Prize. Jury Prize winners over those festival years were: Waxie Moon (2009 Jury Prize; Director Wes Hurley 2009); Resonance (2010 Jury Prize; Directors Stephen Cummins and Simon Hunt 1991); Kink Crusaders (2011 Jury Prize; Director Mike Skiff 2010); Sexing the Transman (2012 Jury Prize; Director Buck Angel 2012). In addition, category awards were selected, with films such as Flamingo Pride winning Outstanding Animation in 2012 (Tomer Eshed 2011) and Ms. Thing (Karen X. Tulchinsky 2010) winning Outstanding Short in 2010.
23Films reflect the state and current concerns of society and play a major role in educating audiences and reflecting societal expectations and aspirations. It is of significant concern that the majority of films produced maintain the dominant representational paradigm of heteronormativity. Queer Fruits Film Festival has been able to bring a diversity of representations to a regional audience.
24The festival received strong public support & recognition with wide media coverage. As noted above, the Mayor of Lismore City Council Jenny Dowell graciously opened the 2010-2012 festivals. Distinguished Festival Jury have included high profile screen industry representatives, including Ross Grayson-Bell, Head of Screenwriting at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), but perhaps better known as the Producer of the Hollywood film ‘Fight Club’ (which starred Brad Pitt). This high-profile support illustrates the spread of support that our small regional event began to gather.
Figure 4: Local media coverage: Front cover feature pre-festival 2010.
The Northern Star, (18/12/10).
25There was also regular media coverage by major regional media outlets. The Northern Star and the Northern Rivers Echo starting to support the festival as Event Partners for the 2010, 2011, 2012 festivals, providing important press coverage both before, during and after the festivals. This meant that the regular local newspapers were providing large editorial items on the festival and disseminating information about GLBTIQ films to the wider regional community.
26Creative industries have been identified as a regional priority for development, particularly in the Northern Rivers’ region according to Henkel (2006):
“In 2004, the Northern Rivers Regional Development Board (NRRDB) began developing a Regional Industry and Economic Plan (RIEP)1 as the basis for determining priorities for regional economic development and managing projected population growth over the next 25 years. The RIEP identified creative industries as one of ten priority areas for growth in the region.”
27The impact of an event such as Queer Fruits Film Festival extends beyond the economic benefit to local businesses; it develops cultural capital. Significantly, the role and effect of cultural creation upon marginal communities (such as the GLBTIQ) was not included in the Regional Industry and Economic Plan (RIEP). It is unclear why this was not included, as the presence of the GLBTIQ community group in Lismore pre-dates this report.
28As it became clearer each year that the festival programs were being received so enthusiastically by audience and the thematic content was of relevance beyond the regional area, the impact of the festival extended beyond Lismore with a major Outreach program. Queer Fruits Film Festival toured to major urban areas (Coffs Harbour, around three hours’ drive South-East of Lismore in 2011 and to Sydney, around ten hours’ drive South of Lismore in 2012); these outreach activities countered the long-held trends of culture being created in the city and then ‘touring’ to regional areas. QFFF appears to be unique as a regionally produced GLBTIQ film festival, which has toured into major urban areas. Film festivals generally receive separate funding to produce a regional tour of film ‘highlights’. Part of the reason QFFF was able to screen in two major cities, was that I utilized an existing GLBTIQ connection back to Sydney to secure a screening opportunity for Kink Crusaders without any funding to screen, we were able to utilize box office from this tour to raise funds for the community group.
29In 2013 an invitation to curate four hour-long episodes to screen on a community cable station led to a significant broadcast series of programs being screened (4 x 52 minute episodes) to coincide with the 2013 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (SGLMG).
Figure 5: Outreach program: Queer Fruits Film Festival tours Jury Prize winner “Kink Crusaders” (Mike Skiff 2010) to Sydney, countering the trend of culture emerging from the cities and touring to the regions.
Ad in Sydney Star Observer (27/01/12).
Figure 6: Queer Fruits Film Festival Aurora TV broadcast 2013. GLBTIQ celebrated identity. Vanessa Wagner featured on the promotional poster.
Courtesy Queer Fruits Film Festival / Aurora TV 2013.
30Early 2012, in response to the visibly increasing transgender population in the regional Northern Rivers’ and South-East Queensland areas (a demographic increase which is not related to the presence of the festival, but to the trans community being supportive and increasingly public locally); focus shifted to presenting a specially curated transgender program and forum at the 2012 festival. Transgender filmmakers and film participants were invited by QFFF to attend and provide a much-needed nexus point between filmmakers and the audiences in respect of transgender narratives currently being depicted. This shift was a response on my behalf as Festival Director, to the higher submissions of trans films over the four years, to recognizing that trans narratives were often inadequately programmed at GLBTIQ film festivals and to perceiving the need to adjust the programming of the 2012 festival to fit the demographic audiences who attended the festival.
31The Queer Fruits Film Festival provided much-needed screen representation and recognition for this section of our community locally. A number of texts were discussed, including the films screened at the festival during the transgender session and episodes of a series (“My Transsexual Summer”, Channel 4, UK, 2012) that had been broadcast earlier that year on Australian free-to-air television (ABC 2, Australia, May-October, 2012). The forum was well-received and it became clear from feedback from participants in the forum and audience attending the session, that the area of transgender representation in films needed further scholarly investigation. It is in this way that the collective experience of the festival over those four years culminated and has profoundly influenced my personal and scholarly life, leading directly into the research area of my current PhD.
32The dominant paradigm of media/film imagery displays a heteronormative and binary-gendered focus. This can also occur with films that are simply ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, excluding other gender/sexual diversities. To transgender people, the double invisibility of gender within body and body within society intensifies the dilemma of living. Programming exclusion (whether intentionally, or by oversight), or marginalisation of transgender narratives within an overall program at queer film festivals is an area that needs to be addressed by all festival directors.
33Transgender films are significant cultural records; it has been argued “trans-produced narratives are one of three revolutionary sites creating discourse interruptus and discourse eruption (“the moment where new discourses and actions break through conventional paradigms of thinking and doing, thereby creating change”).” (Mackenzie 1999, p.196)
34The experiences of running a queer film festival in a regional town, of being an urban queer displaced in time and space, of identifying as genderqueer in a heteronormative world, have all informed the selection of topic and the methodology and ethical approach of my current PhD. Through the research project, the significance of independent trans films will be explored and celebrated. The strategies of self-identification that are evident in independent transgender films will be examined as a contra to the tropes (devices, motifs, metaphors, cliches), negative story arcs and disembodied projections that are presented in mainstream and Hollywood films dealing with transgender subjects. A range of screen texts will be examined, focusing upon independent films/filmmakers and the ‘Trans New Wave’ of cinema (Taormino 2008), with a particular focus on transmale narratives and the work of filmmaker, activist and educator Buck Angel. The role of official classification systems and issues of censorship (and self-censorship) on the images/representation of transgender people will be examined and the requirement for films to fit within these film ‘ratings’ systems in order to attract third-party distribution and cinema screening. The role and place of film festivals in presenting alternative cultural, social and political representations of gender and sexuality, which disrupt dominant (gender-normative) paradigms will also be examined, drawing upon the QFFF archives and building upon the growing area internationally of film festival scholarship.