The San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, presented annually by the nonprofit Frameline, approaches mature, middle age amid a political climate that people might equate more with the Dark Ages than with enlightenment. While communities nationwide celebrate LGBTQ+ pride during June — a highlight is the 50th anniversary of the June 28, 1969, Stonewall Uprising that constituted a major, historical pivot in the gay-rights movement — contemporary times also display the stain of intolerance.
Statistically, since 2014, hate crimes and homophobia in the United States are on the rise, with targeted murders in Michigan and Georgia and backtracking directives limiting transgender people's military participation just two examples. The rumble of animosity seen in conservative shifts on the Supreme Court and a mocking "straight pride parade" in Boston, among other legislative and cultural indicators, sparks anxiety for transgender people and supporters.
So with the growing numbers and increasing sophistication of LGBTQ+ characters in films and other media during these Trump era clampdowns, irony is not lost on Program Director Paul Struthers. Reflecting on the narrative and short films, documentaries, panels and special programs in Frameline 43, one of the world's largest and longest-running such film festivals, Struthers said, "What's great is that there's an influx of transgender actors playing transgender roles. Despite other forces, Hollywood and the film industry are pushing for wider representation of the LGBTQ+ community."
This year's festival includes landmark strides: adding a new venue in Berkeley; more films from countries such as Guatemala that rarely have submitted films; and an uptick in trans actors featured in horror, fantasy, and sci-fi genre films like Bit, in which the main character, a transgender teen, falls in love with a queer vampire. An increasing number of films made by or about young LGBTQ+ people and films inclusive of but not centered on the lead character's sexuality or gender identity will screen. "Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America addresses immigration and four refugees fleeing to the Bay Area," says Struthers. "Butterfly is a documentary from Italy. It's about a young boxer who wants to box in the Olympics and her coming to terms with a chance to compete. Benjamin is about a gay filmmaker, but it's centered on Benjamin's second film being badly received while falling in love during what is the worst time of his life."
Like the stories told, the technology also has diversified. Struthers notes two films made on iPhones, Océan and Gender Derby. Respectively, the web series and the entirely vertically shot documentary represent a DIY-tech activism. "They have a hearty punch," says Struthers. "They're stories told the way people want to tell them."
Which doesn't mean the era of big-budget, high-production LGBTQ+ films isn't represented. The Ground Beneath My Feet, from Austria, is a psychological thriller by writer-director Marie Kreutzer. "It's an exceptional drama and it's rare to have a lesbian lead and focus on the corporate world," Struthers said. "It's a critique on young people and things people don't want to see. What things? We put work before family and friends — and perhaps we shouldn't."
Stories with Bay Area connections and comedies are two categories the selection committee, staff, and audiences identify as favorites. The family-friendly Toy Story 3, made by Emeryville's Pixar Studio, encompasses both realms; a screening of Queering the Script, one of five films selected from 150 entries to receive Frameline Completion funding, is followed by a live panel to discuss the influence of LGBTQ+ film fandom on film and other mass media.
"There're also films like We Are the Radical Monarchs, about an East Bay group and shot locally, and Gay Chorus Deep South, our festival closing film," Struthers said. Gay Chorus follows the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus as it tours the Deep South. Confronting racism, sexism, injustice, anti-LGBTQ+ historical landmarks, laws and sentiment, the film heralds strides in civil rights and interweaves dynamic musical performances to create a buoyant, vibrant experience. "Films that are responsive to the current political climate under Trump are important," Struthers said. "This looks at anti-LGBTQ+ laws and, in looking, there's reconnection to family, friends, people coming together to create change. Difficult conversations are being had, instead of people just turning their backs. Trust me, there won't be a dry eye at the screening."
If there are films Struthers would like to have seen more of in the 1,200-plus submissions, it would have been comedies. Even among the additional films he screened at the Berlin, Sundance, and Toronto film festivals and during his "nonstop film watching" year-round — adding an extra 300 films to the selection pool — finding a strong LGBTQ+ comedy is like discovering gold. "We show films that deal with dramatic, contemporary issues because we need the conversation to go forward, but we also need more time to laugh. Especially in these times of turning on the news and seeing sadness and misery, I'd love more comedies being made every year."
Before aspiring cinematographers jump to conclude that a local, funny film with an all-LGBTQ+ cast is the secret formula for making the cut, Struthers points to Vita & Virginia. The film chronicles through letters the lesbian love affair of writer Virginia Woolf and aspiring-but-not-to-be writer Vita Sackville-West. Struthers saw it at the Toronto film festival and loved it. "You want the opening night film to go off with a bang," he said. "It's lavish, has great music and features wonderful acting."
But even that film's splashy panache is not Struthers' festival's highlight. Instead, his top pick is a free event held June 29 at the De Young Museum. Audience members will don virtual reality goggles during the screening of Authentically Us. The episodic piece looks at the lives of three transgender people; an artist and historian, a proud veteran, and a mechanic. At Frameline 43, LGBTQ+ storytelling, virtual or actual, is personal, powerful, visceral, and, more than ever before, diverse.