Film Q&A - Out on Film director Jim Farmer discusses fest’s new era

23rd annual festival takes place Oct. 1-7

“We’re an old organization, but the team is new,” explains Out on Film festival director and program director Jim Farmer. Atlanta’s 23rd Out on Film Festival takes place Oct. 1-7, and offers more than 50 LGBT-themed documentaries, features and short films, including the Atlanta premiere of the Allen Ginsberg film Howl starring James Franco, and the romantic comedy Bear City. Farmer, 45, a former film critic and publicist, talks about taking the organization’s reins and how gay and lesbian film festivals remain relevant.

How has Out on Film changed over the years?

I can’t speak to how our audience has changed, but Out on Film has changed owners. It was founded in the 1980s as part of SAME, the Southeast Arts and Media Exchange. The IMAGE Film & Video Center, later known as the Atlanta Film Festival, ran Out on Film for the majority of its existence. Two years ago, AFF decided to give Out on Film back to the community and focus entirely on its own film festival. When I heard that, I leapt up and said, “I’d love to do this.” It combines all of the things I love with the things I’m good at.

Was it a difficult transition?

When we became an independent LGBT-run organization back in 2008, we literally had to start over from scratch. 2009 was a rough year, but we got through it. Like most arts organizations, we face financial challenges, but the good news is that we are much, much healthier than we were in 2009. The people I meet are excited that we’re still around, since a lot of local film festivals are gone.

Is it difficult for a film festival to compete with other media?

These days, compared to five or 10 years ago, there’s more competition from DVDs and channels like Logo and Bravo. Our films are brand-spanking new, but 95 percent of the films we show will never be in a theater. Film distribution has gotten so difficult that this is the only way they’ll be shown in an auditorium, so we focus on that. We also place value on the guests we bring to the festival. You can see the film, meet the director, maybe go upstairs and have a beer with the director. It’s a cliché, but what we offer is not just a film, it’s an experience.

As a sometime film critic, do you watch an Out on Film submission differently than you watch one you’ll write about?

Absolutely. I see a lot of movies when I’m not doing the festival. I have to think about the people who don’t see 10 films a week. Just because I’ve seen 12 versions of the same film, that doesn’t mean someone else has. And it’s not just me making the decisions. We have a very good program committee, and each person has a different take on each film. This year we received well over 300 submissions, and our lineup has 31 features and 25 shorts. Luckily, we have Ansley Park Playhouse in addition to Landmark this year, so we can screen six more films that we really wanted to show.

Do you see any particular trends in gay cinema? Sometimes it seems that the art houses primarily show gay sex comedies, but not more dramatic fare.

Sure, there are tons of gay sex comedies with naked boys running around — they have their place. But there’s room for many things. At Out on Film, we have a really good balance of crowd-pleasers, eye-candy films, and films that are really profound. I Killed My Mother won an award at Cannes. It’s about as far from an eye-candy-naked-boys film as you can get. I think the best film we have this year is Undertow, which is Peru’s official selection for the Academy Awards this year. It’s a love story between a woman, a man, and the ghost of his dead male lover.

Do you see any common themes in this particular lineup?

Religion is touched on in five or six films this year, in which people deal with faith, being gay or lesbian and coming out in their community. A Marine Story deals with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Making the Boys is one of my favorites. It’s a history of the play and film The Boys in the Band, which some people find groundbreaking, and others despise, and it deals with AIDS and homophobia. The Adonis Factor by Christopher Hines deals with self-esteem and body image, and how some gay men go to great lengths to get the best body they possibly can.

I understand that a controversy surrounded Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives?
Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives drew some controversy when it played at the Tribeca Film Festival, primarily from people who hadn’t seen the film but weren’t comfortable with the word “tranny” in the title. It’s about five transwomen, and when two are murdered, the other three seek revenge, so it’s a trans Kill Bill. Some people said that the characters are one-dimensional and the violence is cartoonish, but that’s not true.

Sometimes it seems that mainstream Hollywood has a two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach to gay subject matter.

Ever since Brokeback Mountain, every time there’s a Milk or a The Kids Are All Right, people say, “Wow, there’s going to be an avalanche of gay film!” But it never happens. I think there’s still some resistance to making gay-themed films. Ninety-nine percent of the films that deal with gay issues are independent. That’s sad to me, because really, really good films are out there that will never break into the mainstream. Some people ask, “Why is a gay and lesbian film festival still needed?” Gays and lesbians are more mainstream now, but we’re not in the mainstream, so we still have a long way to go.