Ahead of their films’ premieres at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, numerous queer filmmakers gathered on a virtual panel called “Expanding Queer Cinema” to discuss their works and the current landscape of queer representation in front of and behind the camera.
The discussion was moderated by Adam Baran, director of “Trade Center,” a documentary analyzing how the gay community’s use of the World Trade Center during the 1980s and 1990s impacts the newly-constructed Freedom Tower.
The panel was composed of filmmakers whose works ranged from documentaries to narrative films and included Wes Hurley (“Potato Dreams of America”); Whitney Skauge (“The Beauty President”); Todd Stephens (“Swan Song”); and Mari Walker (“See You Then”).
As a result of the ongoing pandemic, 2021 marks the first year the SXSW Film Festival was held completely virtually, offering movie fans an opportunity to experience the showcased films from the comfort of their home.
Although this year’s virtual programming provided some audiences access to the festival who may not have attended otherwise, Stephens said he misses the connection film festivals can provide.
“For me, it’s not going to be totally real until it plays with a room full of people,” Stephens said. “… Yeah, we can reach more people this way and all that. There’s definitely a silver lining to it. But just to be able to talk to people and hang out with people, and you have this room full of people where everybody’s attention is focused on this thing and that collective energy; I miss that a lot. Just going to the movies and feeling that. After all this time ... I want to feel that feeling.”
Throughout the years, queer films have been a key component of SXSW’s programming. A major point of discussion throughout the panel was how gay culture has pervaded not just this year’s programming at SXSW, but popular culture.
Wes Hurley’s film, “Potato Dreams of America,” tells the autobiographical story about a gay boy growing up in the waning days of the USSR. In examining his adolescence, Hurley contrasted the generation in which he was raised with generations growing up today.
“I find it thrilling. I remember being in high school, and that was around the time I was coming out and figuring out who I was. I was so obsessed with representation at the time,” said Hurley. “… With actresses coming out, it was so rare. I can’t imagine kids growing up now who have so many. It’s like any show you start on TV has gay characters, and so many films do as well.”
With the growing number of queer films in mainstream culture, Walker said she wanted to tell a story that focused entirely on queer characters with her film, “See You Then,” which follows a couple reuniting over dinner after a decade to catch up on their complicated lives, relationships and one of their transitions.
“We’re coming to sort of a crossroads, in terms of representation in media. I think it’s really exciting for so many mainstream projects to be supportive of queer characters and queer entertainment,” Walker said “... But I hope that more queer-centric films will still exist. I worry about those films getting hit hard. Because of the mainstream-ification of the queer community that they’ll end up becoming the ‘gay best friend’ or the ‘trans best friend’ but not having those stories that exist strictly within the binary of what it means to be a part of the queer community.”
The evolving landscape of the public perception of queer culture impacted the way Stephens approached writing the protagonist of his film, “Swan Song,” which follows an aging, gay hairdresser (Udo Kier) who leaves his nursing home and journeys across his small town to style a deceased woman’s hair for her funeral.
“I definitely did not want it to be about how being gay was a conflict in the film. It was almost, to the character, this older guy from another generation who had been in a nursing home for seven or eight years, it was almost a conflict to him how liberated the world was because he wasn’t really used to it,” Stephens said. “In a way, he’s super happy and joyous that there are two dads playing catch with their son in the park, but also, a certain bittersweet, maybe somewhat resentment that it wasn’t his life.”
A key part of celebrating queer stories, Skauge says, is preservation. Her documentary, “The Beauty President,” chronicles drag queen Joan Jett Blakk’s historic 1992 bid for the White House as an openly queer write-in candidate.
“For me with our film, it was about persevering this story and celebrating this story because we need them. Part of our responsibility as filmmakers that we’re talking about is to make work that saves this culture, and preserves this culture, and is by us for us,” Skauge said. “…For me, as a young queer person, when I found out about Joan Jett Blakk’s story, I felt bad. I felt like a bad queer person because I didn’t know about this story, but that’s not my fault though.
“I think part of it is that it’s just frustrating,” Skauge continued. “You want that history so badly because we need to know where we came from because it’s not like we have this backlog. I think for me, as a filmmaker, I feel such an intense responsibility to find more of these stories and to hold on to them, and to not let them get lost.”