The landscape of gay culture looks very different today than it did 20 years ago, when Reel Affirmations held its first festival of gay and lesbian films at Georgetown’s now-defunct Biograph Theatre. “When they started this, it was at a time where there wasn’t a lot of positive stuff being presented with regard to the gay community,” remembers Mark Heckathorn, director of operations for Reel Affirmations, who attended the first festival in 1991 and came on as a volunteer in 1998.
These days, gay characters are as common in film and television as dance numbers on “Glee.” For actors, taking on gay roles is no longer the career risk it once was — “The Kids Are All Right” got four Oscar nominations last year. But as representations of gay identity continue to go mainstream, Heckathorn says it’s more important than ever to make sure diverse stories are being told.
“Independent gay film has become more sophisticated,” he says. “Back in the early ’90s, we didn’t have as many films that dealt with transgender issues, for example. It’s expanded to run the whole gamut of our lives.”
This year’s festival spans 10 days of lectures, special events and films featuring big-name actors, activist icons and space aliens in love.
“Camp has a big place in our culture,” Heckathorn notes. “Let’s not forget that drag queens were the ones who fought back at the Stonewall Inn [in 1969], which started the modern gay rights movement.”
And while you can rent or stream plenty of gay, indie films today, festivals like Reel Affirmations offer a chance to experience gay film in the context of the community — about 20,000 people over the course of the festival, according to Heckathorn.
“It’s important in the same way that we have [the gay pride festival] every June,” he says. “It’s to remind ourselves of where we’ve been and that the struggle isn’t over. Back when we started, who would have thought there would be marriage equality in the District of Columbia? Film is history. It tells our story — both past and present.”
Go to Reelaffirmations.org for a full schedule of events and showtimes.
Director’s Chair: Abe Sylvia, ‘Dirty Girl’
Its title sounds like a blue movie, but “Dirty Girl” is really a sweet story: Chubby, gay boy meets foul-mouthed girl with a bad reputation.
“Ultimately, its a love story about two people who will never have sex,” says writer/director Abe Sylvia. “The things that society looks down on them for are the things they love about each other.”
It’s 1987 in Norman, Okla., and Danielle (Juno Temple, of “Atonement” and “The Dark Knight Rises”) is the only child of Sue-Ann (Milla Jovovich), who’s about to marry a conservative Mormon (William H. Macy). She’s shuffled into a program for troubled high-schoolers, where she’s paired with Clarke (Jeremy Dozier) on a sex-ed “parenting” project. Together, the misfits are charged with a sack of flour they christen Joan — in honor of both Ms. Jett and Ms. Crawford.
Clarke has his own problems at home: His mom and dad (played by Mary Steenburgen and Dwight Yoakam) are shipping him off to military school to straighten him out. So, when Danielle decides to head west to find the dad she never knew, they pack up Joan, steal Clarke’s dad’s car and hit the road.
“Dirty Girl” is Sylvia’s first full-length feature, but it’s powered by some very big names, including Tim McGraw, who plays Danielle’s estranged father. The director says that’s because the cast believed in the story Sylvia had to tell.
“They took a chance on me,” he says. “They’re all brave actors. Milla plays a mom to a grown person — a lot of actresses would let their vanity get in the way of that.”
On the road, Danielle and Clarke find good times and several kinds of heartbreak. They also find a gay roadhouse, where the once-meek Clarke enters a beefcake dance contest to make gas money.
“In the beginning of the movie, Clarke’s wearing five layers of clothing, and as the movie goes on, it comes off as he’s slowly accepting who he is,” explains Sylvia. “And here’s this group of guys who finally appreciate what he’s bringing to the table. It’s not a sexualized moment; it’s a moment of relating. Those guys see what’s happening, and they’re cheering him on.” SEE IT: Oct. 13, 7 p.m., $20, ($40 to attend opening party), Lisner Auditorium
“Pariah” Director Dee Rees’ Sundance hit tells the story of 17-year-old Alike, who’s exploring her burgeoning butch identity between the queer clubs of New York City and her conservative family’s home in Brooklyn. SEE IT: Oct. 22, 5 p.m., Lisner Auditorium
“We Are the Night” The vampire metaphor is over-the-top but powerful in gay film: beautiful, dangerous outsiders that threaten to spread a lifestyle of the damned. German director Dennis Gansel’s film sinks its teeth into the eternal question for every lesbian vampire: “How does a girl balance clubbing, shopping and sketchy undead love triangles over a weekend?” SEE IT: Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m., West End Cinema
“Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same” A trio of lesbians from outer space descend on New York City with a mission: Get their hearts broken by some mean old Earth girls so their own radioactive emotions will stop destroying their planet’s ozone layer. Director Madeleine Olnek’s sci-fi film gives a big nod to King of Kitsch Ed Wood with super-lo-fi special effects. SEE IT: Oct. 15, 5 p.m., Globe Theater
“I Am” Eleven years after the death of her mother, filmmaker Sonali Gulati returned to her homeland of Delhi to make peace with the woman she never came out to. Gulati then interviewed 21 Indian families over five years to document the difficulties of being openly gay in a nation where homosexuality was a crime until just two years ago. SEE IT: Oct. 15, 3 p.m., George Washington University’s Documentary Center
“An Ordinary Family” They say you can’t go home again. But you just might find yourself trapped in a beach house with your fractured family, trying to find common ground. Mike Akel’s comedic drama follows the Biederman clan as they attempt to overcome differences in religion, sexuality and other relaxing topics of conversation. SEE IT: Oct. 15, 2 p.m., Atlas Performing Arts Center
“Photos of Angie” Director Alan Dominguez’s documentary chronicles the short life and brutal death of Angie Zapata, a transgender teen murdered in rural Colorado in 2008. The film is framed by her killer’s five-day-long trial, the first in which hate crime laws were used successfully in prosecuting the murder of a transgender victim. SEE IT: Oct. 18, 5 p.m., West End Cinema
“We Were Here” Covering some of the ground that late journalist Randy Shilts broke with his incredible 1987 book, “And the Band Played On,” David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary looks at the initial impact of the AIDS crisis through the eyes of five people who lived in early-’80s San Francisco — and its lasting legacy for the gay and lesbian community at large. SEE IT: Oct. 15, 11 a.m., Globe Theater
“T’ain’t Nobody’s Business: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s” Robert Philipson’s short film shines a light on the overlooked contributions of some of America’s great early blues singers, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Gladys Bentley. SEE IT: Saturday, 1 p.m., Globe Theater
“Vito” From the night of the Stonewall riots until his death from AIDS in 1990, Vito Russo was at the fore of the gay rights movement. His 1981 book, “The Celluloid Closet,” remains a classic of gay literature and film criticism, and its influence on Hollywood can be felt 30 years on. Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary chronicles the life of a radical and an artist. SEE IT: Sunday, 7:15 p.m., U.S. Navy Memorial Theater
Atlas Performing Arts Center, 133 H St. NE; 202-994-6800.
FHI 360 Globe Theater, 1927 Florida Ave. NW; 202-884-8600. (Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle)
GWU Documentary Center, 805 21st St. NW; 202-994-6787. (Foggy Bottom)
George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW; 202-399-7993. (Foggy Bottom)
George Washington University’s Marvin Center, 800 21st St. NW; 202-994-7470. (Foggy Bottom)
Goethe-Institut, 814 7th St. NW; 202-289-1200. (Gallery Place)
United States Navy Memorial Theater, 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-737-2300. (Archives)
West End Cinema, 2301 M St. NW; 202-419-3456. (Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle)