Reel Q , the Pittsburgh LGBT Film Festival, is currently in progress and celebrating its twenty-ninth year of showcasing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered writers, directors, actors, and their work. Featured by Pittsburgh Magazine as as the best way to sample films from various cultures, the Reel Q festival continues to be a staple of the Pittsburgh cultural and cinematic experience. Located at the Harris Theater in Pittsburgh’s beloved Cultural District, the festival runs all this week with closing night being Saturday, Oct. 18. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Reel Q organizer and Pittsburgh Lesbian and Gay Film Society (PLGFS) Executive Director Mitchell Leib to speak about the festival.
Audiences Everywhere: How did you get involved with the Reel Q festival?
Mitchell Leib: Well, in 2002 I worked on (Pittsburgh) PrideFest with two women who were running the festival at that time and they asked me to join the board, and I was their guest relations coordinator and I sort of worked my way up from there.
AE: Can you tell me a little about the history of the Reel Q Film Festival?
ML: Sure. It started in 1985, so next year is our thirtieth anniversary. We are, in fact, the fifth oldest LGBT film festival in North America and the sixth oldest in the world in terms of continuously running festivals, so that’s pretty cool. It started as an offshoot of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center by a guy named Rich Cummings, and he really ran it by himself for a while. It’s become a full organization, and we are here at the Harris Theater. We have been here, on and off, since, maybe before 2000. Not really sure, but we have been back here and this is our third year and I really enjoy it here. It’s an all-volunteer organization, no one gets paid, a penny, and we spend a lot of time. There are people involved on the board itself and different facets, and there are people in our programming committee. We also have general volunteers who help with promoting and just doing things around the theater.
AE: So, like you said, this is the sixth oldest LGBT film festival in the entire world. What do you think it is about Pittsburgh that has always made it such a great home for this event?
ML: There are so many different things going on in Pittsburgh, and we are just a part of that, but there is a real sense of community, and I think that is the biggest thing about any film festival. Watching it in the theater with people from your community. For us, that means people from Pittsburgh as well as people from the LGBT community. It’s a different thing than just watching on your computer or on your TV, to watch it with other people. We also have a large number of straight people who come to the festival as well.
AE: That’s great! It looks like in 2012, you re-branded the festival to be called Reel Q, and opened your aim from LG to LGBT. Can you talk for a moment about the importance of that milestone, both in terms of changing the title, and being able to open your arms to those extended communities?
ML: Yes! Actually there is a real story that goes with that. There is a man whose name is fAe Gibson, and there was a film that we showed. fAe lives on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. There was a documentary about fAe’s transitioning from being a woman to a man called Gender Redesigner. We showed it, and it was very well received, and fAe said to me, “Well, why are you the Pittsburgh International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival? What about bisexual and transgender people?” My initial reaction was, we have been that for like the last 22 years or whatever. But then we really started to think about it, and thought, he is right, we really should change it. It literally took us several years to come up with a name we liked and that wasn’t being used by someone else, and, honestly, the Pittsburgh International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, or PILGFF, wasn’t something that rolled off the tongue anyway. There were people who were really scared about us re-branding, because people didn’t think of us as PILGFF, they thought of us as the gay and lesbian film festival, and I think we really do have a brand now, for the first time, and it’s not exclusive of anybody in the community, and I really like that.
AE: Absolutely, and I’m sure that change has done a lot to improve the overall quality and quantity of films that you include in the festival.
ML: Well, it’s sort of interesting because there really weren’t many trans-gender community films, and there are a lot more. Every year, we have shown usually a couple over the last several years. We usually only show 16 to 18 programs, so 2 is a pretty good percentage, and so I feel like it also reflects what we are showing. Bisexual films are still a little tougher to find, in some ways.
AE: So along with that last point, are there any specific thematic elements that you look for specifically for a film that could be included in the festival?
ML: We like to be LGBT themed, but we will consider a film that is written or directed by someone who is gay, bisexual, or transgendered, but, I really think the subject matter is the important thing. And it really just needs to be good. The thing is, overall, we really try to have an equal blend of men’s and women’s films, we like to have a blend of comedy and drama, we like to have documentaries, short films. We like films from other countries, and we like to make sure we are ethnically balanced as well. In all of those things some years we achieve it better than others. Sort of depends on whats out there.
AE: And speaking of good movies, do you have any particular favorite movies from the festival thus far?
ML: Well, thus far, I really do like Blackbird from our opening night. And I really liked Eat With Me, which was Saturday night. I just think it’s really sweet and funny and Nicole Sullivan from MAD TV is in it, and she is so funny in it. It’s just a really sweet and nice story. But, I think my sentimental favorite is closing night, it’s called The Way He Looks. It’s a story from Brazil. It’s the story of this boy, in high school, who is blind, and his friend who is this girl and there is a new boy in school and they become the three fast friends. It’s based on a short film that we showed in 2011, and they actually redid the movie with all of the same people, which I thought was really great because I can’t imagine it with anybody else. And they age them, originally they were sort of junior high, maybe early high school, now they are older. It’s just, it’s funny and it’s touching and it’s so sweet. The short film, in 2011, won Best Youth Short and Best Male Short. I was so excited to see this film, and meet the director (Daniel Ribeiro). We actually showed another of his films, Café com Leite, and I think it was the year before, maybe 2009 or 2010, and it was something that we all really liked as well.
AE: So, at Audiences Everywhere, we like to talk about movies. We have kind of a guiding philosophy that the art form of film can spark conversations that wouldn’t normally happen. Ultimately it can spark the conversation, ignite passionate debate, and bring people from all walks of life together. Have you found that to be the case for the Reel Q festival over the years?
ML: Well, we have a couple of examples that would fit well into that. Saturday we showed a film called Letter to Anita, where Ronnie (Sanlo) is an activist. She was married to a man, had two children, in the 70’s she left her husband, came out as a lesbian. Because of the things Anita Bryant and the others were doing in Florida, she lost custody of her children. Because of that, she became an activist. She has had a really incredible life, and this is her story. They actually interview Anita Bryant’s son and his wife about things that happened back then and how they feel about it. The ACLU was community co-producer and they had a really nice discussion afterwards. It’s a really interesting film. I’m of the age where I knew about those things, but I never knew anyone was directly affected by it, and it was really powerful to meet her. We are also showing a film this coming Friday called Out in the Night, which is about a group of seven girls from New Jersey who went to New York for a night out, and there was a guy outside of the movie theater who was harassing them and going after them. They got into a scuffle with him and he was stabbed. Four of the seven went to jail for really long periods of time considering what happened because he was barely injured, and he was the aggressor and it was sort of one of these things where they are all African American, they are all from impoverished areas of New Jersey, they were, I think, all lesbians. All of the four in jail were. And it’s just what happens. I mean, if these were white women, that had been harassed by this man, this never would have happened. It’s an interesting story because they obviously did wrong, and they obviously deserve some sort of punishment, but the punishment the received was really severe. They are finally now all out of jail. That’s a really powerful film.
AE: And, unfortunately, we see this in all walks of life at this time in our criminal justice system. Well, for some lighter fare, what are some of your all time favorite movies?
ML: Before I do that, I also want to mention, Thursday night we are showing this film called First Period, when you talk about lighter, it’s really silly. It’s the John Hughes, like Pretty in Pink kind of movie, but the two lead girls are played by guys in drag in the movie. It’s been described as John Hughes meets John Watters. It’s just silly, and wacky, and sort of bad taste in places, but, I tell you what, I saw it in San Francisco and laughed so hard in so many places. I’m hoping some people come out and see that one. It’s really fun. Some of my all time favorites, how about I just stick with the ones we have programmed? Because I have a few other ones, I could name a lot! My first year we showed, opening night, a film called Were the World Mine, which is like a musical retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a gay slant. It’s literally still one of my favorite films. There was a woman’s film, that same year, called The World Unseen, from South Africa. It was the story of Indian people living in South Africa during the apartheid era. It was really beautifully shot. So of the funny ones we showed, one was called Baby Jane? where Joan Crawford and Betty Davis’ parts were played by guys in drag. It’s almost shot, scene-by-scene, like the original film. It almost feel like you are watching the original film, and it’s incredible!
For information on how to attend ReelQ, visit their website.