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Out in the Desert 

Tucson's first LGBT international film festival kicks off this weekend

When Joe Sprague moved to Tucson in 2010, he expected to find a bit of what he loved in Chicago—like an LGBT film festival.

After learning that no such festival exists here, as they do in other cities across the country—including the Desperado LGBT Film Festival by our frienemies in Phoenix—Sprague talked to the Tucson Weekly last February in hopes of recruiting others interested in having one. (See TQ&A, Feb. 24, 2011.)

After finding and training volunteers to work as jurors, and reviewing more than 600 films, Sprague's efforts have resulted in Out in the Desert—Tucson's LGBT International Film Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday, Feb. 17-19 and 24-26. It includes LGBT-themed shorts, documentaries and full-length movies.

"It's the longest-running LGBT event in Tucson," Sprague says about the six days of movie-watching at the Grand Cinemas Crossroads 6, the Screening Room and Fluxx Studio and Gallery.

After Sprague was interviewed by the Weekly last February, filmmakers Han Nguyen and Chris Canine reached out and offered to get involved. With Sprague as the festival director, and Tom Forester as the program chair, the group formed a steering committee with eight volunteers, including webmaster Kris Nicola.

Sprague says the first step in putting together a film festival is a call for films. Within four weeks, Sprague had more than 400 responses from all over the world. He ended up with 646 films that needed to be reviewed.

Jurors received training before they started viewing films—up to eight hours a day—and their remarks were compiled in a database. Sprague says he ended up reviewing many of the films himself, especially when jurors were on the fence.

"The filmmaker went through the trouble to send the film to us; sometimes, I feel it's the least I should do," he says.

A second round of reviewing with more jurors resulted in some of them watching films for up to 12 hours a day for a solid week. Once the final selections were made, the next step was figuring out how the films would be programmed, and where they would be shown.

The result was 46 programs featuring a total of 162 LGBT films. Organizers also picked three other films for the festival: The Muppet Movie for an LGBT family night; The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; and the queer cult-classic Mangus!, which has some LGBT content, although it's not considered an LGBT film. (Be on the lookout for a John Waters cameo.)

Sprague says the programming process was challenging. They would sometimes put a film on the schedule, only to learn that the filmmaker was in the middle of a deal with a studio, and therefore, the film had to be pulled. Others were pulled because they didn't fit into program categories as easily as other films.

"But we figured those films are something we'll look at another time during the year," Sprague says.

For programming purposes, it helped if a filmmaker was available to travel to Tucson for audience Q&As. Funds from sponsorships have helped the festival pay for six filmmakers to attend, but 40 others are coming at their own expense.

"We've found that filmmakers are excited to be part of this festival. They want to be here and be part of what we're doing," Sprague says.

Sprague sees the first year of organizing the festival as a learning curve. One lesson that hit home is that judging a film isn't all about what you think of it personally. "You may not really like the film, but we asked jurors to determine if it tells a story that will help other people, or be something that other people will enjoy," he says.

He also learned that not everyone in the LGBT community was excited about starting an LGBT film festival. Sprague heard concerns that the festival would take donors away from other LGBT groups and events.

"But for every one person who complained, I heard from 40 other people who couldn't wait for us to get started," Sprague says.

The Out in the Desert website has received traffic from around the world, including from Japan, Israel and Australia, where a few of the international films in the festival originate. Sales for film passes are also coming from outside of Tucson, and Sprague anticipates that tickets for the opening- and closing-night parties will sell out because of the additional entertainment.

Mark Payne, from the documentary Get Happy, will perform as Liza Minnelli at the opening-night party on Friday, Feb. 17, at the Riverpark Inn, 350 S. Freeway. It includes a reception where fans can meet filmmakers. Sprague says the closing party on Sunday, Feb. 26, also at the Riverpark, will feature Keith Price, a gay comedian who has a show on SiriusXM satellite radio.

Ticket info and a complete schedule can be found at www.outinthedesertff.org.

Sprague says he is especially excited about several films, including War Stories. It's a full-length movie that didn't wow jurors during the first round of viewing. When Sprague watched it, he realized why. "The major gay content of the movie doesn't happen until the last 20 minutes of the film—and then it just blows you away," he said, adding that the lead actress and director will be on hand for the screening.

He and Forester also like Au Pair, Kansas. Sprague said some jurors commented: "We don't where this is going."

"But when we watched this film, we realized that it is one of the only films in the festival that hits every single aspect—bisexuals, gays, transgendered, lesbians and drag queens, with themes about youth wondering, 'Am I gay?' and the issues of the acceptance of family," Sprague says. The film is a dramedy about a recently widowed woman living on a bison farm in Kansas who hires a Norwegian soccer player to be a male nanny and help her raise two sons.

"I also think we have some of the best transgender films, like House for Sale," Sprague said. "It blew the jurying pool away. We had remarks from about 10 people that, 'No matter what, you have to show this film.'"

Sprague says the festival is part of the new Southwest LGBT Film Society, which has incorporated and has its paperwork for nonprofit status almost completed. The board of directors will hold its first meeting of the year after the festival, to set a calendar of events for the rest of the year and to pick the dates for the 2013 festival.

"We already have a list of almost 100 filmmakers that contacted us after the deadline, and now they are on the list for next year's festival," Sprague says.

He has a few changes in mind for the next festival, including the addition of a workshop for young filmmakers interested in learning more about the craft. He also wants to screen more films from Arizona filmmakers, especially in the youth category. "We got some great things from other states and were able to put together a program. The youngest (filmmaker) is 14 years old, and the oldest in the category is 21. The films are incredible. Maybe next year, we can get some from Arizona," Sprague says.

Han Nguyen, who volunteered to handle media relations for the festival, will see her documentary Faith of the Abomination screened as part of Arizona Centerpiece night on Friday, Feb. 24, highlighting Arizona filmmakers and films that feature Arizona.

Nguyen's documentary is about her and former partner Ceil Melton joining an evangelical Christian church in Austin, Texas, to expose the financial ties those churches have to the political right—and how they use hate against the LGBT community to increase giving. Melton and Nguyen posed as a straight couple, with Melton dressing as a man.

Both women were raised in the evangelical tradition. They were harassed after revealing their true sexual orientation to the congregation, and they moved to Tucson in 2010.

"I'm excited that we get a chance to show it again in Tucson, since a lot of people didn't get a chance to see it when it premiered at the Loft," Nguyen says.

After the premiere, the film played at the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival to a sold-out audience.

"When we got to the theater, we saw this line around the box office and out the door," Nguyen says. "It felt amazing, and it was a personal victory for me, of course, because that's where we made the documentary."

Nguyen says there is a lot of buzz about the Tucson festival, much of it coming from fellow filmmakers excited that Tucson finally has an LGBT film festival, but also from people excited by the quality of the programs and films. She says she's happy that the festival also has other things to offer, like The Muppet Movie on LGBT Family Night.

"I love that, because there have been stereotypes attached to LGBT film festivals that they highlight porn films. I'm really glad to see that we are setting a precedent in our inaugural festival," Nguyen says. "Some content is sexual, like any genre, but I love that the programming is so diverse and international. There are also music videos and shorts, and they are spread out to three different venues."

Getting involved with the film festival has helped Nguyen connect even more to her new home. She says it was easy to become immersed in the community once she was done with the documentary. Worries about threats and intimidation following her to Tucson aren't a concern anymore.

"It's been a welcoming environment. I've not had one incident of harassment because I'm a lesbian, but there has been racist stuff," says Nguyen, who is Vietnamese-American.

The Centerpiece Party will include the DVD release of her documentary. She hopes to find a distributor and get the film shown in more communities, because she says the content of the film is just as relevant now as it was when she and Melton made the movie, during the George W. Bush administration.

"Once again, we're approaching an election season, and the conservative side thinks it's OK to use (the LGBT community) as their selling point," she says.

Phoenix-born filmmaker David Ice says he was excited when he heard that Tucson would have its own LGBT film festival. The only other festival he's shown films at is the Desperado festival, held each year in Paradise Valley. He likes the idea of showing Arizona LGBT films to a larger Arizona audience.

Ice has two films showing: A Belch Can Ruin a Wedding and Dinner at the Last Chance Café.

"Last Chance is up for Best Arizona Film," he noted. "I'm totally stunned by that."

Ice, who attended film school at the University of Southern California in the mid-1970s, started his career as a film editor in Hollywood. By 1990, he was fed up with the insane hours and the lack of a personal life, so he returned to Phoenix and began putting together a freelance career with his company Elegant Harp Productions.

"It was the best decision I ever made, to be my own boss," Ice says. "The scariest thing I've ever done was to walk away from a career in Hollywood, but if I didn't, it was going to kill me."

As a freelancer, he does industrial films, documentaries and some corporate work. In 2009, he was commissioned to do a film with Desert Overture, a Phoenix gay concert band. When he talked to the band members, he convinced them that rather than scoring an existing film, they should do something original. That's where A Belch Can Ruin a Wedding comes from. It's done silent-film style, in black and white. But it includes cell phones, gender-bending and, of course, gay people.

The band's Scott Helms put together the score, channeling music from old Warner Bros. cartoons. The film played last October at a concert in Seattle for the Gay and Lesbian Band Association

Dinner at the Last Chance Café was made in 2010 with his playwright friend Terry Earp. "She and I worked on the script. It sort of deals with life after death and what happens after you pass away. When I was working on it, I realized it was the first film I'd ever done directing actors doing a serious drama (with) pages of dialogue.

"It was an experiment for me to see how I could pull something totally dramatic off. You know, when you're making a movie, they say that 60 to 70 percent of what you imagined makes it onscreen. I would say I got about 95 percent."

Part of the film was inspired by Ice's near-death experience in a hospital. However, in the film, the main character is a woman who ends up in a café after she dies, and she has to have dinner with someone who needs to forgive her. She dines with the lover of her brother, whom she always accused of "converting" her brother into being gay.

"She has to face all of that, and in the end, the person she has to forgive is the person who killed her," Ice says.

Ice says LGBT film festivals have become an important part of LGBT community life, and he's proud to be part of them. Although most of the films will never have wide distribution, "There's great entertainment there, and you wouldn't have any other way of seeing it, unless it gets on YouTube," he says.

It's also important to create events for LGBT filmmakers. "For so many years, everything was so closeted or underground or just not acknowledged. Having LGBT film festivals is a great outlet for the community to finally see their lives and stories represented," he says. "And now, with digital filmmaking, it is more available to everybody. I'm astounded I can shoot a film like Last Chance Café for about $150."

Arizona native Dennis Hensley is showing Reunion at the festival. Although Hensley is from Arizona, and the film takes place in Arizona, he shot it in the Los Angeles area, where he works as a writer for Joan Rivers' Fashion Police television show.

Hensley, who was born in Holbrook in Northern Arizona, says his film was partially inspired by his high school reunion, when he brought a boyfriend.

"I got nervous about it, so that sort of inspired the movie," Hensley says. "The movie goes to other places that didn't happen in real life. Lucky for me, at my own reunion, everyone was lovely."

Reunion is set in Phoenix and is the first film he's directed, although in 2003, he wrote the script for a feature film called Testosterone. What's special about Reunion, he says, is that he was able to make it thanks to a grant he received from HBO for short films by LGBT filmmakers. "It's not cheap to make a movie, so when someone believes in your script and writing, and gives you a chance, it means a lot," he says.

Hensley says Reunion has played at LGBT film festivals around the country, and that when he saw a notice about the festival in Tucson, he sent Reunion in right away.

"Film festivals are so much fun," he says. "As a filmmaker, there's a social aspect, and there's a creative aspect. There's always something to talk about with other filmmakers on how you made your movie.

"I'm always inspired by the movies I see, and I love getting my little lanyard badge that says, 'I'm a filmmaker.'"

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