Fest's sidebar often spotlights gay issues

The Berlinale has been the preeminent film festival for the best in international LGBT cinema for decades. But in recent years, it’s also solidified its role as the de facto market for dozens of queer film festival programmers and film buyers from around the world. “It’s the one time of the year the entire international LGBT film festival community is together,” notes Outfest exec director Kirsten Schaffer.

The story of how the Berlinale emerged as the main queer film fest mecca goes back to at least 1980, when the late Manfred Salzgeber (a Berlin cinema owner who often showcased gay fare) was assigned to create what became the Panorama section for cinema that bridged the gap between experimental and mainstream fare.

“Manfred felt working on emancipation on a wider scale and working on sexuality as a strong force in culture and politics needed to be addressed more,” recalls Wieland Speck, a gay filmmaker who joined the fest as Salzgeber’s assistant in 1982 and took over as Panorama’s director a decade later. “After doing this for three years or so, queer filmmakers from all over the world realized there was a focus happening here every year, so the creme de la creme of gay cinema began coming to the Berlinale.”

“It’s pretty significant that LGBT films are shown in this very public, very A-list kind of way. They embrace diversity,” notes former NewFest director and current Sundance programming associate Basil Tsiokos. “Although things have gotten better elsewhere, years ago these films often didn’t have a chance to play at such a prestigious global venue (other than Berlin).”

Many recall the early, unofficial gathering of programmers that took place in a Berlin gay bookstore, where queer films that didn’t meet the Berlinale’s standards were shown and discussed. There, in 1987, Speck established the Teddy Awards, which have grown into an essential tool for programmers and a valuable networking opportunity for each year’s eight-member jury.

“It’s like the gay Oscars,” says former Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival director Vicci Ho. “It’s the most significant (LGBT) film award out there, and it’s still the first award we (look to) when we program our own festivals.”

A key to Berlin’s powerful role in helping LGBT film fests internationally is the Panorama programmers meeting, which has grown to attract some 150 programmers from all over the world who trade information and resources. Before the Internet matured in the late ’90s, notes Outfest’s Schaffer, “it was the only way to connect with international sales agents, distributors and filmmakers with LGBT films.” Out of this meeting, and also inspired by Outfest’s Legacy Project, the Berlinale has launched the work-in-progress “Queer Academy.” It is now expanding from an Internet database of Teddy winners and gay history to initiate efforts to find and preserve lost works from gay filmmakers.

The Berlinale is also making history by helping create gay film fests where they never existed before, and shore up support for new fests under political attack.

“We helped initiate the first queer film festival in Warsaw three years ago, and the first one happening now in Hungary,” says Speck. “This year, the queer film festival in Jakarta was attacked by Muslim forces, so we write letters bringing the support of the Berlinale and the Goethe Institut.”

Most recently, their presence helped St. Petersburg launch its first queer film program after authorities used various excuses to shut down similar events for two years. “It’s like a diplomatic thing,” explains Speck. “With us there, it’s more difficult to do something against them.”

While Panorama is the main source for the Berlinale’s LGBT features, what’s remarkable is the amount of similar fare in other sections, another key in making Berlin a must-visit destination.

“It’s still the best place to go to see a wide selection of LGBT films,” says Schaffer, “because in addition to Panorama, which has a huge number of gay films, Forum often includes a lot, the main competition has some, and even (youth film section) Generations often has a couple of queer-themed films.”

There may be no film festival with a more useful guide for LGBT film programmers and buyers. As vet film consultant Bob Hawk notes, the fest issues a “Queer List” marked with an “L,” “G,” “T,” “GS” (for gender studies/role models) and/or “C” (for context), denoting a film’s emphasis. And when sellers are less than eager to highlight a film’s LGBT content in its one-sentence market guide description, often for fear of ghettoizing their project or alienating buyers, programmers will discuss their detective work on these films with each other to uncover diamonds in the rough.

So why has Berlin strengthened its preeminent role for LGBT content instead of, say, losing that spot to a glossy North American festival like Sundance or Toronto, each of which are now headed by openly gay men? Aside from Berlin’s history of gay liberation and openness that can be traced to the early 20th century, one key is its official sales market. “I know other fests like Cannes have markets, but there seems to be more gay content than anywhere else,” notes Schaffer.

TLA Entertainment head Ray Murray theorizes that the market’s strong LGBT emphasis may come down, especially in recent years, to simple economics.

“A lot of the problem is that Sundance is more American-oriented, and the quality of American independent gay filmmaking is pretty low now because there’s not a lot of money available in subsidies” in contrast to subidies available in Europe, he says. “Production is also down a lot. When U.S. festivals get those selections, it’s easy to pass on them.”

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