For its second year, the Las Vegas Queer Arts Film Festival moved to a new venue and expanded its schedule, and after hosting sold-out screenings at Eclipse Theaters last year, the festival had somewhat sparser turnout at the Regal Colonnade. That doesn’t necessarily indicate reduced interest, though, since attendance was spread out over more programs in much larger auditoriums. The important thing is that festival organizers, led by founder and director Kris Manzano, remain committed to showcasing diverse offerings from LGBTQ filmmakers, and this year’s programming demonstrated an impressive range of styles, genres and perspectives.
This year’s festival added two feature films, the documentaries “Unsettled” and “A Night at Switch n’ Play,” to the lineup, along with eight blocks of short films, including one dedicated to locals. Both features have been making the rounds at film festivals, and both highlight underrepresented communities, with minimal cinematic flair.
“Unsettled,” from director Tom Shepard, is more successful as a movie, taking a contentious social issue (the settling of refugees in the U.S.) and finding a personal angle to approach it with. Rather than filling his movie with policy experts and onscreen statistics, Shepard focuses on the lives of four LGBTQ refugees attempting to obtain legal residency in the U.S., and their individual stories are much more engaging and immediate than a strident political argument. Shepard doesn’t hold back on depicting their struggles, but he also finds welcome moments of hope, leaving the audience energized rather than demoralized.
“A Night at Switch n’ Play” is more basic, functioning as little more than a promotional video for Brooklyn-based queer performance troupe Switch n’ Play, whose members combine elements of drag and burlesque for provocative, often outrageous production numbers. Director Cody Stickels follows a repetitive formula, introducing the members one at a time with talking-head interviews and performance footage, taking a linear path through one of the group’s live shows. The performers are charismatic and thoughtful, and the stage performances themselves are creative and bold, but the movie doesn’t quite share that boundary-pushing spirit.
Among the short films, my favorite was the surreal, haunting Dutch film “Dante vs. Mohammed Ali,” a strange story seemingly set in some sort of remote alternate time, where two teenage boys are forced into a boxing match on a floating river barge. Despite being ordered to fight, the two boys fall in love, preferring caresses to punches. Director Marc Wagenaar tells the story with an ethereal style that relies on emotion over logic, and even though the rules of this isolated town are never clear, the bond between the two boys transcends whatever repressive community surrounds them.
I also enjoyed Rachel Dax’s “Time & Again,” a sweet drama about two elderly women reuniting decades after their young romance was cut short by family and societal pressures; David Quantic’s cheeky documentary “Porn Yesterday,” featuring funny reminiscences mostly from gay men about their furtive first discoveries of pornography; and Jake Shannon’s comedy “Sammy the Salmon,” a goofy Australian movie in which a talking salmon helps a neurotic gay man come out of the closet. Manzano and his team did a fantastic job of finding a wide variety of shorts under the general heading of LGBTQ cinema, including numerous international films.
Closer to home, the locals program included only four shorts, but it was a promising start, and the documentaries “I Exist” (about local teenage transgender activist Kristina Hernandez, from UNLV alums Alyson Arsen and Jemsen Yumico Bollozos) and “Private Life: Kyle Ross” (about adult film star Kyle Ross, from filmmaker Heidi Moore) both convey their subjects’ passions and personalities effectively. As the festival increases its local presence, more filmmakers in town should take notice, giving the programmers more homegrown options to choose from. Those programmers are providing a valuable platform that deserves to make a broader impact.