- The Reelness:Queer Film Festivals and Youth Media Training
In 1977, a group of young queer artists gathered one night in the San Francisco LGBT Community Center to screen their films for one another against a plain white bedsheet. Marc Huestis recalls how he proposed the screening after meeting several like-minded artists developing their films at Harvey Milk's Castro Camera shop. As an afterthought, the young directors made the screening public, calling it the Gay Film Festival of Super-8 Films.1
What happened next is a bit of gay history: the evening sold out, with standing room only. More screenings were added and more artists introduced; that initially modest event would become the Frameline Film Festival (http://www.frameline.org), which now sprawls over a week and a half and is held at five separate venues. In 2016, the Frameline Film Festival screened 115 films for eighty thousand audience members, and queer film festivals can be found annually in approximately 240 cities worldwide. The queer film festival emerged alongside other identity-based film festivals as a particular mode of media activism, community formation, and independent cinema exhibition.2 Queer scholars have noted queer film festivals' place as a battleground for and against representation, and festivals' programming evidences conflicts within the LGBT community over [End Page 146] the past fifty years—battles over gender and racial diversity, bisexual and transgender inclusion, "positive" representations, and resistance to commodification.3
However, despite their youthful origins, little attention has been paid to the function of queer film festivals as a space of intergenerational dialogue. Queer youth media training programs, such as the Generations Filmmaker Workshop at Frameline (San Francisco), the Queer Youth Media Project at the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, Reel Queer Youth at Three Dollar Bill Cinema (Seattle), and the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (Los Angeles), take as their ethos that media literacy and production allow for queer youth to enjoy self-expression and community not found in majority culture. I spoke with several organizers, instructors, and participants in these programs, and in what follows I argue that queer youth media training provides a unique space of self-expression for queer youth. It also connects past to present, as the queer film festival continues to be a space in which young queer voices can be heard by adult queer culture.
Far from being a passive experience, the combination of collective engagement, critical reception, and grassroots organizing constitutes a counterpublic sphere. Patricia White has referred to the queer film festival as "a crucial forum for self-representation," and this is particularly potent for young people, who often lack the critical resources to represent themselves.4 Rather, as Lori McIntosh notes, "children must fit themselves into undeniably adult constructions of queerness."5 Those representations, in which the child is simply awaiting activation as a queer adult, forgo the liminality of becoming for a teleological "always-was." Film production from queer youth offers the possibility of voicing from within exploration, fluidity, and transience.
Surely Internet forums such as YouTube, Vine, Periscope, and even Snapchat provide an outlet for queer youth to produce and distribute images of themselves in unprecedented ways.6 But utopian assessments should always be tempered by a [End Page 147] consideration of the "participation gap" in social media spheres and the risks of publicly performing "out" queer identity. In her study of YouTube videos produced by LGBT youth, Lauren S. Berliner also notes the commonality of certain narrative templates in content, which she distinguishes as "pedagogical" and "performative."7 The former is typified in antibullying and suicide prevention campaigns such as the It Gets Better Project.8 Berliner and others note that such templates ultimately limit youth creativity and require young people to conform to adult scripts of "progress" through visibility and homogeneity.
What, then, can queer youth media training offer to young people not found through social media or junior high or high school film programs? One benefit is a "safer space" in which young people can express their sexual or gender identities without repercussions from instructors or other students.9 Much of empowering young people employs the rhetoric of...