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Festival Preview: ImageOut 2017 

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A look at the 25th Annual Rochester LGBT Film & Video Festival

The inaugural ImageOut kicked off in 1993; Bill Clinton had just begun his first term as President, Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize, Beanie Babies hit the market, and Donald Trump was an unnecessarily famous real-estate developer. Now, 25 years later ... well, the good news is that ImageOut is still going strong, providing a platform for the LGBTQ community to see its many truths reflected in art.

ImageOut will mark its silver anniversary Friday, October 6, through Sunday, October 15, with 39 programs of features, documentaries, and short films that give important insight into the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer experiences.

"We owe it to all the pioneers who thought that we needed a gay and lesbian film festival right here in Rochester," says Michael Gamilla, ImageOut programming director. "But I don't think even they would have thought that it would become an internationally recognized LGBTQ event, and especially that it would become the biggest of its kind in the state."

click to enlarge Michael Gamilla - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Michael Gamilla

Gamilla, who has been with the volunteer-run festival since 2004, recognizes that since the festival's inception, people have become more aware of LGBTQ issues, and there are increased opportunities for LGBTQ people to watch films where they can witness their own stories. "But what a festival like ImageOut offers is the undeniable sense of community that brings more impact, perspective, and gravitas to the viewing experience," Gamilla says. "Hopefully, we can keep growing our audience by continuing to produce a relevant event for our community."

Back for more in 2017 is the ImageOut There! series, which showcases future cult classics that explore the seamier (and occasionally steamier) side of life, and the Next Generation series, a selection of flicks free to the under-21 crowd. As always, the donation-fueled ImageOutreach program provides senior discounts, sign language interpretation, and other services to make this festival accessible to all. And 2017's juried ImageOut Art exhibition, "We are Family," addresses the strife and strides of the LGBTQ community as it treads the hallowed ground of marriage and children; check it out through October 21 at Visual Studies Workshop, 31 Prince Street.

Keep reading for a peek at a dozen of this year's ImageOut highlights. Screenings will take place at The Little Theatre (240 East Avenue) and at the Dryden Theatre (900 East Avenue); admission prices range from $9-$15. You can get additional information, like ticket availability, party particulars, and details on visiting artists, at imageout.org or by calling the festival office at 271-2640.

click to enlarge God's Own Country - PHOTO PROVIDED
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  • God's Own Country

It's impossible not to think about "Brokeback Mountain" during "God's Own Country," a beautifully crafted drama that also features two extremely different men finding solace in each other amidst a picturesque but otherwise lonely landscape. Johnny (Josh O'Connor) handles the grueling work on the Yorkshire farm where he lives with his grandma and ailing father (character-actor ringers Gemma Jones and Ian Hart), blowing off steam through too much alcohol and the occasional joyless rut with a willing local. Hired help arrives in the form of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a dreamy Romanian migrant worker as serene as Johnny is volatile, and it's not long before Johnny's bleakly predictable future starts to seem a little brighter. First-time filmmaker Francis Lee adheres to a fairly unsurprising arc in his story, with setbacks and revelations arriving at the appointed times, but it's the sublime performances that keep the film focused on the individual wants and needs of its characters rather than some simplistic fairytale trajectory. (Friday, October 6; 9:30 p.m.; Little 1)

The roots of a 50-year-long feud run tangled and deep in Ernesto Contreras's "I Dream In Another Language." This enchanting Mexican drama follows a linguist who travels to the remote Mexican jungle in hopes of preserving Zikril, an indigenous language once used by humans and nature but now spoken by only three living people ... wait, make that two people. But the linguist hopes to record conversation, and the curmudgeonly Evaristo wants nothing to do with the sweet, old hermit Isauro, local gossip has it, because both men fell in love with the same woman. We learn in evocative flashbacks that that's not entirely true — this is an ImageOut selection, after all — and the story unfolds as the village tries to reunite the two old men to save a vanishing aspect of their collective history. The film's occasional dip into the mystical requires a fair suspension of disbelief, but it also adds a note of the divine. (Saturday, October 7; 4:15 p.m.; Dryden)

Oh, you know the monochromatic drawings — leather-clad, mustachioed men with small heads, ultra-muscled torsos, and cartoonishly juicy butts — but you may not be familiar with the man responsible for such legendary erotica. The absorbing biopic "Tom of Finland" does its best to remedy that. At times evoking a stern mash-up of Clive Owen and Daniel Craig, Pekka Strang stars as Touko Laaksonen, a Finnish commercial illustrator whose time at war allowed him to explore his homosexuality and birthed the uniform fetish that would make his pseudonym, Tom of Finland, famous the world over. Director Dome Karukoski covers a lot of territory, from the violent crackdown on cruising in the name of cleaning up Helsinki's parks for the 1952 Summer Olympics to the dawn of AIDS and beyond, and it takes a keen eye to grasp what is at times a frustratingly subtle chronology. But at the film's center is the inspiring tale of a trailblazing artist who just wished to be able to love freely and in the process make it a little easier for others to express their desires as well. (Saturday, October 7; 9:30 p.m.; Dryden)

Through the skillful use of a bounty of archival footage, the stellar documentary "The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson" weaves together several compelling threads to explore the mysterious 1992 death of the eponymous Stonewall veteran, LGBTQ activist, and beloved trans icon. Director David France ("How To Survive A Plague") follows victim advocate Victoria Cruz, a trans woman herself, as she assembles details from that long-ago summer, jogging memories and unraveling red tape in the names of both closure and justice on the eve of her own retirement. What surfaces are powerful portraits of individuals like Johnson and Cruz who sacrifice in order to make the world a more tolerant place for their respective contemporaries and de-facto descendants. But this film might belong to the late Sylvia Rivera, another founding mother of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, whose phoenix-like rise from the ashes of homelessness and alcoholism drives home the necessity of community. (Sunday, October 8; 12:30 p.m.; Little 2)

"I actually hadn't had an opportunity to realize that was an option," one woman says about being gay in director Kris Erickson's "Speak Your Truth," an inspiring look at a handful of women who came out later in life, risking pretty much all for the chance to love and be loved. Many of the film's subjects begin with the same narrative of a vague yet unmistakable dissatisfaction with a marriage, punctuated by a core-shaking kiss from a woman that brought the fuzzy into focus, followed by some difficult decisions. (And watching "The L Word," obviously.) That's where the stories diverge into varying reactions from their families, a mix of confusion, hurt, and anger, but eventually acceptance and always love. I do lament the film's surprising absence of non-white women, since the minority coming-out experience must carry with it a whole 'nother set of crucial truths, but maybe that's the sequel. (Sunday, October 8; 3 p.m.; Little 2)

click to enlarge Rebels on Pointe - PHOTO PROVIDED
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  • Rebels on Pointe

Men in tutus and pointe shoes usually means you're in for some ham-fisted, borderline homophobic physical comedy, but in the crowd-pleasing documentary "Rebels On Pointe," these dudes got mad chops and no time for stereotypes. "High art and clever camp" is how one admirer describes Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, which began in 1974 as a humorous, all-male riff on Russian ballet companies, but over the last 40 years has morphed into an elite, international troupe of dancers capable of drawing large, adoring audiences all around the world. Director Bobbi Jo Hart gives us a primer on the Trocks' history as we get to know several of the men in this close-knit group through their home lives and families as well as their dedication to their elegant but demanding craft. Most enjoyably, though, we're treated to performance clips that illustrate the group's unique blend of art, technique, and comedy, and it's clear they're having as much fun as their fans. (Monday, October 9; 6 p.m.; Little 1)

click to enlarge The Strange Ones - PHOTO PROVIDED
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  • The Strange Ones

The great noir writer Jim Thompson once said, "There is only one plot: Things are not what they seem," and that certainly holds true in "The Strange Ones," a generically titled but totally nifty thriller that trails two brothers on the run from ... something. Co-directors Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff take their sweet time offering up any specifics, choosing instead to occasionally parcel out carefully rendered images, like that of a mortally injured man and a house in flames, of angry glares and panicky glances. To say much more, however, would diminish the film's riveting power. Alex Pettyfer ("Magic Mike") turns in a gutsy performance as brooding older brother Nick, though it's James Freedson-Jackson who steals the film as Jeremiah, a quiet, fearful teenager forced to grow up a little too fast. It's said that acting is reacting, and Freedson-Jackson's face is astonishingly expressive, conveying more than actual words probably could. (Tuesday, October 10; 8:30 p.m.; Little 1)

Chavela - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Chavela

Over the years I've observed a pretty consistent melody to stories about musicians; it goes a little something like: adversity, opportunity, prosperity, dependency, and recovery. That the rousing documentary "Chavela" adheres to this same path does not take away from the truly distinctive life of the late Chavela Vargas, a hard-living legend of Mexican folk music and free-spirited lesbian icon who had the tubes to live life entirely on her own androgynous terms. "She always sounded like she had been torn apart," one interviewee says of Vargas's heartbreaking vocal style, demonstrated in gorgeous footage aided by subtitled lyrics. The viewer is regaled with yarns about Vargas's huge appetites — for fame, for beautiful ladies (like Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner), and for tequila — but it would be alcoholism that sidelined Vargas for many years until Pedro Almodóvar spearheaded a roaring comeback that made her the toast of Europe at the tender age of 71. (Wednesday, October 11; 6 p.m.; Little 1)

click to enlarge 120 Beats Per Minute - PHOTO PROVIDED
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  • 120 Beats Per Minute

France's recently anointed submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is "120 Beats Per Minute," an ambitious and affecting look at AIDS activists in early-1990's Paris, brought to life by a superb ensemble cast. Writer-director Robin Campillo (check out his fantastic 2004 zombie flick, "Les Revenants") called upon his own experiences as a member of ACT UP Paris to tell the story of a passionate group of women and men who were literally fighting for their lives. Though the touching relationship between ACT UP newcomer Nathan and founding member Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, in a towering performance) often takes center stage, much of the film takes place at passionate meetings and protests, where determined young people try to make a difference. But it's the startling shift in tone of a hushed denouement, followed by the potent catharsis of the closing scene, that should add Campillo's name to any conversation about the most important filmmakers of his generation. (Thursday, October 12; 6 p.m.; Little 1)

click to enlarge A Date for Mad Mary - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • A Date for Mad Mary

Seána Kerslake's feisty, vulnerable turn as a hotheaded ex-con anchors the irresistible Irish comedy "A Date for Mad Mary," far and away my favorite of this year's ImageOut crop. Mary returns from six months in the slammer to take up maid-of-honor duties for her adored best friend, Charlene, who has become a bridezilla in Mary's absence. The plot is driven along by Mary's need to prove to Charlene that she can score a plus-1 for the nuptials, resulting in a hilariously cringeworthy parade of dates as the unpolished Mary tries to live down her thuggish reputation and find a companion. What's really happening, however, is a "Muriel's Wedding"-flavored coming-of-age story in which Mary attempts to rise above a stifling life in small-town Drogheda without relying upon her flying fists or foul mouth. Look for lovely supporting performances across the board as well as the most extraordinary on-screen kiss I've seen in quite a while. (Friday, October 13; 5:30 p.m.; Little 1)

A lean, twisty exercise in suspense that does not waste any time, "B&B" takes us on a getaway to the English countryside with Marc and Fred, newlyweds returning to the place that they had sued for denying them service on religious grounds. The innkeeper's reaction is as Christian as you might imagine, setting a tone of tension that continues to rise with the confession of the innkeeper's apparently gay son, the arrival of an intimidating Russian, and a late-night trip to a park that leaves one of these men dead. As with even the finest thrillers, there are a number of head-scratching "But why didn't he just..." moments, but where writer-director Joe Ahearne succeeds is in his deft pacing and especially his casting. Tom Bateman (soon to be seen in Kenneth Branagh's "Murder on the Orient Express" remake) as Marc is the standout along with Paul McGann as the sardonic innkeeper, but none of Ahearne's characters strike a false note even when making the most puzzling choices. (Friday, October 13; 10 p.m.; Little 1)

The immensely enjoyable comedy "Sensitivity Training," written and directed by first-time filmmaker Melissa Finell, might be this festival's sweetly sly sleeper. Dr. Serena Wolfe (Anna Lise Phillips), to put it kindly, is blunt. To put it accurately, however, the microbiologist has no use for the normal niceties that make a person pleasant, whether condescending to her co-workers or getting tossed from a movie theater on a regular basis. Irrepressibly cheerful sensitivity coach Caroline (Jill E. Alexander) is called in when Serena's mouth finally takes her beyond the pale, and the priceless push-pull between the two stubborn women goes a long way in making up for a relatively thin plot. But when Serena begins experiencing unfamiliar feelings, is it that she's never had a real friend or is she actually in love with another woman? Hey, it still counts as a coming-of-age tale even when that age is staring down 40. (Sunday, October 15; 6 p.m.; Little 1)

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