by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
What was once known as the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival has changed its name for its 21st annual iteration to TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival.
After kicking things off next Thursday with the world premiere of local writer-director Clyde Petersen's stunning animated marvel Torrey Pines, over the next ten days countless features, documentaries, and shorts from around the globe will fill a number of local theatres (including the Cinerama, Pacific Place, SIFF Egyptian, and the NW Film Forum), many of them focusing on stories that shatter the often-perceived norms of LGBT cinema. On top of that, there are number of notable live presentations, including a groundbreaking and innovative virtual-reality showcase dubbed 'TWIST 360°' - an immersive media festival exploring the intersection of queer culture, art, cinema, and technology.
I sat down with longtime Three Dollar Bill Cinema Executive Director Jason Plourde to talk about all things TWIST. Here are some of the highlights from our wide-ranging conversation:
Sara Michelle Fetters: I'm going to ask the question you're probably tired of answering at this point, but for the people that are clueless and don't realize things have changed until the event itself is happening, why the rebranding? Why the name change?
Jason Plourde: I never get tired of that question. I'm glad that people are asking that question. We took a look at the festival and what we've done over the last 20 years, and we decided that we wanted it to be more inclusive, [wanted] the name to have a broader appeal. We wanted not only LGBTQ people to feel included - we wanted other folks that felt allied to the community to feel included, and we felt like using 'queer' in the title was a broader umbrella term.
I know some people don't specifically identify with that word, but in general way [queer] conveys a broader definition beyond just lesbian and gay.
We also wanted something more fun, so coming up with a single word to encapsulate the festival, the energy of the festival, the sensibility of what we do, that's where we came up with 'TWIST.' So far, people have embraced that really well. It has made it a lot easier for people to refer to the festival: 'We're going to TWIST' or 'This is TWIST.'
We've had a lot of fun playing off of that with some of our programs within the main event. It's worked out really well, and I think we've definitely made a change that is positive, that's inclusive and fun.
Sara Michelle Fetters: It does seem that for so long 'queer' was looked at as a derogatory term, and in some way this is another step in maybe redefining that, taking that word back, correct?
Jason Plourde: Right. That definitely is our intent. Queer has just become more and more used in our popular culture and not in an offensive way. It's sort of become empowering, so while, yes, some people have taken it back, I also think people enjoy it, enjoy the sort of broad nature of that word.
Sara Michelle Fetters: With the name change, did we lose the 20 years of history? Or are we still 21?
Jason Plourde: No, we're 21. We're not losing any of our history. We're certainly not denying anything we've done in the past. It's the 21st annual TWIST this year.
Sara Michelle Fetters: This year's festival you're launching with an animated film, Torrey Pines.
Jason Plourde: Yes we are. It's a remarkable opportunity. Primarily the decision to open with Torrey Pines was to support a local artist, Clyde Petersen, someone who's been doing incredible work in our community for many years, who's been a supporter of Three Dollar Bill Cinema, and whose project was a fiscally sponsored project by our organization. We helped it come to fruition, and so giving the film this slot was sort of a no-brainer.
The story is an interesting part of someone's history; it's not a romantic love story or anything. It's about someone's history, and so it's a very personal story but also so moving and really unique.
But it's more than just opening the festival with an animated film - the soundtrack will be performed live. With all that being the case, we felt like it needed that slot, like the film needed to open the festival.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You have a history recognizing local artists and filmmakers, which makes sense; it's Seattle's festival, after all. But giving Torrey Pines this slot, a film you've nurtured, that has to feel good for you just personally. At the same time, it also has to feel good that this is an opportunity to showcase that animation is more than just Disney or Pixar and that - much like last year's Anomalisa - the film showcases the adult way that one can look at animation and animated stories. Would you agree?
Jason Plourde: Right. It does that completely. It's a story that is told from childhood on but is told from a very adult perspective, from an adult sensibility, and is using animation to tell a story that's not a kid's story or something that's easy from a narrative standpoint. It definitely has a lot of complexities to it [and] uses the beauty of the artwork to its best ability. It is really remarkable.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Again, just for you personally, giving a local artist this kind of showcase - for somebody that's been involved in this festival as long as you have, what's that feel like?
Jason Plourde: It feels gratifying. It feels great that we've - for 20 years - been cultivating a queer film culture in this city and that many of the works we've shown over the years have been great. Having a film that's now able to really hold an opening night slot feels really gratifying.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I will say that going through the schedule, this is one of those years where I think there's maybe not as much on the schedule that would normally be considered family friendly as maybe some past lineups have had. Would you agree with that?
Jason Plourde: I think that there were past programs that were - and definitely there were films that were family friendly - but yes, this year in general the majority of the works, we [have] have more adult themes, and there's more explicit sexuality in a lot of the work. There are also a lot of darker themes in the work, too.
While there are definitely films that deal with youth - like Girls Lost, for example, and Torrey Pines, and also Play the Devil, that are specifically about young people - none of them are happy, escapist stories. We do feel like we should go back to specifically programming a kids' film or two, just to have that in the festival schedule, but overall, it's still a pretty broad range this year. We try to be very thorough in the content warnings that we provide, so that people do have a sense of who the film may or may not be appropriate for.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What is it right now that's sort of out there in the ether that is leading to these stories that are so introspective, but in ways that become deeply personal, that are so difficult on an emotional level? Are we just at a point where LGBT filmmakers are willing to tell these complex stories in ways they haven't been before?
Jason Plourde: I think so. I first want to say that I applaud the balance and diversity in this year's schedule. I think the key for the festival director and the screening committees was to find that balance, and I feel like they did a great job. The films that have been selected are the best, chosen with an understanding that we needed to provide balance in the schedule that reflects all aspects of the community.
But there were a lot of bleak films, and there were certainly films that were even darker that we didn't choose to put in this year's festival.
But I also think some of the films that maybe look really intense at first blush really aren't. They confront some difficult subject matter, but the way that they resolve or the things that happen throughout the film - it's not going to be a grueling situation.
In terms of why filmmakers are telling these stories, I think our community is enjoying a lot more freedom and a lot more visibility than we ever had in the past. I'm not saying that the world is perfect and that we live these carefree lives, but I think that filmmakers are kind of daring with that freedom by telling these stories that maybe aren't just happy endings.
Not that the pendulum has swung... but in some ways I think it has, because I feel like when the festival started, or just prior to that, maybe 25 or 30 years ago, the films were all really darker. In that era, gay people had to either die in the film or endure horrible suffering. But then we got out of that, we had an era in the 1990s where I think we had a lot of romantic comedies and fluffy, sort of sexy films. I don't know that we've swung all the way back, but we're certainly at a midpoint, where filmmakers seem to feel, 'If I want to make something that's just escapist and fluffy, I can, but if I want to make something really dark and it's going to be challenging, I can do that as well.'
Sara Michelle Fetters: Where was that turning point, do you think? It does feel like, post Brokeback Mountain, filmmakers have finally kind of said, 'Now we get to go to that extra level and tell some harder stories.'
Jason Plourde: Yeah, I think the turning point was in some way the ability of films like Brokeback Mountain - and others that did really well financially and that weren't sort of easy bubble-gum narratives, that people were seeing, and funders were seeing - [to convey] that the work doesn't necessarily need to be light and fluffy to be successful.
I think also, honestly, the work of television and web series in the past five years and people telling challenging stories that are really resonating with people...allows feature-length filmmakers to say, 'Hey, this has played well in this format, there's an audience for it on a larger scale.' That's helped, I think a lot, in bridging that gap.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I do feel like you can't diminish the influence that stuff like 'Orange Is the New Black' and 'Transparent' have had on the stories some of these filmmakers are willing to tell.
Jason Plourde: Exactly. I think people are ready to do that, to tell these stories. But they all don't have to be dark, don't have to be depressing or sad. There are also some really hopeful stories as well, like one of our centerpieces, Out Run - it's a documentary on the first LGBT political party in the world in the Philippines. It's not like they have a run of successes - they're trying to do something really difficult - but seeing that people are really trying and having whatever success that's going to provide is, I think, great for audiences to see.
I was going to point out another centerpiece film, too, Women Who Kill. It's a dark situation, but the humor in it is great. It really delves into both aspects of that genre.
Sara Michelle Fetters: If there is a central theme you think is running through this year's festival, what would it be? Does there have to be one?
Jason Plourde: People ask that a lot. We're always like, 'LGBT films.' That's it, but that sometimes isn't enough for some people.
In terms of tone, I think that - not to be trite - the diversity of stories is pretty broad. Showing stories from all over, we're opening with an animated, cut-paper personal story of a gay, closeted relationship [Torrey Pines], and we're closing with The Pass, a relationship tale between two men in the world of professional soccer that's so well shot, looks spectacular, has high production values, and has Russell Tovey - an up-and-coming star and an out gay actor - in a lead role. Those two films couldn't be more different in a lot of ways, and yet they really do encapsulate what we're about. We're about telling personal stories through a variety of media.
Maybe that's the theme - using a variety of media - because we not only have animation and traditional forms of storytelling, we're also doing a whole component with virtual reality. So we have the VR gallery over the first week of the festival. We have this project, 'Twist 360°: Machine To Be Another,' over the second weekend, which is about people body-swapping, like putting on virtual reality gear and seeing the world from someone else's perspective.
Then we have live performances as well. One of the film programs is The Long Haul Live. It's The Buckaroos male review show, but it's also a documentary. The filmmaker has these live performances as part of the storytelling process. There'll be projected vignettes about each of the performers while they come out on stage, and there's also going to be interactive things happening around the theater. It's a whole experience, and I think filmmakers are taking these multimedia works and incorporating them into successful stories.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Being on the forefront of doing stuff like this, that has to be exciting.
Jason Plourde: It is. It's great. Being a community event, that really is the crux of who we are. Queer film festivals in general, I think, serve that function. We're a meeting place and a communal event for LGBTQ people, as well as a film festival that's putting great work on screen, showing films - and being able to have everything be connected allows us to have the freedom to do things that are a little bit nontraditional, like the sing-alongs we've done in the past.
This year we're doing a program, the 'TWIST Twerkshop,' which is kind of inspired by film but isn't a film. It's just something fun to do around this event, and that's what we want to keep doing, pushing the envelope and thinking about unique ways that people can come together around the artist.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I was going to ask, what happened to the sing-along? You're just giving it over to Twerk?
Jason Plourde: I don't know, yes, I guess. We'll probably bring the sing-along back at some point. We had something in the works for this year, but it didn't come through, but it won't be gone away forever. We still do regular events throughout the year. We're still about the musicals and the sing-alongs, but it's not a specific part of this year's festival, no.
Sara Michelle Fetters: For you, what's most gratifying thing about this year's festival? When you look at the schedule [and] you kind of pinpoint one or two things and you say, 'Yes! I am so glad we are doing this.' What just brings that grin, that Jason grin, to your face?
Jason Plourde: I don't want to go on and on about opening night, but opening night makes me smile, the fact that Clyde Petersen [is] just such a great person and such a great artist... And I've seen the film and I fell in love with it, and just to be able to show that on opening night with an audience that's going to have an experience that they've never had before - of seeing this film with a live musician - the energy that's going to be there in the theatre is going to be amazing! I'm really excited about that. ...This doesn't really answer that question, but I actually do think our lineup - the three centerpiece films, as well as our opening and closing night - [is] a pretty great collection, and it's a diverse collection. We've had a great experience.
We have a party pass that allows someone to get all five of those at a discounted price. I hope that people will get that if they can, because they will have a truly unique and rewarding festival experience if they go to all of those films.
Then the other thing that I'm always really excited about is the youth filmmaking program that we do. These youngsters making these films made over the summer and then showing them at this free program midway through the festival, it's going to be great. I'm thrilled that we expanded that program this year and have four additional films to show as a result.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Talk about your archival presentation.
Jason Plourde: Watermelon Woman! And Cheryl Dunye will be here to talk about it. That's going to be amazing. It's the 20th-year anniversary screening of that film, and definitely one that's timely. It's sadly as relevant today as it was 20 years ago when it was made, especially the issues and problems the Black community have to face, especially within the Queer community. I'm glad that we're showing that. That's going to be a great screening.
Sara Michelle Fetters: I ask you this every year, and that is: is LGBT cinema still relevant?
Jason Plourde: Completely relevant. The festivals, as I mentioned before, are a way [to have] a great communal experience, for people within the queer community to come together, to be educated, to be inspired, and to be entertained. All the things we've talked about. That's never going to go away. We have a very unique way of viewing the world. Having this work shown in ways we can connect to directly and also get a special understanding of - I think that is important.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You've been here at Three Dollar Bill Cinema for 20 years. Why keep doing it?
Jason Plourde: For that very reason, because people - with every year, there's new people who are like, 'I've never seen anything like this before!' That makes me feel great, like I think we are putting on something that people can have a great experience from and get a lot of value from. Doing this is important to me.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Could you have ever imagined, back when you were a wide-eyed kid starting out at Three Dollar Bill Cinema, doing this sort of stuff, that (A) the festival would be as big as it is, (B) that it would have as much impact as it does, and (C) that Three Dollar Bill Cinema as a whole would offer the sort of year-long programs that it now does? Could you have imagined any of that?
Jason Plourde: No. I think when I first started, it was really just putting on the singular festival. And a lot of other festivals - that's all they do. There are many LGBT film festivals around this country and around the world, and the majority of them, that's their focus: they're volunteer-run events that happen once a year.
We, through the benefit of our supportive community - the city that we live in being such a great film town and also really supportive of us - I think has helped us to grow. As that was happening, it wasn't something we sort of foresaw but slowly realized was taking place, that we could do more: [We] could provide another film festival that specifically revolved around Transgender issues. We can do a filmmaking program. We can do programming throughout the year. This is something that we're fortunate to have the opportunity to do, and we're happy to keep providing the community. It's an honor!
Sara Michelle Fetters: I didn't get to ask you this last year. The festival turned 20 last year, now it's 21. Where do you, somebody that's been here pretty much from the beginning, where does it go in 20 years? What's TWIST doing in the 2030s?
Jason Plourde: That'll be interesting to see. I don't know. I think that there's still - as much as I'm impressed by and enjoy the new technology that's coming into the scene and showing virtual reality films - I don't think that traditional narrative storytelling will ever go away. We've been watching film for 100-plus years now, and I think that's going to be still a component of the festival no matter what. Will we be seeing movies in holodecks in 20 years? I don't know. What I do know: we're going to keep sharing stories, and we're always going to provide a space that people can come together in to view them. The artistry around that and the technology around that will change. It's already changed. I mean, we used to share things on VHS tapes and on reels of films, and now we're showing things digitally in....varying formats, but the heart of what we're doing and who we are never will.
Sara Michelle Fetters: At the end of the day, when people get to experience this year's festival, when it's all done, on that last day, what do you hope they're talking about?
Jason Plourde: I hope they're talking about what an amazing time that they had. I hope they're talking about what story they're going to tell. I want them to get involved in the filmmaking classes that we do throughout the year so they can maybe include one of their pieces in next year's festival. And I want them marking their calendar for next year's TWIST, because after attending this year's festival, they know they're going to have a great time again in 2017!
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