The Houston Cinema Arts Festival (HCAF) is returning for its twelfth season November 12–22, spotlighting four queer filmmakers and offering both in-person and virtual programming due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the festival will screen films both online and at drive-in locations, and will feature 20 films (four of which have an LGBTQ focus), Q&A sessions, performances, workshops, and more.
One of the LGBTQ highlights will be the premiere of Pier Kids, which follows several queer and trans homeless youth of color living at Christopher Street Pier in New York. The film, directed by Elegance Bratton, will be available virtually for 72 hours starting Thursday, November 19, at 7:30 p.m.
Writing in the Hollywood Reporter, film critic Keith Uhlich felt that the subjects of Pier Kids “live in a perpetual state of precariousness. In calling attention to their struggles, Bratton honors their endurance and celebrates their existence. Pier Kids is comprised of many such off-handed, hard-hitting moments—scenes that constantly frustrate the easy readings of both the ignorant and the sanctimonious.”
Stonewall-era activist history will take the spotlight during the festival with the 2020 documentary Cured. The film focuses on the activists who took over the 1973 American Psychiatric Association Convention and successfully lobbied to remove “homosexuality” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The film, which contains several interviews with the doctors and activists who battled the American Psychiatric Association, will be available virtually for 24 hours starting Tuesday, November 17, at 4 p.m.
Hollywood Reporter contributor Stephen Farber writes that the film “recounts a fascinating part of history and definitely benefits from having so many vibrant and articulate participants to recall their part in a battle that did a great deal to change longstanding (and not yet extinct) prejudices.”
Another highlight of the festival will be a new restoration of Laura Dern’s first film, Smooth Talk. Dern, who became a gay icon after playing the lesbian who coaxes Ellen DeGeneres out of the closet in the groundbreaking television series Ellen, has gone on to have a lengthy career, recently winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. In Smooth Talk, Dern plays 15-year-old Connie, who spends the summer before her sophomore year fixating on getting male attention.
Writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert observed that the film is “almost uncanny in its self-assurance, in the way it knows that the first hour, where ‘nothing’ happens, is necessary if the payoff is to be tragic, instead of merely sensational.”
The film will be available to stream for 48 hours starting Saturday, November 21, at 7:30 p.m.
A film that’s likely to get the attention of local viewers will be the documentary Friday I’m in Love, which explores the fascinating history of Numbers nightclub, a countercultural Montrose landmark on lower Westheimer. The club originally opened as a dinner theater in 1975 before being reinvented in 1978 as Numbers, a gay disco.
As producer Jeromy Barber notes, “This story is vital for so many who grew up in Houston. I approached this project as a beloved fan of Numbers with a genuine curiosity and respect for that which came before me.”
A portion of the documentary will be livestreamed Friday, November 20, at 7:30 p.m.
Finally, the 2020 film Ammonite will make its Houston premiere during the festival.
The film tells the story of acclaimed palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) who works alone in 1840s England. When a wealthy visitor entrusts Mary with the care of his wife, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), she cannot afford to turn down his lucrative offer. An intense bond develops, and the two begin to have a passionate affair.
Writing for RogerEbert.com, Brian Tallerico says, “It is a story of connection—something we all seek, even after our lives seem to have made [connections] impossible to find.”
The film will screen Thursday, November 19, at 7:30 p.m. at the MoonStruck Drive-In in Houston.
The 2020 Festival Theme
In the last 12 years, the Houston Cinema Arts Festival has created a name for itself by focusing on films by and about artists. This year will be no different.
The festival’s 2020 theme is “Urbana,” a celebration of the intersection of film, music, literature, performance, new media, and the visual arts. The theme was inspired by the global Spanish-language music genre Musica Urbana, which shares influences from Africa and slavery.
The theme encompasses celebration and tragedy, artistry and the everyday, local and global, and the confluence of cultures. In addition to the films, programming around this theme will include live music, dance, and participation by artists including filmmakers Cecilia Aldarondo and Loira Limbal.
Ultimately, despite the complications caused by COVID-19, it was important to keep the festival going and expand it, Unger notes. “We are still here. Since it’s virtual, we decided we didn’t want to be so rigid. We decided to spread it out and have this longer experience.”
This article appears in the November 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.