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Houston Cinema Arts Festival Spotlights Third-Coast Film Talent

This year’s HCAF features underrepresented Gulf Coast movie makers.

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Transgender director Angelo Madsen Minax’s ‘North by Current’ documentary makes its Houston debut on November 12 

November ushers in the annual Houston Cinema Arts Festival (HCAF), and 2021 offers a particularly rich and varied celebration of LGBTQ film-production artists.  

From November 11 through 22, Houstonians can view these thought-provoking original works in theaters and stylish outdoor venues in town: the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Rice Cinema; Aurora Picture Show, Discovery Green, Miller Outdoor Theatre, and more. Some of the films will also screen virtually.

HCAF 2021 features more than 40 films and short programs. This year’s theme, Third Coast, provides a lens through which audiences can explore the deep bench of talent found throughout the often-overlooked Gulf Coast.

Artistic director Jessica Green

The festival is the flagship program of Houston Cinema Arts Society (HCAS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting unique films and performances, as well as opportunities to engage, enrich, and empower the city’s diverse communities. HCAF was introduced in 2008 as a weekend event, and has grown steadily since. It also filled a niche in the global film-festival scene that was sorely underrepresented—Texas.

This is the third festival that has fallen under the watchful eye of art director Jessica Green. Green’s commitment to the LGBTQ community runs deep, and is evident in the 2021 film lineup. “Our LGBTQ artists’ contributions are amazing this year,” she exclaims. “Just incredible. Every one of them.” 

All the films are indeed wonderful, but there are stand-outs in the LGBTQ lineup. On November 12 at Rice Cinema, ticket holders can see the Houston premiere of director Angelo Madsen Minax’s North by Current, including a special virtual Q&A session with the artist.  

Minax, a trans man, spent two years in Houston as a Core Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Following that, the director completed six years filming a documentary examining the relationships between mothers and children, truths and myths, losses and gains, and the dynamics of an American family—his own.  

After the tragic and confusing death of his toddler niece, Minax returned to his rural Michigan roots determined to make a film about his family’s unjustified persecution regarding the loss. Soon, the scope of his project morphed. Minax takes his audience on an investigation into the depths of drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, Christian fervor, generational guilt, and trans embodiment. 

Like the relentless Midwestern winds, relationships shift as family members struggle to understand and accept one another. The work unfolds in a gradual but disquieting documentary style. No one and nothing is scripted, and the camera acts as a fly on the wall. Still, a story emerges, quietly, like a ghost on a cold, dark Michigan night.   

PJ Raval’s ‘A New Landscape/
A Possible Horizon’

Did Minax know that he was going to create such a haunting piece? “When I first set out, I thought I would address white American masculinity, or maybe police brutality. There were so many ways I could have approached it. But I shot it over such a long period of time that the film itself took the shape it has. It is still authentic to my voice, but it’s the work that takes the viewer for the ride,” he explains.   

While the filmmaker acts as a cast member, photographer, editor, producer and director, there is nothing about North by Current that is indulgent or self-serving. Instead, it feels like a brutally honest work. “I wanted to provoke viewers to ask questions about their truths, ethics, and morals. I wanted them to see the gray, instead of just black and white, and question if right and wrong are changing all the time,” Minax explains. “In its final form, it is a very subjective work.”

On November 17, MFAH screens Petite Maman, the latest stunning work of Céline Sciamma. She is a screenwriter and director who often addresses the fluidity of gender and sexual identity among girls and women. 

In Petite Maman, we find that young Nelly is taken to her mother’s childhood home following the death of her grandmother. While her parents go about wrapping up loose ends, Nelly explores the surrounding woods where she encounters Marion, a girl exactly Nelly’s age who bears a striking resemblance to her. The pair becomes fast friends over lunches and conversation, but the girls’ eerie similarities gradually yield revelations that merge events of the past with those of the present.

Also on November 17, the Aurora Picture Show hosts a free outdoor event called A New Landscape/A Possible Horizon. Here, the award-winning Austin-based filmmaker PJ Raval will present a selection of film highlights from his remarkable career. The program includes a conversation with Raval mingled with clips from his work. Growing up as a queer first-generation Filipino American in a small, white, conservative town, Ravel’s experience as an “outsider” greatly shaped his filmmaking practice. He often examines social-justice issues through the voices of LGBTQ citizens and other marginalized subjects.

Céline Sciamma’s ‘Petite Maman’

Other 2021 HCAF highlights expected to wow the LGBTQ community include: 

• HCAF’s collaboration with the Houston Ballet for a free screening of the critically acclaimed In Balanchine’s Classroom at Discovery Green (and streaming online) on November 14.

• A November 18 virtual screening of The Scary of Sixty First, nominated for the Teddy Prize (Best Queer Film) at Berlinale, where it was voted Best Feature Debut. The film pays homage to Italian giallo films of the 1970s with the telling of a modern possession by the ghost of one of Jeffrey Epstein’s victims. 

• The Texas premiere of Red Rocket, directed by Sean Baker and starring Simon Rex (who will be in attendance).

• Bushwick Bill: Geto Boy, with guest artists in attendance.

The Third Coast (40th-anniversary screening).

C’mon C’mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gaby Hoffman.

Viewers can secure an all-access pass for HCAF 2021’s complete lineup, or buy tickets for individual screenings. Several are free, but attendance requires registration to confirm availability. 

What: Houston Cinema Arts Festival 2021
When: November 11–22
Where: Various locations
Info: cinemahtx.org/hcaf

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Kim Hogstrom

Kim Hogstrom is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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