The Houston Cinema Arts Festival returns for its eleventh season November 14–18, spotlighting nine queer filmmakers ranging from pioneers like Barbara Hammer to up-and-coming stars like Ja’Tovia Gary.
One of the highlights of the festival will be the Houston premiere of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, winner of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival’s Queer Palm award. That prestigious award recognizes stellar films depicting LGBTQ themes. It will screen on Monday, November 18, at 7:00 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Set in France and directed by Céline Sciamma, the 18th-century lesbian love story has won rapturous reviews. Awarding the film a five-star rating and praising its “burning desires and flashes of Hitchcock,” Peter Bradshaw, of the Guardian of London, enthused, “Céline Sciamma’s gripping 18th-century story of obsession demonstrates a new mastery of classical style.”
Writing in Variety, Peter Debruge observed, “One of four female-made features to premiere in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Portrait dares to engage directly with the questions of representation and gender that seem to have flummoxed the film industry of late, broadening its focus to the subject of womanhood itself at a time documented almost exclusively by men. Though this gorgeous, slow-burn lesbian romance works strongly enough on a surface level, one can hardly ignore the fact, as true then as it is now, that the world looks different when seen through a woman’s eyes.”
The Giverny Document:
“A multi-textured cinematic poem”
Ja’Tovia Gary takes center stage on Sunday, November 17, at 1:00 p.m. in the short-film showcase Around the World in a Day: Experimental Cinema Now. Hailed as one of Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces in Independent Film, she is a co-founder of The New Negress Film Society, a core collective of black female filmmakers whose priority is to create community and spaces for support, exhibition, and consciousness-raising. Her work seeks to liberate the distorted histories through which black life is often viewed. After living in Brooklyn for eighteen years, she recently relocated back to Dallas.
Around the World will feature Gary’s experimental film The Giverny Document. The work was shot on location in Harlem and in Claude Monet’s historic gardens in Giverny, France. In one section of the film, she takes to the streets of Harlem to ask women a simple question: Do you feel safe? This segment is interspersed with 1970s archival footage of jazz legend Nina Simone. Gary’s website describes the work as “a multi-textured cinematic poem that meditates on the safety and bodily autonomy of Black women.”
Gary’s film won the Moving Ahead Award at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland last August, with the jury observing, “Gary’s film is a contemplation of the body, of blackness, performance, film form, and political urgency. A rigorous and exciting measure of the capacity of cinema to act as a radical craft, the film works across disciplines and history as revolutionary art.”
New Festival Director Explores New Themes
Over the last decade, and under the leadership of founding artistic director Richard Herskowitz, the Houston Cinema Arts Festival has carved a niche for itself with its focus on films by and about artists and the artistic process. The festival’s new artistic director, Jessica Green, arriving in Houston from the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, has expanded the focus of the 2019 festival to include two intriguing themes.
The festival’s “Moonlanding 50” series will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 expedition to the moon with six films exploring the repercussions of that singular moment. Space Dogs, which receives its North American premiere on Friday, November 15, at 8:00 p.m. at Rice Media Center, chronicles the story of Laika, a stray dog who was the first living being to be sent into space. The festival has joined forces with NASA to produce CineSpace 2019, a short-film contest judged by Texas film director Richard Linklater that will screen on Saturday, November 16, at 7:30 p.m. at Rice Media Center.
Queer Cowboys and Lesbian Trailblazers
“Yee-Haw Agenda” is another festival theme the festival’s press release describes as “a celebration of rodeo riders, cowboys, and westerns—already firmly baked into the global popular consciousness—with a focus on diverse representations.”
Michael D. Robinson curates a program entitled “Brokeback: A Shorts Film Program” that looks at gay incarnations of the cowboy. Inspired by the seminal 2005 cowboy love-story film Brokeback Mountain, the one-hour program features works by Kate Horsfield, Barbara Hammer, Daniel Baer, and Adrian Garcia Gomez, among others.
“With this program, I’m interested in two concepts: native queer Southernness and Hollywood aesthetics of what a queer cowboy looks like,” comments Robinson, who is 24 and the co-artistic director of QFest, Houston’s LGBTQ film festival. “The title refers to one of the most famous of the Hollywood queer-cowboy narratives. But I wanted to tease away from this what, exactly, is seen as more innate, and what’s a replication of Hollywood aesthetics.
“Hammer’s 1969 short film Death of a Marriage is made as she’s reckoning to leave her husband and pursue a completely different life. [The film] situates itself as a time capsule of sorts,” Robinson notes. “It’s the queer country before going into the queer city. Her later films during this period are a mix of queer exploration and queer activism, examining community in a more urban understanding.
“Daniel Baer’s 1986 short film, Horse Dreams in BBQ Country, follows a California native who moves to Texas with his partner,” Robinson continues. “The conversation between Western and Southern is an important one, and really links to this idea of ‘native’ queer Southernness versus the aesthetics of the queer cowboy.”
Brokeback: A Shorts Film Program will screen on Saturday, November 16, at 12:30 p.m. at Rice Cinema, and is followed by a reading and conversation with Houston-based writer Josh Inocéncio.
What: Houston Cinema Arts Film Festival
When: Nov. 14–18
Where: MFAH, Rice Media Center, and other local venues
This article appears in the November 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.