Year of the Queer: Vancouver Queer Film Festival's visibility has grown along with LGBT community

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      Once upon a time, there were hardly any movies with gay or lesbian characters. And that wasn't so long ago.

      Ronald Reagan was U.S. president, Brian Mulroney was Canada's prime minister, and Margaret Thatcher was coming near the end of her reign in the United Kingdom. 

      Vancouver was about to host the Gay Games, and some folks came up with the idea of screening some LGBT films in a Main Street studio.

      According to the executive director of Out on Screen, Stephanie Goodwin, this was the origin of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

      "There was a desire to integrate some kind of arts and culture into the Gay Games so it wasn't simply a sporting event," Goodwin told the Straight by phone. "[The first festival] was a projector up against a bedsheet on a wall and milk crates for chairs."

      From this humble beginning, the Queer Film Festival has grown to become a cultural anchor in Vancouver and one of the premiere queer film festivals on the planet.

      For 15 years, it was headed by Drew Dennis, who stepped down in 2015. Goodwin has been executive director for two-and-a-half years and before that was a long-time patron and donor. 

      The Vancouver Queer Film Festival receives 900 to 1,000 submissions per year and will run for 11 days, from August 9 to 19.

      On May 15, Vancouver city council unanimously voted in favour of a staff report recommending that 2018 be designated as the Year of the Queer. It's to honour 15 LGBT organizations that are celebrating significant anniversaries, including the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

      This year marks its 30th birthday, which will be celebrated on June 2. 

      “Back in the ’80s, there was almost no queer film,” Goodwin said. "It's evolved from being milk crates and bed the big screen in Cineplex movie theatres and bringing in artists, not just from Toronto, not just from LA, but from the Philippines, from India, from all over the world."

      There used to be no films about trans characters. This year, because there is a sufficient number of movies on this subject, there will be a trans women spotlight at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

      "We're starting to see more films that not just centre on trans people's lived experiences, but also centre on trans actors," Goodwin said. "Because that, for a long time, has been a real issue: transgender characters being played by nontransgender folks."

      The Vancouver Queer Film Festival is no newcomer to bringing the lives of trans people to local audiences in films starring trans actors.

      For example back in 2011, it screened Gun Hill Road, which cast a trans actor, Harmony Santana, in a critically acclaimed family drama. It starred Esai Morales as a former prison inmate who can't accept his androgynous child.

      This year, the Vancouver Queer Film Festival will also feature multidisciplinary performances, as well as workshops for screenwriters—a sign of how it’s evolving under artistic directors Amber Dawn and Anoushka Ratnarajah. There’s also a growing number of high-quality international films.

      “Representation matters,” Goodwin said. “Visibility matters. When we see ourselves represented in complex and beautiful ways on the big screen, it’s a transformative experience.”

      The Vancouver Queer Film Festival comes under the umbrella of Out on Screen, which also runs the Out in Schools program. It makes 100 presentations reaching about 10,000 students each year.

      In addition, it's created more than 200 youth videos.

      "The thing that holds Out in Schools and the festival together and why we can't ever pull them apart is they're both rooted in film," Goodwin noted.