An interview with Festival Director Kathleen Mullen
by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
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The 24th annual Seattle Queer Film Festival (SQFF) begins in earnest this coming Thursday, October 10, with a gala screening of director Stephen Kijak's Sid & Judy, an in-depth documentary of the late actress, singer and icon Judy Garland and her relationship with her third husband, Sid Luft. The Festival closes October 20 with one of the most celebrated films of 2019, writer-director Céline Sciamma's award-winning drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire. In-between those two efforts the folks at Three Dollar Bill Cinema are packing an eclectic variety of features, shorts, forums and community outreach efforts, this year's SQFF a smorgasbord of cinematic goodness Pacific Northwest audiences are almost certain to positively respond to.
Festival Director Kathleen Mullen returns for her fourth go-round as the chief programmer for the festival, and once again she has made it her personal mission to generate as diverse and as inclusive an international slate of selections as possible. I had the opportunity to sit down with Mullen for a few minutes to chat about this year's SQFF. Here are some edited excerpts from what she had to say:
Sara Michelle Fetters: I think the most obvious question is, what happened to 'TWIST!'?
Kathleen Mullen: [laughs] To be honest, there were a lot of names [for the festival]. A lot of names. There's 'Three Dollar Bill Cinema presents.' There was 'TWIST! Seattle Queer Film Festival.' There were names before those.
'TWIST!' just felt like something we didn't need. We thought we could make it more streamlined and easier to remember. Three Dollar Bill Cinema presents the Seattle Queer Film Festival. Just rolls of the tongue a little better.
Sara Michelle Fetters: This year's festival, it's an eclectic lineup that spans the globe. It had to have been fun for you and your programmers to work on.
Kathleen Mullen: It was! I feel great about this year's lineup. We just had so many good films to look at. We had over 600 submissions this year, which was a hundred up from last year. Just the sheer diversity of the types of films, and the subjects, it was incredible. We had a number of local films and we lots of documentaries. So yes, it was a lot of fun to put it together.
Sara Michelle Fetters: It's perfect timing for the opening night film, Sid & Judy, especially with the Renée Zellweger drama Judy opening in theatres just last week. This is probably an obvious question with an equally obvious answer, but why all the interest in Judy Garland right now?
Kathleen Mullen: I'm going to answer with why I'm interested so much in Judy Garland. I mean, I was a little kid, and I was a queer kid. I came out when I was 17, and The Wizard of Oz was for me the most amazing young person's journey. All of the magic of Dorothy and her friends, it all really spoke to me as a kid. So I have a personal relationship and love for Judy Garland.
Then there is just this crazy connection. Judy Garland died 50 years ago and Stonewall happened 50 years ago. Some people say there's a link, while others say there's absolutely no link at all. But I think it's perhaps somewhere in-between. I just feel like we want to look back on our history. We want to look back on figures in our history that have meant something to the queer community. That's the thread throughout the whole program this year. What's been happening in the last 50 years of film? I think that's important to think about, and Sid & Judy is a piece of that.
We're doing a documentary, State of Pride, which is all about, what is Pride now? What are we doing? Where are we now in the present day? We also have a shorts program called 'Queer Yesteryear.' It all fits together, so the choice to have Sid & Judy as our opening night film definitely ties into that 50 years of queer cinema.
Sara Michelle Fetters: And then juxtaposing that, you have a selection closing out this year's festival that could be seen as being a vital entry in the future of LGBTQ cinema, Céline Sciamma's award-winning and critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Kathleen Mullen: It is a masterpiece.
Céline won best film at our festival in 2011 for Tomboy. I just said to everyone that we had to play it. When I talked to the distributor I was like, 'We need this film. I love it so much. You have to give it to us.' [laughs]
Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay at Cannes. It played Telluride and received raves. It's playing all over the world right now and receiving staggering notices. I felt thrilled that we got the film because I really feel that it, for me, represents where queer cinema is going. The fact it's from an out woman filmmaker and that she's still receiving so much acclaim in the mainstream, not just from the LGBTQ community, I think that's incredible.
I really feel that this is where we are at now, that such high-quality work like this gets internationally recognized. We have this forum called 'Queering the Script' and we're doing a whole panel on queer casting and fandom. That's a subject that feels important to talk about right now. Queers are starting to decide what stories they want to have told and who's going to be playing the roles of these queer characters. That's important.
Sara Michelle Fetters: It's interesting to me that this year, you look at something like 'Supergirl,' which had its most critically acclaimed season, or you look at Hustlers, which is one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2019, and both of these enterprises have two very high-profile Trans actresses in lead roles [Nicole Maines, Trace Lysette]. But their characters aren't defined by their transness. That is something that's new that I don't think we've seen before.
Kathleen Mullen: Isn't that great? I think that's one of the things that people are looking at, like they happen to be Trans but they're playing more complex roles and characters. That's definitely something we're going to be addressing on that panel. Rain Valdez is going to be on our queer casting panel. She was in 'Transparent' and she started her own web series called Razor Tongue that she stars in. I think people are going to get so much out of these panels this year.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Speaking of Trans representation, we go from one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2019 being your closing night offering to one of the most controversial LGBTQ films of the entire year. I'm talking about Adam, of course. What was the decision process like to screen this one at the festival this year?
Kathleen Mullen: We talked a lot about it. We talked about it a lot. We sent it to a few people on our committee, but also a few people off of our committee, and we did a lot of consultation. I personally like Adam. I think there are lots of complexities to the film. It's by a Trans filmmaker, Rhys Ernst, who's going to be here at the festival, and he's going to do a whole moderated Q&A session with Kai Tillman, a Trans filmmaker from Portland who is on our screening committee. I think we're putting everything into context. I also think that you should show all kinds of queer films, and we felt that this was an important one to put in our lineup.
I respect people who don't like it. I've heard the different arguments. I've read extensively about the different opinions and different viewpoints on the film and I had to think a lot about that and weigh carefully the decision. In the end I decided that it had a place at the festival along with all our 156 other queer films. I do want to support Rhys' work. I think that he's an interesting filmmaker, and I want to support him as a Trans filmmaker even though Adam isn't always popular with everyone.
Sara Michelle Fetters: For you personally, what are some of the things that have you most excited about this year's festival?
Kathleen Mullen: I think for me it's a combination of the films, the parties and the events. But also we have some really great workshops. We're doing 'How to be a Trans Ally,' which is a workshop that we've done a few times now at both Translations and SQFF. But we're also doing 'How to be an Effective Ally' with Anastacia-Reneé to talk about allyship. She's going to be leading a two-hour workshop. We also have a workshop and panel with Sean Dorsey. 'Let's Talk About Trans and Queer Masculinities,' who's a Trans dancer, and he's doing this whole workshop that's being co-presented with Velocity Dance Center. We're also doing a VR presentation with the North Bend Film Festival.
So there are like these levels of engagement. By having films and having discussions and having guests and having workshops and panels, it's all pretty exciting. It expands our educational programming and our free programming, But I can also name the many films that I'm individually excited about, too, like Portrait of a Lady on Fire. So there's a lot to get excited about. Definitely.
Sara Michelle Fetters: This is the 24th year of the festival. Do you ever think about that? Does the history of the festival ever play into how you program?
Kathleen Mullen: I honor the 24 years. I've personally been the festival director for four festivals, and I care about the organization. I want to see its longevity. I want the audience and the community to understand that, yes, there's been some transition, but that we're still here and that we honor what's happened over these last 24 years.
Queer people are still making films. They're still creating discussions around all sorts of subjects. Our queer aesthetic and queer world may have changed over the last 24 years, but we're still making art and film. I think I like to look at what has been programmed in the past. For example, we're having a 30th anniversary screening of Tongues Untied, which I think is really an incredible film from Marlon Riggs and it is one that touches on another thread that people will notice throughout the festival, the number of documentaries and films that look at HIV and AIDS, the consequence of the disease and what's been happening today within the broader community.
When I'm programming the festival, I'm definitely honoring what has happened in the past but also trying to find ties to what is happening here in the present. That's why Portrait of a Lady on Fire is closing our festival. Céline Sciamma won best narrative feature in 2011 for Tomboy. Now she's back with an even more impressive drama. Those things are connected, right?
Sara Michelle Fetters: From an audience perspective, what do you hope people get out of this year's festival? What do you hope they're talking about?
Kathleen Mullen: I honestly don't know. What do I hope they're talking about? I want them to really want to come to the festival. I want them to want to see it continue. I want them to continue to support it. I want them to be like, 'Wow! There are so many good films, so many interesting subjects that this film festival can screen and bring to the table.'
Seattle has a so much to offer. We're playing so many local films. Good Kisser by Wendy Jo Carlton. We're showing No Dominion: The Ian Horvath Story by Margaret Mullen, which is all about Ian Horvath who started the Cleveland Ballet and was an AIDS activist. So I guess that's another thing I want people to think about, all of these local people making films with this real international perspective on LGBTQ lives.
For me, I love the festival. That's how I answer the question. That's what I want to talk about. I love the festival, and I totally support it, and I will continue to do so for as long as I can.
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