Director Sets Stage for Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival’s 20th Year

Director Sets Stage for Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival’s 20th Year

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Mullen at her desk preparing for the festival hours before opening night. Photo: Nicole Einbinder
Mullen at her desk preparing for the festival hours before opening night. Photo: Nicole Einbinder

By Nicole Einbinder

For Kathleen Mullen, standing on stage at opening night of the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and looking out to a sold out crowd was a validation of her work over the past six months.

As this year’s festival director she spent hours screening around 1,000 film submissions, overseeing committees, managing guest services, and performing the meticulous administrative tasks necessary to make the event a success.

It wasn’t easy – but as 500 people laughed, cried and engaged with the LGBTQ film Freeheld, about New Jersey police lieutenant Laurel Hester’s struggle to extend pension benefits to her cancer-stricken partner – she knew her efforts were worth it.

“After 20 years of speaking on stage I still am nervous,” she said. “But I love doing it because I love what I do and promoting queer cinema is my mission in life.”

A t-shirt proudly displays ‘Celebrate Queer’ on opening night of the festival at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian. Photo: Nicole Einbinder
A t-shirt proudly displays ‘Celebrate Queer’ on opening night of the festival at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian. Photo: Nicole Einbinder

Now in its 20th year, the annual festival serves as a space for the Seattle LGBTQ community to view representations of their lives on the big screen. This year’s highlights include films ranging from features to documentaries, shorts created by queer youth, a panel about emerging as an LGBTQ filmmaker, and a showing of the 1996 documentary The Celluloid Closet, which explores the history of queer cinema around the time the festival first began.

A lot has changed in those last two decades – the festival expanded from one weekend to 10 days, movies are played at theaters across the city instead of being limited to Capitol Hill venues, and a number of films will have theatrical releases across the country.

“I think that says more about the state of the world and the outlook on gay and lesbian content is much more mainstream,” said the festival’s technical manager Gina Hicks, who has been involved with the festival since its second year. “In the beginning there weren’t really other places to come out and see people like you on the screen.”

A Lifelong Passion

In Three Dollar Bill Cinema’s cozy Capitol Hill office, Mullen’s desk is scattered with festival pamphlets, assorted coffee cups, and stuffed folders. In the corner, a rainbow flag stands tall.

“I love stories about our lives and they are all so diverse and there are so many different kinds of films from love stories to documentaries,” she said over a cup of tea. “We want to have spaces to celebrate and to discuss our various experiences.”

At the age of 17, Mullen came out in what she describes as the conservative town of Edmonton, Alberta. It wasn’t easy, but she was tired of hiding who she was.

“It’s actually kind of amazing I was coming out at that time,” she said with a laugh. “I had a group of friends from various different high schools and we banded together and we made choices that we were going to do our own thing.”

She’s programmed queer cinema at festivals across the world since 1995, after first attending Vancouver’s Queer Film Festival Out On Screen. It was unlike anything she’d ever experienced, she said.

“It was a place of experimentation and alternative LGBTQ cinema and they did all kinds of different programming,” she said about the festival. “I was working at a women’s center and it was great but then I found Out On Screen and I was like, ‘This is where I want to be, these are the kind of people I want to be around.’”

For the last two years, she’s brought that vigor to Seattle’s festival.

“These are people who basically give up their lives and it’s a 24/7 job,” said actress and filmmaker Dreya Weber, who is starring in this year’s Raven’s Touch. “It’s a real testament to the festival directors and the organizers being connected to the community and to Seattle itself.”

“I don’t know how the movies are going to survive if festivals like this don’t live,” Weber said.

Mullen proudly displays the festival pamphlet in her office. Photo: Nicole Einbinder
Mullen proudly displays the festival pamphlet in her office. Photo: Nicole Einbinder

Still a long way to go

Since Seattle’s festival first opened its doors, major strides have been made for LGBTQ rights. More queer characters are depicted in the media while marriage equality is finally a reality – a different world than in 2006 when Hester’s story garnered national attention.

Mullen knows there is still a long way to go.

“We have a film called Stories of Our Lives which is based in Kenya and it’s about how they are risking their lives because it’s illegal to be gay in Kenya,” she said. “And then also in Canada and the U.S. we still have absolute struggles around safety and around various rights.”

The festival provides a venue for attendees to just have fun and be themselves. For Hicks, that supportive space is why she continues to volunteer each year.

She said it’s kind of like an extended family.

Mullen at the festival on opening night speaking to the crowd. Photo: Nicole Einbinder
Mullen at the festival on opening night speaking to the crowd. Photo: Nicole Einbinder

“Everyone is hanging out and chatting,” Hicks said. “It gives more opportunities for people to go ‘oh I totally get that’ and validate whatever stage they are at and then discuss it.”

Meg Mcleod of Seattle attended the festival for the first time last Thursday night because she wanted to watch a queer film in a safe space. She said it was a unique experience.

Mullen said that sense of community is not only empowering, but also can instill people with courage.

“We are not all the same, our socio-economic levels are not the same, our cultures are not the same, we live different experiences, and our films look at that and celebrate that,” she explained. “The festival is important not just for LGBTQ rights but as a celebration of our community.”

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