The 19th annual Way OUT West Film Fest ran completely virtually from Oct. 15-24, marking the second year in a row it has done so because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike other film festivals that relegate LGBTQ+ content to a specific film genre, Way OUT West only features LGBTQ+ stories told and created by LGBTQ+ filmmakers.
More people than last year were able to “watch queer-flix and chill virtually” as the program for the festival suggests, since streaming access to most of the 88 feature length and short films expanded beyond New Mexico to reach attendees in Colorado, Arizona and Texas this year.
Festival director Roberto Appicciafoco is an alumnus of the University of New Mexico, and said his curation process focused on finding domestic and international films that represented the LGBTQ+ community in addition to stories told by Black, Indigenous and people of color creators.
“For me, curating all that is trying to find a balance in stories, what's pertinent and relevant to our community at large,” Appicciafoco said.
Craig Laberge-Esparza, a community health resource manager for the University of New Mexico Truman Health Services — which was the grand sponsor of the festival — emphasized the importance of telling these specific stories.
“We can actually see ourselves and our lives and the people that mean something to us in these movies and not just that kind of static, bland representation that we see in the mainstream media … Way OUT West brings us things that are specifically pertinent and important to the LGBTQIA community here in the Albuquerque metro area,” Laberge-Esparza said.
Appicciafoco founded the original iteration of the festival back in 2003 when it premiered in Albuquerque as the Southwest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
Appicciafoco recounted how his time working for the University by programming films at the Southwest Film Center combined with his experience working at national film festivals like Sundance inspired his creation of this festival.
“Just remembering how well we did with LGBTQ films there, over the course of a semester — ... (the festival) kind of grew out of that, and I just wanted to have a continuation of that, but make it an annual event,” Appicciafoco said.
Appicciafoco talked about the large amount of work that goes into curating a festival of this size, which includes working with a screening committee, programming team of 15 people to select this year’s submissions and watching each film multiple times.
UNM Truman Health Services, which provides local point-of-care rapid testing for HIV and Hepatitis C, sponsored a free screening of the documentary “Keep the Cameras Rolling: The Pedro Zamora Way.” This showcase film explains how a cast member on MTV’s “The Real World: San Francisco” became the humanizing face of AIDS in America in the 1990s.
The documentary uses footage from the show and new interviews with castmates, family members and former U.S. President Bill Clinton to document the story of Cuban immigrant Pedro Zamora, a young gay AIDS activist who died on Nov. 11, 1994 at the age of 22. Zamora’s on screen affection with his partner Sean Sasser along with their live commitment ceremony inspired generations of young queer youth as well as those living with AIDS.
“It's important for us to understand that (people living with AIDS) are not just a number … It's different when you can actually put a name and a face and a feeling and an emotional connection behind that. It hits differently and it makes it a little more personable,” Laberge-Esparza said.
Film festivals such as this one also personalize and celebrate the stories of the transgender community, which doesn’t otherwise have the same degree of visibility in mainstream media, according to Adrien Lawyer, co-founder and executive director of the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico.
Unfortunately, the community has recently come under attack from all sides, from a transphobic comedy special to an onslaught of anti-trans bills proposed in state legislatures across the country; the most recent bill (TX HB 25) was signed into law by Texas governor Greg Abbott on Oct. 25 and forces student athletes to play on the team that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate.
Lawyer said it’s hard for the LGBTQ+ community to stay politically engaged without getting depleted and letting the negativity affect your worldview, but festivals like this can help.
“I think art is one of those very key tools for exactly that,” Lawyer said. “I think it keeps our hearts open; it gives us a rest. And it lets us remember that we're not alone.”
Whether their favorite part of the festival was a heartfelt coming of age film about a trans teenager, the inspirational Zamora documentary or the “Gender Fabulous” shorts, respectively, Appicciafoco, Laberge-Esparza and Lawyer all loved how the festival continues to unequivocally celebrate queerness.
However, Appicciafoco hopes that next year will finally grant them the opportunity to safely return to running the festival in person.
“That's one of the (reasons) that I've always been passionate about doing the festival is … that sense of community and people coming together to celebrate our stories on screen,” Appicciafoco said.
Shelby Kleinhans is the multimedia editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @BirdsNotReal99