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Fri, Jul 24, 2009, 01:00

PREVIEW: GAZE, GAY AND LESBIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Gaze, Dublin’s gay and lesbian film festival, opens its 17th annual event in a time of changed attitudes.  DONALD CLARKE examines the role the film festival today – and previews some of the most anticipated screenings

A LOT HAS changed in the 17 years since the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival first sashayed into the Irish Film Centre. For a start, the festival, renamed Gaze three years ago, no longer has to worry about its core audience being carted off by Garda Plod.

“When the festival was set up, homosexuality was still illegal,” says Jennifer Jennings, the event’s manager. “It may have been in the Irish Film Centre and it may have got great audiences, but to be homosexual was still a criminal act. Things have changed.”

In Hollywood, too, the barriers are beginning – just beginning, mind – to fall down. Writing on the Gaze website, programme director Cian Smyth cautiously welcomes the advance.

“Since queer cinema has developed into the mainstream,” he writes, “from the new wave of the early nineties through to blockbuster hits like Brokeback Mountain, the quality of queer film is once again leading the cinematic field.”

Sure enough, the upcoming festival, which runs from July 30th to August 3rd, offers punters a dizzying variety of delights.

Events kick off with a screening of Grey Gardens, a dramatic adaptation of the Maysles brothers’ great documentary. Co-written by Patricia Rozema and starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, the HBO picture deals with two deliciously eccentric relatives of Jackie Onassis.

The Queer Heroes season, offering work from “queer cinema icons”, includes John Greyson’s Fig Trees, an eclectic hymn to gay activism; Jennifer M Kroot’s It Came from Kuchar, a study of the indomitable Kuchar brothers; and Florian Habicht’s Rubbings from a Live Man, a glance at Kiwi eccentric Warwick Broadhead.

The tautologically titled Queer Curios strand will include a welcome retrospective of quirky Canadian visual artist Allyson Mitchell and a season of short films from the dazzling, expectation- defying Andy Blubaugh and Trevor Anderson.

Raging Sun, Raging Sky, Juan Hernandez’ acclaimed quasi-mythological love story, will have its British and Irish debut. Winner of the Teddy Award for best gay feature at the Berlin Film Festival, the film is already gathering a formidable cult following.

Smyth’s personal pick among the various treats is Kimberly Reed’s already hugely praised Prodigal Sons. Following the director as she returns to her hometown and confronts the old friends who once knew her as quarterback for the (male) football team, the film manages to make a surprisingly tense, suspenseful story from the most unlikely material. The final revelation will have you rocking in your seat.

The closing film is Ella Lemhagen’s delightful, occasionally disconcerting Patrik Age 1.5.The Swedish picture studies a gay couple as, following a bureaucratic cock-up, they end up adopting a 15-year-old homophobic youth rather than the infant they were expecting. The film manages the impressive task of celebrating the everyday normality of gay relationships while still pointing up the challenges that remain.

So, Gaze continues to offer a wide variety of tasty material. Still, it is fair to ask what the event believes its remit to be. After all, we now live in an era where gay-friendly material is everywhere about. The likes of Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant get nominated for Oscars. A trouble-making Devil’s advocate might wonder why we still need a gay and lesbian film festival.

“Our remit is quite clear,” Jennings says. “We seek out cinema that has lesbian and gay content – films that people from that community may not get to see on the big screen elsewhere. But, like a lot of gay festivals, Gaze has expanded to include work by gay artists that may not have a gay theme. We even go one stage further and seek to include films that have inspired gay artists. So, for example, Patricia Rozema will be introducing the original version of Grey Gardens.”

Gaze has always done a good job of welcoming all communities to its events and seeking to spread the word about gay-related films beyond the immediate family. Having glanced through the programme, this writer sought out and greatly enjoyed some of the upcoming attractions.

Training Rules tells the fascinating story of one lesbian basketball player’s efforts to frustrate the homophobic authorities at Penn State University. Jacques Martineau’s and Olivier Ducastel’s Born in ’68, one of the less recherché dramatic features at the festival, takes a group of activists from the barricades of Paris through various compromises to the less certain politics of the late 20th century.

Still, though the event thrives on spreading the word widely, its importance as a social event within the gay community cannot be underestimated. This year, as the Irish Film Institute undergoes its redevelopment, festivities move down the river to the multicoloured seats and wide staircases of the Light House cinema in Smithfield.

“An important remit of Gaze remains the community aspect,” Jennings says. “We expect to see around 5,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and straight people gathering in a place that is not a club not a pub. That’s always an important thing. People will come from all over the world to this event.”

Fair enough. But have such gay events now broken into the mainstream? Is this still an “alternative” festival?

“I am from a younger generation than those who set up the festival,” Jennings says. “To us, gayness was never an issue. Things are still changing. But, if I can get a bit political here, we mustn’t get complacent. We still have inequality in things like marriage, for instance.”

But, next weekend, there will, in Smithfield, be one little corner of Ireland where equality reigns.

“Yes. In our minds there are now no barriers. In our minds it’s a completely equal paying field.”

Gaze runs from July 30th to August 3rd at the Light House cinema. www.gaze.ie