GAZE Film Festival 2016: Interview with Noel Sutton

Posted July 21, 2016 in Film

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This month, one of the top 20 LGBT film festivals in the world is returning to Dublin: GAZE International LGBT Film Festival. Spanning from Thursday 28th July to Monday 1st August, the event takes place at Light House Cinema in Smithfield. Between Thursday and Monday, GAZE, which is run almost entirely by dozens of amazing volunteers, will take over two of the four screens at Light House, as well as the whole of the venue’s event areas and floor spaces. It features 26 films from all over the world, plus not one, not two, but seven different programs of themed shorts, meaning that GAZE is a grand tour of the accomplishments of LGBT cinema everywhere, and of the progress the community has made.

Last week, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit down with Festival Director Noel Sutton to talk about the festival, and his perspective as the guy in charge. Currently in his fifth year at his position, Sutton tells me, he effectively serves as the CEO of the festival, working with the Programmer and volunteer Board of Directors in order to organize this massive event and plan years ahead to ensure everything keeps on running.

When I asked about the highlights of the lineup this year, Sutton was eager to give me a rundown. “Our Irish shorts program is just amazing this year, all our Irish content is just great, so really I’d encourage anyone to go and see them.” The shorts program, the historical foundation of the festival’s Irish program, includes six different shorts carefully curated from dozens of submissions.

But the festival’s Irish content also includes two new features, Mark O’Halloran’s Viva and Edmund Lynch’s A Different Country, the latter of which has the festival as its worldwide premiere. Viva, which depicts a young, Cuban hairdresser clashing with his father over his desire to perform drag, has been making the rounds to critical acclaim since its 2015 premiere, and had the honour of being Ireland’s Foreign Language Film submission for the Oscars. Meanwhile, A Different Country is a documentary drawn from a whopping 165 interviews with older LGBT people, which works to preserve the history of what it was like to be gay in an Ireland that had criminalised homosexuality.

Non-Irish highlights include the film Strike A Pose (pictured above) a documentary about the young, male dancers on Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, which had a profound impact on culture around sexuality and the LGBT community. Also featured is Kiki, a sort of unofficial sequel to the 1990 Paris is Burning, which gives a modern look at the vogue scene in New York and opens up a dialogue about oppression, self-empowerment, alternative families, trans rights, and Black Lives Matter.

The festival, however, isn’t just limited to movie screenings; it also hosts numerous events, from the Opening and Closing Galas, to workshops, panels, and exhibitions. One such exhibition is Uniformity, a collaboration with the Griffith College Fashion Department, where fashion students took women who played a role in the 1916 Rising and told their stories by creating dresses from the green, gabardine uniform fabric worn by the rebels. This exhibition plays into the same theme of the festival’s annual YesterGAZE feature, which looks back at the past, and this year consists of a film screening and panel discussion on the sexuality of Roger Casement, the 1916 Rising.

As for the workshops, perhaps the most interesting is called “GAZE on the Fringe,” which looks at the recent resurgence of radical and feminist film festivals throughout Europe. As Sutton explained, the thesis of the workshop is that “all LGBT film festivals started from a radical basis,” and that while GAZE itself may have grown to the point of being a mainstream festival, it is both worthwhile and essential to look at what’s happening in radical film festivals now. The workshop, then, addresses what these festivals—especially ones organized and run by young people—are doing, and what that might mean for GAZE.

It’s an opportunity for conversation, and for reassessment: where are we in relation to where we came from? It’s intended to be a conversation with the audience to “see how we reengage, or if we need to reengage, or if we’re doing okay, thank you very much.” The event itself will be a panel from different radical and feminist film festivals across Europe, each of whom will show a short from their festival and talk about what their festival does, followed by a general discussion with the audience—a chance to get hands on, and to get involved in the dialogue.

According to Sutton, part of the reason for both the size and the success of the festival is the proactive outreach work they do. “I suppose when I discovered the festival, we were conscious of the materials we were getting, and it was on an ad hoc basis; we were never sure of how much Irish content we would get. … we decided to do the kind of outreach work to encourage development of Irish films, and to make sure it was a platform that people knew was there.” As a result of aggressive outreach efforts, including tours of college film programs, GAZE has a much wider pool of content to draw from. Sutton himself took a leading role in the creation of this agenda, which has proven a resounding success—so much so that many shorts, and this year, one of the film’s two Irish features, were created specifically for GAZE.

Knowing that there’s a platform for your work, it seems, makes a huge difference to many artists. As a result of GAZE’s outreach efforts—combined with the increased prominence of LGBT people in the media—the volume of their submissions has massively increased. Young filmmakers and student filmmakers, especially, have often made shorts specifically for submission to the festival, driven by a shot at such a prominent venue. In fact, submissions have swelled so much that according to Sutton, they probably have enough material to put together five or six programs of Irish shorts—so you know that the one program they’ve curated is the best of the best.

The quality of queer shorts and queer films has gone up in recent years, not just the quantity, as portrayals of LGBT people in media improve. More complex, varied stories have begun to mix in with the original clichés of coming out stories and angsty, tortured side-characters. Our lives are being represented in film in more complexity than ever.

In Sutton’s words, “It’s no big deal anymore… we’re part of everyday life. We should be in film. Our lives should be seen in film.” And finally, we are. Or at least, are beginning to be. For all the progress the LGBT community still needs to make, the world certainly has come a very long distance very, very quickly. Sutton is right—we are in film, finally, as the success of GAZE and so many other LGBT film festivals, from mainstream to radical and underground, ultimately proves.

That representation and the furthering of LGBT rights is ultimately the mission of GAZE: “We are political just by our very nature, and we believe in sharing our stories, that the power of our stories can influence and bring about change.”

But don’t think for a second the weighty political mission of GAZE makes it any less of a good time. After all, it’s really a four day trip to the movies, complete with not only community, but with popcorn and alcohol. “When we talk about the festival, we talk about fun. And that we do everything to make sure that it’s not just about people going to sit in a screen, it’s about the collective experience of people coming together. … To watch, to share the storytelling, and to talk about it afterwards. And to create that space, that safe space, for people to laugh, cry, be angry, get motivated, whatever it is—that’s what I think the festival is about.”

Well said, Noel Sutton, well said.

GAZE International LGBT Film Festival is being held at Light House Cinema, Thursday 28th July – Monday 1st August. See for more information, ticketing, and a full program, or follow them at @GAZEFilmFestival

Words: Madeleine Calvi


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