There has been an awakening in LGBTQIA+ cinema that has been inching closer towards having a mainstream conversation that extends further than the reaches of Brokeback Mountain. Houston’s own QFest has embraced pushing the boundaries of LGBTQIA+ cinema for decades and will host the 23rd annual festival July 24-31st, get your passes here. The celebration features a mixture of documentaries, short films, programs by local voices, repertory screenings and premieres that captures the spectrum of the art, film and LGBTQIA+ communities local to Houston.

“There’s nothing better than attending screenings here in Houston figuring out what sparks a conversation,” says QFest Co-artistic director Michael Robinson during a recent chat over coffee. Robinson, who works alongside QFest artistic director Kristian Salinas discussed trends and how to stand out among other festivals. “The process of curating is not always about checking boxes, but also understanding what’s popular in the community. We are looking to support rising voices, and find films that are truly breaking boundaries.” The enthusiasm for the project was apparent as Robinson shared Salinas’ simple, yet profound mantra for choosing films, “We want to find work that can stand the test of time,” said Robinson.

No other LGBTQIA+ film has achieved a timeless feel quite like the opening night showcase of Paris is Burning, the masterful 1990 documentary that features drag queens who are living in New York City. “This is a film that shows the highs and lows of a culture that is often shunned, we have shown this film before, but it’s still being celebrated in today’s culture with shows like Pose,” Robinson mentioned. The film will be screened in a never before seen 2k restoration at Rice Media Center on July 24th. 

After watching over 1,200 shorts submissions Robinson, Salinas, and the screening committee put together a slate of films that get people talking, “Trends can be misleading so digging into what makes each film stand out is what we are searching for,” said Robinson.

Still from SIKSA. Stabat Mater Dolorosa, directed by Piotr Macha and SIKSA.

Films like Tongues Tied, which was banned from PBS, before its 1989 premiere because of its depiction of gay black men and Fisting: Never Tear Us Apart from the Philippines are curatorial touchstones that have the potential to ignite the cultural discourse. These films and many others in this year’s slate are interested in artistic expression rather than appealing to the masses. “There are films that are well crafted, but never make a splash. Many films are just waiting for their moment,” said Robinson. 

QFest also brings in established filmmakers that have a built in niche such as New York City based by way of Houston, Jonathan Couette, who is bringing his seminal film Tarnation to the festival, as well as a collection of unfinished projects and music videos from his personal collection. Even though Couette may not be a household name “These small films that are sectioned into niche audiences actually have a lot of appeal,” Robinson confidently states.

still from Cinema Poverté by Jonathan Caouette.

Local voices have been prominent in shaping the identity of QFest and a highlight comes from the ubiquitous Bill Arning, who is hosting Men’s Own Stories at Aurora Picture House on July 27th. The programming team see events such as this as a true collaboration that comes simply from having conversations that turn into exciting programming ideas. “We are open to talking with more people and having that guest programming spot as the opportunities present themselves,” said Robinson.

Nearly every festival screens films as part of a repertory section, this year’s features are Abel Ferarra’s biopic Pasolini starring Wilem Dafoe which is making its Texas premiere, as well as the 1984 picture Angel which is being screened in a glorious 35mm film print. “There are films at this festival that you wouldn’t think would screen at a queer film festival, but then you think, this is totally queer,” Robinson stated. If QFest attendees can expect one thing it’s to expect the unexpected. 

still from Several Conversation About A Very Tall Girl directed by Bogdan Theodor Olteanu.

Somehow sectioning off the programming makes all of Salinas and Robinson’s choices feel connected. One film that stands out to Robinson is the closing night film Harrod Blank’s documentary Why Can’t I Be Me Around You? which Robinson describes as “bonkers.” He goes on to say “There are so many characters, from the strange next door neighbor to your weird aunt and the director does such a wonderful job at connecting all these elements together. It’s just so much fun — when you read the description you know at its core it’s heartfelt and off kilter in a beautiful way.”

QFest has six locations that cover the landscape of the city from the more popular venues such as Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Rice Media Center, and Aurora Picture Show, to new venues like Holocaust Museum and Mystic Lyon. Houston artistic hub Cafe Brasil will be hosting the shorts programming. Houston is a city filled with unique voices and QFest is a mouthpiece that continues to steer the conversation.