copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

On the production of heterotopia, and other spaces,
in and around lesbian and gay film festivals

by Ger Zielinski

While lesbian and gay film festivals[1] [open endnotes in new window] have spread unevenly around the world since the late 1970s,[2] the very idea of such a festival taking place in any given city can prompt a wide range of responses, from polite liberal indifference to brutal reactionary violence. In this article I mobilize Foucault’s concept of heterotopia as a type of probe, heuristic in part, to open up the complexity of what a festival may be but also, more specifically, to determine how sexual identity and community mark and distinguish such festivals from others. The term heterotopia itself has no connection to sexuality per se. Rather it is intended to capture the sense of those radically heterogeneous spaces, spaces of difference that lay figuratively and sometimes literally at the edges of society, its built spaces and its norms, as discussed in more detail below. Furthermore, in this paper, I argue in favor of an articulation of the unique space of the lesbian and gay film and video festival through Foucault’s heterotopia and suggest a felicitous relation to gay space and the act of queering space. Without doubt, any type of festival may be studied through the heterotopic notion of space; however lesbian and gay film festivals set themselves off from the rest on account of their unique theme and constellation of issues. While a few scholars have mentioned the relation between heterotopia and film festivals (e.g. Stringer, 31), none has worked the concept through any particular type.

It is no secret that these festivals, among others, have become important cultural and economic features in most cities in the world,[3] as each city individually chases the tourist dollar and follows the optimistic recipe for becoming a “creative” or “global” city. Until the early 1990s, however, many distributors and filmmakers shunned lesbian and gay film festivals in fear that such association would work against their careers. The early 1990s brought a wave of exciting films that were grouped under the rubric of the “new queer cinema,” which were in part celebrated for their capacity to appeal to audiences beyond the LGBT community as a “crossover” film.[4] The 1990s also brought with it the rise of the gay niche or pink dollar that was aggressively courted by marketers in North America, Australia and Western Europe. Until this period of transition in the 1990s, the stigma of the festivals was to be avoided at all costs.[5]

Let’s now turn to Foucault’s heterotopia and work through the six characteristics as they apply to LGBT film festivals, with consideration of what pressing questions they might pose. The application of Foucault’s concept of heterotopia to LGBT film festivals contributes significantly to a deeper understanding of the festivals themselves as events. Written in 1967, the essay Des Espaces autres (translated as Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias, 1986)[6] falls into Foucault’s early period, before the pivotal May 1968, and serves as a snapshot of Foucault’s intellectual concerns and positions. Specifically, here his concept of heterotopia may be situated in dialogue with other French philosophers of the time, such as Gaston Bachelard, Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau and Guy Debord, among others. The term heterotopia (and its cognate heterotopology) itself in English is a neologism from the French hétérotopie, distinguishing itself from utopie and etymologically stemming from the Ancient Greek heteros (other or different) and topos (place). Similarly, Lefebvre coined isotopia; de Certeau has his heterology. All of these take utopia as their model neologism and aim to supplement or exceed it. As it is commonly known, utopia has its own deliberate ambivalent etymology, as sketched by Thomas More from the Ancient Greek, namely ou–topia (outopeía) for no place or nowhere, as well as eu–topia (eutopeía) for beautiful or good place.[7] It is from the translation into Latin that the Greek prefixes are reduced to the single ‘u,’ thereby setting the two possible meanings and places into tension in the single word.

Leading up to his concept of heterotopia, Foucault sketches a brief history of concepts of space according to specific historical epochs. The highly hierarchical medieval space is that of emplacement, which Galileo dissolved when he posited the scandalous “infinitely open space” or extension. In contrast to the 19th century and its emphasis on history and time, our epoch considers space through the concept of the site. Briefly, general concepts of space in the West, then, have moved from the Medieval ‘emplacement’ to Renaissance ‘extension’ to 19th century ‘teleological history’ to the modern ‘site.’ Foucault defines the site through “relations of proximity between points or elements,” e.g. series, grids or trees (23). He states that

“space takes for us the form of relations among sites” (23).

Unlike time, Foucault claims that “contemporary space is perhaps still not entirely desanctified,” but still carries with it the oppositions of private and public space, family and social space, cultural and useful space, as well as leisure and work space. According to Foucault, the constancy of those oppositions hints at the hidden presence of the sacred. The contemporary space of sites for Foucault is strongly heterogeneous, not an infinite homogenous void waiting to be filled.

Between utopia and heterotopia, Foucault positions the figure of the mirror. The hybrid experience of the mirror is both utopic and heterotopic. Its utopic aspect as a “placeless place” enables the subject to see herself in a place where she is not; but it also has a heterotopic aspect in as much as the mirror exists in reality. Foucault writes,

“The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there” (24).

Foucault is strictly using the mirror here as a figure, an illustration, and should not be confused with French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage in human development (cf. Lacan 1977).[8]

Heterotopia richly articulates the space of the cultural formation of the lesbian and gay film festival. Foucault’s mirror posits a utopic placelessness, an ideal beautiful place. The figure of the mirror, which I am taking here as a institutional metaphor, resonates well with the experience of community-oriented lesbian and gay film festivals. There viewers experience a similar play of presence and absence at any community-designated event, specifically in the screenings, waiting in line, and so forth, through the fleeting mechanisms of recognition of resemblances, empathy, identification, repulsion, disidentification, and so on. Moreover, the films, as selected and sequenced into programs, and notion(s) of community underlying the festival itself, together produce complicated experiential chains of familiarity and difference, according to such categories as habitus, gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual identification. In short, the festival itself takes place as an event with a limited duration across a constellation of sites and festival-goers that actively produce and perform this heterotopic space.

Foucault lays out six general principles that together constitute his theory of heterotopia:

Heterotopias can be found in every culture, in a sense expressing the culture’s utopian impulse by creating these “other spaces” and imposing them; they have two general categories: the crisis and the deviant (24 f.). (a) Crisis heterotopias are reserved for individuals in a state of crisis in relation to the ground of society, e.g. rites of passage for adolescents, the aged, pregnant women. (b) Deviant heterotopias are “those in which individuals, whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm, are placed,” e.g. psychiatric wards, prisons, and even retirement homes.

One could say that, historically, the origin of lesbian and gay film festivals stems from a culture of sexual deviation or deviance, within the larger context of gay liberation and lesbian feminism, both certainly contestations of various societal norms and laws regarding sexuality, gender, the private-public divide, among others.[9] Moreover, LGBT community action has developed its own institutions of crisis and heterotopias within the larger deviant, queer[10] framework, such as formal community center, as well as the refuge spaces of the bar, club, bathhouse, and nighttime cruising parks, coming out groups, shelters for youth, to name a few resilient practices.

The vibrant cultural space of the carnival, according to Bakhtin, offers the possibility of social unruliness and limited rebellion but always within the constraints set by some larger authority that permits it to take place.[11] Important to note is the concessionary aspect of the act of permission on the part of the state. The carnival as event does not simply happen but is granted permission by some higher authority. What does it mean when permission is denied or revoked in the case of certain lesbian and gay film festivals? Such film festivals everywhere have unruly pasts, faced protests from religious and populist rightwing political groups, and had their public funding threatened at the whim of municipal, regional or national politicians and granting agencies. While these actions usually remain within the public sphere’s basic accepted rules of conduct, other actions against the festivals move beyond such rules.

Responses to particular festivals around the world can and have been remarkably more severe, as the process of globalization continues (Appadurai 1990; Binnie 2004). In 1997, for example, the South Korean military intervened to restrain the opening of the first Seoul Queer Film and Video Festival on the Yonsei University campus (Kim 1998). Soyoung Kim suggests that, in view of having been shamed in the eyes of the Western media, South Korean authorities reversed their decision later and allowed this festival, among others, to take place subsequently without incident in order to save face as a nation seeking positive international recognition on the world stage. Since then, the festival has operated without major incident (Kim 2007).

Much more brutal attempts to quash such festivals have occurred more recently, particularly the 2008 first editions of the Queer Sarajevo Festival in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Merlinka in Belgrade, Serbia, as well as the “Bok o Bok” (translated as “Side by Side” in English) Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in Saint Petersburg, Russia. In the Sarajevo case, the festival was imprudently scheduled to take place during Ramadan and extensively vilified in the local press as a foreign perversion (Kajinic 2010; Beneteau 2008). Both local and foreign organizers were beaten by angry men with clubs, chanting religious phrases and homophobic insults, as these violent protestors forced their way through the police line into the opening screening. Two documentary films were made on the event: the complex, layered Covered (2009) by Canadian filmmaker John Greyson who was present as an invited guest and the second, Queer Sarajevo Festival 2008 (2009) by Cazim Dervisevic and Masa Hilcisin, filmmakers associated with the festival based in Sarajevo. The festival has not yet taken place. Curiously, under similar threats and before it was scheduled to open, the Merlinka International Queer Film Festival in Belgrade in 2008 was canceled, however subsequent editions have been held successfully there. Those countries aiming to join the European Union have to meet certain standards of human rights as specified in the EU’s constitution, which includes anti-discriminatory clauses for LGBT rights. The rightwing of such countries name the situation “euro-sodomy” (e.g. Kulpa 2011; Kajinic 2010), and this also applies to many of the new republics formed after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

In the Russian case, while the local press similarly vilified the idea of a festival organized around categories of sexuality, state action was anonymous and centered on refusing permits or inventing fire regulation problems at the last minute to close the venues (Tsiokos 2008). Simply put, the state participated in outright obstructionism. Curiously, the situation compelled the organizers to reinvent the Soviet period’s practice of samizdat, or secret clandestine communication and gatherings, in order to hold screenings. Messages and texts (SMS) were relayed by a cellphone network of trusted contacts each time an improvised venue had been secured.[13] The following year, festival organizers circumvented this Kafkaesque situation (Rabatzky 2008; de Guerre 2011). Instead of trying to use city-owned venues, they held all events on the property of various foreign consulates and cultural agencies. Apparently, the event was a great success. By choosing consulates as sites, the municipal authorities could no longer play the game of rendering the building unfit for an event. Now the festival tours provincial Russian towns, such as Novosibirsk and Archangel, among others, where the organizers still encounter similar resistance from certain members of the local authorities and the press.

While the network of LGBT film festivals has reached truly an international scale, with regular festivals not only in North America and Europe, but also in Asia and increasingly in Eastern Europe and India, there are hardly any such events in Africa or the Middle East.[14] Evidently, both the density and paucity of such festivals around the world deserves serious consideration. In North America in the 1970s, the work of the lesbian and gay rights movement was accompanied by the development of the festivals as a part of a larger media activism, whereas in Africa and the Middle East homosexuality itself as an identity remains under suspicion.[15] What is common in the development of the festivals worldwide is their local contingency, their adaptation to their contexts of emergence, their social struggles, debates, nationalisms, taboos, idea of sexual representation.[16] Precisely how they manifest themselves in these diverse locations, each with its own contingent constellation of races, ethnicities, social classes and local sexual histories, is difficult to predict.[17]

I wonder, will the queer film festival always carry with it the promise of a site for the unruly carnivalesque anywhere in the world? While the customary frame of the carnival or festival guarantees a space for free play, the accented theme on minor sexualities and consequent transgression of the private-public binary seems to ensure that lesbian and gay film festivals face conflict somewhere. Their unique festivality[18] centered on sexual identities may be denied in certain places, provoking contestation.

Heterotopias admit the possibility of history and change (25). Festivals and carnivals have similarly transformed from ancient through modern times, fracturing into an endless myriad of secular types. In recent times in the United States, for example, we see the bifurcation from ‘film festival’ to ‘film and video festival’ alongside ‘women’s film festivals’ and ‘black film festivals’ to ‘gay film or video festivals’ to ‘lesbian and gay film and video festivals’ to the embracive ‘LGBTTQ film and video festival’ (the common acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, and Queer). At the heart of this trajectory in the United States has been the development of liberal civil rights, sexual and gender identity politics, and a broad ethics of inclusion and social themes trumping medium specificity in the way these festivals are organized.

While festivals do change in their programming priorities, structure, organizational identity, among others, what will be the next incarnation of this sort of (film) festival? For example, will the festival be able to accommodate adequately transgender and transsexual concerns; should separate festivals serve the trans community; or should both somehow be attempted?[19] How interested are transgender and transsexual persons in associating with such a festival? How will issues of ableism and ageism work their way through their special liberal logic of inclusion? These questions are ongoing. They could arguably be considered a part of what Thomas Elsaesser calls the potential of festivals to serve as an agora (2005, 103), borrowed from the Ancient Greek city state notion of a public gathering place or forum. In this sense, a festival fosters a context, a space for conversations, discussions and heated debates over issues that matter to its publics. Just as the cases mentioned above provide excellent examples of how such identity-oriented festivals put agora in practice—enhanced or thwarted—international film festivals in general have a long history of providing contexts for protests or launching manifestos, whether the 1968 closing of Cannes or the 1962 manifesto at Oberhausen, among many others.

According to Foucault,

“the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (25).

This principle brings out the sense of differences—the “hetero”—at the heart of the concept. He adds more about the concept of space, specifically about film screenings:

“[The] cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space” (25).

However, this concept of space does not simply imply a static projection of three-dimensional space but rather a sequence in time. I would elaborate further that screen space generally opens up an infinity of possible spaces and temporalities that we juxtapose against the rest of the room of the cinema. The room of the cinema invites a space of curiosity and promise, with expectations of adventure, fantasy, familiarity and difference, even a Benjaminian anticipation of shock. Cinemas produce their own sort of signature, particularly by dint of what they show. The festivals that temporarily inhabit and animate these physical spaces of the cinemas layer and produce their own meanings yet again.

I ask, what aspects of these possible spaces and temporalities are favored in a GLBT festival and why? The physical room of the cinema, its space, accommodates an ephemeral convergence of seemingly anonymous strangers melded into an audience of spectators, whose members perhaps share certain taste, education, age, class, race, gender or sexual identities and interests. It is likely that there is some prior relation between audience members who move in the same scene—e.g. shared spaces of bars and dance clubs, professional associations and community activism, dating websites, gyms, and other activities. Some might argue that venues should be interchangeable, non-places in Augé’s sense, while others might be sensitive to the placeness of the potential venue, site of exhibition, or site of festivality. If we consider that the film festival might be a constellation of multiple cinema venues, that adds another dimension to this analysis. In a sense, the festival then creates a set of relations between the diverse sites, their audiences and the film programs.  What films are screened in which venue? How do the sites relate to the host city in which they are embedded? For example, is the neighborhood friendly and familiar or alienating and dangerous?

“Heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time,” or open onto heterochronies (26). The heterotopia begins to function fully once there is a break in traditional time.

Film festivals may be understood as archives of sorts, along the lines posited by Jose Munoz (1996) and Anne Cvetkovich (2003) regarding them in terms of performance and ephemerality. In contrast to the pursuit of time, accumulated by the traditional archive of documents, the heterotopias of the festival are flowing, fleeting, ephemeral. As Foucault writes:

“not oriented toward the eternal, they are rather absolutely temporal [chroniques]” (26).

Munoz specifies:

“Ephemera […] is linked to alternate modes of textuality and narrativity like memory and performance: it is all of those things that remain after a performance, a kind of evidence of what has transpired but certainly not the thing itself. It does not rest on epistemological foundations but is instead interested in following traces, glimmers, residues, and specks of things.” (1996, 10)

The festival as event proposes highly complicated layers of temporalities, including the flows of narrative time in the individual film on the screen, groupings in film programs, and the whole selection of films. Not only are there temporalities within and between films, there are the larger temporal frames of the festivals as annual events and as events condensed into a definite number of days.

Historically, festivals and the carnival have their origin in the religious calendar of feast days. Often they require specific rituals to accompany their celebration. Festivals add seasonal rhythm, punctuate the calendar year, provide the social context for a collective gathering of people over a fixed number of days, and have an associated print culture and public. They also exist in relation to other festivals and events throughout the year. Modern (secular) arts and film festivals inherit all those general characteristics, while showing, in principle, the best films of the year, accompanied with retrospectives of favored films from the past.

On the fifth characteristic, Foucault writes,

“Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable.”

Unlike the freely accessible public place, people enter certain heterotopias via compulsory entry, as in Foucault’s example of the prison or psychiatric ward and sometimes with rites and purification. Other heterotopias appear to be open to all but “generally hide curious exclusions” (26). Foucault specifies,

“Everyone can enter into the heterotopic sites, but in fact that is only an illusion—we think we enter where we are, by the very fact that we enter, excluded” (26).

Entry into the space may give the appearance of admittance but other forms of exclusion may be at play. Transgender activist and historian Vivienne Namaste gives the poignant example of the experience of transgendered people in Montreal gay bars, who are restricted to serving as entertainers for gay men, if they are admitted into the spaces at all. Also, if and when a particular bar or dance club enforces a gender preference or other preference at the door, perhaps dress code or look, such restricted admission is common to many types of dance clubs (Namaste 2000). Evidently, physical entry into the site does not guarantee full admission. Diverse cultural codes must be learned and practiced. For a compelling film example, consider a young Al Pacino who plays a police officer with a girlfriend in the infamous Cruising (USA 1980). He goes undercover as a gay man in order to infiltrate the underground gay S&M leather scene in New York City to solve a series of murders. The film shows us how he learned the specific codes of this subculture to pass, which made the film highly contested in the early 1980s, for many gay activists understood it then as a prescription and justification for further violent gay-bashings or worse.[20] Not only was this idea of infiltration contested but also the particular nature of the representation of the gay culture, particularly the fear that the larger public would take the highly specialized underground sado-masochist leather world for the whole. The cost of admission was deadly for some; the serial murder narrative in Cruising, in which an infiltrating killer targets the S/M community, effectively brings out the complexity of highly coded social spaces and their negotiation on the screen and off.

Curiously, film festivals also have restrictions through their prices of admission and levels of access. Film festivals of any type have a highly structured hierarchy of admission. There is quite a variety of levels of participation possible marked by the color of a person’s festival pass. Of course, the physical entry of the individual-ticket holder into the screening does not guarantee full admission to the larger festival. Such large, expensive events always entail a delicate play between economic, social and cultural capital. A celebrity, recognized film critic, famous director, major donor, et al., are granted access to a special social circle, which excludes less known others.[21]

Furthermore, with theer added explicit emphasis on sexualities, lesbian and gay film festival bring with them a range of cultural codes and identities, which aim to reflect the diversity of queers locally and internationally. As a result, one trend in lesbian and gay film festival programming is to sequester the spectators according to gender, generally presupposing that the boys will want to see boy films, the girls girl films. This enforces a reduced version of the politics of representation. Simply put, you are, want to become, or desire to be with whoever is on the screen before you. The consequences of this kind of programming let to the so-called lesbian riot at the San Francisco’s festival in 1986, which has been studied widely.[22] At the 1986 San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, one of the dedicated programs of films by and putatively for lesbian festival-goers was disrupted by frustrated members of the audience who had been expecting to see films of women but were surprised by a short triptych film with heterosexual, gay and lesbian sections. As Marc Siegel describes the screening,

“The catalyst for the explosion was the screening one evening of Midi Onodera's TEN CENTS A DANCE (PARALLAX) at the close of a lesbian shorts program at the Roxie. TEN CENTS A DANCE is a 30-minute film divided into three sections, each of which depicts two people either discussing, having, or discussing as having sex. In the first section, two women at a dinner table in a Japanese restaurant discuss the possibilities of having a sexual relationship together. In the second, two men have sex in the stalls of a public bathroom.” (1997)

Siegel continues,

“At the Roxie that evening, the film progressed no further than the second section, the one depicting male-male sex, when some women in the audience became incensed. They stormed out of the theater, yelling and disrupting the screening for the other audience members. Frameline,[23] whose staff was verbally harassed during the riot, responded with a community forum a few months later on lesbian representation within the festival.” (1997)

This example is but one of many that test and realign the queer film festival’s sense of community from within its lived, social site, or in Elsaesser’s terms agora. The spontaneous protest, certainly informed by a style of programming along with the heightened expectations that accompany it, is not isolated but one rather extreme tactic by which members of the public may on occasion voice their concerns, however critical. Importantly, such actions compelled the lesbian and gay film festival to change and sharpen its rules of programming, effectively its ethics of exhibition, under the umbrella of liberal pluralism.[24]

Foucault finally posits “a function [for the heterotopia] in relation to all the space that remains.” He states,

“Either their role is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory […]. Or else, on the contrary, their role is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled” (27).

The first role of heterotopic space is to use illusion to prove the real illusionary, e.g. the brothel, while the second role is to create a perfect real space, e.g. religious colonies. A similar tension might be broadly posited between the worlds of the gay bathhouse or circuit party[25] and social activists or their groups.[26] Lesbian and gay film festivals would fall somewhere in between. On the one hand, they reveal the strange illusionary aspects of society’s norms; on the other, they propose a variety of idealized identities and counterfactual worlds. The festivals are composed of the tensions between the conceits and deceits of the illusionary, its fabricated space and time, and its idealized and represented identities—altogether replete with contradictions.

Just as the early 1990s hailed the arrival of the crossover films of the New Queer Cinema, during the same decade in North America and Western Europe marketing trends developed the notion of the financially lucrative “gay niche.”[27] In a sense, the marketplace came to recognize the existence and arguably the legitimacy of gay culture after decades of public stigma and the first decade of the AIDS crisis. According to Sender among others, along with the lobbying efforts of lesbian and gay business insiders, corporations began to sponsor in a concerted effort events and advertise in LGBT media publicly, calculating that the risk of the loss to the social conservative boycott threats would be much less than the potential gains from certain demographics within the LGBT community.[28] This marketing logic made its way into tourism discourse, which in turn informed the decisions of many city councils on how to develop and financially exploit the hypothetically lucrative local gay niche and integrate it into the overall image of the city as a desirable welcoming destination for moneyed lesbians and gay men. The local gay villages were decorated with rainbow flag motifs, pride parades were expanded and transformed from community-oriented to product-placement, large circuit parties were promoted, even LGBT film festivals among other organizations attained greater visibility and grants. One clear consequence of this logic is that by presupposing a certain ideal type of lesbian or gay man, other types were automatically deemed less desirable. Cities were convinced that the pink dollar was worth courting, taking the principle of visibility as their guiding principle, which signaled a marked shift away from policies of moral indignation (shame, reticence and avoidance)[29] to those of enthusiastic capitalist embrace of new-found opportunities (Sender 2004; Bell 2004; Binnie 2004).

These trends in marketing and cultural policy are part of the overall enabling technè that work to constitute the festival and help to account for some of its changes. The significance of the choice of site in the city is highly practical and important: where the festival is held and how that can influence who attends the festival, and with what degree of comfort. Many questions come to mind in this respect: How does the choice of city, district, neighborhood, and its familiarity matter? And to whom? The politics of space do matter to this conceptual approach to community. For example, in many contemporary cases, a typical commercial multiplex is transformed by its suddenly changed public, which the festival brings to life.[30]

Heterotopias are not incommensurable with the notion of gay space, which carries with it substantive sexual and gender identities. Gay or lesbian space as a concept presupposes certain static relations. Alongside the spaces of sexual identities, however, process-oriented queer space or the queering of places into other places is centered on the concept of performativity. Thus, to think of queer space as not simply wherever LGBT bodies are would relax the requirement of substantive identity but would not disallow it. This concept also articulates some of the stranger relations that take place at such festivals. That is, people and their actions here and in time constitute the spaces in a complicated relation to the given buildings, architecture, commerce, laws, advertising, etc. While the concept of gay space specifically speaks to the space of identity, the concept of queer space addresses and uncovers the strangeness of the cultural formation, its presuppositions, and its participants. Together, they nuance the evolving heterotopia of the lesbian and gay film festival.

In summing up my position, I strongly suggest that Foucault’s concept of heterotopia enables a rich theoretical articulation of the space of the lesbian and gay film festival in all its activists’ plights, internal and external contestations, vicissitudes and transformations over the decades. To be sure, the concept may be used to probe different types of film festivals, but the uniqueness of the LGBT film festival emerges. It would be difficult to compare it with, say, a thematic film festival on fantasy or bicycling and bicycles. Simply put, the stakes are quite different. The unique place of community as a consequence and as a rhetorical moment within the queer film festival as a lived site remains, on the one hand, open for analysis and, on the other hand, symptomatic of larger discourses at play in and about any particular festival. Recalling Foucault’s figure of the mirror, the festival in part constitutes and in part distorts its public in its complicated chain of fleeting representations, resemblances and identifications. Its hybrid sexuality intermingling queer and substantive identities will remain a volatile mixture, as the attempted festivals in Sarajevo, Belgrade, and St Petersburg have recently demonstrated.


1. I wish to thank those who provide critical comments at my presentation of some of this article at the NECS Conference at Lund University, Sweden, in 2009. Earlier versions stem from my dissertation (Zielinski 2009). I also wish to thank Professor Chris Straayer for generously hosting me as a FQRSC postdoctoral research fellow at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, where I was able to present parts of this text to her astute graduate students, and Professor Jane Gaines who graciously invited me to speak to her wonderful graduate class at Columbia University in 2010. I also thank the Jump Cut editors and reviewers for their generous constructive criticism that has helped me to improve the text. [return to text]

2. See (Zielinski 2012) on the development of festival activism in the LGBT movement.

3. Patricia White’s dossier in GLQ stands as an important pioneering collection of texts on the study and relevance of LGBT film festivals (1999).

4. Cf. Ruby Rich’s 1992 article that lays out the groundwork for the idea of the New Queer Cinema.

5. Ragan Rhyne’s political economy of the festivals and periodization concerns this and more (Rhyne 2007). Moreover, To be sure, lesbian- and gay-themed feature films have been a staple of international film festivals from the start. Similar to films from distant, foreign countries, they provide both increased diversity, adventure and perhaps some novel spice to any such festival. They appeal to both interested cinephiles but also attract its own appreciative “queer diasporic” audience. These festivals have in general provided a safe space of sorts for such programming. Richard Dyer addresses certain early gay stereotypes that circulated within popular culture, such as the sad young man, vampire, noir, etc., in his well known book (2001, 129 f.). In a quite different respect, some of the A-list festivals (or equivalent), such as Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, or Toronto, have been the preferred sites for world premieres of lesbian and gay films, with the promise of larger distribution deals and greater media exposure. Normally, a filmmaker seeks out the festival that will further her or his film and career the most, e.g. with Gregg Araki it would be Sundance or Cannes, and even the “reluctant pornographer” queercore badboy Bruce LaBruce premieres now at the Toronto International Film Festival. The community festivals typically provide local city premieres for the film, depending on the city, but almost never a world premiere. (I am currently editing a collection of articles on the question of value in film festivals, specifically in relation to the theory of Pierre Bourdieu; my chapter “On the Play of Distinction in LGBT Film and Video Festivals” (Zielinski 2009, 260 f.) considers these issues in greater detail.)

6. The theorist of geography Edward Soja (1995) develops Foucault’s heterotopia into postmodern heterotopologies relying on the work of Jean Baudrillard, et al. For criticism of his approach, see (Gregory 1994).

7. See More’s 1516 book in Latin De Optimo republicae statu deque nova insula Utopia.

8. If anything, Foucault’s extended commentaries stand as uncompromising critiques of modern psychoanalysis in its many variants, particularly his History of Sexuality (1976).

9. The word deviance here stems from the early social-scientistic discourse of the sociology of deviance, which attempts to describe and account for the behavior of those who break social norms and become “deviants.”

10. The word ‘queer’ in this technical sense is a classic reappropriation of a pejorative term, but also celebrates sexual and other differences (e.g. Zielinski 2007).

11. See especially (Bakhtin 1984; cf. Stallybrass 1986).

12. Greyson’s film is available at http://vimeo.com/6308870 due to his protest against the Toronto International Film Festival’s inclusion of the Israeli showcase in 2009, which is another festival controversy worth some attention.

13. Basil Tsiokos’ account of his experience as a guest programmer of the festival is remarkable (2008).

14. Q! Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia, is notable in this case and has become a very successful touring festival in its country in spite of the verbal death threats made against its organizers. According to its co-founder John Badalu, it is the sole queer film festival in the Muslim world (2011).

15. For example, Joseph Massad’s article “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World” addresses issues concerning (western) homosexuality in the Muslim Arab world.

16. Somewhat similar issues arose in the case of the early erotic film festivals, as they were called in the early 1970's. Elena Gorfinkel has published an insightful study of the main three, in San Francisco, New York and Amsterdam (2006). As the pornography laws changed in the United States in the late 1960's, new types of narrative feature-length pornographic films became common and even fashionable to a younger, college-age demographic during a period of heightened sexual experimentation. However, not every city was so welcoming to these festivals. However, the San Francisco one was strongly contested by members of the city council and brought to trial several times, and none of the festivals lasted beyond 1972 (see also, Zielinski 2009, 86 f.). A more recent incarnation of the erotic film festival is the annual CineKink in New York City, founded by Lisa Vandever; it builds on the sex-positive ethos of the early festivals, and also travels to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago and Washington D.C. These festivals have not experienced any antagonism in their respective cities. According to the executive director, they choose their cities very carefully within the United States and rarely put on screenings outside of the country (Vandever 2012).

17. For more on the relationship between globalization, sexuality and sexual identities, see the work of Dennis Young and critical responses by others. See also my article with Skadi Loist on LGBT media activism (2012), furthermore (Bao 2010; Yang 2010) on the situation in China.

18. I am currently working on a paper that explores the concept of festivality which includes the nature and qualities of being a festival, but exceeds the pejorative notion of the festivalization of culture as a denigration or the turning of culture into a series of mere spectacles.

19. Consider the recent controversy over Gendercator (2007) at the San Francisco festival. More recently, similar controversies have arisen in 2007 over Catherine Crouch’s short video. After criticism of the film from transgender activists San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival canceled the film’s screening over fears that it might insult members of the transgender community. This prompted discussions between conflicting transgender and lesbian viewpoints, and members of the latter counter-charged that it was an act of censorship (Bajko 2007). One transgender blogger writes, “So WHY IS FRAMELINE SHOWING AN ANTI-TRANS FILM at the LGBT FILM FESTIVAL THIS YEAR??? Showing at the SF International LGBT Film Festival on June 15th at 10:30 p.m. is The Gendercator, an ignorant, transphobic film by midwest lesbian director Catherine Crouch that depicts a 1970s “feminist” tomboy who awakens in the 21st Century to find that some of her friends have become men. ‘They made me do it. They’ll make you too,’ a transman (referred to by Crouch as an ‘altered lesbian’) tells his friend. Transsexuality is portrayed as the evil that has taken over the world, and as a way to enforce heteronormativity. A ‘butch rescue squad’ helps the lesbian escape the horror” (emphasis in the original text). In the end, the festival was charged, on the one hand, for being insensitive to one of its communities and, on the other, for practicing undue censorship. Naturally, with such vociferous commentary circulating about the film, interest from all sides was perked.

20. Remarkably, every LGBT archive that I have consulted in North America appears to possess documents from the campaign against the release of the film, including posters, fliers, and announcements of meetings and discussions. See (Wilson 1981) for a thoughtful analysis of the context leading up to the film’s release, and a more recent (Rendall 2008, 34). While the outcry against the film at the time of its making and exhibition was strong, it was also ambivalent, and may echo recent attempts to re-address the film as a document of a historical underground scene just before AIDS fundamentally altered such sexual spaces and their practices. As Thomas Waugh notes in passing, “[…] in the epicenter of the pandemic, my queer film class watched Cruising with uncritical awe; for them it was an ethnographic account of a distant culture that had gone with the wind.” (Waugh 2000, x)

21. Marijke de Valck writes on the value-added elements at international film festivals (2006)

22. See (Siegel 1997) and (Rich 1999), two different approaches to the same différend.

23. ‘Frameline’ is the common short form for the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and includes a film distribution company.

24. See (Rastegar 2009), a study of the Los Angeles LGBT festival’s attempt with its Fusion Festival.

25. The large weekend-long (or longer) parties take place at convenient holidays in large cities or vacation destinations across the calendar year, while most research centers on drug addiction, substance abuse and other health issues, see (Carrington 2005) for an ethnographical study of the circuit scenes.

26. A good example of this tension at work is from few years ago when Montreal’s pride week split into two factions. On the one side, there is Divers/Cité, the party-oriented series of events, and on the other side, there is now Fièreté, the community-oriented displays, and events, including the parade.

27. See, for example, (Sender 2004) for a history and explanation of this development.

28. For further studies on this, see (Jenkins 1998) or (Richardson 2005).

29. I write about shame and architecture, specifically as manifested in the facades of gay bars and strip clubs (Zielinski 2003).

30. Bociurkiw describes the parallel queues at a Toronto megaplex: on the one side, keen Star Wars fans prepped for another rerelease, and on the other, ticket-holders for the Inside/Out LGBT Film Festival (2002). Another intriguing example concerns the change of venue in sunny Los Angeles and the sting that accompanies (Brooke 1998).


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