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Like many other programmers last year, Out On Film executive director Jim Farmer had to make a sharp, Covid-compelled pivot, turning the annual, 11-day LGBTQ festival into a largely online event. After a lot of experimentation in spring and summer of 2020, he says, “It’s certainly lucky that we were able to figure out virtual last year, and by fall we were pretty good at it.”

While there was hope it would be a one-time thing, due to the spike in pandemic infections and deaths driven by the Delta variant and low vaccination rates, the 2021 festival, starting Sept. 23, brings a mix of in-person events and subsequent online screenings. Live screenings will happen at Midtown Art Cinema and Out Front Theatre.

“The buzzword this year is ‘hybrid,’” Farmer says. “It’s a smaller schedule than we normally have, and it’s basically two festivals in one.” It may be a more compact schedule, but, notably, the festival is screening more than 150 titles.

Film artists will be presented in live appearances again this year, starting with star and co-writer Tom Prior of Firebird, the opening night movie. But Out on Film is far from wide-open. “We’re being pretty adamant this year about requiring vaccinations of all people who come to the theater,” Farmer says. “We have a mask mandate, social distancing, and the attendance is [being limited to] 70 percent. The people who come to Out On Film tend to be an older and responsible crowd. Many of us have been through a pandemic before, so we know what to do.”

A programming goal, Farmer says, “is just a great mix, films from over the world.” The genres range from comedies to documentaries, dramas and even some horror flicks. “And we have a really strong Atlanta contingent this year — a local shorts program and other Atlanta films. The city is very well-represented, and that makes me happy.”

Out on Film continues for the second year as only one of a handful of Oscar-qualifying LGBTQ fests. The festival’s Best Dramatic Short winner is submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for award consideration; this year, Farmer is especially psyched about “Inertia.”

For full programming and ticketing information: outonfilm.org

Here are quick reviews of some of the films I viewed in advance, listed alphabetically.

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All Boys Aren’t Blue. Refreshing in that it’s the story of a Black gay man coming of age and not being shamed, abused or shoved irreversibly into the closet, this short film, produced in Atlanta, features dramatic readings from Bernard David Jones’s memoir of the same name. Jones, Dyllón Burnside and Thomas Hobson, with a strong off-camera assist by Jenifer Lewis as Jones’s grandma “Nanny,” tell the story of the writer’s life as a boy, proud fraternity brother, and finally a man “defining my own masculinity.” It’s an uplifting tale, but not much of a movie; read by the actors directly from the pages of Jones’s book, it often feels more like a staged rehearsal rather than a polished finished product. (Screening 7 p.m. Sunday, September 26, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; available online September 27–October 6.)

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Down in Paris. Director and co-writer Antony Hickling plays Richard, a British-raised film director living in Paris, whose struggles with his latest causes him to leave the set early and walk all night through his adopted city, figuring out his artistic/midlife crisis. Like a milder, French After Hours, the drama’s picaresque scenes find Richard crossing paths with a Paris-mad British tourist, the ex-boyfriend with whom he has unfinished business, a kind woman who rescues Richard from a fight and gives him a lift in her Uber, and a sort of demon, who tempts the filmmaker with feelings of failure. Oh, there’s also a three-way in a sweaty gay club. The movie gets its pleasures and surprise from its protagonist’s encounters with many different folks and feelings. At the end of it, I thought, “Wow, that’s a really ’90s movie.” But in a good way. (See Mascarpone, below, which struck similar notes for me.) (Screening 9:15 p.m. Thursday, September 23, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; available online September 24–October 1.)

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Firebird. The opening-night drama, based on a true story, isn’t innovative in its storytelling or filmmaking. But it’s likely to be a sexy crowd-pleaser. Co-writer Tom Prior plays Sergey, a Russian farm boy serving on an Estonian air force base in the late ’70s. A dapper pilot named Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) at first seems like he may have an eye for Sergey’s platonic pal, fellow soldier Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya). But as the men bond over their shared love of photography, the theater and swimming at night, things heat up between them quickly. Peeter Rebane’s film dramatizes the pressures on queer love for anyone embedded in a macho system, especially the Soviet military during the Cold War. So you can guess this love affair might not end well. Unfortunately it’s sometimes hard to sympathize with a couple of men who use their friendship with Luisa as a shield. But the lead actors are sexy, and if the movie’s dramatic beats sometimes feel old-fashioned, that’s not always a bad thing. (Screening 7 p.m. Thursday, September 23, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; available online September 24–October 1.)

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Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music. T.J. Parsell’s documentary starts off as a series of talking heads that threatens to grow monotonous. But then it expands to tell interesting, more specific stories. One by one, we meet women who introduce themselves as singer-songwriters who found success writing for others, because they feared exposure for their sexuality if they ever came out in Nashville. That’s what happened for several, like Chely Wright, who was on a course for stardom when, despite a brief romance with Brad Paisley, her “secret” was discovered and she was shunned. Possibly the most moving story is that of Dianne Davidson, who toured with Linda Ronstadt (interviewed in the film, along with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Pam Tillis). Barely into her 20s, on coming out, she was completely cast aside by Nashville. Her enforced move from stage and spotlight to a corporate desk job encapsulates the music industry’s cruelty. (Screening 6:30 p.m. Saturday, September 25, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; available online September 26–October 5.)

 

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Keep the Cameras Rolling: The Pedro Zamora Way. From a distance of almost 30 years, it’s easy to forget how influential, in his time and in his courage, the Cuban-born, Miami-raised Zamora was when he was cast in MTV’s 1994 show The Real World: San Francisco. William T. Horner and Stacey Woelfel’s moving documentary reminds us that Zamora’s young housemates ranged from baffled to horrified at the thought of living alongside a man with AIDS, but Zamora quickly put them at ease, became their friend, and educated them. (The film’s present-day talking heads and cast members include Judd Winnick, Pam Ling and Cory Murphy.) In its retelling of the Zamora story, Cameras blossoms into a useful documentary about the history of AIDS and the historical-political response to the scourge at the time. Zamora died a day after the last episode of his reality series aired. To the end, even when he was shuffled through hospitals and was losing his ability to speak, Zamora insisted that MTV’s cameras stayed focused on him. That wasn’t a case of vanity. It was his understanding of the impact on American viewers from watching a smart, movie-star handsome man, only 22 years old, succumb to a disease that largely had been ignored by the nation for more than a decade. He made much of his very short life. (Screening 7:30 p.m. Sunday, October 3, at Out Front Theatre Company; available online October 4–11.)

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Landlocked. In director and co-writer Timothy Hall’s drama, a young Atlantan named Nick (Dustin Gooch) plans to scatter his mother’s ashes on St. Simons Island. Reluctantly, he invites his estranged father in Arkansas to join him on the trek. What complicates his plan is that dad is now a transgender woman named Briana (Delia Kropp), and it’s unclear which angers Nick more: the transition, or the bad memories of how his father treated him before his dad left the family. The fascinating situation and a sensitive performance from trans actress Kropp is sadly undermined by an abundance of pedestrian dialogue and the glum, sullen nature of Gooch’s character. (Screening 2 p.m. Sunday, October 3, at Out Front Theatre Company; available online October 4–11.)

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Mascarpone. Nearing 30, Rome dweller Antonio (Giancarlo Commare) gets an unexpected surprise when his husband announces he’s been having an affair with a friend, and wants to separate. An aspiring architect who has mainly been playing house-husband for many years, Antonio moves in with the flamboyant, drug-dealing Denis (Eduardo Valdarnini), who sets him up with an apprentice job at the bakery of his friend Luca (Gianmarco Saurino). The attraction between baker and new employee is so strong, we’re not surprised when they go at it on the board where usually the only thing getting laid is loaves. What’s more surprising is the direction the comedy-drama takes next, as both the oversexed Luca and Denis both tell Antonio that the last thing he needs is to hook himself to another guy before he even understands who he himself is. What follows is a lot of anonymous, app-driven hookups for our newly single hero, a series of randy scenes that give the movie the feel of some of the sex-driven gay films of the 1990s. That’s not a bad thing. In the end, with Antonio finding his way on his own — and carrying a bulky work of art through the streets, like Jill Clayburgh at the end of An Unmarried Woman — the film’s original, Italian title makes a lot of sense: Masculine Singular. (Screening 9 p.m. Saturday, September 25, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; available online September 2–October 5.)

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My Fiona. When her BFF Fiona dies suddenly and inexplicably, Jane (Jeanette Maus) seeks answers and comfort from Fiona’s widowed wife Gemma (Corbin Reid) and son. What follows is an interesting study in the way boundaries can get permeable in the wake of grief, as Jane – previously involved only with men – and Gemma grow intimate and begin to create a new sort of family. But throughout writer-director Kelly Walker’s comedy-drama, I kept getting put off by scenes that emotionally felt untrue. In early scenes, Jane ranges from raging sorrow to a jokey best-pal relationship with Gemma and Fiona’s son. Actor Maus also has to try to sell some extreme moments of rage that can feel more actorly and borderline nuts than justified. The story is interesting and ends at an honest place. I just wished the telling had been a little more modulated. (Screening 7 p.m. Monday, September 27, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; available online September 28–October 5.)

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No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics. When she was creating the spiky, wry characters in her weekly strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” starting in the mid-1980s. who could have predicted that the cartoonist would lend her name to a well-known term (the Bechdel test) analyzing the way female TV and film characters spend time talking about men. But we owe Alison Bechdel for that, as well as for the graphic novel-turned-Broadway-hit Fun Home. She’s only one of dozens of male, female, transgender and nonbinary people interviewed in Vivian Kleiman’s entertaining documentary. They include Gay Comix founder Howard Cruse, who also wrote and inked Stuck Rubber Baby, and Rupert Kinnard, who gave us the Brown Bomber, an influential African-American, gay superhero. Lines takes us through the early history of LGBTQ comic artists, who felt they were working in complete isolation in the early years – only to gradually learn of an enormous cohort, thriving in ’zines and alternative newspapers. (Screening 7 p.m. Wednesday, September 29, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; available online September 30–October 7.)

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Rebel Dykes. When they established the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp outside a military base in England in 1981, the idea was to protest nukes. But as one of the women interviewed in Harri Shanahan and Siân A. Williams’s rowdy documentary admits, “We were very politically aware, but we were also really naughty.” Many of the protestors, they quickly learned, were also lesbian. Self-described as punk and poor, a lot of them moved from tents to squatting in vacant buildings, gathered together for bawdy cabaret and mud wrestling in a sweaty London leather club called Chain Reaction, and generally celebrated sex in ways that collided with the more “respectable” school of feminism being pushed by what one person dubs “The Lesbian Sex Police.” Rebel Dykes is vital time capsule of the raucous and frightened 1980s, when, outside of the clubs and squats, HIV/AIDS and Margaret Thatcher’s homophobic law, Section 28, brought gay men and lesbians together as a social force for the first real time. (Screening 7 p.m. Tuesday, September 28, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; available online September 29–October 6.)

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