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Jonelle Walker

Not Short on Substance: LGBTQ Themes Featured in DC Shorts Film Festival

Just because a film is short does not mean it lacks substance. At least that is the philosophy of Derek Horne, Programming Lead for the DC Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition.

“To explain films that have substance, I would like to use a food analogy,” he prefaced. “The films that I select for the ‘Menu’ taste good but are made with natural ingredients that are organic to the filmmaker’s experience and not made from artificial intentions. They have a substantive quality so the audience can process them more fully and they will stay in their system longer in a constructive way.”

Substantial themes and subjects are the focus of the 2016 DC Shorts festival, which will begin next month on September 8 and present 131 short films from 33 different countries.

After an open submission process earlier this year—yielding over 1300 submissions—the programmers initially created traditional screening groups offering diversity in terms of genre, subject, and style. However, eventually they reorganized the films based on common themes, creating 18 showcases, which cover everything from the scary to the seductive. These thematic showcases are an experiment by Horne and Joe Bilancio, who are taking the lead on programming for the first time since festival founder Jon Gann stepped down.

As Horne says, substance was essential to their selection of the films and their organization into showcases. That is most clearly reflected in a group of showcases called “Tackling the Issues,” which groups together filmmakers confronting particular political or social issues.

That emphasis on substance is also present in “10% Cinema,” the screening group for films with pertinent LGBTQ themes. The six shorts in the showcase encompass a variety of genres—drama, documentary, romantic comedy—but all highlight issues impacting the community.

Of particular note are the documentaries featured in that screening, two award-winning D.C. premieres.

These C*cksucking Tears, directed by Dan Taberski, comes to the festival after winning the coveted Jury Award for Documentary Short at the SXSW Film Festival in March. The short profiles Pat Haggerty, the man behind the only gay-themed country album ever made, a “gay urban myth:” the self-titled 1973 debut of his band Lavender Country.

A Scene from Pink Boy, DC Shorts

A Scene from Pink Boy (Courtesy of DC Shorts)

Eric Rockey’s film Pink Boy, another winner on the film festival circuit, explores the complexity of queer identity and gender in the relationship between parents and children. Jeffrey, the boy of the title, shocks his butch lesbian mother BJ when he starts to wear dresses. The film follows BJ and Jeffrey as they navigate how to live safely and happily as their most authentic selves.

Other films in the 10% Cinema screening include Vessels, a drama about a trans woman turning to the black market; two romantic comedies, Spoilers and Seeking: Jack Tripper; as well as Spunkle, a comedic short wherein a man considers becoming the biological father of his sister and her wife’s baby.

Special attention for LGBTQ themes and filmmakers during the festival is no surprise given Bilancio and Executive Director Kimberly Bush’s work with the LGBTQ-focused Reel Affirmations festival Bilancio has served as the festival’s Director of Programming. Bush began volunteering with Reel Affirmations soon after she came to DC in the late 90s and has since become its Director following a hiatus between 2012 and 2014.

Beyond highlighting substantial issues, the festival organizers have also focused on making DC Shorts more accessible to the community: 75 of the festival films will be available for streaming online and special family showcases will be available free of charge at public libraries throughout the District.

These accessibility programs are standard for DC Shorts, but Bush, Horne, and Bilancio have ambitious plans for new initiatives in the future.

“We would like to really be able to support the filmmakers through initiatives that not only help to ensure that their films get screened, but also to help them get made,” Bilancio said of preliminary plans for the 2017 festival. “The more we can do to ensure that shorts films will be seen is to help them get made and in the US that is a difficult thing to do.”

In the meantime, Bilancio and the rest of the programming team are focused on getting audiences engaged with all that the festival has to offer now.

“We hope that people understand the hard work and dedication the filmmakers go through to get the films made,” he said. “We hope that people take advantage of not only the films, but the parties and panels and take the time to interact with the filmmakers.”

While panels, parties, and films with innovative style are essential to the festival, Horne—extending his food analogy—continues to emphasize that audiences can expect authentic connection to the films, above all else.

“Sure, a film can be a taste sensation with exciting new ingredients, but the style is really just the cherry on the top. I want the audience to reflect on these films and remember them for a long time.”

Tagg readers can check out the DC Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition starting on September 8, with the 10% Cinema showcase screening on September 11, 13, and 15 at E Street Cinema. Tickets and more information are available here.

This article was originally published with Tagg Magazine.

Queer is Beautiful in Outwin Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

Portraiture has long been a stand-in for political power — from the paintings of kings and nobles hundreds of years ago, to more recent snapshots taken in the struggle for civil rights. The National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin: American Portraiture Today exhibition, on display through January 2017, in part highlights the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and features five artists worth watching.

The exhibition was sourced from entrants to the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, founded in 2006. The Outwin Competition is open to any artist over the age of 18. While a panel of experts selects the pieces for exhibition, the open submission format results in an unusually diverse group of artists for a major museum exhibition.

Riva Lehrer’s portrait of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel was created on top of an image of Bechdel’s mother drawn by the cartoonist. Lehrer’s Bechdel may be haunted by the apparition of her mother, is crouched, perhaps about to spring up as if loosed from a cage.

Bechdel may not be a household name but she’s a celebrated subject, having won a MacArthur “Genius” Award following publication of her Pulitzer Prize nominated graphic novel (that has since been adapted into an award-winning Broadway show.)

Lehrer’s story is less well known. She was born with spina bifida and wrote, “Disability is the fuel of my work and the engine of my career.” In an interview with Allison Meier in 2013 she said, “Keeping biography with the body matters,” and a lot of the Outwin exhibit does exactly that.

Jess T. Dugan

Jess T. Dugan (Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

Photographer Jess T. Dugan’s image shows her standing with arms raised over her head, drawing the viewer’s eye to the hair on her armpits. Her eyes lock with the viewers and she is confident, vulnerable, and strong. Through a successful Kickstarter campaign Dugan recently published a book of photographs. In an interview about her work Dugan said, “I’m part of trans community; I’m not a lesbian and I’m not a gay man but I hang out in those spaces. I think I’m hyper aware of how my identity changes in different contexts.”

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Photographer Jim Dougherty’s Portraits of Mother Nature

Photograph by Jim Dougherty

Some lawyers attending a Sierra Club Board meeting in California might do a side trip to Hawaii, or San Fransisco. Jim Dougherty’s agenda is a little bit different. While he continues to work as a lawyer, his work as a photographer is gaining notice. And his side trip from a recent Board meeting to hike for a week in Utah could result in a solo exhibition at an art gallery.

“I don’t fly in airplanes for pleasure or photography, in order to reduce my carbon footprint,” Jim said recently. “And I haven’t used A/C for 20 years at home. My photo expeditions are taken only in conjunction with eco-business. I take side-trips to Yosemite or stop in Utah on the way back. My adult life has been devoted to defending nature… I take pictures to remind people of Mom Nature’s majesty – and to inspire them to step up to their responsibility to defend her.”


Photograph by conservation photographer Jim Dougherty. All rights reserved.

Dougherty is a heavyweight as a litigator (“I’ve done more sea turtle litigation than any other American lawyer,” he said) but during a quick tour of the Sierra Club headquarters last week, Dougherty paused to flip through a special edition book printed on the occasion of the Sierra Club’s centennial and paid special attention to the photographs. “I most appreciate,” he says, “the photos that say to me ‘This place should be enjoyed or protected.’”

The Sierra Club has a long history with conservation photography, a genre that captures the beauty of nature as an advocacy tool. Ansel Adams took photographs for the Sierra Club, and served for years on the Board of Directors. Still today the Club supports a conservation photography award in his honor.

Dougherty continues in Adams’ tradition and the results are similarly majestic portraits of American terrain, at times surreally so. A dune in Death Valley lightly touched by the footsteps of a bird. Clouds perched between massive stone faces in Yosemite.

Taking the photographs requires immersion in the natural world, something you might sense as your eyes linger in the images. “The longest I’ve hiked for an image is two days out and two days back,” Dougherty said. “I wanted to take a shot of the sun setting on the Tetons from the west side, not the east. To do that you walk about 7 miles each way, but if you’re going to catch the setting sun you have to spend the night. That ended up being a 4-day, 30-mile backpack to get that one shot.”

For Dougherty, that kind of story is not uncommon. “Last February,” he recalled, “I hiked the 2.6 mile trail from the west side of Island-in-the-Sky, in Canyonlands National Park, to shoot the False-Kiva cave. I nailed the sunset shot and decided to wait to try and get a starry-sky image. I’d brought a sandwich and a liter of water, just in case. But the walk back, in the dark, proved treacherous. The trail was snowy and rocky and steeply uphill. At one point I got turned around and had to re-locate and at another point I slipped on a snowy rock and slid about 8 feet on my arse – with no damage but it was scary in the dark, and I dropped my flashlight.  It took over two hours to get back out, and I finally reached the car around 11.”

All of that for a shot that didn’t work out.

“The sunset shot was a winner, but the second not so hot,” Dougherty reported.


Photograph by conservation photographer Jim Dougherty. All rights reserved.

If you visit the Sierra Club’s national headquarters a trio of Dougherty’s photographs face you in the lobby. Corporate art collecting continues to evolve as a business priority, and the practice recently received strong endorsements in Forbes and Seattle Business.

It’s not just in the lobby that you’ll see Dougherty’s work. Dougherty’s landscapes adorn much of the open wall space on two floors. The utility of displaying art has been confirmed by for-profit corporations including Progressive and Microsoft: it makes the spaces more welcoming to work in.  Studies have shown a positive correlation between office artwork and productivity.

Co-working space COVE, which has seven locations in DC, features local art on the walls of all its locations. Adam Segal, founder of COVE, said, “Art plays such an important role in the creation of place, particularly in the look and feel of a physical space. We know art helps us create spaces where people feel welcome, productive and connected to their surroundings.”

“People want to feel loved, and when any worker sees that the company has spent some time and expense to make the workplace beautiful it helps the office culture,” Dougherty said. “When you look at these photos, your eyes have a longer focus… They help you look out into the world.”

Overall, Dougherty’s outlook is grim: “We are losing the war to defend the environment.” But he has an optimistic outlook for the future of conservation photography. “Maybe there’s so much access to these kinds of images that people develop an appreciation that there is a whole beautiful world out there,” he said. Looking at his images its impossible not to agree that there is.The well-trafficked Sierra Club offices ensure that Dougherty’s work has some consistent exposure, but he’d like to do more to distribute his photographs in the name of activism. He happily sells his work at cost with the goal of getting more eyes on nature, and more hearts dedicated to the work of nature’s preservation.

This piece was originally posted on UrbanScrawl.

Highlights – July 22

Artapedia Highlights
In July, we primarily covered Fringe, but we also shined a spotlight on a special DC arts educator.

Elizabeth Bruce’s Theatrical Journey
“Just as policymakers are considering a new approach to public education, unconventional educators like Elizabeth Bruce provide a window into a potential future.”

Concrete Devotion Reviewed
“An exploration of mental illness, the staccato rhythm in the music and movement envelop the viewer in the fever pitch of mania.”

Elephant in the Room at the Capital Fringe Festival
Elephant in the Room Reviewed
“Elephant in the Room is precisely the kind of show one expects at the Fringe. It’s quirky, and somewhat impenetrable, and the experimental energy is delightful.”

and from our sister site, Bourgeon:

The Voyageurs
Histories, Heroes, and Small Moments
by. Nathan Loda
“The subjects in these paintings were inspired by my search into my own identity, and connected to that, my exploration of what is authentic and meaningful to me as an artist.”

Upcoming Events

July 23
Capacity Building in the Arts
with Michael M. Kaiser
Michael M. Kaiser, director of the DeVos Institute, served as President of the Kennedy Center from 2001 to 2014. This is a unique opportunity to study in a small workshop setting with a world leader in the Arts. To learn more about the workshop and Mr. Kaiser click through to the registration link. Thanks to Michael for donating his time to support this project!

Arts Journalism Spotlight

Anne Midgette
Yuja Wang, NSO play to enthusiastic but small crowd at Wolf Trap
by. Anne Midgette
The Washington Post
“All of this is well and good, and if you were there, you had every reason to enjoy it. But I think it will take more than a visit to a perfectly good performance, or my exhortations about how great the experience is, to persuade you or anyone else to rush out and buy tickets.”

Things We Have to Miss (But, You Don’t!)

Fat Kids are Harder to Kidnap reviewed

If you’ve seen Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind—the innovative devised theater work by Chicago-based company Neo-Futurists—then in a significant way you have already seen Fat Kids are Harder to Kidnap. You will notice the same clothesline with numbered fliers, menu with play titles, and looming timer upstage. Even the language of the curtain speech is roughly the same. However, this similarity should not scare away audiences: Fat Kids are Harder to Kidnap is fun, despite being derivative in every sense of the word.

Very much like the Neo-Futurists’ piece, Fat Kids is based on a simple premise: the performers will put on 20 short plays in 30 minutes. The audience assists the five-person ensemble by selecting scenes/plays from a numbered handout that correspond to the numbered fliers on the clothesline. The audience shouts a number and the actors perform that play.Fat Kids differs Too Much Light in that the plays are teen-friendly, including bits about apps, parents, and the video game Call of Duty.

The performers are largely good but Ross Nasir is a clear standout. She performs a memorable parody of Beyonce’s hit “Irreplaceable” with perfect R&B warble, and is hilarious as a frustrated video game player. She sells one of the performance’s rare high-concept plays. She most fully embodies the energy which all of the performers have throughout; they’re having a great time and you will find it easy to join in the fun.

Fat Kids has a few small, but significant flaws. Allowing that the piece is intended for younger audiences, some of Melissa Sim’s joke writing feels stale. Young audiences will appreciate the lightness of the humor, but they will certainly hear jokes they have heard before. As the troupe is based in Singapore, some of the cultural jokes in pieces like “Singapore in Jeopardy” (for example) simply don’t land well with American audiences.

Fat Kids are Harder to Kidnap might be a hard sell for Fringe audiences because it’s brief, oriented toward young audiences, and offers material that patrons may have encountered before. But the explosive energy of the performers and delightful integration of the audience make Fat Kids worth a viewing. The performances of Fat Kids occur in the upstairs Fringe space making it a convenient refresher to enjoy between more adult shows.

This piece was originally posted on DC Metro Theater Arts

Elephant in the Room reviewed

Elephant in the Room at the Capital Fringe Festival

There is an ancient Indian story that tells the tale of blind men unknowingly encountering an elephant. Based on which part of the elephant they touch, each man proposes that the animal is something else. Elephant in the Room, from San Francisco-based physical theater company Right Brain Performancelab, presents a similar experience for audiences. Depending on which part of the performance you relate to most you may walk away with a different understanding of what the piece is about. That ambiguity, and the refined clowning of the performers, makes Elephant in the Room a treat.

The story is organized around the invisibility of the elephant and a conceit that actors and audience must work together to get the elephant to materialize. Two clowns (Jennifer Gwirtz and John Baumann) conduct and guide the mimed and sung vignettes, all of which allude to the Elephant’s meaning. Sometimes it seems she (the Elephant) symbolizes American apathy. Sometimes it seems she represents the meaning of life. It may be that she stands in for something about the performer and audience relationship. It’s never entirely clear, but seeking out meaning in the vignettes is a fun mental game.

Gwirtz and Baumann have great energy, a quirky sense of humor, and are powerful physical comedians; they’re especially strong in their dealings with the elephant, working together in mime to show the elephant growing and shrinking out of thin air. The pair has been creating experimental physical theater since 1998 and that long-term partnership is clear in their chemistry.

On reflection, it’s amazing that Elephant in the Room uses only one or two props, with no sets. Right Brain Performancelab is brilliantly creative about transforming costume pieces, and their own bodies, into useable props. The world they create with words, music, and movement feels just as full as more traditional theatrical productions. Elephant in the Room adds a healthy scoop of dark philosophy to the typically light fare of clowning.

Elephant in the Room is precisely the kind of show one expects at the Fringe. It’s quirky, and somewhat impenetrable, and the experimental energy is delightful. The performances are professional-grade, but the performers tell you at curtain call that you should find them at the bar. Some may feel around this show and find themselves disappointed, but others will discover they have found just what they were looking for.

This piece was originally posted on DC Metro Theater Arts. 

Elizabeth Bruce’s Theatrical Journey

A phone rings. The voice on the other end reports that there’s an emergency: a teddy bear has broken its leg and needs to see a doctor right away. Thankfully, the phone was answered by teaching artist Elizabeth Bruce and her young students are now on the case.

This scenario is one of many “journeys” created by Bruce through her Theatrical Journey project at CentroNía, an award-winning educational organization in Columbia Heights, where she serves as Community Arts Producer. Theatrical Journey use the arts to develop problem-solving skills in students aged three through five. The students solve scientific problems in pretend play scenarios: “journeys.”

As summer reaches its middle, American parents and students alike begin to think about returning to school for the fall. Simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Education is working to finalize statutes for implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the 2015 national education legislation that will impact student teaching and curriculum across the country. Just as policymakers are considering a new approach to public education, unconventional educators like Elizabeth Bruce provide a window into a potential future.

“I have the best job!” Bruce exclaims in a Columbia Heights coffee shop.

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