A brief chat with QFest Houston Co-Artistic Director Michael Robinson

A year of firsts for the 22-year running LGBT film festival

QFest Houston (website, Facebook) is the best 20-plus-year-running LGBT film festival you’ve never heard of. Founded in 1996 as a partnership of sorts between DiverseWorks, Rice Cinema, Landmark Theatres and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the event was dubbed The First Annual Houston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, a name that did not last, but a concept and a mission that did: curate and promote the best that gay film and cinema had to offer, bringing it to the Third Coast, to the most diverse city in the country, where festival-runners were certain the LGBT films they highlighted would find an audience. I sat down with QFest Co-Artistic Director Michael Robinson the day prior to Opening Night of the 2018 QFest slate to get his thoughts on what all had changed for the festival this year.

Change Change Change

A flurry of recent changes — evolution or growth, it might be fairer to call it — have seen Kristian Salinas elevated from Program Director (during his tenure, The HGLFF condensed from a two-week run to a five-day weekend, for the first time creating its own program) and the name shifted to the more user-friendly QFest under new Executive Director… Kristian Salinas (evidently QFest’s resident ‘straight shooter with upper management written all over him’ guy).

In 2017, Aurora Picture Show acquired QFest as a sponsored project, and the festival added Michael Robinson, a graduate of Rice University, one of the host sites for the festival, as Co-Artistic Director.

In 2018, for the first time, QFest (through FilmFreeway) entered into the competition business, accepting original submissions and slating 18 films for competition, with one film (French director Nicolas Gerifaud’s This Spring [Au printemps tu verras]) debuting internationally and seven films debuting for either U.S. or North American audiences.

Spectrum South also joined the festivities, sponsoring Closing Night (along with Mystiq and a handful of other, wonderful companies), which featured the awards ceremony and a screening of 1985 by filmmaker Yen Tan.

There we are! Right at the bottom left… proud to be in such good company, too!

On the left is Michael Robinson, Co-Artistic Director and on the right is Kristian Salinas, Executive Director for Qfest.

Robinson has been with the festival for about a year, so the 22nd annual iteration of QFest was his first live-action, not-a-drill opportunity to nurture and develop the event in real time.

Spectrum South, along with the rest of the corporate sponsors, attempted to take an existing infrastructure that was nearly perfect, and infuse it with a wider, larger audience — perhaps a bit younger than the event’s historical audience.

“Being in the 22nd year, Kristian [Salinas] has built up a reputation for QFest to where people trust the curation, trust his voice,” Robinson said. “There are people who say, ‘if QFest is bringing it, I want to check it out.’ And that’s something we’re very lucky to have, but we definitely want to take advantage of that as a platform for new voices, people whose talent we see and we can bring in.”

Of course, QFest exists in the same uncertain political climate as the rest of us, and the trending topics of the day have a weird habit of playing out in subtle ways in the film selection and general tone of the event.

“There’s a different type of urgency [now],” Robinson said. “Especially if you look at the #MeToo movement now, we’ve always tried to make sure that we’re programming female voices and filmmakers, but now it’s like, ‘what are the female narratives we have, playing into what climate, exactly?’”

Opening Night — Miseducation of Cameron Post

Closing Night — 1985

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (left) and 1985 (right).

With the bookends to the festival — The Miseducation of Cameron Post and 1985, respectively — Robinson said that the directors had a specific aim in mind, especially with a potential wave of new, younger festival-goers to reach.

“We wanted specifically to focus on eras that younger audiences might not know explicitly about, but which were vital, like when conversion therapy camps were normalized and accepted as a ‘treatment for being gay,’” Robinson said. “It’s good to know the recent history of the community, and to really understand those perspectives.”

That idea — knowing the community, knowing the history of the community, understanding the many, diverse perspectives involved in even just a single community — is one of the numerous through-lines connecting the discrete eras of Houston’s only LGBT film festival.

It’s a bit of a mission, really. When asked about priorities, Robinson quickly rattles off a list of nonnegotiable, mission-centric tasks.

“We want to make sure we’re highlighting our recent history,” Robinson said. “We want to make sure we’re highlighting what international communities are going through and making sure that when we’re talking about LGBTQ, we highlight every single one of those acronyms and more.”

With more than two decades in the game, QFest has — naturally — evolved to become part of the landscape it seeks to promote, a player in the stories its telling, which is right and proper and exciting for filmmakers and festival directors, alike.

“It’s great to be part of the narrative and contribute, too,” Robinson said. “‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post,’ is by a filmmaker named Desiree Akhavan, and her previous film was ‘Appropriate Behavior,’ and we opened with that film four or five years ago.”

Yen Tan’s 1985 closed out the week’s events, but it was not so long ago that his film ‘Pit Stop’ was opening the festivities.

“So it’s great to continue working with these directors and have these relationships where they come out with their new work, and they know you and want to come back,” Robinson said.

Growth and expansion are open mandates around QFest — with the cachet and historicity it possesses already, and the knot of passionate film-enthusiasts that have formed a stable and devoted core for two decades, the time to push is now.

Spectrum South opening up the festival to their younger-skewing demographic helped, of course, offering some penetration into a relatively new and untapped market. But it’s not just the educated, queer twenty-somethings that Robinson thinks will gravitate to QFest in the years to come.

“Most of our audience is, or has been, those in the OutSmart crowd who are already involved in the Arts community,” Robinson said. “Right now, we’re expanding to a younger audience, sure, but also to people who may not be looking at the MFAH calendar and realizing these films are out there, that this is cinema that does exist, here in Houston.”

A time to build up

“This is our first competition year,” Robinson said. “Normally, it’s a curation from different festivals: you’re looking at Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, maybe Venice from the previous year, and you’re looking for what are the best queer films playing at those places.”

2018, with its 18 premieres and competitive slate, is a definite evolution, a conscious and deliberate step — forward, Robinson hopes.

Against the backdrop of the most diverse city in the country, Robinson and QFest are prepared to gamble a bit. The payoff could be sizable, whether one means prestige, reinvestment in the local creative community or any number of potential benefits to a growing, changing QFest.

HTown, baby

Robinson, a day prior to the festival’s official kickoff, waxed sanguine, but closed with an open question.

“We’re lucky to have this history and have this momentum, but we’re at a pivotal point,” Robinson said. “By introducing the competition, by really trying to figure out what we want these next steps for QFest to be, it’s an exciting moment, and it’s a bit of an experiment, too. Will people turn out for these films? Will they take the chance?”

One hopes they will.


Various images for QFest, including my fav, the rainbow one in the top left.
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