Gayer Than Ever! – The 2021 Cleveland International Film Festival Offers a Diverse Slate of LGBTQ+ Offerings

The Buckeye Flame spoke with Patrick Shepherd of CIFF to find out just how gay this year’s films will be for audiences to screen from home. 

The Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) has always put forth incredible LGBTQ+ content. But this year, the 2021 Festival is upping the ante with an even more robust set of offerings covering a wide range of perspectives and moments in the LGBTQ+ lived experience.

This year will also see the bestowing of the DReam Catcher award to Sandusky-born filmmaker Todd Stephens. This award was established in 2019 to honor the life and memory of David K. Ream (1949–2017), a beloved CIFF trustee.

Additionally, The Buckeye Flame and Plexus will be co-sponsoring the film AHEAD OF THE CURVE—a feature documenting the rise of the best-selling lesbian lifestyle magazine ever published—and will be hosting a panel discussion on April 14 featuring legendary Curve Magazine publisher Franco Stevens alongside three publishers of publications from Ohio’s LGBTQ+ history.

Patrick Shepherd, Associate Director of CIFF

The Buckeye Flame spoke with Patrick Shepherd, Associate Director of CIFF, to find out just how gay this year’s films will be for worldwide audiences to screen from home.

CIFF has always had a strong slate of LGBTQ+ programming, no?
Most definitely. Going back to the 90s when David Wittkowsky was our Executive Director, LGBTQ+ content has always been presented. It was a “10% Cinema” sidebar for the longest time and now we call it “Outlook.” But, yes, we’ve been fortunate to have been showcasing LGBTQ+ films and filmmakers for decades.

Why is featuring this content important? Not every film festival does it.
It is all about representation. When I was coming out in the early 90s, going to a film at the Cedar Lee and seeing someone like me on the screen was so powerful. It’s important particularly for folks who are coming out, which is still so relevant. And it gives people like me a chance to reflect on what that period was like for us and how different it is for people it is for people now.

You’ve been with the Film Festival for a few decades. How have you seen the LGBTQ+ content evolve and change?
It’s interesting. The documentaries often follow historical moments. For many, many years, it was all about marriage, reinforcing the message on the Festival platform that marriage is an important right that we deserve and that we ultimately got in 2015.

Now there’s a lot more transgender content, which I love to see. Films offering representation of the trans community are more important than ever, especially considering all of the recent anti—trans legislation that has been introduced in state legislatures across the country.

Tell us about the amazingness of this year’s DReam Catcher award recipient.
Yes! Our DReam Catcher award will be going to Sandusky native Todd Stephens.

His film EDGE OF SEVENTEEN came out in 1998, which was actually my first Festival. It’s such a great film. It speaks to me because he and I are just a few years apart and we grew up not too far away from each other. He was in Sandusky and I was in rural Lorain County. His new film SWAN SONG is just incredible, and also takes place in Sandusky. And, we have a 2-for-one deal for his first two films. For EDGE OF SEVENTEEN and GYPSY 83, if you buy one, you get to watch the other one. So if you buy two tickets, you can see all three films.

As part of the DReam Catcher program, we are connecting Todd to a variety of different organizations and he will have virtual visits with them. One of the bigger events is going to relate to the West 117th Foundation. Dr. Lady J and Veranda L’Ni are going to host one of our happy hours that will include Todd.

Tell us about some of the not-to-be-missed LGBTQ+ films.
As someone who is very compelled by history in general and also that of our LGBTQ+ community, everyone needs to watch the documentary CURED which is about how a group of people overturned the American Psychological Association’s ruling that homosexuality was a mental illness. It is one of the best LGBTQ+ history films that I have ever seen. It was so great to see people like Barbara Gittings celebrated in this film. One of the first ever Cleveland Stonewall Democrat fundraisers welcomed Barbara and her wife Kay to Cleveland. She did so much for our community.

Keep going! Tell us about more LGBTQ+ films at these year’s CIFF.
Can I actually play a short film for you?

It’s a total of about 10 minutes. It’s called MAKING SAMANTHA and it’s celebrating a transgender woman. The second part is a music video for a song called “I am Samantha” and the first part is all the people coming together to make the video. It’s a great example of why our shorts program is so compelling, and I have never seen anything like it.

[Ken and Patrick watch MAKING SAMANTHA]

That was so amazing! What do you want people to get out of that?
I think that a lot of people don’t understand how difficult life can be for our our trans siblings. The trans community is among the most vulnerable communities in our LGBTQ+ universe. This film humanizes the community and gives people a sense of what it’s like to be trans. There are people in our community who have no sense of how challenging it can be, but also no sense of how liberating it can be once you get all you need.

One last film shout-out?
It just so happens that our Groundbreaker award recipient for racial equity also has a film in the Outlook sidebar. Similar to how Todd is our DReam Catcher, Ashley O’Shay is our Groundbreaker award recipient, so she will also get a $5000 cash award to support future films. Her film UNAPOLOGETIC is a really compelling documentary about the police shootings of innocent Black people in Chicago and what individuals were doing to protest, shake up the system, and make change there. A lot of the lead people in the documentary are Black queer women.

So we can put a headline on this article reading “CIFF: Super gay this year”?
<laughs> Absolutely. This is one of the most robust LGBTQ+ programs that we’ve had in quite some time. Gayer than ever. 🔥

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