By Alysha Scarlett
The 2023 Outfest LA Film Festival is the first in the organization’s 41-year-old history with transgender artists’ films marking both the opening and closing nights of the festival. Outfest, which runs two film festivals, was founded in 1982. This is the first time since its inception that transgender filmmakers are featured so prominently as part of the main festival programming.
The LGBTQ+-oriented nonprofit for storytellers amplifies filmmakers who have not historically been connected with key individuals who can bring the filmmakers’ work to the larger public.
Aitch Alberto directed “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” Sav Rodgers directed “Chasing Chasing Amy.”
“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”, which opened the festival on Thursday, is based on the book of the same name by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Set in 1987 El Paso, Texas, it’s a coming-of-age story of two teenage Mexican-American loners as they explore their friendship and the difficult road to self-discovery. The film is scoring 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and will be released across the U.S. theatrically.
“Chasing Chasing Amy,” which will end the festival and screen on June 23 at 6:30 p.m. Pacific, is a documentary that examines the complex legacy of director Kevin Smith on LGBTQ+ people and the film’s life-saving impact on Rodgers. It is scoring 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.
“Both of those films are just absolutely incredible stories that speak to your heart,” Mike Dougherty, Outfest’s director of programming said after noting that opening and closing nights have to fill big theaters. He also noted that the bookending films are “the perfect narrative for Outfest in particular” given that Alberto and Rodgers were part of Outfest development programs when they were younger, and Alberto has gone on to mentor succeeded program participants. Rodgers, who said that Outfest gave him a portal to Hollywood when he didn’t have one, is making his directorial debut with “Chasing Chasing Amy.”
“Closing the festival with my first feature is pretty surreal,” he said. “It feels like a very full-circle moment. If I think about it too much, I might freak out…The fact that people who I care about, who program movies and are quite discerning, finding that our film is worthy of a closing night slot at one of the largest queer film festivals in the world…that’s pretty amazing.”
While the landmark moment in Outfest’s history is “long overdue…it’s perfect timing with what is happening in (the United States),” Alberto said.
The adversarialness is “also part of the hope,” Alberto said. “Historically, when there is so much resistance to a community, it is because we are on the way to it being normalized.”
The historical moment for Outfest opens new avenues for trans filmmakers according to Rodgers who says that “Trans filmmakers are often pigeonholed into stories of coming out and the superficial stuff that being trans is.” He wants to see trans filmmakers everywhere, including major feature films; “not just at Outfest, and not just at a regional festival.”
When asked why it’s particularly important that artists of transgender experience figure more prominently into a film festival like Outfest’s LA event Dougherty said, “In media at large, trans artists are not given the microphone very often.” In the LGBTQ+ community, “gay men get more opportunities and more spotlight shone on them…Sometimes the culture at large thinks that the trans community is a monolith.”
Dougherty said that despite the progress Outfest has made, every year brings new challenges such as “right-wing media depicting LGBTQ+ people as things we are not.” This is where “the very tried-and-true idea that film is an empathy machine” helps shift that narrative, Dougherty said.
In a press release about Outfest’s programming of the opening and closing nights, Alberto had said that “anything is possible when we move with intention, resilience, and purpose to show that we are more than what you define us as.” She understands that it’s easier to put folks into a box. However, since she finds it limiting to be called “a trans filmmaker,” Alberto refuses the title.
When asked what it meant for her to stand in her truth on opening night, Alberto said it took her a long time to transition and that it was a truth that she never thought she could claim.
“But everything changed as I did. Everything started to flow to me…It wasn’t until I transitioned that I knew I was ready to direct. It goes back to that purpose and truth aligning.” Tickets remain available for “Chasing Chasing Amy.”
Featured Photo: still from “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” Courtesy of Outfest.
Described by a rival community newspaper as a “big-city cousin,” Alysha Scarlett (she/her) has had bylines in USA TODAY, Screen Rant, Bleacher Report, and several times in Patch. She was a screenwriter for the theatrical feature “Before Your Time” and wrote “‘Star Wars’ Is Still Intact: Re-finding Yourself in the Age of Trump,” which was published by Thought Catalog Books. She currently contributes to That Hashtag Show and writes at Medium. Alysha is the first person in a rural Utah county to have their name and gender be legally affirmed.
As director of festival programming, Mike (he/him) is in charge of programming Outfest Los Angeles and ensuring the highest experience of filmmakers and audiences at all Outfest festivals. He has over a decade of experience in the finance, production and distribution aspects of the industry. Mike joined Outfest after five years as acquisitions and distribution executive at Radiant Films International and five years prior to that as a Creative Executive at Hyde Park Entertainment. Since 2014, he has been the director of programming for the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles and is an associate programmer for AFI FEST.
Aitch Alberto (she/her) is a writer/director born and raised in Miami, Florida. She is a Sundance Episodic Lab fellow, recipient of a Skowhegan Artist Residency, a Yaddo fellowship, a Latino Screenwriting Project Fellowship, and an alumnus of the Outfest Screenwriting Lab. Aitch has written on DUSTER, a 1970s-set crime drama series from J.J. Abrams and LaToya Morgan for HBO Max and WBTV. She also served as a writer on AppleTV+’s BAFTA and Film Independent Nominated anthology series LITTLE AMERICA from Alan Yang, Kumail Nanjiani, and Emily V. Gordon. Most recently, Aitch has adapted and directed the award-winning young adult novel ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Eugenio Debrez producing, from Limelight. She has been included on The Black List’s inaugural Latinx List, as well as the Tracking Board’s Hit List and Young & Hungry List, and NALIP’s list of “Latinx Directors You Should Know”. Aitch has most recently been featured on Variety’s 10 Directors To Watch for 2022 and Indiewire’s 22 Rising Female Filmmakers to watch in 2022.
Originally from Kansas, Sav Rodgers is a filmmaker and screenwriter whose feature directorial debut CHASING CHASING AMY is about the complicated legacy of Chasing Amy (1997) and its profound impression on his life. The TED Talk he gave in 2018 kickstarted this filmmaking journey, and spurred the writing of scripts that center on highly specific, surprising stories about queer people. His screenplays have been recognized by GLAAD, Outfest, ScreenCraft, among others. An alumnus of the Producers Guild of America’s inaugural PGA Create program, Sav is also the Founder and Executive Director of the Transgender Film Center, a nonprofit aiming to help trans creators bring finished films to audiences around the world. Sav is a proud University of Kansas graduate and still sports KU baseball caps wherever he goes.