Over the course of 40 years, Outfest has evolved into a word-renowned arts, media and entertainment nonprofit organization that annually puts on a premier film festival across Los Angeles full of star-studded galas, film buff events and exciting debuts that all center queer stories and talent.
This year, the 11-day festival will run July 14 to 24 and proves the leaps and bounds Outfest has come since its inception by UCLA graduate students in 1982. Ahead of the run, we spoke with executive director Damien S. Navarro about the 2022 festival.
What was it like tackling the 40th anniversary of Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival?
Terrifying, exhilarating, exciting, but at the end of the day, you have to put one foot in front of the other. So where do you begin? In my particular case, as a very nerdy researcher who secretly wanted to be like an investigative journalist back in the day, I started by interviewing individuals from our past. I went back and I noticed that there hadn't been notes updated on our historical documentation in many years. So I went back to executive directors, our founders and I kept peeling an onion where— in no shocking way— women, women of color, our trans community, there were so many individuals that I like to refer to as the architects of Outfest who were missing, who we hadn't documented
That was my first part of the process was just to go back and make sure we were documenting who actually brought this organization together and has been a part of helping it grow and evolve over the years.
Let’s talk more about the festival’s opening and closing films, respectively: Anything’s Possible and They/Them. What makes them the best films to commence and end Outfest?
So the first part that we looked at was what are the stories that are still not being told that reflect people within our community? There was a film called Trick back in the day by director Jim Fall, in which older queer men like to say that it was the first time that they saw a film about themselves that didn't involve something tragic or HIV or a death. It was just a really fun, flirty rom-com, in which very simple drama happened, but simply seeing themselves in that space changed themselves, of how they reflected on themselves, saw love and their relationships in different ways. So we were looking for a film that did that, but for a community that was the next community to see themselves. Trans people of color are one of those communities and we felt they deserved, in particular, as well as the whole world, a film that did the same thing that Trick did back in the day, which is it's flirty, it's fun, it's bright, it's colorful, it's got musical numbers in it. The only drama that happens— I know I'm not giving away anything— is that she gets the boy. When I talked to my colleagues and my friends, like Rain Valdez and Alexandra Grey, about trans women in particular, never getting the boy or feeling like they can be loved, it was an important milestone for us to be able to find something that reflected that so beautifully, and I think we did that.
Going all the way to the other end of the festival, They/Them— and we got to make sure we say the slash— is phenomenal, fun, all the tickle screams and thrills that you want from a slasher film. Queer queer stories and horror have been around for a long time.
It's where the othered began. It's where outcasts were chased and sometimes, mostly murdered. But the story is flipping, the story is changing. We have an Unidentified Objects, which is about a little person and his kooky best friend on a road trip. We have Mama Bears, which is about Christian women who are vehemently defending their youth. We have They/Them, in which we have a conversion camp that used to be used to be our demise and trauma and flipping that on its head and and making some of the former anti heroes the heroes and seeing cast members like Theo Germaine and other notable trans and nonbinary actors that are playing themselves as another fundamental thing that we wanted to see this year. So all of those combined, I think, says that Outfest is really trying to reflect the inclusivity that we have been challenged with, that the industry has challenged not only ourselves, but the industry as a whole and that people will actually be entertained. I think that's the other thing that we're trying to overcome is that, “Well, I'm not going to really enjoy this thing if I'm not one of those community members.” It’s like, that's bull****. If you like rom-coms, you're gonna like this. If you like horror films, you're gonna dig this.
The first time you went to Outfest was as a student at Cal State Fullerton. Do you remember the experience having an impact on you?
It was extremely emotional. I came out pretty young. I came out at like 17 years old and was out in college. People are always asking, “What's the film that you first saw yourself represented?” As a biracial kid, I'm like I Love Lucy, Little Ricky, it was my first time I saw a biracial kid on television, but I know what they really mean. I will say that coming to an Outfest event in the late '90s, which some would say was the first peak of Outfest. It was the first time that tens of thousands of community members were using Outfest as the place to join up and to experience things together well before we had an era of abundance like we have now. There's lots of fun things. There's a Dodgers Pride event, there’s the WeHo Outloud Music Festival. We didn't have that back then. And so when you stepped into the doors, one it was terrifying because I may have been out to my friends and family and some schoolmates, but to walk through those doors was terrifying for many people back then. To show up it was like, “Oh my god, am I doing something naughty? Am I gonna get caught? Am I gonna get targeted?” And then once you were inside the doors, it was just the most beautiful, surreal experience of just getting close to finishing film school and knowing there was a community for me of support like that, and also that audiences would want to see my stories.
You’ve been in this role for a few years. What were your goals when you came into this position and how have they evolved?
I think I took over exactly seven months before COVID. So I think what I thought the experience was going to be and what I was preparing for, it all got thrown out the window as so many of our lives both professionally and personally did. Having had 20 years in both agency, media technology, academia, the most important for me was to learn something new.
I like to say that Outfest is really becoming the PBS of our community that offers free complimentary programming around, whether it’s on our Out Museum platform where we just launched a series featuring the voices and films from young people in Texas and Florida called Let Them Speak, to things like Outfest Fusion and the expansion of some of our most critical programs. I was hoping I would be able to do that. I was terrified I wouldn't and that the momentum of an organization like Outfest wouldn't allow for the kind of pivots that I knew would benefit it. Then COVID hit and we had no choice but to pivot. It is bittersweet at the end of the day, but I like to see that timing is everything with these perfect roles and perfect positions. And I like to think that the timing was perfect for where I wanted to be.
Outfest clearly is an important part of both the history of Los Angeles and queer cinema. What do you hope to see from the next 40 years and onward?
One of the things that we've heard a lot about is that visibility just is no longer enough anymore. We've heard that from almost every community member up and down, every filmmaker. And so what I'm hoping I can bring to the organization is to expand the real needs of creators today, expand the forms of entertainment that Outfest reflects, expand our footprint internationally so that what we've seen already in small rural countries in which queer is still illegal to even within our own areas and seeing people watching an Outfronts panel from our television fan experience or downloading a short film packet from an 80-year-old closeted widow who just lost his wife, but has never been able to experience his queer self. Seeing stories like that come together simply because we have set a new intention and the new bar to reach countless more millions of people with our programming is what I hope I can leave as a legacy and where I think Outfest will continue to expand in the coming years.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Tickets are now available.
Photography by: Courtesy Outfest