Reel Affirmations
Our Bodies Are Your Battlefield, directed by Isabelle Solas, plays at Reel Affirmations on Oct. 23 at 2 p.m.; courtesy of Reel Affirmations

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Movie theaters are oddly comforting places. From the smell of overly buttered popcorn to their sticky floors and cool, dark rooms, they foster the magic that is going to the movies. They’re also why Reel Affirmations, D.C.’s international LGBTQ film festival, is excited to take over Landmark’s E Street Cinema this weekend for its 29th year.  

“It’s really exciting that the festival is going to be at E Street Cinema this year after several years at GALA [Hispanic Theatre] in Columbia Heights, which was a great venue and a beautiful theater,” Andre Hereford, Reel Affirmations’ programming co-chair, tells City Paper. “But, personally, I love that we’re showing these movies in a movie theater.”  

For the past few months, Reel Affirmations has been hosting a monthly LGBTQ film series at E Street, which will continue after the festival as well. Hereford adds, “It’s nice to be in E Street and to hopefully be part of bringing more of the community back out safely to movie theaters.”

The programmers have dubbed this year’s festival “small but mighty,” with the emphasis on mighty. Over the course of four days, 14 feature-length films will be screened at the downtown—and underground (making texting impossible because there’s no service, according to the marketing team)—theater. Along with the features, an additional 27 shorts will be screened virtually over the course of the fest. In total, the festival will share films from 16 countries.

Bringing the queer and trans communities together to celebrate our stories has always been a goal of the festival and one Peter Morgan, who handles marketing for Reel Affirmations, says has become a challenge thanks to streaming. “One of the issues I think all film festivals are up against is the streaming services everyone is so accustomed to. But one of the things that film festivals have over streaming services is that feeling of community we feel when we’re watching films together and all laughing together and, depending on the film, crying together. And there are several of those within the lineup this year that will have people both laughing and crying.”

Audiences will likely run the gamut of emotions at the 2022 event. Though Reel Affirmations doesn’t have a theme outside the obvious LGBTQ category, many of this year’s films “open a window into worlds where people are living queer, living their queer lives, in places where it’s not easy to do that,” Hereford says. The programming committee—a group of 10 people who come to a consensus selecting the films that most moved or excited them—wasn’t intentionally looking for stories of queer and trans struggle. Instead, Hereford notes, “every year the programming is informed by whatever the filmmakers are interested in, and it seems like this year they’re interested in telling stories about people being defiantly queer in places where it’s hard.”  

It’s no wonder the cameras have turned to capture outspoken queerness and LGBTQ people fighting for basic rights considering the current state of politics targeting queer and especially trans people both in the U.S. and abroad. In March, NBC reported that 238 anti-LGBTQ bills had already been filed in 2022—including Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill. The majority of the bills target trans people. Earlier this month, the Washington Post announced the obvious: Anti-trans laws are on the rise and many take aim at trans youth. The majority of attacks in the U.S. are focused on restricting gender affirming care, preventing trans women from playing on women’s sports teams, and more bathroom bill-esque attacks to block trans youth from using bathrooms and locker rooms aligning with their gender identity. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 67 countries have national laws criminalizing same-sex relations between consenting adults and at least nine countries have laws criminalizing forms of gender expression that target trans and gender nonconforming people. 

“We’re not looking for films that are about places where people have to struggle. But it just so happens that that’s the reality in so many places around the world right now, including in the U.S.,” says Hereford. “So, I mean, there’s all these stories of people who were challenged to live their gay lives, but these are not necessarily coming out stories of people. It’s about other dimensions of living LGBTQ experiences.”

Moving beyond the all too common “coming out” story line, however, feels like a step in the right direction when it comes to capturing more nuanced stories of queerness. “I don’t have anything against coming out movies, but I think, yeah, most of us have seen 20 of them. And the thing is, there’s been so many of them that people who need to see them—we can point you to them,” says Hereford. “We also want to point you to other stories … life doesn’t just end at that moment that somebody comes out and announces their identity. There’s still a lot of life that happens after that and that’s what these movies capture.”

Though Hereford says every movie screening at Reel Affirmations is “unmissable for somebody for some reason,” he did name a few that stand out to him.

#LookAtMe, directed by Ken Kwek, from Singapore tells the story of two brothers—one gay, one straight—and the role of allyship. “It’s sort of a genre defying movie because it’s a little bit funny, but it also has aspects of prison and courtroom drama,” says Hereford. “It becomes a story of how far [the straight brother] and his family are willing to go in order to make the stand on the principle that the gay brother—there’s nothing wrong with him being gay and there’s nothing wrong with his brother defending him. I haven’t seen a story of allyship like this. And a lot of people talk about being allies and this is a movie that demonstrates an extreme version of allyship that is really profound to me.” (Screens Oct. 23 at 6 p.m.)

Being Thunder, directed by Stéphanie Lamorré, follows Sherente, a two spirit-genderqueer teen from Rhode Island’s Narragansett tribe who performs in traditional dance competitions despite tribal leaders working to disqualify the dancer. “The movie is, first of all, really beautifully made and plays like a narrative feature even though it is a documentary,” says Hereford, who credits Sherente as a role model with admirable confidence and self-awareness who viewers can learn from. (Screens Oct. 23 at 4 p.m.)

Nelly and Nadine, directed by Magnus Gertten, is another documentary that captures a love story between two women imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II and who manage to reunite years after being rescued. “It’s an excellent story and it’s just so many layers of history and romance and mystery too,” Hereford says. (Screens Oct. 21 at 7 p.m.)

All Man: The International Male Story, directed by Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed, documents the three decades of Gene Burkard’s International Male catalog, which redefined men’s fashion and sexuality. “I think a lot of gay men, especially, of a certain age—and I’m included in this—are familiar with International Male catalog,” says Hereford. “I think it has a lot of meaning for a lot of people and it really affected the culture in a way that I was surprised about … and it’s also just fun and sexy and a really great time.” (Screens Oct. 20 at 8 p.m.)

For more, see our coverage of Fierceness Served! The ENIKAlley Coffeehouse, and reviews for When Time Got Louder and Our Bodies Are Your Battlefields.

Reel Affirmations, D.C’s International LGBTQ Film Festival, runs Oct. 20–23 at E Street Cinema and virtually. $10–$175.