This year's 19th annual Way OUT West Film Fest (formerly the Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival) is the second in a row to embrace the "new normal" and abandon (at least temporarily) a traditional in-person happening for an online-only event.
"Before COVID hit, digital film festivals were slowly gaining ground, but until the full lockdown happened last year, festivals had no choice to either cancel or pivot to embrace going fully virtual. So we decided for the latter," says the festival's founder and organizer Roberto Appicciafoco. "It wasn't easy, and I basically had to start from scratch in learning all the intricacies of acquiring a virtual platform and hope for the best it would work for us. And luckily for us, it did!"
The organizers of Way OUT West were hoping to run a hybrid event this year, with some in-person events around Albuquerque and some online screenings. But the rise of the Delta variant meant we were still in the grips of a global health crisis. So the decision was made to keep everything digital, with films available via online streaming Oct. 15 through 24. In fact, with this year's expanded streaming, you can watch the fest anywhere in New Mexico and in the neighboring states of Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Still, Appicciafoco promises, "If all the rainbows align next year, we do expect to be both by next year, which is also our milestone 20th anniversary!"
So what can viewers at home look forward to with this year's Way OUT West lineup? How about over 30 screenings and close to 90 new films to discover. "Being virtual has enabled us to do more short programs and try new things in programming as well," promises Appicciafoco. "For instance, we are collaborating with another festival called Femme Frontera which is a Latinx-led film organization made up of women and non-binary filmmakers from the U.S.-Mexico border region, and they have curated a queer-focus shorts program at Way OUT West this year. Also, we have lots of showcase and award-winning films from this past year's festival circuit, which includes Cloris Leachman's final film role in Jump, Darling, for which she won Best Performance in this year's Outfest in Los Angeles. Opening with that we also have the energetic rock band documentary Fanny: The Right To Rock, which is making waves at many festivals, and I guarantee you will be looking up their music by the end of the film. There is really something for everyone, from Italian foodie romance films to thrillers, from 'Fun in Girls Shorts' to Rebel Dykes, a focus on queer comic books to RuPaul drag queens, and a spotlight on a new episodic series of a fan-favorite film from the past. Oh, and one free screening to boot!"
The rise of COVID prevented the festival's director from travelling to other film festivals and beating the bushes for content. Appicciafoco says it's "very empowering" meeting fellow programmers, filmmakers and artists who make you "feel like you are part of a bigger community whose mission is key for continued representation in the queer arts." While he's sad he wasn't able to make those in-person connections over the last couple of years, "the age of Zoom and the ease of connecting with filmmakers and viewing films virtually" has allowed WOW to move forward. Plus, the festival's sterling 19-year reputation has transformed Albuquerque into a destination spot for LGBTQ filmmakers, a festival at which content creators from around the world are eager to showcase their work.
"In terms of the number of submissions we receive annually, I think transitioning to digital technology through the years has made it easier for filmmakers across all genres to tell their stories, which has resulted in higher number of films being produced," says Appicciafoco. That surge in digital filmmaking has made "curating the 10-day festival that much more challenging as well as exciting." In the last few years, Way OUT West's screening committee and programming team has grown to 16 members, all of whom are tasked with going through the festival's hundreds of submissions. Appicciafoco estimates about 25 to 30 percent make it into the final program. Reflecting on the last 19 years of technology and change, the pioneering programmer says, "When we first started, our first submissions were VHS tapes, then DVDs. And now all of our submissions are streaming links. So that has made things much simpler in many ways. And I don’t feel like such a hoarder anymore with all the boxes of VHS/DVDs still haunting me."
Way OUT West Film Festival
Streaming digitally Oct. 15-24
Individual tickets: $12 general admission, $10 WOW members
Passes: $125 all-access virtual pass, $60 six-movie virtual pass
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