TIGLFF expands and experiments in 33rd year

When the lights dim for opening night of the 33rd annual Tampa Bay and International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival Oct. 7, it will mark the first time in years TIGLFF kicks off with an executive director at the helm. Victor Gimenez joined the organization in the role late last year.

The film aficionado is the former executive director of the OUTshine LGBTQ+ Film Festival, South Florida’s LGBTQ showcase. He served in the role for six years, overseeing its rebranding, increasing its cash reserves and successfully navigating the organization through much of the pandemic.

It’s a drive he brought with him to TIGLFF, the state’s longest-running celebration of cinema by and for the LGBTQ community. It was founded in 1989 and has worked to entertain, enlighten and empower audiences ever since.

“The Tampa Bay International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival is excited to announce Victor Gimenez, formerly Executive Director of OUTshine LGBTQ+ Festival in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as its new Executive Director,” TIGLFF announced Nov. 29, 2021. “Mr. Gimenez will lead TIGLFF into its 33rd year and out of the pandemic by overseeing all aspects of the organization from fundraising to programming and building a new outreach effort in the community.”

TIGLFF Board President Rob Akins – who led the organization through the height of COVID-19 and in 2020 helped introduce TIGLFF Online, the festival’s streaming platform – also expressed his support. He said that Gimenez would “be instrumental in leading the organization and realizing the board’s vision for TIGLFF, to once again, be a leading LGBTQ+ arts organization.”

Gimenez hoped for the same. He said TIGLFF was “at a great crossroads to become a more vibrant part of the Tampa/St. Pete LGBTQ+ community by not only being an avenue where great films will be shown, but also allowing the community to come together to discuss those films, learn more about each other and create meaningful dialogue.”

By February, the organization launched its monthly A-List series, featuring films chosen by community programmers from throughout Tampa Bay. An average of 50 guests per show have enjoyed the nine showings presented this year.

“Our monthly screenings have done really well – and actually, they’ve done really well with films that you can watch at home,” Gimenez says. The selections have included fan favorites like “Kinky Boots,” which screened twice and was programmed by local drag performer Stephanie Shippae.

“People have wanted to get out and to meet up with people,” Gimenez explains. “To see some people they recognize, maybe meet new ones, and the monthly screenings we’ve had have been great for that.”

TIGLFF hopes that translates to this year’s 33rd annual festival, which returns Oct. 7-16 across new and fan favorite venues in St. Petersburg and Tampa. Around 50 full-length and short films will be presented, solidified by TIGLFF’s screening committee, its dedicated board and Brighid Wheeler, TIGLFF’s new program director.

Wheeler is the former programming director for the Atlanta Film Society and former senior programmer for the Indie Memphis Film Festival, a role she maintained for more than a decade. In addition to her work at TIGLFF, the cinephile serves on the Board of Film Impact Georgia, a nonprofit dedicated to uplifting the voices of independent filmmakers.

The programmer eagerly joined TIGLFF in June.

“I’ve been in the industry for a while but shockingly, I’ve never worked for a queer festival,” Wheeler says. “I’ve always programmed for non-genre, non-niche film festivals and the opportunity really excited me.”

She says that’s because voices within the community have often been silenced throughout history, leaving LGBTQ legacies to be lost forever.

“I think anytime you’re able to hold a space like TIGLFF does, specifically for cinema, it lends itself how crucial it is to document our stories,” Wheeler stresses. “We’ve been around throughout history and we’re still here. Being able to hold this space – especially in a state like Florida, in a time like this – only reinforces how important that is.”

Gimenez agrees. He says TIGLFF is not only documenting LGBTQ history, it’s doing so through an LGBTQ lens.

“The basic answer about why LGBTQ film festivals are still so important is always that representation matters, that the stories are about our lives and that it’s good to see ourselves on screen,” he explains. “But typically a queer film aimed specifically at a queer audience has a different take than a queer film aimed at a mainstream audience.

“Queer film festivals provide an avenue for these films that are made for queer audiences to be seen,” Gimenez continues. “I think that’s why they’re still needed and why they’re still very important. They have a different take, a different flavor and a different tone.”

The documentary “Mama Bears” is one example of that, this year’s opening night film. It will screen at Tampa Theatre, TIGLFF’s traditional home, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m.

“Spread across the country but connected through private Facebook groups, they call themselves ‘mama bears’ because while their love is warm and fuzzy, they fight ferociously to make the world kinder and safer for all LGBTQ+ people,” its synopsis reads. “Although some may have grown up as fundamentalist, evangelical Christians, mama bears are willing to risk losing friends, family, and faith communities to keep their offspring safe – even if it challenges their belief systems and rips their worlds apart.”

“In the process of selecting the opening night film, there are different options that we look at,” Gimenez says. “For ‘Mama Bears,’ I thought within seven minutes of watching, ‘okay, this is the opening night film.’ It was the only one that I felt that for, especially with the way things are in the state of Florida right now.”

In 2021, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the state’s first explicitly anti-LGBTQ bill in decades into law, restricting the inclusion of transgender athletes in sports. He subsequently championed “Parental Rights in Education,” more widely known as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law, which went into effect July 1. Each law targets LGBTQ youth.

“I get goosebumps thinking about ‘Mama Bears,’” Wheeler says. “To see this uplifting story about parents rallying around their children … it ends up being a true celebration of community that transcends any sort of political or religious affiliation. By the end of it, you can’t help but cry out of joy.”

“It gives you a positive feeling,” Gimenez agrees. “It makes you feel good about yourself and about allies within the community, knowing that people can change. Even people that you think wouldn’t.”

“It’s the kind of message right now that remains extremely timely and very important,” Wheeler adds. “We couldn’t think of a better way to set the tone for what the rest of the festival will have in store.”

Nearly the entire TIGLFF lineup this year will be more accessible than ever, screening in Tampa Bay theaters and subsequently available to stream statewide via TIGLFF Online. Only two films won’t be available virtually while one will not screen in person.

The decision was made in light of what industry experts liken to virtual fatigue, Gimenez notes. He says that while streaming was the savior of every film festival in 2020, 2021 saw a decline in virtual viewership.

“One major change from last year is that we had films that were only available virtually, and films that were only available physically,” Gimenez explains. “This year we’re basically giving our audience an option. If you don’t feel comfortable coming to the theater, or quite frankly if you have a conflict, you’ll still have an opportunity to watch this year’s films.”

There are several incentives to experience the films in person this year, however, including two new partnerships. Flanked by additional films at Tampa Theatre Oct. 8-9, TIGLFF will present its Oct. 8 women’s spotlight film “Youtopia” with Girls in Wonderland – a key organizer of women’s events during Orlando’s big LGBTQ weekend in June – at Postcard Inn on the Beach.

The outing will mark TIGLFF’s first time screening a film at the location. It will also precede a new Ladies’ Spotlight Party at 9 p.m.

“We thought of this an opportunity to expand our audience and to get some of our crowd to experience Girls in Wonderland,” Gimenez says. “It just seemed like an opportunity for two different organizations with two different points of views to come together and make something work.”

As for “Youtopia” – a comedic, lesbian-focused musical – the film was the perfect fit.

“When Scout Durwood’s girlfriend dumps her unexpectedly, Scout takes stock in her life and determines that from now on, if something doesn’t feel one hundred percent authentic to her, she’s not doing it,” it’s described. “Following the devastating break up, Scout inadvertently becomes the leader of a hipster millennial cult that engages with the multiverse and of course, aliens … she soon discovers that her journey of self-discovery could trigger the end of civilization as we know it and is forced to take on her biggest opponent yet: herself.”

“If you would have told me even just five months ago that my favorite film was going to be a comedic musical, I would have absolutely scoffed and turned on my heels,” Wheeler says. “But that’s the beauty about what I do. I’m forever learning about myself and my personal taste … if you come with an open mind, you will walk away from the film like I did.”

Films will begin screening in St. Petersburg’s Green Light Cinema – the home of TIGLFF’s A-List series – Oct. 10. Offerings will culminate Oct. 13 with this year’s centerpiece film, the documentary “Keep the Cameras Rolling: The Pedro Zamora Way.”

In another festival first, it will simultaneously screen in both St. Petersburg and Tampa via another new partnership. Tampa’s screening will be held at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and precede a Centerpiece Reception.

Gimenez says the film will appeal to all audiences.

“To borrow the slogan of MTV’s ‘The Real World,’ this is the true story – the true story of a pandemic; politics; misunderstanding and prejudice; the impact of the media; and, most importantly, AIDS activist Pedro Zamora,” it’s described. It details “his life, his joy and his influence, as told by people who knew and loved him, and by those who witnessed the strength of his commitment and its impact.”

While Zamora died at 22, the filmmakers note that “his insistence and his way with bravery, humanity and love truly changed the world.”

Screening the film at each venue was a way to reach a wider Tampa Bay audience, maximizing its impact, while also highlighting a new TIGLFF partner in the museum.

“In a way, this brings these segmented audiences together, giving them an opportunity to enjoy the same film while still being comfortable in their parts of town,” Wheeler says. “We’re experimenting this year to find ways to encourage cohesion throughout TIGLFF’s entire program. It felt like a great way to reinforce that.”

In-person screenings move to AMC Sundial Oct. 14, another of TIGLFF’s longtime partners. That includes the Oct. 15 closing night film “Petit Mal.”

“Anto, Marti, and Lai are a throuple blissfully living together in a remote house, with nothing but their beloved bundle of dogs keeping them company,” it’s described. “When Lai leaves for a work trip, the balance is thrown off and Marti and Anto must adapt to being just the two of them.

“Suddenly, the dreaminess of their secluded home becomes isolating, and all they have to rely on is each other,” the synopsis continues. “In the spirit of honest and vulnerable openness, this semi-autobiographical blend of documentary and fiction … is an invitation to experience the intimate details, both unique and universal, of the ups and downs and shifting dynamics in a polyamorous relationship.”

Both Gimenez and Wheeler have high praise for the film, which has been celebrated by mainstream and LGBTQ audiences alike. Wheeler first saw it during this year’s Tribeca Festival.

“Anyone who chooses to come to ‘Petit Mal’ … is going to love it,” she promises. “You’re going to be really deeply grateful that you chose to see the film.” She says it’s the perfect close to a film festival that begins with “Mama Bears.”

“You’ve got the hope from the opening night film, all of that energy and enthusiasm, and you close on what can be considered an art film that’s just generally accessible,” she explains. “Ultimately it wraps the festival up with a positive impact for our loyal audience.”

Wheeler also encourages audiences to challenge themselves this year.

“Choose something that takes you outside of your comfort zone, for the sake of enjoyment or for the sake of being changed,” she stresses. “There’s definitely something for everyone, I can promise that.”

That’s clear from this year’s full schedule, detailed here. Single admission tickets begin at $15 for virtual or in-person screenings and passes are available for those wishing to see multiple films, whether that’s in a theater or at home. Once a film is unlocked via TIGLFF Online, viewers will have 48 hours to complete their screening.

Passes offered this year are a Quad Feature Pass for $45, which includes four general admission tickets; a Full Festival Pass for $150, which provides access to every film and a Director’s Cut Total Access pass for $250 with additional perks.

“Coming to the festival is a communal act, to laugh, cry and get involved together,” Gimenez says. “Especially this year, with everything going on in Florida, it’s also a kind of political act to let other people know that we exist.

“These are our stories,” he continues. “They’re important, not just to us, but they should be important to everybody. We’re gathering together to be seen and to be heard and we’re going to keep sharing our stories.”

TIGLFF 33 is Oct. 7-16. In-person screenings will be held at Tampa Theatre, located at 711 N. Franklin St. in Tampa; Green Light Cinema at 221 2nd Ave. in St. Petersburg and AMC Sundial 12 at 151 2nd Ave. N. in St. Petersburg.

Special event screenings and receptions will be held at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts at 400 N. Ashley Dr. Cube 200 in Tampa and Postcard Inn at 6300 Gulf Blvd. in St. Pete Beach. Virtual screenings will be held via TIGLFF Online at TIGLFF.Eventive.org. Learn more and purchase tickets or passes at TIGLFF.com.

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