As an organization and a film festival, NewFest has come to define Chelsea’s cinematic scene every October for the past 31 years. Although NewFest supports queer cinema year-round through screenings, programs, parternerships, and events, the centerpiece of these efforts is undoubtedly its late October showcase, which occurred this year in NYC from October 23rd to October 29th. Remarkable in the scope of its geographic, racial, ethnic, linguistic, ability, and class representations, NewFest supports queer film industry professionals in their efforts to place complex, multifaceted, and global queer experiences on the big screen.
To that end, it also provides a haven for audiences hungry for such content. On a crisp fall evening, I joined a packed audience turning out to Chelsea’s Cinépolis in order to watch “The Hot Girl Mixtape,” the short film showcase of the festival’s “My Girl Friday.” Attracted to the event’s nod to the unapologetically femme energy of contemporary musical icon Megan Thee Stallion, we eagerly settled into the dark theatre for this collection of seven short films. Reflective of the festival’s overall commitment to intersectional representations of queerness, “The Hot Girl Mixtape” focused on the myriad of ways that queer women deal with romance, friendship, family, and self-discovery. The films Potion Masters (directed by Cameron Laventure) and Friends Like That (directed by Francesca de Fusco), for example, both depicted the potential messiness of romantic relationships and the ways in which buried feelings can unexpectedly bubble to the surface.
The messiness of romance also appeared in the film Throuple (directed by Chrisse De Guzman), wherein a stripper finds herself in a relationship with a married couple. Although the film certainly continues the current cultural conversation around the intersections of queerness and polyamory, it unfortunately does so in a stereotypical fashion. It is not difficult to find representations of polyamory that feature triads with two queer cis women and one cisgender heterosexual man. In reality, however, this kind of polyamorous relationship is by no means the most common. Despite the films uncomfortable and unaddressed racial optics (the married couple presents as upper-middle class and white, while the stripper presents as racially ambiguous but certainly non-white), it successfully depicts the loving moments of romantic intimacy and the possibility of three people sharing and enjoying them together.
While the aforementioned three films successfully explored the intimacy of romantic relationships, other films within the showcase casted a larger analytic net, highlighting issues that impact entire communities. For example, directed by Abena Taylor-Smith, Ladies Day introduced the audience to the racial, gender, and sexual politics of British black hair salons. With close cut shots of Luster’s Pink™ hair spray, Kanekalon braiding hair, and sizzling hot combs, the film’s cinematography conveys a kind of reverence for these culturally defining relics of black femininity. However, this loving treatment of the black hair salon sits alongside the discomforting reality of both the subtle and explicit displays of homophobia that occur within it. They range from narrow and restrictive gender expectations to outright bigotry. The protagonist, Amma, quietly and uncomfortably observes these dynamics as she gets her hair braided, all the while dodging invasive and presumptuous questions about why she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Unbeknownst to the older stylist, however, Amma does in fact have a romantic partner — that partner just happens to be a woman. Surely to the audience’s delight, Amma overcomes the initial hesitancy around her queerness with which she started the film, acknowledging and introducing her partner to the salon’s stylists by the film’s end. In effect, the film uses a near universal experience — that is, going to the hair salon —in order to present a neat, feel-good coming-out narrative.
In some ways, the film Origin (directed by Simone Lyles) presents a counter-narrative to the feel-good coming-out narrative of Ladies Day. Although both films feature two black women dealing with the homophobia that exists within their respective communities, Origin, which is set in the early 1980s, demonstrates the process by which individuals can internalize the very ways of thinking that seek to harm them. The protagonist, Kora, painfully attempts to repress her love for her best friend by relying on conversion therapy tapes. The tapes, of course, are not successful and instead serve as an unsettling reminder of the emotional and psychological violence that religious institutions have inflicted on queer people.
Other highlights of the showcase included Misdirection, directed by Carly Usine, and Dress Code, directed by Melanie Notinger. Clever, adorable, and sobering, Misdirection follows college freshman Camila as she manages both her obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as her unrequited love for her (presumably) very straight roommate. Interestingly, she finds the solution to both of these issues in the form of magic tricks, pouring her energy in mastering her new craft. By the film’s conclusion, Camila has not only become an impressive magician, but she has also reciprocated the romantic interest of another classmate that she previously ignored. Finally, while more serious in tone, Dress Code similarly tracks a journey of self-discovery: Dani, an introverted poetry student, experiments with her gender expression through her styling choices. Rich in color and sophisticated in tone, the film offers Dani’s fascination with drag performance as an invitation for the audience to think through the literal performance of gender.
To my delight, the MyGirlFriday after party, hosted at the Ace Hotel in Chelsea, ended the night just as it began: with devastatingly stylish queer women and non-binary folk celebrating the talent of these bold, fresh filmmakers.
Keyanah Nurse is the Senior Editor for Honeysuckle Magazine and a PhD candidate in the Department of History at NYU. You can find her musings on love, sex, race, whisky, and makeup on Twitter @KeyanahNurse.