Before the first annual Out in the Desert film festival wrapped in February 2012, plans were already in motion to make the second iteration an even bigger celebration of Tucson's LGBT community, independent filmmaking and the boundary-breaking discussions they inspire.
The Southwest LGBT Film Society kicks off Out in the Desert 2013 on Wednesday, Jan. 23, and festival director Joe Sprague is confident those attending will be exposed to an array of topics and storylines in an accepting environment, regardless of their sexuality.
"Everybody that comes to the festival gets a real overall experience of the gay community," said Sprague, who reviewed films with the festival staff for months in order to expand this year's program offerings. More than 600 submissions from around the world were whittled down to the 164 official selections, which run the gamut from feature-length films to shorts only a few minutes long.
Out in the Desert has originality in its favor due to its programming style. According to Sprague, it's the only LGBT film festival in the world organized by genre rather that lumping films together purely by sexuality. The latter method, he said, limits filmmakers to reaching only viewers who share their romantic preferences.
Through organizing by genre, "We're exposing the whole community to the whole community, where in the past, as well as all other film LGBT fests, they segregate our population," Sprague said. "This is something new that no one else is doing, and the filmmakers are really excited about it."
The films may be provocative, emotionally devastating or hit every note in between, but attendees can dig even deeper into the screenings through question-and-answer sessions and other encounters with the filmmakers themselves. Sprague sought out grants and sponsorships to help cover the travel costs of filmmakers from Russia, Germany, Ireland and beyond so that they could participate in the festival.
"We are lucky enough that every single program right now except one has some sort of VIP coming in for it," Sprague said, adding that he received RSVPs from filmmakers in the final days leading up to last year's festival and expects this year's agenda to expand as well.
Michael Jacoby, the director and editor of the short film With This Ring, is traveling to Tucson from New York to represent his film in the Best Drama category.
With This Ring, a film noir-inspired short starring Justin Misenhelder and Greg Engbrecht, tells the story of a recently divorced man who allows an attractive stranger into his life, only to find the encounter might not have come from innocent intentions. Jacoby and George Zuber, the writer and executive producer of the film, sought to "turn the whole idea of gay marriage upside down," according to Jacoby, by showing that marriage equality also includes the potential for not-so-happy endings.
The ability to dismiss the "candy-coated," stereotypical storylines of gay films in years past is progress that Jacoby credits to the growing presence of film festivals and their appeal to open-minded and ideologically diverse populations.
"I think the festivals are taking a shot at more offbeat programming, and festival crowds have responded," Jacoby said. "We're not necessarily filling entertainment holes with just one type of film for one type of person. I think the dialogue is just there, and open to everybody."
Opening night of Out in the Desert aims to impress. Sprague said the screening will feature a lineup of the short films that scored "a perfect five" from the festival judges.
"They're what we're considering our cream of the crop for the festival," Sprague said. "If someone comes to opening night, they're going to have a roller coaster of a ride with the different types of films, but it's going to give them an idea of what all of our other programming is like."
Standouts in each of the festival's genres are nominated for Crystal Cactus Awards, the winners of which will be announced on the closing night of the festival.