Film Festival Adventures – Philadelphia

I produced and acted in a film at the beginning of this year called Southern Baptist Sissies, we completed the film in June and had the world premiere to a sold out crowd at the Outfest film festival in Los Angeles in July.  As part of sharing the film with wider audiences, we submitted the film to a number of film festivals.  My producer partner and our writer/director Del Shores and I have endeavored to make ourselves available to any festival that has the funds to get us there in order to promote the film and engage with the audience about the themes we’ve explored in it.  These are the adventures that accompany attending those festivals.

First stop.  Philadelphia for Philadelphia Q Fest.

We opened Sissies in Los Angeles on a Monday night, and that weekend Del and I flew to Philly for the east coast premiere.  We awoke early Saturday morning – the kind of early where you only see trash collectors and glitzy outfits haphazardly thrown back on for a walk of shame (or pride depending on your perspective.)  I am not a morning person.  I think morning people are from the devil – and not the “drugs and endless orgies” devil, no, the “listen to Ann Coulter read her books out loud for all eternity” devil.  Del is quite a morning person, and this was an early start even for him.  However, we were extremely excited about our first road trip with the film, so we sped down the empty streets of Los Angeles to the airport flyaway parking and jumped on our plane to Philly.  Where I promptly slept the entire way.

Arriving in Philly, we were met at baggage claim by Dave, our driver for the weekend.  Apparently as a volunteer for the festival (nearly all film festivals succeed because of the countless hours donated by volunteers who make it possible for the festivals to exist), Dave had also volunteered specifically for us (well, realistically, for Del, and I was the plus one in the package deal.)  We were joined in our ride into town by another filmmaker attending the festival.

Dave gave us an overview of Philly as we passed through it, and I nonchalantly offered, “I’m so excited to finally find out of this whole ‘brotherly love’ thing is about incest or black men.  Either way I hope these brothers are hot.”  Now, Del was busy on his phone (email, social media, the man runs his empire solo) so he missed it completely.  The other filmmaker looked over his shoulder at me and I found great amusement watching my statement play across his face while tried to decide if what my ridiculous comment was racist or not.  I should mention at this point that he was African-American.  In the end, he decided not to comment either way.  Whatever.  I thought it was hilarious.

We arrived at the hotel in the late Philly afternoon.  Del had friends in town so he headed out to meet them for dinner, leaving me free to roam downtown Philly on my own.  I’m a travel dork.  I love going new places.  At age sixteen, my family moved from suburban Houston half way around the world to Singapore, and the amount of traveling I was able to do because of that has left an itch I just cannot scratch enough.

Thus, I strolled out of the hotel, checked the GPS map on my phone so I could make it back and sauntered the blocks around our hotel.  After a bit of people watching and window-gazing, I decided dinner was in order.  I realize it may come as a shock to some, but I do occasionally eat.  Like once a month usually does it.

I used Foursquare (yes, seriously) and read some reviews of places nearby and found a highly recommended burger joint.  It was just a burger joint, but I eat kind of like a five-year-old, so the fact that it was not Subway was a huge win in the “trying new things” column.  I devoured a half pound burger with a fried egg and a side of truffle fries and hurried back to dress for the evening.

Our screening was at 9:15pm and on the way to the Ritz East Theater, Driver Dave gave us the history of Philly regarding the blocks, building and parks as we passed.  (Dave, I still appreciate your indulgence as I peppered you with questions continuously along the ride.)

We arrived at the Ritz East Theater for the screening to discover a nice little art house theater.  Apparently in Philly the independent art theater do not show any mainstream films – you have to head out to a mall with a megaplex to find those – and that is truly awesome.  The lobby was filled with people waiting the late night batch of screenings.  It turns out that we were screening head-to-head with a film called “RoadStrip” having its world premiere starring to porn stars on a road trip across the country.  Given the choice between that and our angsty drama about gays and the church, we were thrilled with the massive turnout for our screening.

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The screening was fantastic.  We were thrilled and relieved that both the drama and the comedy and the unusual concept behind our film played extremely well in front of a discerning east coast audience.  The Q&A after was humbling as audience members shared their reactions and stories with us and it was a great encouragement that the film is truly touching people – whether they relate to the story or not.  (Side note – in case you were wondering, RoadStrip next door was a huge success as well.)

After the screening, Del had guests in town and we decided to venture out and hit the afterparty for RoadStrip and see a bit of the nightlife.  The massive club where the party was being held was still nearly empty when we arrived at nearly 1AM; we were informed that it was the truly late night club where everyone headed once the other bars closed.  Since we got velvet-roped at the VIP area for the Cockyboys party, we decided to venture further on.

Approaching club number two just down the street, we witnessed a large bouncer unceremoniously toss one youngish gentleman of the obviously homosexual persuasion into the street.  He turned and yelled back, “you can’t treat people like that!” and as we drew closer we realized he was bleeding from the head.  Concerned, I ran up and inquired if he was okay.  He said he was, but I held his head still to look at the wound.  It seemed it wasn’t still bleeding strongly and looked worse than it was.  I’ll be honest, at discovering that he seemed unlikely to bleed out in front of me, I was reticent to actually touch him further, but told him where he should wipe up.  So, good Samaritan-ish.

We entered Woody’s.  It was loud and vibrant, and much more the jubilant environment we wanted for celebrating.  We people watched from the patio until it started to rain.  Re-entering the bar we concluded that checking out the upstairs dance floor might be fun, however, upon arriving and seeing the massive wave of people, my compatriots clearly were not so interested in pressing the flesh with the unwashed masses for the after 2AM adventure.

Exiting the establishment, we decided to call it a night.  Del and I bid his friends farewell and strolled back toward our hotel.  I like walking in cities late at night, there’s such a different character to be explored.  And, how else will you get to hear “Oh no, he’s on crack” expressed by three different individuals in basically the same wording in a ten minute walk?  Apparently Philly has a tiny crack problem late at night, but I don’t have the statistics right in front of me.  Del and I found a great tiny late night dinner and dug into some greasy fare and then called it a night.

Sunday morning began bright and early with a much needed trip to the Starbucks I had located in my previous afternoon exploration (okay, fine, it was half the reason I went exploring – I have a problem.  I’m not proud of it.)  Dave arrived promptly to get us back to the theater for our second screening at noon.

Both of our Philly screenings were sponsored by an incredible organization called The IDentity Kit Project that works to promote conversations in the areas of sexuality and religious identity.  It was a perfect fit for the conversation of Sissies and we were thrilled to have Crystal Cheatham speak about their work.  You can find out more about  The IDentity Kit Project here.

The screening ended and during the Q&A we heard an incredible story from a man named Juan Carlos Cruz Chellow.  He saw a stage production of Sissies in Chicago years ago, and he explained that the experience of the play caused him to decide to come forward as a victim of sexual abuse by an extremely well-known Catholic priest in his home country of Chile.

Fun travel stories and film festival adventures aside, it’s the stories we are told about the impact of Southern Baptist Sissies that is the reason we are doing all of this.  Now back to your regularly scheduled random anecdotes.

After the second screening was the only real bit of free time we had during this whirlwind thirty-six hour trip to Philly, and I was absolutely determined to see some of the history sights.  I’m enough of a nerd about it that I made a reservation in advance for a tour of Independence Hall.  So, I bailed from the screening and headed for the central historic district.  Once there, I hit as many of the sights and buildings as I could, combining the information from the plaques at each sight and the wikipedia entries I pulled up on my phone while standing in front of them to get a sense of exactly what I was seeing.  Hey, my time was limited, so I did the best I could do!

I struggled with the Liberty Bell.  Well, I struggled with what to do with it after I made four hundred dumb jokes about the crack in it anyway (at least one was related to the late night crack comments I overheard, obviously.)  I did not have time to see the Bell because of the glacial pace of the line for it and still make my tour.  However, the Bell is housed in a big building with a glass front, so I looked at it from a distance and ran on.

The tour of Independence Hall was epic for two reasons.  The first obviously being the history.  It’s a small room really, smaller than most productions of the musical 1776 use to portray the events there – with the added benefit of bursting into song – something that might have been beneficial to the founders to ease tensions if they had thought of it.  It was a little overwhelming considering the enormous decisions made it that room and the direct influence they still have on our political conversation today.  They were still just men trying to do the best for themselves and the people they represented and they arrived at documents we aspire to live up to today.  There views were just as polarized as our current politicians, and yet they still managed to arrive at a workable compromise.  I wasn’t quite sure whether to see that as hopeful for our current climate or depressing because we seem so far from being able to do the same.

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The second awesome aspect of the tour was the guide.  With his long hair pulled tightly back into a salt-and-pepper ponytail, he had the kind of piercing baritone voice that must have characterized many of the great orators who succeeded before electronic amplification became possible.  He did not, however, seem to have volume control.  His first explanation started in a small room, and he was so loud that I watched three small children cover their ears and nearly everyone in the room snicker slightly as it seemed his intent was not to tell us the history highlights, but to scream them directly into our brain cells.

I did not sing any of the songs from 1776 during the tour.  That was very difficult for me.

I finished my tour and needed to speed walk back to the hotel to clean myself up from the effects of the 91,000 damn degrees heat and head for a filmmaker gathering before the closing film and party.  I stopped at a Mister Softee truck parked in front of the tourist district and had a vanilla milkshake with extra vanilla.  One of my very good friends extols the virtues of Mister Softee as one of the best food substances on the face of the earth, so I tried it for his sake and took a photo to prove I had.  However, when I told him it was “fine” it created a rift in our friendship that we are still working to prepare.  I’m kidding.  Mostly.

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We had a great time with some of the other filmmakers and headed for the closing night film.  During the introductions, the very person who was unsure about my possibly racist/incesty brotherly love joke made this comment to the waiting crowd, “I’m excited to be in Philly and see about all of that brotherly love…” (crickets from the audience…) “because…you know, brothers…” (crickets continue) “yeah…someone tried that on me and it didn’t work either.”  I did not jump up and say, “of course it didn’t, because you tried to steal my dumb joke and didn’t even deliver it correctly after kind of being judgy when I delivered it in the first place!”  But I didn’t.

After the final film, we all headed en masse to the after party, Driver Dave still dutifully and kindly getting us around town and enjoyed food, drag performances and then the awards in a cool underground multi-purpose art venue.  All cement, all enclosed, but great light setup and music with a jazz ensemble in the next room.  The same filmmaker that didn’t like my joke, then tried to use it and failed came by and spoke to Del as the festivities wrapped up.  He did something that happens often when Del and I are together and ignored the fact that I was standing right there.  It does not bother me when it happens, Del has had a hugely successful career in many mediums for thirty years and he certainly deserves the recognition and attention he gets, more than he gets sometimes frankly.  However, often standing together, I get a great insight into the kind of people that speak to him.  It’s kind of like that theory that if you want to understand how so many treats people, don’t watch how they treat the other guests at the table, watch how the treat the waiter.  And I’m the waiter in our scenario.  It provides me great amusement in the world of my favorite sport – people watching.

During my time in Philly, I had posted on Facebook that I was there and discovered that a friend from the Baylor theatre department was living and working in Philly.  We connected late in the evening and it turns out she was closing a huge production of Grease at a downtown theatre and was heading out with the cast to the gayborhood to celebrate.  I bailed on the afterparty and walked for 20 mins through the sweltering heat to meet her at an awesome gay wine bar.  We caught up and chatted about our shared Baylor experiences and how they’ve impacted our coming out journeys.  She’s African-American and lesbian, and at one point in college the joke was made more than once that she filled two friend quotas at the same time!  She’s awesome and talented and I had a blast catching up and then moving onto a piano karaoke bar (yes, seriously, open mic piano) with her and her cast to bring my long Philly day to an end.

So, in the end, Philadelphia Q Fest was a truly amazing weekend.  The festival treated us well, the staff were kind and gracious, Driver Dave was our personal hero and the audiences at both screenings were enthusiastically receptive during the film and thoughtful and appreciative in the Q&As.  We couldn’t have asked for better treatment from Philly and it was a great kickoff to our traveling festival adventures.

You can check out the video I made of parts of the Philly weekend here:

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