Miami's gay film fest a challenge for director Coombes

by Lydia Martin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

3 May 2007

"Miami's gay and lesbian community is much more mainstream, than other places," says Carol Coombes, film festival director, Miami Beach, Florida, April 23, 2007. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/MCT) 

MIAMI - For weeks now, folks have been pestering Carol Coombes, director of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, to keep saying “Itty Bitty Titty Committee.”

It’s a gas, the way Coombes, whose funky vintage getups and shocking red hair and lipstick hearken to lesbian pulp-fiction characters of old, pronounces the title of the film that pokes fun at feminist politics.

Coombes is more than happy to work her British accent for the amusement of festivalgoers. She is not one to fear consonants, or rush words.

So it’s “It-ty Bit-ty Tit-ty Com-mit-tee,” hard on all the T’s.

It screens May 5 as part of the ninth Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (in conjunction with a party to kick off the lesbian beach blowout Aqua Girl, May 10-13) and features lesbian model Jenny Shimizu, Daniela Sea of “The L Word” and Guinevere Turner, who has worked both sides of the camera on Showtime’s girl-on-girl soap, and could be called a lesbian icon, given her work in other required-lesbian-viewing titles such as “Go Fish,” “The Watermelon Woman” and “Chasing Amy.”

“Itty Bitty Titty Committee” would be an easy sell at any other gay and lesbian film festival in the country, but Coombes isn’t so sure about Miami audiences. In fact, ticket sales are slow.

“Then again, Miami audiences tend to buy tickets at the last minute, so it’ll be a different story in a week. But I don’t know if it speaks to a Miami audience as well as it would speak to a Seattle or San Francisco audience because all the women are kind of rock-chick grungy,” says Coombes, who calls programming for the unpeggable South Florida gay and lesbian community her biggest challenge.

“Miami’s gay and lesbian community is much more mainstream than other places,” she says over orange juice and fruit. “When I first got here in 2001, I was told, `Program Spanish-language films, and everybody will come. Program transgender movies, and nobody will come.’ That’s true. This is not New York or London or San Francisco where you can program a trans film and the trans community will be rushing to see it.”

But Coombes programs those films anyway, pushing audiences toward uncomfortable or unfamiliar perspectives. This year, the 10-day festival, which opened Friday with a new take on “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and runs through Sunday, features 104 shorts and feature-length films, 15 more than last year. They are being screened in Miami, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. About 13,000 are expected to attend.

The event is considered one of the most important gay and lesbian film festivals in the country by gay filmmakers and distributors who more and more use Miami to launch new projects.

“The Miami festival is basically at the beginning of the gay film-festival season, so it’s important because of it’s timing,” says Megan Hammitt, festival and acquisitions coordinator for L.A.-based Picture This! Entertainment, which distributes gay and lesbian films. “You get a sense in Miami of what’s going to play other festivals. And Carol is great. She picks a good variety of films.”

And yet, the festival can drag, playing too many films that seem to scrape the bottom of the gay and lesbian-themed barrel. Is it that gay audiences, seeking to see themselves represented on screen, will watch anything gay, worthy or not? Are they that superficial?

“I do sit through an awful amount of horrible films where it’s, `My girlfriend got me a camera for Christmas, and this is what I made,’” Coombes says. “With technology today, everybody can be a filmmaker. That doesn’t mean everybody is a good filmmaker. But I do believe I program the best of what’s out there. For example, we have a really interesting documentary called “Boy I Am,” which explores what happened to the butch culture, particularly in places like San Francisco and Chicago where it’s fashionable to become male.”

But Miami lesbians may not be the quickest to relate, because they are generally “very femme, very lipstick,” says Coombes, whose urban/retro look makes her feel like an odd presence in a town where the gay and lesbian crowd doesn’t tend to be down with (depending on your perspective) the gay edge - or ultimately cliched subcultures.

“I probably fit in more in San Francisco,” Coombes says. Though she does have the lipstick thing down.

The cartoon-red hair has just been freshened, she says, because she’s been hyper-sensitive about her roots showing since she got read by a drag queen in Key West a while back.

“This drag queen came up to me and said, `Love your hair, but your roots are bad.’ You just don’t ever want a drag queen saying something like that to you. And they tend to be taller, so they can always see your roots,” says Coombes, originally from Manchester, though she spent 17 years in London, five of them working for the London Film festival and the London Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

“She is definitely a character,” says Andre Perwin, who works in computer systems support and will attend the festival all but one night this year. “She adds a lot of presence to the festival. And she does a great job of programming for a community that can be very difficult. It’s been interesting to watch her grow since she got here. At first she was a little shy, a little self-conscious about her accent. Now she works it.”

“For some reason, this year it’s all about me saying `Itty Bitty Titty Committee.’ Last year everybody wanted me to keep saying HBO.”

“Hache-B-O,” says Coombes, who is still adjusting to Miami.”

“I think Miami’s gay community has evolved since I got here, but then so have I. At first I thought, they’re not very cineliterate. They don’t know Pier Paolo Pasolini. But then I realized I didn’t know very much about American culture, either. We had Bea Arthur at the festival a while back, and it was such a big deal to everybody. It sounds really stupid coming from a gay film-festival programmer, but I said, `Who the hell is Bea Arthur?’”

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