Bryon Fear & Michael Langan talk to Alex Karotsch and Muffin Hix about the hip queer film festival Fringe!
The Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest is now in its third year. It’s a DIY pop-up, volunteer run festival that is helmed by six remarkable people who have created something unique and special for the queer community. This year Polari Magazine is proud to be a community partner of this exciting and undeniably hip festival.
Michael Langan and Bryon Fear met with Alex Karotsch and Muffin Hix at the Hackney Picture House, one of the Fringe! festival’s adopted homes, to talk about how the festival began, how it operates as an organisation and what we can expect from this year’s programme.
What were the origins of the Fringe! film festival and from what concepts, if any, was it borne from?
AK: It all happened two years ago in 2011 when the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival was cut down from 2 weeks to 1. Liz and Anna had the idea to put something on the weekend that the LLGFF was no longer happening and they put a call out on Most Cake website, which I responded to. So I met up with them and we got on really well and we just decided to do it.
How much time did you have to plan it?
AK: We had two months to organise the whole thing, but it immediately got a lot bigger than we thought it was going to be.
MH: Wasn’t the original idea, that there would be films showing at people’s houses that were willing to host it?
AK: Yes that was the initial idea that Anna and Liz had, to show some films in people’s living rooms –
MH: And then it quickly snowballed into something much much bigger.
AK: Yes. Liz got in touch with the Rio and they came on board straight away, and it developed from there.
Did the festival start out with a mission to be an alternative to the LLGFF?
AK: A little bit. On the one hand it was to make up for that lost weekend, but on the other hand it was to offer something slightly different. You don’t want to do exactly the same thing, because that would be pointless.
MH: Also, when you get different people involved, all of our individual tastes have influenced the direction the festival goes in. But it definitely was a solidarity measure – that this kind of cultural phenomenon can’t stop. It can’t be cut.
I remember when the LLGFF announced it was cutting its two-week programme down to seven days, I was shocked.
MH: We were all shocked. It was the first thing to be affected after the announcement of the arts cuts. It was the first in film, and in queer culture, to suffer from that.
I’m assuming, at that in your first year, there was no funding to run the festival.
AK: In the first year, we ran the festival on about £1000. Most of that came from ticket sales.
MH: But we had £300 upfront from the Most Cake people who co-founded the festival.
Five Dances (2012), opening night film
And the venues gave their spaces for free?
AK: Venues like the Rio Cinema, we had a box-office split, but a lot of the venues in the first year, like Bistrotheque they gave us the venues for free if we did free screenings, but we wanted to do a lot of free events anyway because of the recession.
It’s a defining part of the festival.
AK: Yes, we kept that. Last year and this year there is a lot that’s free.
MH: Especially when there are so many events, we like to keep as much of it free as possible so people can really make a day of it. You can do a whole daytime of seeing people, going to workshops and screenings in the evening and not spend a fortune.
I understand now why the Fringe! festival is so close in the LGBT calendar to the LLGFF because its inception was intrinsically tied to it. Were the BFI resistant in any way to what you were doing?
AK: I think they were at first. Because we organised it so quickly in the first year, we didn’t really –
MH: – have any communication –
AK: – and that was probably not the best thing to do. We were never supposed to be a competitor; it was more an act of solidarity. But it was a bit awkward that first year.
MH: But now we actually sit down with them and discuss where we’re going with the festival, so that we don’t have programming overlap and we co-promote each other. Also, we’re after them, so we’re not competing for premieres and we show films that they wouldn’t or didn’t show.
Nitrate Kisses (1992), Barbara Hammer
Fringe! has a different personality from the LLGFF. Curatorially, it’s very distinctive and there should be space for both festivals. Do you curate in a way to fit a theme or is it a more organic process where excellence is more important?
AK: This year it is a bit of both. We applied for funding for new strands within the festival. For example there is ‘Limited Visibility’ strand that looks at marginalised groups within the LGBT community, which we had to specifically programme for –
MH: – but these are all films that we would have shown anyway. But it is nice that we now have some funding to pay for things like print transport and screening fees for some of the films, like the Rosa von Praunheim, which is great, but without the funding we just wouldn’t have been able to show these films.
And so what is your selection process?
MH: We still programme almost everything out of open submission. We don’t have any restriction on what year the film was made so it doesn’t have to be new. We’re showing a few classics. We’re screening a Barbara Hammer, Itty Bitty Titty Committee –
– and Mean Girls, which of course is a classic!
MH: (laughs) Means Girls also, is definitely a classic.
And of course the thing about a lot of classics, is that people may not have necessarily seen them, so you’re bringing them to a new audience.
AK: Yes. For example the Derek Jarman film that we’re showing in conjunction with The Sunday Society this year, a lot of people have said, “this is my favourite Jarman film but I have never seen it in a cinema, I can’t wait to see it on the big screen”.
When you make decisions about which classics to screen, are the choices ever political?
MH: No, I think they are very personal and even though Josefeen and I are listed as the official programmers, it still works as a collective. Everybody has input on the films that are in. It’s good to show classic or archive films. A festival doesn’t have to be about big shiny premieres. We don’t have an industry section to our festival. It’s for the public that want to come out and see films – it’s a big social event, all of our screenings have bar spaces and parties afterward for people to hang out and talk. So coming to see classics is a sharing of our culture.
Bob Mizer Retrospective
How many submissions do you get a year?
MH: It’s been rapidly growing. Last year we had 150, and this year we had 270. That includes shorts and features.
Do you find you get more shorts because they are easier to shoot?
MH: We do get more shorts. The split is about 70/30.
AK: The quality of the shorts we received this year has been amazing.
MH: Outstanding quality. We’ve actually created more shorts programmes this year than we’ve had before, just to fit more in. And of course all of our shorts screenings are free, so we hope lots of people will come out for those. It’s a real showcase of filmmakers. We have lots of local people, and people from around Europe coming to show their films.
What films and events are you most excited about this year?
MH: I’m really excited about our documentaries. It’s been a really strong year for documentaries. I’m super excited about deepsouth, which is about the AIDS epidemic in the American south and the way poverty has effected that situation and the incredible people who are working on the ground there. And Hide and Seek, which is about the trans community in Pakistan, it’s an incredible film. And One Zero One – The Story of Cybersissy and BayBjane is totally trippy and insane and was the one of the films we all watched and said, “this is it”! Cybersissy and BayBjane are going to come which we’re really excited about and it’s their world premiere!
AK: I’m really excited about our opening film Five Dances, which is a dance film more than a gay film. The main character is gay and the film is broken up by 5 big dance scenes and it really is beautiful. The director is going to be here, at the Q&A and for the whole festival. We showed his film last year Private Romeo.
It’s nice to see a returning director at the festival.
AK: Which also is the case with Travis Mathews who we’re showing again this year, In My Room, London. And I’m also very excited about the Bob Mizer retrospectives that we’re running this year.
The Cardinal Pole, School of Fringe! venue
You also have ten more events this year than you had last.
MH: This is partly because we have the school. Which is going to be the coolest, funkiest, fringiest little venue. The School of Fringe! is a disused Catholic school on the edge of Victoria Park.
AK: It used to be a Huguenot hospital.
MH: It’s so stunning. In one of the classrooms we have a screening room, we’re using the old library for the Little Joe daily free events running lectures and screenings. And we also have the School of Fringe! Den, which will be a very intimate 30 person screening room, that’s going to be all cushiony and matressy –
– like a womb!
MH: There’ll also be a little café so that people can have sustenance there and in the Chapel we’re running workshops –
AK: – frisky, risky workshops in the Chapel!
Tickets for the festival are now on sale. Free events and workshops are ticketed so book in advance to avoid disappointment. Go to the Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest website and reserve your tickets now.