Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival returns this week for its 38th year. While the festival is all virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, their mission hasn’t changed: to provide a variety of premiere films from various queer perspectives across the globe.
Early in the pandemic, Brenda Webb, founder of Reeling and executive director of Chicago Filmmakers, had plans to make Reeling a hybrid version of the festival. The team even briefly entertained the idea of a drive-in version until it became too much of a logistical burden. As time went on, it became clear that anything in-person was no longer an option, so they pivoted.
Reeling, like most festivals, isn’t programmed based on a specific theme. Rather, it’s a diverse reflection of the queer stories being told by filmmakers right now. However, Webb notes that certain themes have arisen across their programs, some of which resonate much deeper in this unpredictable year.
“You can’t really go into [programming] with a preconceived notion,” says Webb. “Especially with a niche festival. You sort of have to survey the lay of the land. What’s out there? What’s interesting?”
A common theme across various films in this year’s festival is coming home—whether it be to come out or to reconnect with family—which is certainly emphasized when watching from one’s own home. Nicolás Teté’s A Skeleton in the Closet, for example, follows a young man who returns to his small hometown to ask his family for money to be with his boyfriend, underscored by the tense emotions of his last visit when he came out to his family as gay.
“So much of the LGBT experience sometimes is that people leave home,” says Webb. “They feel like they need to break away from that, or the people who know them, their family. So there’s this feeling of returning home this year.”
One of Reeling’s short film programs, End of the World as You Know It, resonates with our current moment more than anything else in the festival. The program’s five films hone in on all-too-familiar issues—from anxiety to diseases and masks to natural disasters—all through a uniquely queer lens.
“It was interesting to see these films through this lens [of COVID-19],” says Webb. “I was really excited to put that program together because it’s all about disasters and human survival in the face of disasters—whether it’s hurricanes or an HIV diagnosis.”
Also of note in this year’s program is the wide array of international titles. There are more foreign films than non-foreign films this time around: including Pablo Larraín’s bisexual and reggaeton-saturated Ema from Chile; Sophia Yen’s documentary Taiwan Equals Love, about the lives of gay Taiwanese couples and families; and Rodrigo Bellott’s mental health drama Tu Me Manques from Bolivia, among many others.
“It’s interesting to see over the years that certain countries or certain geographic areas start to emerge, or there seems to be kind of a renewal of interest in LGBT topics,” says Webb.
In addition to the festival’s 22 feature films, ten documentaries, and 54 short films, there are filmmaker Q&As and panel discussions for nearly every program—something that was practically unheard of in previous versions of Reeling.
“One of the benefits of having a virtual festival is that you have access to all these artists that under normal circumstances—like small travel budgets—would not give you the opportunity to connect with so many people,” says Webb.
Another benefit of the all-virtual fest is being able to adapt the program to include more films and more perspectives, which is nearly impossible to do within the tight-scheduled nature of an in-person festival. Reeling added two new feature films to this year’s roster: Eric Steel’s Minyan, a film set in the 1980s that follows a young Jewish man coming to terms with his gay identity, and Eytan Fox’s Sublet, which follows a New York Times travel writer who goes to Tel Aviv and starts a relationship with a younger man.
All of Reeling’s feature films are geolocked to Illinois and can only be streamed in the state—another quirk of running a completely streaming festival is to be in accordance with the demands of film distributors and to limit the risk of piracy. But it’s also out of respect for other LGBT festivals in the country who may have an overlap in titles. However, most of Reeling’s short film programs are available anywhere in the United States and, in some cases, anywhere in the world. v