Mapplethorpe, directed by Ondi Timoner, screens at 9:30 PM on Friday, September 21, at Landmarks Century Centre.

Queer film fans, rejoice. The Reeling Film Fest returns this Friday with 31 feature films and 19 short film programs. Now in its 36th year, Reeling is the second-longest-running LGBTQ+ film festival in the world, premiering queer-centric films that can’t be found anywhere else.

The films are not diverse solely in their representation of queer people and stories but also in traditional notions of film genre and form. While there are dramatic features and documentaries in the festival this year, there’s also an emphasis on unconventional and experimental films.

“It’s also to get away from this notion that there’s one kind of gay story and that’s the coming-out story,” says Brenda Webb, founder of Reeling and executive director of Chicago Filmmakers. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of people who don’t really see a lot of lesbian and gay cinema assume that it’s pretty much all just coming-out stories. We want to have a broad range of stories that make people understand that being gay is just one part of who somebody is.”

Webb hopes that audiences expose themselves to films that reflect something different from their own personal experiences and to explore the many international queer offerings at the festival.

“Oh, the Horror!,” one of the festival’s short film blocks, examines horror tropes and stories through a queer lens. In Little Bill’s Peep Show, the monster is homophobia. In Red Velvet, it’s toxic masculinity and aggression. Christiaan Olwagen’s Canary is a musical dramedy set in the South African army in the 1980s with a soundtrack of Depeche Mode and Boy George. Scud’s Adonis follows a hapless, down-on-his-luck actor in Beijing as he becomes a popular gay porn star.

“[Audiences should be] aware globally of what it’s like to be gay or lesbian or transgender in other places of the world and have a greater appreciation for the struggle that people are still fighting in a more profound and existential way,” says Webb.

Sonia Sebastian’s Freelancers Anonymous, a lesbian screwball workplace comedy, kicks off the festival. Other highlights include Amara Cash’s Daddy Issues, an equally offbeat and alluring depiction of lesbian first love that quickly turns into a complicated love triangle, and Ondi Timoner’s biopic Mapplethorpe, which explores the life of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

“Often we’re made to stick to the familiar and the comfortable,” says Webb, “and while it’s important to have out own experiences reflected to us and authenticated in doing so, it’s also the experience of getting outside of your own realm and seeing what else the festival has to offer.”   v