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QFilms Festival Commits to LGBTQ Life

By Zamná Ávila, Guest Columnist/Former Assistant Editor at Random Lengths News

A still from the documentary “A Commitment to Life” playing at the Long Beach QFilms Festival on Saturday, Sept. 16.

Celebrating 30 years of showcasing queer cinema, the Long Beach QFilms Festival is the longest-running film festival in the city. The festival features narratives, documentaries and short films that center the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community’s experiences.

The film festival was coincidentally birthed the same year I graduated from high school, unaware that one day I would also find a home in that community. At the time, I had not discovered that same-sex relationships were also an option for me. While the process of discovery, acceptance and openness was not as difficult for me as it was for my now-deceased sister, I am sure that having more positive representations on film would have eased the journey for many, such as my sister and myself.

The first festival was hosted by the Cal State Long Beach Student Center. Organizers booked the 1991 drama “Together Alone,” and about 500 people showed up at the 200-seat theater.

“We knew we had something special in our hands,” said Robert Cano, one of the founders of the festival. “It was a time when there were very few cultural options for the LGBTQ community.”

Since then, the Long Beach QFilms Festival has become an anticipated local event in Southern California highlighting LGBTQ talent in front of and behind the camera.

As a member of the Latinx community, my sister and I grew up with negative messages about being LGBTQ. Despite their focus on family unity, people from conservative and religious backgrounds tend to discriminate against LGBTQ people, shunning them or ridiculing the life they choose to live.

Featured in the festival’s LatinX Queer Shorts program, “El Paisa” is a refreshing look at the intersection of Latinx and queer identity. “Paisa,” which is short for “paisano,” or “countryman” in Spanish, is sometimes used as a pejorative term by U.S.-born Latinx folks toward people born and raised in Latin America.

The coming-of-age story centers around Fernando, a goth skater wheeling through the streets of East Los Angeles. The scenes take me back to my early childhood, driving through East L.A. and seeing iconic local landmarks like the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge and the historic Evergreen Cemetery.

The short film opens with a Latino cowboy walking to the rhythm of a song by Los Tigres del Acordión reminiscent of “Pedro Navaja” by Willie Colón and Rubén Blades, the Spanish version of “Mack the Knife,” which describes the allure of a charismatic man walking through the streets in style and elegance.

The Latino cowboy rescues Fernando from the cholos beating him up. From there, the audience is given a glimpse of his home life; he seems to want to reject his language and culture — Fernando doesn’t speak Spanish even when spoken to in that language. But it is through that cowboy, who he discovers walking into a Latinx gay club, that he is inspired to open his heart to possibilities within yet another subculture of his community.

The story reminds me of the first time I walked into a Latinx gay club, where I saw men and women who defied stereotypes and navigated their culture within an intersecting community. You can catch this and other Latinx shorts on Sept. 16 from 5-6:30 p.m. at the Atr Theatre in Long Beach.

And earlier that day, the 2023 Long Beach QFilms Festival opens with “Commitment to Life,” which documents the story of the fight against HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles. It is a story that many history buffs might enjoy, but which I, like many people who tune out negative news to safeguard them as they deal with their own day-to-day struggles, shied away from. And that is exactly why most people should see it.

I was very young at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but old enough to remember the fear, the misinformation, the lack of information and the cruel jokes that further stigmatized the people living and dying with the disease — like a 60 Minutes special about how they thought that HIV/AIDS could be contracted through mosquitos.

Although I was curious about the news at the time, I can’t say I was directly impacted or knew anyone who openly lived with the disease. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that I found out a friend I went to high school with had died from the disease, and later on, I met people who lived with it through my profession as a reporter.

The almost two-hour documentary retells the story of how people living with HIV/AIDS and allies, including doctors, movie stars and studio moguls became activists to change the course of the epidemic in the face of the federal government’s indifference.

The movie uses first-person interviews and archival footage to resurrect a dark time in history when people living with HIV/AIDS were dehumanized, and when those same people took it upon themselves to find solutions and bring about change through research and policy. The players provided a human element to the story, providing vital information and giving faces to those who were affected and suffered the effects of the disease.

Groups such as Minority AIDS Project and AIDS Project Los Angeles were committed to helping care for the sick and dying and lobbied Hollywood to engage in the fight. A-listers like Elizabeth Taylor went full throttle through fundraising, research and activism to provide care and resources to people living with AIDS, bringing thousands of people onto the streets to demand support to fight the disease.

More than just the history of APLA, “Commitment to Life” tells a story of courage and sacrifice amidst discrimination and inequality. It is through their efforts that treatment is now available for most people. These days, HIV is not a death sentence, and with proper treatment, people who have undetectable loads of the virus can no longer pass it on. The film’s value to many who may suffer from generational amnesia is in remembering that human dignity comes at a struggle that must continue in light of advances because if there is anything the Donald Trump era has shown us history can easily repeat itself.

As I mentioned earlier, sexual fluidity was something that I discovered in my mid-20s — late for most people who know about their orientation since childhood. That’s why I took an interest in  “Sweet Forty,” a dramedy based on a true story about a woman turning 40, who is faced with the decision of coming out at her birthday celebration. The 15-minute film is part of the Women in Shorts program of the film festival, which takes place from 1:15-3 p.m. on Sept. 17 at the Art Theatre in Long Beach. 

Also, be on the lookout for “Big Boys,” a coming-of-age story that promises to bring out laughter and entertainment. The film focuses on Jamie, a teenager whose dream camping trip turns into a weekend of self-discovery.

“[The Long Beach QFilms Festival tells] our stories, truths, struggles and victories from an LGBTQ conscience to the big screen,” Cano said. “I hope to see the film festival continue to thrive and keep showcasing our communities, voices and images with the continued support from The Center and the Greater Long Beach Community.”

Click here to see the complete list of movies playing at the festival this weekend.

Originally published at