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Five-star community cinema
Savannah's LGBT Film Festival moves closer to the mainstream
'Gun Hill Road' (with Harmony Santana and Esai Morales) screens Saturday, Oct. 15

Deb Riney founded the Savannah Gay and Lesbian Film Society in 2008, and the organization hasn’t flagged in its mission to bring the most acclaimed gay–themed cinema to the city.

Gaining acceptance from “everybody else,” of course, is something of an uphill battle, as certain elements of the hetero community tend to be suspicious of such movies.

This weekend’s third annual LGBT Film Festival spotlights some of the most acclaimed gay films of the last year, including one that took in mighty praise at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Riney herself traveled to San Francisco’s Frameline Festival, the biggest LGBT festival in the world, to choose this year’s Savannah selections.

Riney is thrilled that the Jepson Center fort the Arts, where the festival takes place Oct. 14 and 15, is officially entering into a partnership with her film society – the group’s ongoing film series will henceforth be based at the Jepson.

It’s another giant step on the road toward “legitimacy.”

“I think it’s a really good partnership in that the Telfair is an historical, and famous, museum, and they offer visual arts and cultural things to connect people of all backgrounds and ages,” Riney says, “and at SGLFS, we try to meet the cultural and educational needs of the Savannah community.

“So it’s not just for the LGBT people, it’s for the straight community as well. So that there can be some beginnings of connections made.”

Here’s a close–up look at this year’s feature films:

Gun Hill Road. Writer/director Rashaad Ernesto Green’s first feature film is the story of a Bronx family trying to hold it together under tremendous stress. Enrique (Esai Morales, from La Bamba) returns home from a three–year prison sentence to find his wife emotionally and physically detached, and his macho ideals are shattered when he finds their teenaged son Michael (Harmony Santana) has been exploring his sexuality by cross–dressing as a woman named Vanessa. Michael, in fact, is saving up for sexual reassignment surgery.

Santana is a transgendered actress who makes her big–screen debut in Gun Hill Road, a Jury Selection at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. “I looked at attractive gay males who might have had experience with drag to see if they might be able to portray the character,” Green told the New York Times. “But they didn’t have the essence I was looking for. There’s a difference between someone who’s pretending to be female and someone who actually believes they are.”

Leave it On the Floor. Set in the gay dance clubs of Los Angeles, Sheldon Larry’s African-American musical debuted at the L.A. Film Festival earlier this year. Ephraim Sykes stars as Brad, whose family cannot accept his homosexuality; he is taken in by a group of drag queens and introduced to another kind of life.

Reviews of Leave it on the Floor have been mixed, most citing the choreography (by Frank Gatson Jr.) and the songs by Kimberly Burse as the high–water marks. Said the Hollywood Reporter: “The filmmakers’ enthusiasm for the musical genre proves to be contagious. This movie may not win awards, but it’s a good–hearted joyride.”

Wish Me Away. “Dear God, please don’t let me be gay,” Chely Wright wrote in her teenage journal. “I promise not to lie. I promise not to steal. I promise to always believe in you... Please take it away.” Named Best New Artist by the Academy of Country Music in 1995, Wright scored a number of major hits including “Shut Up and Drive,” “Single White Female” and “The Bumper of My S.U.V.” A prolific songwriter, Wright composes most of her own material, and in fact penned “I Can’t Sleep,” a huge hit for Clay Walker.

Wish Me Away documents Wright’s tortured path out of the closet in 2010. It wasn’t an easy road.

“Country music would rather an artist be a drunk,” she said shortly after coming out. “They will forgive you if you beat your wife, lose your kids to state, get six divorces, make a sex tape, get labeled as a tramp – any and all of it is better than being gay.”

Wright married her longtime partner, Lauren Blitzer, in August.

For our exclusive interview with Chely Wright, click here.

Savannah LGBT Film Festival

Where: Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 W. York St.


1. At 7 p.m. Friday; Oct. 14: "Leave it on the Floor"

2. At noon Saturday, Oct. 15: "Wish Me Away"

3. At 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15: Select Short Films

4. At 4:15 p.m. Saturday: "Gun Hill Road"

Festival passes: $40 (for all programs)

Screening tickets:

Oct. 14: $15 general admission; $12 SGLFS/Telfair members and students

Oct. 15: For each program general admission $10; $8 SGLFS/Telfair members and students