When the Boston LGBT Film Festival was founded 30 years ago, any gay-themed film was a major find.
“I would rake through old Hollywood movies for something I could program. I had to not only find a film with gay content, I had to justify it; make it valid to be in the festival. That was a challenge and it was fun,” says George Mansour, who founded what began as the Boston Gay Film Festival in 1984, and who programmed it into the 1990s. Now known as the Boston LGBT Film Festival, the event runs April 3-12 and features a wide range of feature-length and short films.
For that first festival, Mansour recalls, he booked “The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart” (1970), starring an unknown actor named Don Johnson, and an oddity he managed to dig up called “The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover” (1977).
“Finding lesbian movies was almost impossible,” he says. But Mansour did unearth “Richard’s Things” (1980) starring Liv Ullmann, a film that had virtually no theatrical release.
Mansour was already the programmer for the Nickelodeon in Kenmore Square, so that cinema became home to the festival. But by the third year, he recalls, “[BU president] John Silber wasn’t happy having ‘gay film festival’ on the marquee during an alumni convention. He spoke to the owner of the Nickelodeon, who came to me shamefaced because everything had been booked and programs sent out. But [Boston University] was the landlord and we’d been doing good business as an art house and we didn’t want to endanger that. So I said, ‘Fine, we’ll move it.’ We went to the Somerville Theatre for a year, then I moved it to the Institute of Contemporary Art.”
Later, the event, which changed its name to the Boston LGBT Film Festival in 2009, enjoyed a long run at the Museum of Fine Arts. This year, films will screen at the ICA, MFA, Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and Paramount Theatre.
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, making it one of the oldest LGBT film festivals in the country and one of the longest-running niche festivals in Boston, Mansour will be honored with the first-ever George Mansour Award in an opening night ceremony hosted by Joyce Kulhawik at the ICA. It will be followed by a screening of “To Be Takei,” a documentary directed by Jennifer Kroot and Bill Weber (who will be in attendance) about “Star Trek” actor and gay activist George Takei.
This year’s festival boasts 28 international features and 14 documentaries, with many world premieres, says executive director James Nadeau, who’s been programming the fest since 2010. Anticipated highlights include French director Xavier Dolan’s latest feature, “Tom at the Farm” (April 11, MFA), about a young man who travels to his partner’s funeral and is shocked that no one knows about their relationship; “Boy Meets Girl” (April 4, Paramount), a romantic coming-of-age comedy about three 20-somethings, including a transgender woman, all living in Kentucky; “The Circle” (April 5, Brattle), a documentary about the founding of a Swiss underground organization for gay men in 1958 (this film won the Teddy Award at the 2014 Berlinale Film Festival); and “The Dog” (April 9, Brattle), a documentary about the real-life John Wojtowicz, the bank robber who inspired Al Pacino’s character in “Dog Day Afternoon.”
It’s quite a different slate from the one Mansour debuted 30 years ago. But idiosyncratic programming helped brand the festival an integral part of emerging gay culture and provided a unique community experience, notes Cambridge author Michael Bronski, who covered those early LGBT festivals for Boston’s Gay Community News.
“George had an encyclopedic knowledge of films and was so well connected, he was unearthing adventurous stuff that distributors had put on the shelf,” Bronski says. “You were seeing movies you would never see, even in the context of gay movies. It generated interest and exposed people to a wide rage of homosexuality and broadened people’s understanding of what was possible. It created a community buzz that had not been there before.”
Nadeau says reaching the three-decade mark is the result of “dedicated people who want to see this festival happen.” The key to its longevity? “The ability to adapt,” he says. “We try to make it different every year. One of my joys is keeping things fresh. And we’re lucky in Boston that we have such great audien-ces. We can play stuff that’s challenging, not dogmatic, and not the same old West Hollywood romantic comedy. We are about contemporary cinema, about what’s happening now. It just happens to be gay.”
For more information go to www.bostonlgbtfilmfest.net.