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This year's North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival gets bigger, but is it better?

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Whither the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival? Since beginning in 1995, the annual gala at Durham's Carolina Theatre has evolved from a summer film series into a premier cultural arts event for the queer community. The festival now offers a full menu of entertainment and enrichment. This year's fest, which runs Aug. 11-14, will feature an opening night performance by comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer, a fundraising reception and a community resource area where local organizations will offer information and merchandise.

There are 63 movies on the schedule, making this the second largest film festival in the Southeast United States. More than 40 of the movies are feature films, at least double the number presented at any previous NCGLFF. Even as the popularity and acclaim of the NCGLFF continues to grow, however, the burgeoning number of screenings exacerbates another, more unfortunate trend--a steady decline in the overall quality of the selected films over the past several years.

To be sure, the NCGLFF always has its share of excellent entries, and this year is no exception. The Argentine entry El Favor, for example, is a silly but very entertaining sex farce that's nonetheless as tightly constructed as a play by Marivaux, and its single set is a brightly-colored marvel that rivals the production design of mid-period Almodovar. More serious and ambitious is the short film On the Low, an impressively intense tale of forbidden love between tough urban black men. Somewhere in between is Dorian Blues, which has been a smash hit at festivals over the last couple of years.

There are some documentary standouts as well. Full Frame award winner and lefty crowd-pleaser The Education of Shelby Knox makes a return visit to the Carolina Theatre, while another doc well worth catching is That Man: Peter Berlin, a profile of the 1970s queer sex symbol. Other noteworthy films include Mysterious Skin, a new film by Gregg Araki, who pioneered the new queer cinema over a decade ago alongside Todd Haynes, and Saving Face, a drama set in New York's Chinese community that co-stars Joan Chen.

The festival is also living up to the "North" and the "Carolina" of its title by including films with local connections. Chapel Hill native Tess Ernst's award-winning The Drive North will get its largest local screening yet, after being seen at Flicker and Ms. Films. The D Word is an hour-long parody of The L Word by Durham native Jessica Horstman, who now lives in New York. The biggest local production on view is Shiny, a drama of a rural gay teen's coming out, written and directed by Triangle filmmaker Anthony Copian-Garcia and featuring a confident lead performance by teen stud Spike Mayer, a Durham native who's now studying theater in the Midwest.

Unfortunately, far too much of the programming is a mish-mash of substandard fare, schedule-fillers that often fall into one of two categories: bawdy sex comedies or coming-out, coming-of-age dramas. Many less-successful films fall into the dead end of treating the fact of gayness as the subject, rather than focusing on human beings who happen to be gay. In fact, the best so-called queer movie playing locally is My Summer of Love, a British teen-girl romance that makes no particular point about the issue of lesbianism. Tellingly, this film isn't in the festival, but finishing up a regular run in Chapel Hill and Cary. And this Friday will see the art house release of Happy Endings, another film that avoids the "gay film" label despite ample gay content.

It may seem churlish to complain about quality in a festival devoted to a traditionally marginalized demographic group, particularly when the festival serves a gay and lesbian community that lives far from the coastal cultural capitals. It's true that these festivals are the principal outlet for filmmakers who face grim prospects for widespread distribution. Still, an over-saturation of inferior product dilutes the NCGLFF's status as a cinematic showcase and calls into question the evolving size and purpose of the festival. Does it remain a forum primarily to spotlight worthy films revolving around the gay and lesbian experience? Is it principally an occasion for a weekend-long social gathering for the queer community? Or is it a reason for hotels, restaurants and nightclubs to enjoy a burst of business? On the evidence of the unwieldy and uneven programming, we wonder if the latter motives are gaining the upper hand.

While queer culture has become increasingly mainstream, it would be a mistake to declare victory and send gay festivals the way of the Negro Leagues. Today's popular culture may have room for Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Ellen DeGeneres, but it's still a world in which Basic Instinct gets an R-rating from the MPAA but any simulated gay sex merits an NC-17, and where Oliver Stone, in Alexander, believes a brave homosexual discourse consists of flirtatious glances and furtive embraces. And it's still a world in which the political right can generate votes by pushing the buttons of anti-gay bigotry. It is this continuing hostility that finally articulates the paramount need for these festivals.

We've each watched a baker's dozen of this year's movies--here are capsule reviews of our favorites:

Don't You Worry, It Will Probably Pass (US/Sweden, 74 m.) An innovative Swedish documentary that charts the development of three teenage girls, all either bisexual or lesbian. Director Cecilia Neant-Falk gave each a video camera to record their thoughts and feelings over four years. Clever visual editing accents the girls' revealing physical and emotional maturation. --NM

Dorian Blues (US, 88 m.) Comedy/drama about a young gay man's struggle to come to grips with his homosexuality, especially the effect it has on his star athlete older brother, his domineering, homophobic father and his distant mother. Dorian Blues won several awards at festivals throughout the country. Writer/director Tennyson Bardwell crafts a superb, witty screenplay, while Michael McMillian (WB's What I Like About You) hits all the right chords as the aimless Dorian. --NM

The Drive North (US, 13 m.) The multi-talented Chapel Hill native Tess Ernst writes, directs, scores and animates this tightly controlled and subtly moving tale of the disintegration of a friendship. --DF

The Education of Shelby Knox (US, 76 m.) Co-winner of the Audience Award at this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, this breezy but insightful film spotlights the inexhaustible efforts by one high school girl to introduce comprehensive sex education and gay rights into the conservative Lubbock, Texas school system. --NM

El Favor (Argentina, 90 m.) An intricately constructed bedroom farce paced at lightning speed, this tale of two lesbians who hatch a plot to conceive a child may be the festival's best comedy. --DF

eXposed (US, 97 m.) Impressive erections abound in this behind-the-scenes glimpse of a high-end gay porn production that is otherwise much too long. While star Dean Phoenix bottoms for the first time on film, we meet one actor who is an Atlanta law student, another who is a gay health advocate and two fuzzy-cheeked bit players who tell us that--appearances to the contrary--they're 18 and 22. --DF

Mysterious Skin (US, 99 m.) Serious fans of queer cinema will want to catch Gregg Araki's tale of the parallel lives of two young men from small-town Kansas. Although the effort is marred by inappropriately campy art direction and a hackneyed gothic plot, this film nonetheless contains fascinating scenes between a young hustler and his clients. Elisabeth Shue supplies the star power. --DF

On the Low (US, 16 m.) Despite the unfortunate use of overage actors, this fervent short about the joys and perils of being black, male and gay in a tough urban 'hood is passionate and compelling. --DF

That Man: Peter Berlin (US, 80 m.) As nihilistically cool as Nico, as aesthetically shrewd as Warhol and as inscrutable as Klaus Nomi, Peter Berlin was a self-created gay icon who promoted himself with his own stunning self-portraits. Wonderful archival footage of 1970s San Francisco accompanies such talking heads as John Waters, Armistead Maupin and Berlin himself. --DF

Tina Paulina: Living on Hope Street (US, 10 m.) This year's Emerging Film Award Winner for Best Women's Short is a poignant portrait of a homeless lesbian roaming the streets of Los Angeles. Her charm and inner beauty will leave you, like director Barbara Green, wanting more. --NM

Check out the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival schedule at festivals.carolinatheatre.org/ncglff.

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