Outfest – HFPA Grantee: Interview with Damien Navarro, Executive Director
OUTFEST was established in 1982 in Los Angeles as the first and only global LGBTQIA+ arts, media, and entertainment organization to support artists, communities, and filmmakers to change the world through their stories. Since 2005, the HFPA has donated almost $600,000 to this wonderful non-profit organization that last year hosted over 300 screenings and panels, six programs and engaged with over 50,000 attendees. Those programs include the popular Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival, the Outfest Fusion People of Color Film Festival, OutfestNow and OutfestAlwaysOn.
Their filmmaker and talent mentorship and education programs include: Outfest Screenwriting Lab, Outfest InFusion studio days, Fusion Workshops, Outfest Young Filmmakers Project, and Outfest Anthony Meindl Trans Acting Fellowship. Executive Director Damien Navarro – a native Angeleno and graduate in film studies at Cal State Fullerton who took over the role in 2019 – took the opportunity during Pride month to talk about their ground-breaking work.
You’re celebrating 40 years of Outfest. What was that journey like?
When you look back at any film festival organization that became known, whether it’s Sundance, Tribeca, or Cannes, they each have very unique stories of how they came to be. At times, it’s an actor or a filmmaker that began a festival. I think one of the most exciting things is that Outfest began very differently. It was a number of PhD students in the film program at UCLA back in 1982, who saw that there was a moment to create a conversation or a summit, if you will, amongst a lot of really important topics at the time that, not shockingly, have not changed so much. So, tackling subjects like misogyny and film, and underrepresented voices, and things like visibility or removing barriers. It was very progressive. And to see that it began as actually a summit and consequently the film festival came along with it, is notable. We’ve gone streaming since COVID, so that rural communities and international communities of the world can engage with the curation of these films, and stories, and audio stories and all of the different mediums that we see now.
How did the pandemic help/hurt your organization?
We’ve spent so much time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears developing these programs that to change them is extremely difficult but, in this case, it was a fight for survival. All of a sudden, we were asking, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could go national?’ and ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could reach hundreds of thousands of new people that we know would be really inspired by these stories?’ Suddenly we were in a place in a matter of months where we could quickly pivot and reach the millions of people that we’re able to reach now, offering so many programs worldwide remotely – not just in-person – and that’s been a monumental shift in rethinking what our future might look like.
How important is Pride month for Outfest and what would you like to see highlighted?
Our tent pole festival, Outfest Los Angeles, happens during July and there was just a moment where that grew so much, we were unable to really participate in Pride the way we used to. When COVID hit, however, Pride suddenly became the safety net for our organization remaining relevant. And it is why we suddenly came up with the ‘United in Pride’ idea that we launched with Billboard and Hollywood Reporter. We do a lot of employment group activations with huge corporations and other nonprofits where we put on little mini film festivals for their staff and employees and invite the conversations that inspires. We are partnering this year with LA Pride and Long Beach Pride on bringing back content into those spaces, and now we have our OutFronts that have become a big success. OutFronts is a fan celebration with roughly a dozen panels and conversations featuring talent behind some of the most popular TV shows that emphasize contributions from the LGBQTI+ community.
More actors are coming out too. Michaela Jaé Rodriguez won a Golden Globe for Pose and another gay Pose star, Billy Porter, was best dressed in a dress on the red carpet. What does this mean for your community?
Back at the start, our first venue outside UCLA was an on-again off-again porn theater called the Four-Star Theater. When we moved, we were like, ‘we don’t have to be hiding out in a porn theatre and use a back entrance to watch ourselves on screen!’ Is there an incredible amount of homophobia still in existence? Absolutely. Is there more violence than we’ve ever seen against trans women of color? Yes. Do we see things like some of these laws in Florida and Texas as our failure? I guess we thought we were so far along but not always.
Do you ever see a time where Outfest will no longer be necessary because equality has been achieved?
In the moment in which we thought organizations like Outfest might be on their way out, simply because it seemed at the time that actors and actresses were coming out and we were now visible and welcome, you realize that Hollywood is not reality. The minute we step out into other areas geographically, that’s where we have a lot of work to do. What about actors coming out in smaller markets? On stage in Chicago, or on the community stages across middle America or in international communities? So yes, we absolutely celebrate some of these major movements of visibility and actors that are coming out.
Also, this pressure to have ‘cis-heteronormative talent’ playing queer characters is something we should question. Actors can play any role they want, and I think that should be encouraged, but in the cases of trans characters and others in that community, it’s our desire to make sure that there is an abundance of talent that is available for these directors and creatives to use if they choose to do so. We want to encourage people to come out earlier, but we have to make sure they have a safe space first.