The return to safe and comfortable live events has been a bumpy road for most everyone after many months of Covid-related ups and downs. For the organizers behind the fifth annual Trans Stellar Film Festival, a day-long screening event focused on queer filmmakers opening Oct. 16, navigating that bumpy road is paying off.
Attendees will notice a few changes. Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre will host the festival for the first time — the result of a new partnership that promises to usher in a wider slate of films created by members of the queer community. And, for the first time, the festival will be available in-person and via an online stream. The central goal for the festival, however — to support queer filmmakers — remains firmly intact.
Lauren Corneliussen, who founded the annual festival out of Midtown’s Cinema Detroit while attending Oakland University’s Film Studies program in 2017, says the changing circumstances around the Trans Stellar festival haven’t altered its mission. Their focus on spotlighting “queer voices as opposed to just queer content” remains as essential as ever, providing an opportunity for artists from around the world to show their work to a largely queer audience. As in years past, the goal is to show films capturing a wide range of experiments and concerns.
“Sometimes minority filmmakers are pigeonholed into making films about being a minority even if that’s not what they want to do,” says Corneliussen, who uses they/them pronouns. “So our mission is to lift up voices, to show good movies by queer artists about whatever they want to make films about. Whether that’s about being part of the LGBT community, which it frequently is, or whether it’s about stealing the moon.”
While the subjects, genre and settings of the films vary widely, with each year featuring works by a range of trans and cis queer filmmakers from around the world, queer topics tend to be foregrounded. The festival received many submissions from trans creators, speaking to a welcoming approach that has always been a central goal of Trans Stellar. This year’s lineup is especially dense with horror works, from the gory lesbian ghost story “New Flesh for the Old Ceremony” to the more bawdy campground thriller “Catfish Killer.”
These offerings are counterbalanced by more quietly intimate stories like “Appetite,” a favorite of Corneliussen’s, which shows two members of a couple exploring their respective needs at a swingers’ party, and “Between Us,” which follows a trans man in Japan trying a male-designated hot spring for the first time. The inclusion of a range of experimental films, portraits and documentary works, too, reflects the diversity of the filmmakers behind them — though foregrounding trans-authored works has always been an aim.
“(The festival) has always been inclusively queer, and the reason we chose to call it Trans Stellar was because we wanted to refocus the community to over-highlight transgender, gender-nonconforming and non-binary voices,” says Cornelliussen, referring to a dominant tendency to treat gay, cis and male people as the outward face of queer representation. “Because people sometimes say ‘gay as in queer’ — which can sometimes mean ‘gay as in trans’ — we say why not ‘trans as in gay’?”
According to Kayla Krahn, the festival’s director of submissions, the festival’s focus on artists’ identity rather than a specific theme or genre hasn’t just been about politics; it’s offered benefits that bleed into the films’ aesthetics, too.
“I think that when you see films that you know were created by queer filmmakers, you understand the perspective a little more,” Krahn says. “It’s not so showy, like ‘Oh, look at me, I made a film about these queer people, but I know nothing about the community.’ So I think that you get a lot more out of the film, more out of the filmmaking, because it’s not so exploitative.”
While only queer artists are invited to submit work, the festival’s majority-queer panel considers work with an approach that’s unusually broad-minded, valuing ideas and expression of artistic voice over a film’s budget or degree of polish. And the approach, according to Krahn, has paid off in the lineup, which features mostly short-length works, including many which might be overlooked at other festivals.
“We are about accessibility, and not everyone has access to top-of-the-line cameras. We want filmmaking to be about the spirit of the project, not necessarily how much money you have to sink into it,” says Krahn. She points to past submissions that proved thought-provoking even when shakily produced. “The ideas were there; the thoughts were there. If they just had a little bit of money, it could have been perfect, and we don’t want to pass on a film like that when we want people to see it because it (still) has great ideas.”
That emphasis on accessibility extends in many directions, including a disability-friendly venue in Planet Ant (which also requires proof of Covid vaccination and face coverings to enter the building) and submission fee waivers for filmmakers in financial distress. Decisions like these create a welcoming experience for filmgoers and filmmakers. Sensitive to a range of concerns, the festival’s organizers have also included a raft of content warnings on their film listings for anyone who needs them and have worked to include a Young Adult block of shorts for festival attendees each year. Often, the festival has been attended not just by teenagers but their parents, too.
Krahn and Corneliussen (who also serves as a judge) say that these accessibility and inclusivity measures will broaden and better the slate of works they show. For many international filmmakers working in places like Russia, China and Iran, for instance, the opportunity Trans Stellar offers is unique in that the films can be submitted without fees and often couldn’t be freely shown in the filmmakers’ homelands.
By focusing mostly on short films and reducing barriers to access, Trans Stellar has been able to showcase a range of works that excite Krahn not only as a programmer but as a viewer. She says audiences can encounter the sorts of works they couldn’t find anywhere else. It’s a unique experience made possible, she suggests, specifically by seeing well-programmed suites of shorts.
“They give you access to a world that you would never have come across if you just stayed in the mainstream media,“ says Krahn. “You’re never gonna see this stuff on TV. You’re only gonna find it if you seek it out.“