NewFest, New York’s LGBTQ+ film festival, kicks off tonight with one of the most prominent documentaries of the fall.
Mayor Pete, directed by Jesse Moss, goes behind the scenes and on the stump with Pete Buttigieg as he became the first openly gay major presidential candidate, vying for the Democratic nomination. Buttigieg’s campaign was unusual not only because of his gay identity, but for his résumé: his background in elective office was limited to serving as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana (that’s more political experience than Donald Trump brought to the job, but still).
“One of the reasons I wanted to make the film is there seemed to be something almost Frank Capra-esque about this notion that a small-town mayor could run for president and be competitive,” Moss tells Deadline. “Of course, I wasn’t sure that was possible when we set out to make the film. I knew that Pete was unusual in many respects–his youth, his Rust Belt profile, the fact that he was a gay man, actually quite brilliant academically.”
Mayor Pete is set to debut on Amazon Prime on November 12, following its NewFest appearance.
“I’m super excited, great to show it in New York City, a place where I lived for 15 years,” Moss notes. “Just a really established LGBTQ festival–I think it’s a great launchpad for this film and I’m looking forward to having a conversation about the movie with people.”
NewFest, celebrating its 33rd year, runs from October 15-26, featuring a mix of fiction and nonfiction films, features and shorts. Among the nonfiction features is the festival’s Centerpiece Documentary, Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music, directed by T.J. Parsell. The film shines a rare spotlight on “lesbian women who have long been hidden behind the curtain of the country music industry, all while working with big-name artists and making major contributions to the scene.”
The documentary came about after Parsell relocated to a town synonymous with country music.
“I had just moved to Nashville when a new friend of mine, who was in the stained glass business, invited me to coffee to tell me about an idea he had for a film,” Parsell recalls in an email to Deadline. “My expectations were pretty low. Everybody has an idea for a film, or at least thinks they do. (I wasn’t this condescending when we met). Okay, what do you got, I asked. He said, Gay Women in Country Music – there is this entire network of gay women songwriters, who [have] written for everybody, and many of them are my friends. I looked at him like the RCA dog – my head tilted and I just thought, huh. What a great idea.”
Within three weeks of that encounter, Parsell had embarked on the film. His first interview was with singer Mary Gauthier, then other interviews quickly followed, including conversations with singer Jess Leary and songwriter Bonnie J. Baker.
“I was immediately struck by these women and their journeys. I couldn’t imagine a more repressive industry than country music,” Parsell says. “How did they do? Did they hide – if they were able to – and what did it cost them. I had a ton of questions I wanted to ask.”
Parsell also interviewed prominent recording artists with a history of supporting LGBTQ people and gay rights, including Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
“It was important to speak with allies and other women who were not directly impacted in quite the same way as the women in our film,” the director notes. “Not long into the project, I began to scratch my head and wonder how much of what the women in our film dealt with had to do with them being gay and how much of it was because they were women. Misogyny has always been a big factor in country music.”
NewFest this year is a hybrid festival, with more than 130 films available to viewers across the country through the festival’s on-demand platform. In-person screenings are taking place in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Director Brian Vincent will be on hand Sunday for a Q&A following the NewFest premiere of his documentary Make Me Famous, about the late artist Edward Brezinski, a contemporary of Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, and Jean-Michel Basquiat “in the Lower East Side art scene,” who never achieved the level of success of those luminaries. The film explores “why such a well-connected yet peculiar painter never made it, despite being so maniacally focused in his quest for fame.”
“NewFest is the perfect opportunity to celebrate little-known artist, Edward Brezinski, right in the heart of where he most wanted to be famous,” Vincent tells Deadline. “In his lifetime, he was rarely lifted up in this city and this is just the festival to turn it out.”
Brezinski was held back by what one might describe as self-sabotage.
“This was an artist who had incredible opposing forces at war within himself,” Vincent notes. “He was talented and hardworking but he was also a drunken fop who would throw it all away over a slight. When people heard I was trying to make a documentary about Edward Brezinski, they were gobsmacked. They would laugh, relax, open up and dish.”
Make Me Famous has something larger to say about the place and time in which Brezinski pursued his dream.
“In NYC in the ‘80s, AIDS meant a life or death struggle. For the LGBTQ+ artists, every artwork could be their last, which gave a sense of incredible urgency,” Vincent says. “The work was not about the money, it was about the creativity. Creativity was the ultimate prize.”
On Saturday, NewFest will host an in-person screening of the documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare, in celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary. NewFest marks the 15th anniversary of John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus with an in-person screening next Wednesday.
NewFest’s closing night film is Flee, directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen. Winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance for World Cinema Documentary, the film tells the story of an Afghan refugee who fled his homeland as a boy after the Soviet exit of Afghanistan. Amin Nawabi, as he is called in the film (not his real name) went through numerous ordeals before resettling eventually in Denmark. In Europe, he struggled with whether to come out as gay to his surviving family members, fearing it would cause them to sever ties with him.
Rasmussen uses animation to bring the story to life, a creative choice motivated in part by a desire to protect Nawabi’s privacy.
“With the animation you could make him anonymous,” Rasmussen tells Deadline. “His story, it’s hard for him to talk about. It’s traumatic experiences. He really didn’t want to make a normal film where he would then meet people in the street who would then know his innermost secrets and his traumas and he would have to make small talk about what happened [to him]. He said, ‘I can’t do that.’”
The director met Nawabi when they were teenagers living in a small town in Denmark. Going back at least 15 years, Rasmussen had wanted to make a documentary about him, but until recently Nawabi wasn’t ready to speak about all he had gone through. Rasmussen doesn’t see Flee as being a refugee story per se.
“My idea was really to do a story about my friend who had some traumas and that came from being a refugee, but it could have come from something else as well,” he says. “Yes, he’s a refugee, but he’s also so much more. He’s also a gay man, he’s talking about being a gay Afghan man, and he’s also a husband. He’s so many things.”
As the NewFest programming team puts it, “Flee merges vivid, one-of-a-kind animation and emotional narrative to bring Amin’s sensational memoir to life.”