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San Francisco Transgender Film Fest: Going Strong Since 1997

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“Pinch me! It feels miraculous!” says Shawna Virago, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival. The festival has been around since 1997, and is still going strong 24 years later. The festival returns with its latest offering of short films, and will stream online from Nov. 11-14. And to make sure that the films are accessible to everyone, the fest offers a pay-what-you-wish model to log on and watch.

“A lot of sweat and love has gone into keeping the festival going,” Virago said. “My friends Christopher Lee and Alex Austin started the festival in 1997. We are the world’s first and longest running transgender film festival. At the time there were no festivals screening transgender films. Also, we started when no foundation would fund us. So all these years later, I am very grateful we’re still going.”

Over the years the festival has traditionally been held at the Roxie Cinema, but last year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the festival was held online. This year will be the same.

“We’ve been planning our festival for months, well before the city reopened,” Virago said. “Early on we committed to making our festival as safe as possible for all our communities, especially those that are immune compromised. Online is the only way to do this. Next year, we will probably have a mix of online and in person. But the future of Covid-19 is still uncertain, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

Virago noted that the festival does not aspire to join mainstream Hollywood when choosing films to screen. Rather, they look for films which represent marginalized voices. They also focus on the intersectional and the experimental.

“A lot has changed from the years we started,” she said. “I could never have envisioned the breakthroughs in trans representation in the arts. Still, we need more trans representation in film, a lot more. But despite more representation, there is institutional violence, street violence against transgender people, especially BIPOC transgender women.”

Sweetness, directed by ND Johnson, can be seen at the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival.

This year the festival will offer a wide array of short films which celebrate the transgender experience. There are seven programs of new films which showcase transgender and gender non-conforming people’s resilience living in a transphobic culture. According to Virago, there are thrillers, rom-coms, explorations on the impact that families of origin can have, and the impact that communities are having on the environment.

Some festival highlights include Sweetness, a queer thriller in which Tara, a Black trans woman, befriends a young eccentric trans fem who sets fire to the life that Tara thinks she desires. But when her boyfriend Marcus, a proud Black man, takes her on an anniversary road trip to rekindle their flame, Tara finds herself warring for her independence.

Also featured is Sorry, Out of Gender, a music video by non-binary musician Shonalika, which explores how a non-binary person navigates a gendered world.

If dance and performance art is of interest to you, then check out Before Bacchae Before, a trans-queer dance theater takedown of gender reveal parties that culminate in a ritual for the trans kids people want futures for. The film features performance art legend Annie Danger.

“I think people of all genders can enjoy the festivals and have a good time even though our aesthetic might be a little edgier than some festivals,” Virago said. “We also want lots of people to view the films of talented trans and gender non-conforming filmmakers.”

And to those on the fence about checking out the festival, Virago has a simple message.

“I would say that from the comfort of your own home some of the most truly brave filmmaking, and films with super-queer quirkiness, and lots of innovation,” she said.

All films are offered on a pay-what-you-can sliding scale and are close captioned for deaf and heard of hearing audiences. To view the programs please visit here.

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David-Elijah Nahmod

David-Elijah Nahmod

I, David-Elijah Nahmod am a Queer, American/Israeli dual national of Syrian descent who has lived in New York City and Tel Aviv.
Currently in San Francisco, my eclectic writing career includes LGBT publications (news and entertainment) and monster magazines. In 2012 I was voted Film Reviewer of the Year at the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Film Awards.
Look for me in Bay Area Reporter,, South Florida Gay News, Echo Magazine, Outfront, Scary Monsters Magazine, Videoscope, and, of course, Broke Ass Stuart, (I'm so broke it's SCARY!)
Now, let's watch a horror movie!