It’s a “natural opportunity to kind of pass the baton,” says Drew Dennis, Out On Screen’s well-respected executive director of the last 15 years, who announced July 2 that they’ll be stepping down at the end of this month.
Dennis (who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronoun they) says 2014 marked the end of another three-year plan at Out On Screen, the society that produces Vancouver’s annual Queer Film Festival and its educational arm Out In Schools.
“Those three-year cycles were natural check-in points for me,” explains Dennis, who began to contemplate life after the festival when the final curtain fell in 2013.
Dennis formally informed the board of directors in January 2015.
“It’s bittersweet,” says board chair James Ong. “Drew has been an amazing leader these past 15 years.”
Under Dennis’ guidance, the festival has seen “so much growth and change and transformation,” says Ong, who’s been chair of Out On Screen since 2006 and volunteering with the festival since coordinating his first venue at Video In on Main Street in 1999.
“We are deeply thankful for the work that Drew has accomplished with this organization,” Ong says, wishing Dennis “every success” in their new opportunities.
Dennis says their decision to leave has nothing to do with last year’s tension around what some filmmakers and community members considered a pro-Israel ad in the festival program.
If anything, Dennis says, last year’s discussions extended their tenure until the end of 2014.
“It was important to me to see through my commitment to the process,” Dennis explains, referring to Out On Screen’s three-month process of self-reflection to reassess its mandate following the controversy.
There’s a diversity of views within both the community and the organization, Dennis says, so it was important to take the time to “realign behind our values and our mandate. That was very much a group process.”
Dennis says they’re satisfied with the process and its outcome: Out On Screen’s April 23 open letter to the community to clarify its mandate.
Neither the tension nor the subsequent discussions have anything to do with Dennis’ departure, Ong agrees. In fact, he says, Dennis’ leadership through the process was “instrumental” in bringing people together to have “conversations with each other.”
Asked why they’re leaving on July 24, three weeks before this year’s festival opens, Dennis reveals the timing was deliberate.
“People are used to me being front and centre-stage. Actually stepping back allows other people to step into the spotlight. And our team’s got this! It’s good for our team and I think it’s actually good for the audience,” they say.
Besides, Dennis notes, “when you think about it, most of my work is done prior to the festival.”
As for life beyond July 24, Dennis isn’t sure what comes next. “I don’t have any set plans. I’m passionate about advancing trans inclusion within this city and beyond. And right now I’m looking forward to hitting pause and to imagining new possibilities,” they say.
“I won’t be hitting pause for long,” Dennis hastens to add. “One, because I can’t sit still for long and two, because I’m not independently wealthy. If I were independently wealthy, Out In Schools would be in every district across the province!”
Dennis counts the educational program among their proudest shared achievements at Out On Screen.
“Really, it started as an outreach activity” to connect with queer youth who may not have been able to attend the summer film festival, they say. From its pilot in two schools in 2004, the program has since reached 60,000 students and counting across British Columbia. But in order to present queer films in every school district, the program would need a cash infusion from the provincial government. That would be a “game-changing moment,” Dennis says.
Ong too would like to see Out In Schools reach queer students and allies in every school district across BC annually.
For now, he’s looking forward to this year’s film festival, which he promises will continue as planned in the hands of its competent staff.
“Change is an exciting time,” he says.
Out On Screen will post its executive director position this week, says Ong, who hopes to interview candidates this summer and fill the position this fall.
Dennis leaves knowing they helped mobilize and build community around the film festival for the last 15 years. One indication of Out On Screen’s connection to its community is the level of funding its audience provides, which now accounts for 75 percent of the festival’s budget, greatly reducing its dependence on sometimes unreliable government grants.
Since 2000, Vancouver’s Queer Film Festival has also grown into the city’s second largest film festival, Dennis notes.
“And at the same time I hope the community feels that the festival has maintained its heart and soul. We’re still a festival for our communities.”
For Dennis, the festival’s cherished moments may be too many to count, from the earliest days of introducing films (they may have blushed a bit as they introduced the director of Chutney Popcorn in 2000), to the standing ovation received by Aerlyn Weissman, Janine Fuller, Bruce Smyth and Jim Deva for their 2002 film Little Sister’s vs Big Brother.
“That was a goose-bump moment if ever there was one,” Dennis says.
Then there was David Weissman’s “incredibly moving” 2011 film We Were Here about the impact of AIDS on San Francisco’s gay community. That screening is hard to forget not just because of the film, Dennis says, but “the space that we created following the film.”
What began as an almost intimate post-film discussion between Weissman and fellow HIV survivor David Holtzman, Out On Screen’s late director of operations and human resources, soon moved to include the whole audience, many of whom were in tears. “It was a moment where people could heal,” Dennis says.
Working at Out On Screen and facilitating such community dialogue has always been more than a job for Dennis.
“This has been such a dream job,” they say. “It’s an honour and a joy and a pleasure to serve our queer and trans communities. I’ve always felt embraced and encouraged. I know that Out On Screen’s audiences will be just as embracing and encouraging to our next executive director and to our team as they guide forward.”