The new head of programming at Vancouver’s Queer Film Festival says she’s committed to building on her predecessor’s passion for creating interactive experiences around the popular August screenings.
“I want to see more interdisciplinary events, like events where people can actually interact,” says Amber Dawn, who took the programming helm Dec 8. “They can see some live performance, perhaps be politically engaged, maybe even become part of an installation art piece as part of a festival screening.”
Amber Dawn takes over from Out on Screen’s previous programming director, Vanessa Kwan, who stepped down Nov 14 to coordinate adult programs at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In addition to the annual Queer Film Fest, Out on Screen runs Out in Schools and the Queer History Project.
“I’m interested in working in an art gallery setting,” says Kwan, who has been with Out on Screen for five years, the last three of which as the director of programming.
Her move to the Vancouver Art Gallery is tied to her background as a sculptor and installation artist. “Visual arts is my first and greatest love, and while I absolutely, unconditionally adored working with filmmakers and film lovers, I was interested in moving back to the visual arts side of things,” she says.
As director of programming, Kwan acted as artistic director for the Queer Film Festival, reviewing and choosing the films that would be screened each year, and planning supplementary programs such as panel discussions, artist spotlights, and parties.
“In a lot of ways I didn’t want to leave [the director of programming] job,” Kwan says when asked about the move. “[Out on Screen] has set the bar very, very high, I think, in its unwavering attempts to be relevant and to remain relevant, and to challenge people. So I think as an organization it’s amazing and I miss it dearly.”
“There’s a couple of things that Vanessa really helped to introduce to the festival,” says Drew Dennis, Out on Screen’s executive director. “One was definitely a larger international focus, so widening the lens to look and see what’s happening with queer rights, queer issues, queer experiences around the world.”
The other was to expand the audience’s experience within the festival.
“Some of the ways that I think that showed up in the festival was the Off Screen And Unexpected performance series that we did two years ago,” Dennis explains. “This year that continued through a residency with Coral Short who actually created different performances that happened throughout the festival.”
“We really did try to use film as a gateway for all kinds of experiences,” Kwan says. “We really wanted to activate the audience’s experiences of the festival beyond sitting in a theatre and watching a film, whether that was through an amazing party afterwards or through a panel discussion, or a Q & A with the artist or a surprise performance event or something. Anything to activate that state —really making a niche for the festival and a connection to the community.”
Kwan’s commitment to interactive audience experiences is shared by her successor, Amber Dawn, who says she plans to emphasize new talent both on screen and off.
“I’d like to see the festival showcasing emerging artists and voices we might not hear,” she says. “I’m really interested in finding queer filmmakers that aren’t in urban centres.
“Maybe we can’t afford a Gus Van Sant film, you know, but who’s the new Gus Van Sant?” she continues. “It might take a little more research to find someone like that, but I think that there’s new voices in queer cinema all the time.”
“She’s got that integral balance between strong vision and a desire to be responsive,” Kwan says of her successor. “I think that’s exactly what the organization needs and I’m really excited to see what she’ll do.”
“She’s always doing outstanding work and it’s always coming from this place of being committed to community, of being committed to facilitating dialogue, of facilitating connections, of building community,” Dennis says when asked why Amber Dawn was chosen for the programming position.
“And she’s no stranger,” Dennis adds.
Amber Dawn’s previous involvement with Out on Screen includes the screening of her film Girl on Girl, performing at events, and helping to raise funds for Out in Schools through the Odd Ball production of High School Confidential.
Besides Amber Dawn’s connections with Out on Screen, she’s also extensively engaged in other facets of the queer community, working for example with AIDS Vancouver and the Boys R Us program for male sex workers. Last year, she won Community Hero of the Year at the Xtra West Community Achievement Awards for her countless hours of volunteer and fundraising efforts, her boundary-pushing performances and her commitment to creating space for alternative community gatherings.
She’s also an artist and writer and co-edited the 2005 anthology With a Rough Tongue on, as she puts it, “intelligent smut.”
But she knows that taking on the director of programming role at Out on Screen could mean putting some other projects aside.
“I’ll probably give up, like the drag shows, burlesque shows,” she reveals. “Odd Ball’s come to an end,” she adds.
Nevertheless, she plans to continue with Boys R Us and the thrilLITERATE reading series to raise funds for the WISH Literacy and Learning Program.
“I still hope to squeeze my novel out,” she adds, “but I know what my priority is right now and it’s going to be Out on Screen.”