Quick word association: What comes to mind when you hear the words diverse, divergent and subversive? Maybe it's a queer experimental film once banned in 22 states and four countries. Or it could be a short film where Marie Antoinette is played by a chicken.
If you thought of either one of those, you've likely taken a spin through Contrast Film Festival's 2019 schedule. The experimental film and performance festival returns July 18-21, bringing eye-popping and envelope-pushing art to venues around town. This year's opening film is "Flaming Creatures," the previously mentioned banned film that caused a stir in 1963 with its sexual content and disturbing visuals. Contrast's screening at AFS Cinema will feature a live score from rock band Thor & Friends.
Contrast's tagline — "Diverse. Divergent. Subversive." — explains the mission statement of festival organizers Tish Sparks and Jeremy von Stilb. The pair first started working together producing music showcase Y’all Or Nothing during South by Southwest and later started local queer film series Homo Arigato. Sparks came up with the title of Contrast, and "from there we started to develop a way to bridge our various experiences," von Stilb says.
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Contrast's lineup this year includes screenings of feature-length and short films, as well as comedy, motivational speaking and live music. "It’s a film festival programmed by two music lovers, and we are excited to show artists who also work within multiple mediums," von Stilb says.
We caught up with Sparks and von Stilb over email before the festival. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
American-Statesman: How would you describe Contrast Film Fest to someone who's never heard of it?
Tish Sparks: Contrast is a multidisciplinary festival rooted in moving image media, but we aim to offer a variety of arts experiences for people who may or may not be "film people." If you like to watch six films in one weekend, we’ve got you. But if you wanna catch a movie or two, see some performances, experience an installation or attend a dance party, you can do that, too.
What sets Contrast apart from other film festivals, even others we might be familiar with that deal with similar genres and themes?
Sparks: I think Contrast strays from the typical model of a film festival by offering live elements and presenting moving image media in (nontraditional) formats. We also give audiences a chance to see world-class work that doesn’t necessarily fit into the scope of other events here in Texas. We tend to be drawn to work that might be seen as risky or controversial, so we’ve had the opportunity — both last year and this year — to host Texas premieres of projects that have excited critics and audiences all over the world, but we are the first to take a chance on them here.
Like you mentioned, the fest also thinks outside the film festival box when it comes to programming, like this year's live score from Thor & Friends for "Flaming Creatures." What kind of things are you looking for when it comes to special events?
Sparks: First and foremost, we want every single event to be exciting. We are a small festival, so that is really what we aim for. If we wouldn’t be excited about an idea as a potential audience member, we don’t pursue it. We also try to make sure each event has some tie to film or moving image media. So, even if it is a comedy show, there will be a video element. We don’t want to totally stray from the concept of a film festival, but we want to push the boundaries of what a film festival can be.
Jeremy von Stilb: The nature of film and video is changing, and queer artists in particular are approaching the medium in innovative ways, so we wanted to create a festival that reflects this. When thinking about doing the live re-score of "Flaming Creatures," this was a film that came out in 1963 but was instantly censored for its depictions of homosexual acts. Almost 50 years later, queer people are still dealing with issues of censorship, and we thought turning the film screening into a live music event brings it further into a modern context.
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Is there anything that people don't know about Contrast that you wish they did?
Von Stilb: I think what surprised me last year the most was the cumulative effect of watching the films and going to the events in succession. There were so many unexpected themes that linked all of these artworks together, and spending time examining that made the experience so absorbing and mind-bending.
Sparks: We do not always agree with every single thing in every single work that we’ve presented, but we do believe in giving audiences a chance to make those decisions for themselves. We want to offer audiences a chance to have conversations about challenging work, and that can’t ever happen if they do not have an opportunity to see it for themselves. Cinema is a communal experience, or at least should be, and we’d love to encourage those conversations to happen after our screenings.