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The wild weekend world of Contrast Film Festival

Austin experimental film and performance fest returns with 'Flaming Creatures' and more

Eric Webb
"So Pretty," directed by Jessicka Dunn Rovinelli, will screen July 21 at AFS Cinema as part of Contrast Film Festival 2019. [CONTRIBUTED BY CONTRAST FILM FESTIVAL]

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.


We asked Contrast Film Festival's organizers for five noteworthy films or programs on this year's schedule.

Brazil in Focus. This program is a collection of three features and three shorts by Brazilian filmmakers, focusing on queer experiences in that country. Many of the films are Texas premieres, with one North American premiere, "Negrum3." Sparks and von Stilb say the program is an opportunity for audiences "to get a glimpse into what our communities might experience in a country that is going through a similar political situation to our own right now." (Various showtimes July 19-21, Alamo South Lamar)

"Adam" and "So Pretty." Contrast will present the Texas premieres of Sundance standout "Adam" and Teddy Award-nominated "So Pretty." Transgender filmmakers directed both features, which Sparks and von Stilb say present stories about trans experiences and communities in wildly different ways. ("Adam" screens 7 p.m. July 19 at AFS Cinema; "So Pretty" screens 5 p.m. July 21 at AFS Cinema.)

Contrast Midnight Shorts. A late-night shorts program including "Ultra Pulpe" from "The Wild Boys" director Bertrand Mandico and "Les Îles" from "Knife + Heart" director Yann Gonzalez. Contrast Midnight Shorts will also screen Suzan Pitt’s 1979 animated acid trip of a short, "Asparagus," which Sparks and von Stilb say was commonly shown before David Lynch's "Eraserhead" on the midnight circuit in the 1980s, and "some other wild and weird gems." (10 p.m. July 19, AFS Cinema)

Contrast Late Night Adult Multiplex. A late-night adult multiplex and club event, it features a live performance by Los Angeles artist Saturn Rising, a drag show and "three microcinemas showing erotic films on loop that the audience can wander in and out of throughout the evening." (10 p.m. July 20 at Austin School of Film)

Yes You Can! A performance show at Cheer Up Charlies, the event features stand-up comics doing motivational speeches. Sparks and von Stilb say it’s a little bit of a satire of wellness culture but also leaves audiences "actually feeling reinvigorated and inspired." Watch for call-and-response affirmations, a singer interpreting audience members' dreams into improvised songs and a "bizarro OxyClean demonstration." (8 p.m. July 21 at Cheer Up Charlies)


Information and full

Venues: AFS Cinema (6406 N. I-35, Suite 3100), Alamo Drafthouse (1120 S. Lamar Blvd.), Austin School of Film (2200 Tillery St.), Cheer Up Charlies (900 Red River St.)

Cost: Badges are available for preorder online for $55 until 6 p.m. July 17. Badges will also be available for purchase at the opening night event July 18 at AFS Cinema for $65. Individual tickets can be purchased for any film event at AFS Cinema or Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar through the venue's site. The Saturday late-night event at Austin School of Film will be $15 at the door; the closing party at Cheer Up Charlies will be $5 at the door.