The Queen of Queer Screen

Lisa Rose, director of Queer Screen's Mardi Gras Film Festival. Photo by Ann-Marie Calilhanna for the Sydney Sentinel.

A pandemic is merely a plot twist for Lisa Rose, the intrepid director of one of the largest queer film festivals in the world. By Rita Bratovich.

Last year, the Mardi Gras Film Festival (MGFF) managed to execute its entire program in cinemas as planned before the debilitating coronavirus hit. 

“We were incredibly lucky, as an arts organisation, to have our main funding event actually be able to happen in 2020,” reflects Festival Director, Lisa Rose. 

That was their first stroke of fortune. The second was that by the time their other major festival – the Queer Screen Film Festival (QSFF) – occurred in September 2020, the industry was already figuring out work-arounds to the ongoing pandemic. 

“So we were able to sit back and watch what the film festival industry was doing – not only in Australia, but also globally – and we were able to do a bit of a test case where we were put most of the program online to see if there was a demand for it,” explains Rose. 

Lisa Rose peruses this year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival guide. Photo by Ann-Marie Calilhanna for the Sydney Sentinel.

The QSFF became a prototype for this year’s MGFF, testing new markets, online formats, streaming software, pricing models and accessibility.

Initially, some filmmakers were reluctant to have their made-for-the-big-screen films played online, but when the pandemic showed no signs of rolling credits anytime soon, they became much more obliging. 

Taking all the lessons learned into account, this year’s MGFF will a hybrid festival; a mixture of both cinema screenings and on-demand content online.

“We pretty much knew fairly early on that we were going to have some semblance of an online component with this festival, and it really just came down to what filmmakers were willing for us to do, and then just making sure we got a good balance between things we can play in cinema and not,” says Rose.

The 2021 program is huge, with 94 films comprising narrative features, documentaries, shorts and episodic films. Around 70 per cent of the program will be available on demand. 

Trailer for the 2021 Mardi Gras Film Festival. Video: queerscreen/YouTube.

“I think it’s a really interesting silver lining to the horrible year that 2020 was for the world,” says Rose. “Queer people live all over the country – they don’t just live in the major cities – and so they’re able to watch stuff now that they would not normally. There are people who have young children who can’t get to the cinema; there are people who are shift workers; there are people who have disabilities that don’t allow them to easily get to the cinemas. So there are so many people that can’t normally connect with the festival, and because of the pandemic we’ve had to pivot and create something that has enabled those people to be able to access it, which is fantastic.

“I hope that we will be able to continue to do it in a post-pandemic world to some degree.”

The program includes an international selection as well as numerous world, Australian and Sydney premieres. The range of subject matter reflects the actual spectrum of issues and stories that affect LGBTQI+ people. To help ensure this diversity, Rose has a variety of people who preview films and provide feedback. 

“I’m constantly really surprised,” says Rose, “People will have such completely different reactions to films, not only from an emotional perspective, but from a theoretical perspective. But, that’s what cinema is.”

Two features have already had mainstream release: Ammonite and Summerland. 

“You can’t compare the experience of watching a queer film with a queer audience to watching it with a mixed audience,” explains Rose. “And so that’s why we often will play films that may have had a theatrical run, just because we think it’s important to include them in the program for people to feel safe and comfortable to be able to come in and watch them with their peers.”

While it’s been a difficult year for the film industry – and the world in general – the positive, upbeat Lisa Rose sees some silver linings to the “horrible year”. Photo by Ann-Marie Calilhanna for the Sydney Sentinel.

Apart from the two main film festivals, Queer Screen has a number of other initiatives, including a completion fund awarded each year to help filmmakers complete a feature, documentary or web series. Since 2015, they have given away over $80,000. 

Short film makers can vie for the Queer Screen Pitch Off $10,000 production fund to help get their film made. 

Rose sees it as an integral part of the company’s mission to support filmmakers and a positive way of sharing with the community. 

“Being able to be in that financial position through the fact that we have so many generous members and donors and people coming to the festival, and also having some fabulous sponsors and partners, has really been something that has grown over the last probably six or seven years.”

The Sentinel is one of those parters, having come on board this year as an official Queer Screen media partner, as well as presenter of the Australian premiere of acclaimed US indie Milkwater at Event Cinemas George Street on 21 February.

Official trailer for Milkwater, which will have its Australian premiere at the Mardi Gras Film Festival. Video: queerscreen/YouTube.

But the true lifeblood of the organisation is the more than 150 volunteers who get involved each year.

“We couldn’t function without our volunteers; not just at the festival ushering, but also our board of directors, our board associates, people helping in social media; we have all these people helping in programming, people helping in finance and governance, and all these different areas – and we just could not exist without our volunteer help.”

Rose has been with Queer Screen since 2012, first serving on the board, then becoming Festival Director a little over three years ago. Although, surprisingly, she has no background in filmmaking, as such.

“It’s just always been my passion – but I didn’t think of doing it as a career until I got involved. I am just a film lover and connoisseur. I’ve always liked film. My background was working in a Blockbuster Video for many years.” (Don’t laugh – so did Quentin Tarantino!)

Lisa Rose, ahem, rose from a job at Blockbuster Video to become director of Australia’s biggest – and one of the world’s largest – LGBTQI+ film festivals. Photo by Ann-Marie Calilhanna for the Sydney Sentinel.

The LGBTQI+ cinematic landscape has definitely evolved since the scratchy, sometimes cringeworthy, early days. 

“I’ve been associated with Queer Screen for eight years now … and it’s changed astronomically over that eight years in terms of the quantity and content, and also just the quality overall.”

What does she love about Queer Screen? 

“That people can know where to come and be with a community and see things. I still think it’s really exciting and I think it’s an exciting thing that so much content is being made.”

Queer Screen’s 28th annual Mardi Gras Film Festival runs from Thursday, 18 February to Thursday, 4 March at cinemas around Sydney and online. For more information, including the full program, and to purchase tickets, visit queerscreen.org.au.