A new festival is determined to emphasise the 'T' in LGBT cinema.
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21 Feb 2013 - 11:43 AM  UPDATED 21 Feb 2013 - 11:43 AM

Based in the cultural precinct of Sydney's Olympic Park, Cinewest develops platforms for marginal communities to address pertinent stories and issues through film. On March 18, the group will launch the latest of its film festival endeavours in the form of the 1st Sydney Transgender International Film Festival, a three-day event exploring the culture and experience of those who appear as, wish to be considered as, or have undergone surgery to become a member of the opposite sex.

Transgender content has always been intertwined with sexuality, not identity

“The Sydney Transgender International Film Festival is specifically programmed to represent transgender content mainly deriving from identity issues,” says Vahid Vahed, artistic director of Cinewest. Vahed sees this as the crucial point-of-difference between his start-up event and the well-established Mardi Gras Film Festival, which primarily celebrates sexual freedom of expression.

“Transgender film festivals [around] the world are not as old as a decade, since transgender content has always been intertwined with sexuality, not identity. We perceive no challenge directly or indirectly with the well-established Mardi Gras Film Festival as we see them more as a partner to cross promote and share resources.”

The event will be run in conjunction with The Gender Centre, a transgender community initiative based in Sydney's inner-west. The centre attempted to establish a transgender-themed film festival in 2010 only to have the event peter out after its inaugural edition when the City of Sydney Council denied fresh funding. Vahed is unfazed.

“The screenings in 2010 were overwhelmingly received by both the transgender and wider communities. It is reassuring that the transgender community in Sydney is eager to celebrate and connect with the mainstream communities through a film event.”

Cinewest experienced its own funding dramas last year when Screen NSW refused requests for monetary assistance in the final round of funding announcements. Vahed understands these are the vagaries faced by start-up events, though admits to being frustrated that the organisation did not fully comprehend the uniqueness of the transgender culture. “[The government funding bodies] suggested [we] become partners with Queer Screen and other relevant film festivals in the country,” he says. “This highlights the very issue that transgender people are perceived by the mainstream communities in the same way as the gay, lesbian and sexually diverse population.”

Vahed didn't back down, instead taking on board the organisation's advice to strengthen ties with other like-minded events in a bid to bolster the event's profile and network. “[We] began by calling for entries and connecting to transgender film festivals from around the world as partners. We found very few festivals that were solely transgender in form and content, [but] the Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival in its 5th edition in 2012 became our partner,” he says.

The alliance with LA organisers has allowed for the first programming choices to be announced. Amongst them, Tomer Heyman's documentary Paper Dolls (pictured), which follows five Philippino men in various stages of gender transition as the live and work amongst Israel's Orthodox elderly community; Zohreh Shayesteh's doco short Inside Out, a profile of transsexuality in The Islamic Republic of Iran; plus competition winners from the LA festival event, including Jeff Roy's account of an Indian woman's sexual realignment journey, Rites of Passage, Peter Valjacic's doco Being a Trans-Person Living in a Two-Gender Society, and Jonathan Skurnik's teenage transgender account, I'm Just Anneke.

The bulk of the 2013 programmimg is still to be confirmed at press time, but Vahed has been encouraged by the response from Australian filmmakers, both transgender or 'non-trans' producers.

“The festival received over 200 short and feature films,” says Vahed. “The reaction to this event has been positive by transgender communities and filmmakers in Sydney and Melbourne. I am sure the news will encourage many transgender individuals and groups that have been waiting to showcase their works to their own festival rather than wait in the queue.”