Seattle has Capitol Hill, Los Angeles has West Hollywood, and San Francisco has the Castro—but what about Portland? For a city as queer friendly as Bridgetown, the gay community here is spread remarkably thin. Besides a handful of gay bars and community centers scattered around town, there's no real pocket of real estate that can be called the "gay neighborhood."
While many a queer Portlander views the city's geographical non-separatism as a positive way of keeping the LGBT community out of the urban ghetto, others—like Russ Gage and David Weissman, co-founders of the Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival (QDoc), which is currently in its third year—feel something's missing.
"The QDoc Film Festival was born out of a desire to bring the Portland gay community together, if just for a few days," Gage told me when I met with him and Weissman over beverages at the Living Room Theaters—one of many businesses currently transforming SW Stark into an area better known for coffee and cuisine than its long-held reputation as the cruising capital of Portland.
Before coming to Portland, Gage served for 10 years as the operations director of the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, the oldest and largest LGBT film festival in the world. He sees QDoc as being unique compared to the majority of queer-themed film festivals, as it's the only LGBT festival in the country dedicated exclusively to documentary film.
"We keep an eye on the films that come out of the major festivals—Sundance, Berlin, Amsterdam—and then try and assemble a program based on what we think best suits the current times," he says.
No one can argue that the "current times" have been especially tumultuous for gay and lesbian Americans, if not a bit surreal. Last year saw the passage of the anti-gay marriage bill Proposition 8 in normally liberal California, while states long thought to be less open to gay marriage, such as Maine and Iowa, have made it legal.
QDoc's other co-founder, David Weissman, is a filmmaker best known for his 2002 film The Cockettes, a documentary about a group of gender-bending performers who became a cultural phenomenon in the early 1970s. Weissman views the festival as an opportunity to bring substantive films to audiences that might not normally be able see them.
"This year, our intent was to select films that inspire people," he says. "We wanted stories that give people hope in this time of high anxiety."
The remarkable opening night film, City of Borders (screens Thursday, May 28), about a group of gays and lesbians who regularly attend the only gay bar in Jerusalem, is a powerful story of human courage in the face of violent extremism—and despite the painful reality of its subject, director Yun Suh's film still feels optimistic. Meanwhile, Training Rules (Saturday, May 30) exposes homophobia and discrimination in women's collegiate athletics, shining a light on a disturbing trend many viewers—even those who consider themselves well versed in the struggle for LGBT rights—might never have known existed.
Other highlights include It Came from Kuchar (Friday, May 29), a tender and fascinating portrait of legendary underground filmmakers Mike and George Kuchar, and Fig Trees (Sunday, May 31), a film that brings together Gertrude Stein, a singing albino squirrel, and St. Teresa of Ávila to tell the story of AIDS activist Zackie Achmat.
"We wanted to make a festival that would be much bigger than the sum of its parts," Weissman explains. "Good documentaries have the ability to change a person's perception of the world, and it's an amazing feeling to share this transformative experience with the growing community here in Portland."