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Qlassics’ stirs quiet controversy

Marcela Berrios | Monday, February 12, 2007

While Saturday’s “Qlassics: Reimagining Sexuality and the Self in Recent American Cinema” marked the fourth year and second name change for the former Queer Film Festival, this year’s event came and went relatively quietly – and that, said organizers and FTT professors, is what the University wanted.

Film, Television and Theatre professor Jill Godmilow said this year several faculty members in the College of Arts and Letters questioned the use of the words “gay” and “lesbian” in last year’s title, “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives and Spectatorship.”

“There’s an attempt to disguise [the former Queer Film Festival] as another academic event and not one specifically gay and lesbian because the University is embarrassed by it,” said Godmilow, who has served as a faculty advisor to students organizing the annual gay and lesbian film screenings since they began in 2003. “The ultimate goal is to make it go away and if every year they keep imposing restrictions on it, eventually they will strip off its identity and it will be lost.”

College of Arts and Letters Dean Mark Roche did not return Observer phone calls Sunday. University spokesman Don Wycliff said he was unaware of any discussion surrounding “Qlassics.” When asked about any connection between the event’s name change and the closing statement on academic freedom University President Father John Jenkins issued last April, Wycliff again said he hadn’t heard of “Qlassics.”

Last year’s “Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives and Spectatorship” marked the first name change to the Queer Film Festival. In winter of 2005, talks between the FTT department and a University committee on academic freedom created by Jenkins focused on the words “queer” and “festival” and sought to portray the event in a more academic context.

When “Qlassics” coordinator senior Patrick Wall contacted the Office of Arts and Letters and the FTT department this January seeking sponsorship for the film screenings, he said several faculty members – whom he would not name – asked him to avoid using “gay” and “lesbian” in the title.

Working against the clock with a reduced staff of student organizers, Wall agreed to another rename.

“After some discussion, the student organizers, myself included, freely chose to use a title that we created that didn’t have the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender in it,” Wall said. “We decided to do this because the event date was already so near that we didn’t think we had enough time to debate with faculty members over the title.”

FTT chair Peter Holland referred Observer phone calls to FTT professor Pamela Wojcik.

Wojcik, Wall’s faculty liaison, said the University wanted to avoid the controversy that has traditionally surrounded the annual event, which was held Saturday in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

“The University administration is trying to allow the event without ruffling feathers,” she said. “The organizers were, in fact, still not allowed to use the word ‘queer’ and they were dissuaded from using the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian.'”

Wojcik declined, however, to name individuals who expressed concern with the title.

Wall said when the student organizers suggested to the FTT department and College of Arts and Letters a name that included “LGTBQ” – lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and questioning – in the title, “certain faculty members asked if we could come up with a different title that didn’t use those words so as to avoid the kind of controversy and outside criticism that arose last year in response to the old title, ‘Queer Film Festival.'”

Wall said he then met with several professors to discuss a name change, which he said was a suggestion, not an order.

“No one wants to say, ‘We won’t let you say this,’ so they were saying, ‘We would feel much more comfortable if you don’t succinctly use these words,” he said.

After he agreed to a new title, Wall said he sent letters to other Arts and Letters departments requesting sponsorship.

“Qlassics” organizers received financial support from the FTT department and the Gay and Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s (GALA-ND/SMC), as well as endorsement from the history department, the gender studies program and the Hesburgh Program in Public Service.

The departments and groups that sponsored past Queer Film Festivals and last year’s Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narratives and Spectatorship include the FTT department, GALA-ND/SMC, the English department, the anthropology department, the history department, the Counseling Center and the gender studies program.

Wall said he didn’t think the name change request came from “the administration or the Main Building” but rather from faculty members in departments that worry about the response of the alumni.

“I think some of these [Arts & Letters] departments are really worried about the criticism they may receive from the more conservative alumni,” Wall said.

Despite the success of last spring’s Gay and Lesbian Film: Filmmakers, Narrators and Spectatorship – which broke attendance records from prior Queer Film Festivals – only three students joined Wall’s staff of event coordinators.

Wall and seniors Ishira Kumar, Lisa Goepfrich and Alisa O’Connor worked since December to rally sponsors and Arts & Letters departments to endorse the Qlassics film series.

In addition to the department sponsors mentioned earlier, Wall said he also received a generous offer from AllianceND – a gay and lesbian support group on campus, unrecognized by the University – to help promote the film series.

Junior Stacey Williams, AllianceND secretary, said she was concerned when she didn’t see any posters advertising the upcoming film event.

Though AllianceND was “not in a position to help financially,” Williams said the organization jumped to help publicize the screenings on campus.

“We definitely offered to help with getting the word out,” she said. “I sent out a few e-mails to the Progressive Student alliance Listserv, which is pretty extensive, as well as the Feminist Voice Listserv – groups we thought would be attracted to the film festival.”

Wall again said the rushed and understaffed situation in which he, Kumar and Goepfrich organized the event made it difficult to promote the film series.

However, he said the attendance increased as Saturday progressed, and the speakers were engaging.

“Overall, I’d say the event, though certainly scaled down from last year, was still a success and hopefully accomplished its mission to create an academic space in which to connect with these important films and the issues they raise,” he said.

This year’s event wasn’t as big of a production as past gay and lesbian film festivals, Wall said, partly because it wasn’t organized as early, and partly because of the theme.

“Rather than focusing on the newest films and biggest filmmakers, we decided to focus instead on movies we considered LGBTQ classics,” Wall said.

One of the featured films was Godmilow’s “Roy Cohn/Jack Smith,” two semi-biographical Broadway monologues contrasting two AIDS-afflicted, homosexual men in the 1990s.

She directed famed homosexual actor Ron Vawter before his death in 1994 due to AIDS-related complications.

Wall said he hoped students attending the Qlassics film series would see “Roy Cohn/Jack Smith” and understand some of the issues faced by homosexuals, which he said were relevant in the Notre Dame classrooms as well.

“Students here are uneasy dealing with homosexuality,” Wall said. “They struggle to reconcile their desire to be kind to other students and their belief that there is something wrong with homosexuality – and so our solution to the problem is just to ignore it completely and pretend it’s not an issue on campus.”