An introduction to TJ Murphy and Reel Q

TJ Murphy, Director of Programming at Reel Q, spoke to Anusha about the organization and the LGBTQ+ film festival they organize every year. Reel Q aims to bring to Pittsburgh comedies, dramas, short films and documentaries; to educate and promote acceptance through films. He also spoke about Reel Stories, a series that screens international films on the same subject matter all year long, at the City of Asylum, an independent bookstore in Pittsburgh.

Anusha: I actually prepared a set of questions…

TJ: Yeah absolutely, ask away!

Anusha: …but I think I should let you talk a little bit at least, as an introduction, before I launch into questions.

TJ: Let’s see, we are currently in the 33rd season of our film festival, we started in 1985–way before my time!

Anusha: So you were the Pittsburgh Lesbian & Gay Film Society, and then you changed the name to Reel Q?

TJ: The Film Society is a non-profit organization. When we started out, that was basically our whole organization. Then we started branching out, 10-15 years ago, doing other events outside the film festival. The film festival then became its own entity outside of the Film Society, but still under the umbrella. For a while, we were called the Pittsburgh Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. In 2010, we changed our name to Reel Q. It was a community-based initiative. We had a vote, we even had a party! We wanted the community to be a big part of our permanent name change. That was when I started too, first as a volunteer at the film festival. I just always liked movies actually! I was going to Pittsburgh Filmmakers at the time, I saw a poster for Reel Q, I had never heard of them. I called them and started volunteering. I just knew I needed to be doing something. I got involved with the board 2 years later. I’ve been in that position for the last 6 years.

Anusha: Oh! So you mean to say you do all of this on a volunteer basis, and everybody else at the organization is a volunteer too?

TJ: Yes, everyone is a volunteer.

Anusha: That was one of the things I wanted to ask you about. When I read online that Reel Q is a non-profit organization, I kept wondering “How do they make this happen?!” How does it work?

TJ: Well, mostly donations, a great deal of grants. We’ve had several sponsors come and go over the years. Donations from the community even.. We’ve only been able to keep it going for so long because of these donations. The BFI Flare, which is the UK’s lesbian and gay film festival, started right around the same time as us. Most of these festivals started in the 80s. I believe ours is the fourth oldest festival, maybe give or take a few years… I think San Francisco was the first one in the US. That’s when the content really came into its own. People realised there were all these films that weren’t being shown anywhere, and the film festivals started catering to that niche.

Obviously, the climate has changed. There’s way more access to these kinds of films now, even at an international level, and I see that changing as well, since I’ve been here. Online submission platforms like filmfreeway and withoutabox have really changed the game for festivals like ours, who don’t necessarily have the international presence or name recognition. Websites like that didn’t exist few years ago, but now they help people find us with ease, they help people be in contact with us. We’re getting access to so many films that we never would have known existed, or that we should have been seeking them out. And vice versa. People who are producing and directing these films would never have known that we existed, and that we’re willing to screen their films.

Anusha: So these submissions are for your film festival that happens in October every year… Do you get films from all over the world?

TJ: Yes, these are for our film festival. So far, we have received 300 short films, from just December 2017. You’d be hard pressed to find a country that is not represented. Maybe 1 country. A lot of directors, even if they are making their film elsewhere, identify their film to be from a certain country.

Anusha: Right, because of the situation in their home country?

TJ: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Anusha: That’s a significant number of films!

TJ: Yes, it can be overwhelming. We cut submissions off by the end of June, so we have time to view all of these films. By July or early August, we finalize our schedule.

Anusha: So you just screen short films then?

TJ: We do three shorts programmes—screening 17-25 films depending on the time. Last year, we did four shorts programmes. Last year was our first year on filmfreeway, so we had a number of submissions. I’ve noticed this in other film festivals as well. San Francisco has about 7-8 short programs. I was at the Toronto Film Festival last weekend and they had 7-8 short film programmes as well. I’m seeing this trend everywhere. I don’t know if that’s because making movies has become more accessible now, there’s so much more content out there.

Anusha: Do you watch all the movies you screen?

TJ: (laughs) Yes, I do. Okay, not all of the shorts. We divide them up. But definitely all the feature films. We have 40-50 feature length films in consideration this year.

Anusha: I guess you watch all the films you screen at Reel Stories then…

TJ: Yes. Sometimes we screen films we’ve had at the festival previously. Maybe not enough people came to it back then, or it was so long ago that it can be shown again, or films we shortlist but don’t end up showing for lack of time. Sometimes, we have many fantastic films that talk about the gay male experience, and we make a choice not to screen some of them at the festival, because we want to be inclusive. We would like to show some other experiences as well. Reel Stories helps with all of this.

Anusha: Let’s talk about your job specifically. What is it that you do at Reel Q, as Director of Programming?

TJ: So I oversee the programming committee—also volunteer-based, obviously. Several of these people have been involved with the film festival longer than I have. We consider the films we receive, we meet once a month. We watch a lot of these films at home now, which wasn’t the case when I started. People were still sending us DVDs back then. Wait, it wasn’t that long ago! So yes, we used to have to meet often to watch these movies, but we do a lot of it online now. It’s a very democratic process. We vote on the films we see. I’m constantly asking the others for input, we’re always trying to track down films that might be hard to get. I’m the idea man! That’s what the role is.

Anusha: I’d like to talk about this association with City of Asylum. That’s interesting to me. Why this space specifically?

TJ: We’ve been screening at City of Asylum for three years now. Previously, we would set up a tent in the summer. When they moved into this new building, they wanted to really up their programming, so I had this idea to screen films there. Obviously, screening films in the tent meant we could only do it for about 3-4 months. In the building, we now screen films all year long. This partnership has been really fantastic!

The reason we wanted to start Reel Stories was that, we have a massive number of international films submitted to us. Most of these films completely disappear after their run on the festival circuit, unless they are picked up by Netflix or Amazon Video. But it’s not easy to find these films on the streaming platforms as well. This is the case for American films too. When I was on the programming committee, I would come across many films we decided not to show—maybe because of the timing or some other reason, and you would never hear about them again. I’ll be thinking about it, trying to find one of them online, maybe there’ll be a DVD copy for $30 on Amazon. No one’s going to buy that DVD! It was that small idea—let’s highlight these films that would otherwise disappear.

Anusha: How do you get your hands on a copy of the film you wish to screen? Do you contact the makers or do you just buy that lone DVD from Amazon?

TJ: It depends actually. We go through the distributor sometimes. If they don’t have a distributor, we go through the director. The last film we screened—Trembling Before G-d—that got really complicated! That film’s distributor went under…

Anusha: What do you mean?

TJ: Oh, the company died. So we weren’t sure how to locate them. I found the director on Facebook. It became this whole project, following up with the director on Facebook…

Anusha: So I came to the screening of Trembling Before G-d and Sancharram [The Journey]. I don’t know who comes to these screenings though. People just walked in from the restaurant nearby, with a glass of champagne in hand. Or these women I met, who told me they go to all the free screenings in Pittsburgh. What’s really going on, who comes to these screenings?

TJ: (laughs) Obviously we hope that anyone with any interest in these issues would come. Whether they have an interest in world cinema, or in these ideas we present, maybe make them comfortable with who they are…

Anusha: Has that happened? Has anyone come and told you how a film helped them?

TJ: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I don’t want to say no, I can’t think of a specific instance off the top of my head right now. We’ve definitely had a great response to that series. A lot of people have thanked us for choosing these films, for showing these films. We have a steady group of people who have been coming to these screenings over the years. I’m going to think about this.

Anusha: Yeah, you should let me know if you remember anything specific! I asked because I don’t know anyone who comes to these screenings, or even anyone who goes to the bookstore—it’s a really great bookstore by the way!

TJ: Yes, it is! I think it is the largest collection of translated works in the country.

Anusha: Oh, I didn’t know that! Their ideology as well—hosting writers who have been persecuted in their country and so on… So showing these films in such a space comes across as an exchange of ideas.

TJ: I remember an American documentary we screened last year. This film, Kidnapped for Christ, is about a kid who gets taken by this church-affiliated gay conversion camp in the Dominican Republic. It is the filmmaker’s perspective of this issue, her interactions with the kids—she follows them for a couple of years. After the screening, someone from PERSAD gave a talk. I remember many people came up to us after this event—they couldn’t believe this was still going on. It was an eye-opening experience for a lot of people. Having PERSAD there helped too. We were able to say, “Now that you know what’s going on, here’s what you can do, here’s who you can talk to, here’s who you can donate to.” I think this was an instance of the film becoming more than a viewing experience. Maybe that’s the specific example you were looking for? One goal is to appreciate good cinema. And if it gets people talking…

Anusha: So you choose only international films to screen at Reel Stories?

TJ: Yes…and a big part of that is, we get dwindling numbers for foreign films at our film festival. We are not yet financially stable enough that we can still go ahead and screen a foreign film. We would like to break even. With Reel Stories, we have less pressure. We don’t worry so much about how many people show up. We do get a good number—I’m thinking that’s because it’s free (laughs). I would like to think it’s because the movies are so fantastic!

Of the about 16 films we screen at the festival, maybe 5-6 are foreign films. Maybe these films have some buzz because of an actor… We’re not at a place where we can afford to have twenty people show up to a film at the festival. Last year, we showed this fantastic Chinese film at the festival, Sisterhood. It won the audience award at Toronto last year—which is where I had initially seen it. So yeah, fantastic movie. We took a gamble and showed in on a Thursday night, which is statistically a good night for our festival. Seven people showed up to it.

Anusha: That’s so sad! I think more people show up to Reel Stories. I counted 20-30.

TJ: Yes. We’ve even had 80 people once!

Anusha: Oh wow, okay.

TJ: So yeah, I’m thinking of showing Sisterhood at the next Reel Stories.

Anusha: Do you see yourself continuing at Reel Q?

TJ: Oh yeah absolutely! I mean, I think it’s incredibly important to have festivals like this. It’s only my first year as Programming Director, so we’re still figuring out what the future looks like, where this is going… But we’ve continuously grown over the years. We are trying to do several things with libraries, high schools. We want to reach out to more youth, which isn’t something that we can do with our film festival—most of our films are not for a younger audience really. I would like to do more targeted screenings for youth, at schools, in association with queer student organizations. I’m trying to get this to happen next year. Possibly work with other film festivals—we worked with the CMU film festival to promote PUFF [Pittsburgh Underground Film Festival], which is the other film festival we do.

Anusha: Wait, there’s one more film festival you do?!

TJ: (laughs) Well, it just passed, it happened the week of April 20. That was just in its second edition. We started it in August 2017, and we did the next one within a year. It’s a weekend to show more experimental and less accessible queer media.

Anusha: Not just films—

TJ: Yes, experimental documentaries, web series, newer things, older things… With Reel Q, we only show films that aren’t released yet, or films that are in the festival circuit. It’s very traditional. With PUFF, we can do whatever we want. It’s also a place where community members can come in and tell us, “Hey we really think you should screen something like this.” And we’ll say “Okay!” There are no rules for PUFF. It was really successful when we started it last year, but it was too close to our film festival in October. We felt we were stretching ourselves too thin. So we moved PUFF to spring this year.

This year at PUFF, we showed films focussed on people of colour, experimental storytelling. We had a pay-what-you-can day on Sunday and we showed a collection of trans youth documentary shorts. We showed a fantastic film from the 90s called Tongues Untied, an experimental documentary about the queer black male experience. It ties in poetry and music to paint a picture of that experience. We had the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics come and do a reading. It was great! That Friday, we had Mink Stole (who’s been in every one of John Waters’s films from the beginning) do a variety show with popular San Francisco drag queen Peaches Christ, who herself is a director—we showed one of her films 2 years ago. All of this happened at the Melwood, it was a great space. There’s no other space like that in the city at all!

PUFF is very focussed on women and people of colour. In Pittsburgh, the statistics show that there are a larger number of gay-identified men living here, than there are women. Obviously I don’t know how true this is. I read it somewhere. I think we see this with the Prides too—there are all these other Prides that are starting up, because the main event is not representative of the entire community. So there’s Pittsburgh Black Pride, there’s Trans Pride, Youth Pride, for a little while there was even a Latino Pride…

Anusha: I think film festivals like PUFF help open up a conversation that’s not restricted to the gay (white) male experience…

TJ: Yes, absolutely. What better way to do it than with movies? What do you do when you leave a movie, regardless of whether you like it or not? You have a conversation with somebody about it. I think that’s just a universal thing. That’s why having the film festival experience is so important. You come with other people in your community, they may be friends or strangers, or people who are just getting acquainted, and you already have something in common. I don’t want to see that die in Pittsburgh. There have been other gay film festivals in comparably sized cities that have disappeared or shrunk. With Netflix and all of that, people seem to want to stay at home more, and not enjoy the experience that a theatre offers. That’s detrimental to festivals like these. But then what happens is—or what I hope will happen is—people become nostalgic for a better time and they start thinking they should go see a movie.

Anusha: Speaking of the gay experience in movies, how do you think films like Blue Is the Warmest Color or Moonlight or Call Me By Your Name have changed the scene? Have they?

TJ: That’s a great question, I do think the scene has changed. What these movies have done is what some people hoped Brokeback Mountain would do some years ago. Not only are these films bringing more experimental types of filmmaking to the mainstream—Moonlight for instance plays around with its narrative, really interesting filmmaking—and it does this while telling a story about someone you could know or identify with. I can’t say this about Call Me By Your Name, maybe what I will say is that it makes the idea of queer cinema accessible to those who aren’t queer. That’s a great thing too, for film festivals like us.

Maybe someone sees a movie like Call Me By Your Name and likes it, and decides to come to our film festival. We don’t cater to a non-queer audience obviously, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want those people there. We want others to feel at home too, so maybe someone watches a movie at a regular movie theatre and likes it enough to seek us out. For every Moonlight, there are a dozen more films that people don’t know about. Not to take away the achievements of those movies, but content-wise, there’s a lot that people don’t know about, especially people who are not a part of the queer community.

Anusha: One last question, what are the biggest challenges you face at Reel Q? Would you say funding?

TJ: Funding is a big part of it, yes, but it’s not something I can answer about. I’m not responsible for bringing in funding. I’m the person who asks “How much can I spend?” I think maintaining a solid and consistent audience is a big challenge from my perspective. Generally, our audience tends to be older. That’s fine…we appreciate that. But we would like to have younger people feel comfortable coming in to our spaces. When they come in, we get great feedback! But not enough people know that we exist. I’m not sure what we can do to change that. We haven’t been successful in figuring that out. We do a lot of advertising, we have good word-of-mouth, we try to have a presence at events that would be comparable to ours… But it’s a big problem, it’s probably bigger than us. I think younger people aren’t just going to movies anymore. How much responsibility do we take for it, how much do we accept that things have changed?


About the interviewer

Anusha Srinivasan enjoys cinema and books. She is a writer and feminist in progress.

Images provided by TJ Murphy. They may not be reproduced without permission.

Read Anusha’s experience of watching Sancharram and Trembling Before G-d here.