Girls (with girls) on film

OutWest Film Fest

Reno resident Zeina Barkawi co-produced the documentary <i>Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine</i>.

Reno resident Zeina Barkawi co-produced the documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.

Photo/Josie Luciano

The OutWest Film Fest takes place from Oct 16–18 at various venues in Reno. A Q&A with producer Zeina Barkawi will follow Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine on Oct. 17 at 4:30-6pm at the NMA. Later, Desert Hearts director Donna Dietch will be doing a Q&A following the screening of her film on Oct 17 at 7-9pm at the NMA. Visit for more information about tickets and VIP, kick-off, and drag parties. Advance tickets are $10.

“I wanted to make a movie about lesbians that didn’t end in a bisexual threesome or suicide,” said Desert Hearts director Donna Dietch in a recent phone call. Filmed exactly 30 years ago in the Reno area, Desert Hearts is sometimes hailed as “the” breakout lesbian hit and beginning of a film genre that has changed as much as it has stayed the same over the years.

The movie is about a tightly-wound English professor who travels to Reno to for a divorce. Played in 1985 by Helen Shaver and set in the 1950s, the character of Vivian Bell is a portrait of repressed sexuality and east-coast stereotypes. She is barely three hours into Reno when she meets Cay Rivvers (played by Patricia Charbonneau), a free-spirited rancher who also happens to be an un-closeted lesbian. A romance develops between the two women that is beautiful and emotionally deep and hot.

At the time of its release, Desert Hearts was a big deal because it was a simultaneous box-office hit and a giant controversy—a combination that wasn’t always seen as the marketing tool it is today. Now, three decades later, Dietch is taking her film on a tour of the country that includes Reno’s inaugural OutWest Film Fest.

As one of two feature films at OutWest, the movie is one of the most anticipated selections at the screening devoted to LGBTQ films. Over the course of the three-day festival, shorts ranging from comedies to horror flicks will be shown at The Nevada Museum of Art and Goodluck Macbeth Theatre. The films represent the slow but marked transformation that has been creeping along since Desert Hearts came out of the proverbial closet.

“You could go from a comedy one minute to a more serious film from France,” said Suzy Shaffer, event coordinator for Northern Nevada Hopes, the non-profit behind the festival. “We’re getting some of the best movies that are out there, I’d say … and the majority are dealing with gay characters in the forefront.”

While it’s true that LGBTQ culture has always been a part of the filmmaking and television industry, it has not always been front and center. For decades, queer roles were often relegated to supporting characters or punch-lines—seemingly created to be as one-dimensional as possible.

But over the last 10 years or so, gay and non-gender-conforming characters have been written deeper than ever—just look at television dramas like Queer as Folk, The L Word, and Transparent, which center around LGBTQ characters, or shows like Modern Family and Orange is the New Black, which don’t, but still feature prominent individuals who go beyond the role of the gay best friend, lesbian hard-ass or transgender sex worker.

None of the films at the OutWest Film Fest carry the sky-high budgets of mega-produced TV, but they still pack a punch. The other feature-length, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, is an international award-winning documentary about the young man that so many remember as an icon for hate crime legislation and devastating loss after his brutal murder nearly 17 years ago. The film is co-produced by Reno resident and high school friend of Shepard, Zeina Barkawi.

“I think the younger generation doesn’t know the story as well,” said Barkawi. “Through the film, we really want to keep the story alive so that people understand the history of where we got to today. There’s still so much work to do, but we’re in a much better place than we were 20 years ago.”

Other notable films at OutWest include In The Turn, Mini Supreme, and Something to Tell. Some are sad, some are funny, and all are decidedly out.