Don't look for light cinematic fare for the opening Tuesday of the Philadelphia gay film festival qFLIX. Its second annual iteration, which runs through Sunday, will lead with a moody romantic drama, Beautiful Something, set here and shot by local director Joseph Graham. And the weighty stuff continues, with documentaries whose titles speak to global LGBT struggles, among them A Sinner in Mecca andthe savage, Ugandan-made Outed: The Painful Reality.
One film being buzzed about in Philadelphia's gay community, however, has a comic streak as wide as the United States: Be Who You Are, a deceptively simple, charming, buoyant documentary to premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday at Prince Music Theater.
The work of first-time full-length film director - and Tavern on Camac bartender - Jon Ristaino, Be Who You Are chronicles his cross-country journey with fellow Temple University alum Levi Schenk and videographer Aaron Stevens, guided by the spirit of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. But in their American character study, Kerouac's drugs and Beat poetry are replaced with positive messages "about everyday people doing amazing things," Ristaino says of his encounters between Pennsylvania and California.
Crammed into a Mazda 3, they traveled 8,000 miles through 22 states in 25 days during the winter of 2013 to 2014.
The result is "infinitely entertaining," says Thom Cardwell, qFLIX coproducer.
The trio spoke to crash survivors, war veterans, Planned Parenthood workers, bicycle-rights activists - anyone who would pause to ruminate about fulfilling goals and pursuing dreams. "What does it mean to be who you are?" the filmmakers asked.
"Their stories are colorful and honest, revelatory without being preachy," Ristaino says. "We don't give all the answers, but we raise a lot of questions that viewers can ponder in the hope they'll be inspired to chase after what they're looking for."
The making of Be Who You Are was also an adventure in self-discovery: It included Ristaino's coming out as gay. The film, though, is about far more than that, he points out.
"I feel like, oftentimes, gay films are only about being gay, sex, and drugs, but this film isn't about that," he says. "We touch on gay topics, and I'm gay, but I don't classify this as a 'gay film.' It was created with my straight best friend of 12 years, and I think it shows how being gay didn't change our friendship. We touch on transgender topics, relationships with fathers, AIDS, and coming out - but in, I hope, a subtle way."
Well in advance of its premiere, Be Who You Are has been heralded by enthusiastic word-of-mouth in the Gayborhood. It started, surely, with one gadabout: Ian Morrison, also known as high-profile drag queen Brittany Lynn, who is Ristaino's coworker at the heavily trafficked gay bar Tavern on Camac.
"This film is not only important to gay communities, but any community," says Morrison, who met Ristaino when the drag queen was cited by Philadelphia City Council for his work promoting the Mummers Parade and the filmmaker was hired to video record the proceedings. "Yes, Jon comes out as gay, but his cinematic journey shares life stories encouraging people to be who they are, whatever that is - a kick in the ass for people to stay true to their ideals.
"Living LGBT is already a struggle," Morrison adds, "and although our community is making amazing strides of equality, we all need a reminder to try to live life the way we want to, not to be concerned with others' opinions."
Ristaino's favorite film is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ("I love the dry humor"), so you get an idea of what inspired him to make as road movie as his first full-length venture.
The two Temple alums crowd-sourced the film's original $11,000 budget through IndieGoGo, with $4,000 of those funds coming from a grant from Temple University's Creative Arts, Research, and Scholarship Program. That covered one month of driving and filming, and an additional 14 months of postproduction.
"The cost is way more," says Ristaino, also an owner of Philly's FarmCat Media, which specializes in Web design, digital branding, and video. "I had about $10,000 worth of equipment before we started the trip."
To do his own editing, he had to spend an additional $6,000 of his own money on an editing station.
All told, he says, "I'd probably be mortified if I knew an exact number" of the film's cost.
But no price can be put on the message, if it gets out there, he says.
"I'm sure my coming out on film has a lot of underlying meanings, but this isn't the focus of the film," Ristaino says. "Everyone kept telling us to focus down on one topic, like coming out or the gay community, and I kept telling people that just because I'm gay, the film doesn't have to be gay. I think our journey is one of friendship, personal growth, and being true. That's enough."
at various Center City venues.
For times, locations, and ticket prices for screenings: www.qflixphilly.com.