Relax and enjoy the show Chillfest brings gay and lesbian film series to JC

Chillfest, Jersey City’s “mostly” gay and lesbian film festival, has extended its stay on city screens this year. For the past two years, the popular festival was only a weekend long. But this year, festival programmers and founders John Catania and Charles Ignacio have expanded the festival into a six-month long affair.

The Chillfest Second Sundays Series runs from Nov. 11 all the way through June 8, and will feature a new film every second Sunday of the month.

Films will be screened at LITM bar located at 140 Newark Ave. in Jersey City.

The series format is partly a response to festival-goers’ concerns that they couldn’t see all the films in past years because of simultaneous screenings. Now, with the new format, the public can see a different film each month without having to worry about overlap.

“It’s a great leap for us,” Catania said of the new series. “The new format also helps to raise even more awareness of the festival and its themes.” He added, “Charles and I think it’s better because [before] we were only on the radar once a year. Now we’re on the radar year-round.”

How it started

Partners in life and in business, Catania and Ignacio moved to JC from Manhattan in 2000. “We are basically a working couple,” Catania said. “We’ve [worked together to] produce movies, television shows and then Chillfest.”

The idea for Chillfest came in 2005, Catania said, after he and Ignacio finished work on their documentary film, “The Lady in Question is Charles Busch.” The critically-acclaimed movie documents the life of 1980s fringe theater fixture Busch, who also did classic B movies such as “Psycho Beach Party” and “Die Mommy, Die.”

“We were suddenly a lot less busy [after the film was completed],” Catania said. “And we wanted to show the movie to our neighbors in Jersey City.”

The Jersey City Museum gave them a screening room, and they invited other filmmakers they had met while touring on the festival circuit to show their work.

Catania said the growing presence of the gay community in Jersey City also inspired him and Ignacio to start the festival.

“The gay community in Jersey City is growing very rapidly,” he said. He added that the strength of such groups as JCLGO (Jersey City Lesbian and Gay Outreach) show that growth.

“It’s because of them we did Chillfest,” he added.

Creating a dialogue

Catania and Ignacio hand pick films for the festival that they think will have resonance with the Jersey City community, Catania said.

“Many film festivals will accept entries,” he said. “We’re not into that. We’re scouting and going to see films.” One of the films that they selected for this year’s festival is “Saving Marriage,” which tells of the political and personal drama that unfolded in Massachusetts after the state became the first to grant gay couples the right to marry, and then a proposed amendment to the state constitution threatened to take it away.

The film was shown last Sunday at a special screening event, held a week before the official launch of the festival, at the Jersey City Museum.

“That film is extremely important to see in New Jersey,” Catania said. “New Jersey is facing [that same predicament] within the next two years,” he added.

It also has personal resonance for Catania and Ignacio, who have been together for 14 years. The couple took advantage of New Jersey’s new civil union ruling in a ceremony this past summer.

Another aim of the festival is to have the filmmakers discuss their work with the audience. “That is the real spirit of the film festival,” Catania said. “It’s not to just show films, it’s a dialogue with the community.”

What’s in a name?

Catania said the name of the festival was inspired by the spirit of Jersey City’s nickname, which is “Chilltown.” One of the aims of the festival, he said, was “showing art and film in a relaxed setting.” Another goal is to enrich the experience of the gay community in town, many of whom often go to Manhattan.

“It’s a great way to keep people in town,” Catania said.

The festival is the “mostly” gay film festival, Catania said, because the audience is not all gay, and the films that they show are not all by gay filmmakers and not all about gay content.

He continued, “in talking to other film festival heads, they feel boxed in. It gives us room to expand.” A film’s societal relevance also helps it make the cut.

“We’ll show the community a film that we think would be important to see,” he said.

Looking ahead

This Sunday is the big launch of the Second Sundays series, which kicks off with the film “Holding Trevor.” The film “delves into the hearts, minds, and bedrooms of the 20-something set,” Catania said. Writer/actor Brent Gorski will host a question and answer session afterwards.

After this weekend’s premier, there will be one movie shown per month until June 8.

For coming years, Catania said he and Ignacio are looking to branch out to another screen in the Journal Square area sometime soon.

“The third location is an important goal because the community there is so diverse,” Catania said. But he was not sure what else would be in store further on down the line for Chillfest.

“The gay [film] festival in LA has been around for 25 years. Newfest in New York has been around for 20 years. It took a long time for them to know what they would be. I don’t know where we’ll be in five years,” he said. But there was one thing he said with certainty:

“We’ll be bigger.”

Chillfest Second Sundays will kick off with “Holding Trevor,” on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $7 at the door. For more information, go to www.chillfest.org

Comments on this article may be sent to mfriedman@hudsonreporter.com

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