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PVCC’s Desperado LGBT Film Festival educates, entertains

Extensive planning, hundreds of volunteer hours make annual festival success

The Desperado LGBT Film Festival Logo reflected from  Paradise Valley Community College’s Center for Performing Arts, advertising the 2013 film festival in Phoenix, Ariz.

The Desperado LGBT Film Festival Logo reflected from Paradise Valley Community College’s Center for Performing Arts, advertising the 2013 film festival in Phoenix, Ariz.

Photo Courtesy of Desperado LGBT Film Festival

Photo Courtesy of Desperado LGBT Film Festival

The Desperado LGBT Film Festival Logo reflected from Paradise Valley Community College’s Center for Performing Arts, advertising the 2013 film festival in Phoenix, Ariz.

Sharlene Celeskey, Contemporary Culture Editor, Puma Press, PVCC

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On Oct. 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that made it possible for the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute hate crimes committed due to the sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of victims. Previously, only religion, race and national origin were listed as hate crimes. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act was named for two victims, murdered for their homosexuality and race, respectively.

Shepard, a gay man, had been tortured and left to die in 1998 near Laramie, Wyoming. He was a University of Wyoming student, only 21. The brutality of the killing left the country reeling and wanting to do something to educate the public and build tolerance toward minorities.

In 2009 at Paradise Valley Community College, a collaboration of departments and clubs became involved in the movement. Together they began developing the Desperado LGBT Film Festival. Dale Heuser, PVCC health and exercise science faculty, says their goal was to establish an entertaining and educational event that relayed LGBT experiences.

The Desperado LGBT Film Festival celebrates its sixth year at PVCC’s Center for Performing Arts on Jan. 23–25.  Each year the festival grows with new fans joining returning festival enthusiasts. A variety of film types highlighting LGBT experiences will include dramas, comedies, documentaries and romance. More recent additions to the festival include: musical performances, art gallery and panel discussions. Both the art show and concerts are free. More importantly the three-day festival provides a place where the LGBT community can come together in a healthy and fun environment instead of the typical bar and party scene explained festival attendee Julian Nelson.

Film Festival History

The festival was the idea of Alan East, who was enrolled in classes at PVCC. He pitched a LGBT film festival to Heuser; The Pride Club; Fine Arts Division chair, Chris Scinto, and the administration.  East was surprised there was no such festival in Phoenix.

“I moved from Seattle to Phoenix and quickly realized that one community event that was missing was an LGBT film festival,” East says.

After the college administration granted permission to the Pride Club, Student Life and the Center for Performing Arts to co-host the event, the group started planning in March 2009.

Heuser says, “The Pride Club students who were older and out of the closet wanted to be more active in the community.”

Pride’s vice president, Violetta Papadakis, was instrumental in getting the festival going and club member Bg Sims recruited Student Life to co-sponsor it.

Jan. 29 and 30, 2010, the first Desperado Film Festival debuted with a day-and-a-half of films and almost 800 attendees.  The festival featured one documentary, seven shorts and three features.  East pleased with the debut says, “We wanted to achieve something that was new for Phoenix, and I believe our team succeeded. We had sold out shows, great reviews and our festival was born.”

Film Selection

The film selection is a long process that begins in July of the previous year of the festival. The screening committee watches over 300 movies before making its choices and deciding on how many films to show. Any film that has been shown in Phoenix, released on DVD or TV or online is immediately eliminated. The festival’s mission is “to select films that feature a balanced representation of all segments of the LGBT community,” says Heuser.

Once a film is chosen and a contract has been signed for the film, the distributing company cannot show the film in the local market. If the film is locally screened, Desperado can then show it for free.

East is the festival programmer and is always looking for potential films for the festival. He attends other festivals in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  He finds new films by meeting filmmakers at the festival and by using distributors that work with larger films.

In addition, East says, “Desperado loves to include local films in our festival so we partner with the Phoenix Film Festival, ASU, and others to promote our visibility to aspiring LGBT filmmakers.”


The majority of the audience that attends Desperado is over 35. However, almost 12 percent are younger and under 25. Heuser explains the audience tends to be older because LGBT film festivals used to be the only places that showed films that positively portrayed them. The typical festival participant is well-educated. The majority has earned an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree while most others have some college.

Audience Response and Favorite Films

Many of the attendees regularly return. Bryan Clark, a frequent attendee, says, “I look forward to the new films that I would not otherwise be aware of because they will not be shown in a mainstream theatre chain.” He also cites the filmmakers’ question-and-answer segment as one of the highlights of Desperado.

Another repeat attendee Donald Miller says, “We love films and this is a great way to see films directed at the LGBT community, and our attendance is also a way to say thank you to the MCCCD and PVCC, in particular, for their support.”

Although most documentaries are hard sell. Miller says,  “Over the years, there have been some amazing documentaries about some important LGBT issues: growing African threats to LGBT, elder care, partner’s death and children, and relationship recognition.”

Regular festival-goer Nelson also likes documentaries but his favorite film is the French drama “Tomboy.” This critically acclaimed film highlights the struggle of a girl who embraces living as a boy when mistaken for one when her parents relocate. Nelson says, “I identified with the transgender boy in the film.”

Another festival attendee Julie Roberts cites among her favorite movies the foreign films that show “a view of gay life in other countries.”

The most popular male films at the festival are campy comedies like “Violet Tendencies,” and “The Big Gay Musical.” Favorite female films tend to be love stories. The award winning comedic-drama, “Cloudburst” staring Olympia Dukakis was an audience favorite


“Educating the community about important issues impacting the LGBT community is probably the biggest and (most) important way that our festival provides for local community,” says Heuser. He says the festival continues to inform the public about the anti-gay issues in Uganda by showing three different documentaries over the years.  The Ugandan Parliament introduced a “Kill the Gays” bill in 2009.

Nelson likes the feeling of community Desperado creates and says, “It is a great way for us to learn about each other. We have some similarities but some differences.”

Clark also likes the way the gay community supports Desperado and says, “It makes me proud to see how people really seem to enjoy it.”

Roberts says she enjoys, “coming together for a fun and inter-generational experience.”

Another goal of Desperado is to book multiple venues to show free documentaries that will educate the general public on LGBT issues. They have shown films at Phoenix College in the past and hope to add other venues in the future.


Desperado’s audiences have grown from 800 to 1,300 in five years. The 2014 festival showed three documentaries, nine features, 18 short films, and one film of stand up comedy, plus musical performances, guest speakers and exhibits.

Michelle Dew, a PVCC Student Services specialist, who has volunteered for three festivals says, “The festival is expanding to not just one weekend, but sponsoring films throughout the year for Desperado goers to take part in outside of the January event.” Dew, who has seen Desperado grow and expand every year, also likes the way it brings the LGBTQQIA community together by celebrating film.


Desperado relies heavily on their volunteers. Each year they give thousands of hours of their time to make the film festival successful. The 60-plus volunteers donate at least 10–30 hours, the film selection committee screens 300 plus films, and those working the event are at PVCC for 12 hours each day of the festival.

Roberts says, “I try my best to volunteer when I’m able. It is truly my favorite LGBTQ event in the Valley.”

Dew has volunteered for three festivals and says, “We want to maintain some feeling of inclusion, but bring something new to the table each January, whether it be through a film or guest speaker with an interesting perspective.”

To volunteer go to

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PVCC’s Desperado LGBT Film Festival educates, entertains