Scene: Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival

Miami’s South Beach is famous for many things, from gorgeous beaches, swanky shops and palm-lined boulevards to, more recently, queer films. Now in its 10th year, the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival — the little festival that literally began in someone’s living room — has become a huge community event, with 10 days of nonstop parties and screenings. Given the opportunity to check out the various events geared toward women, I headed south from New England to sunny Miami, pale and primed for the festivities.

Scene 1: The Secrets Screening and Centerpiece Gala Party
Colony Theater, Miami Beach
April 30, 2008

I arrived in Miami a few days into the festival, just in time for the centerpiece screening, so things had been in full swing for a little while. I had been told that the planners had been making an effort to bring in the women, and it looked like it was working beautifully at the screening of The Secrets (Sodot, Ha) on Wednesday night.

The gorgeous Colony Theater — a little art deco gem on the corner of swanky Lincoln Road — was buzzing well before starting time, and eventually was packed to the brim with a diverse crowd of women (and a few men). I sat next to a pleasant, chatty guy who was more than happy to discuss queer Jewish film and the presence of men in the room, alternately.

Soon enough, festival director Carol Coombes came onstage (in a shimmering pink dress, no less) and introduced the “incredible, poetic film.” Because the film was the actual centerpiece of the festival, she also went into more detail about the event itself. Miami is now a major festival in every sense of the word, with world premiere screenings, directors and stars in attendance, and big sponsors — the HBO and Absolut logos were all over festival paraphernalia. But none of this diminishes the independent, friendly spirit that it began with 10 years ago as a tiny community event.

Coombes runs the festival as a true labor of love. She even asked her girlfriend to take a bow for keeping her fed and alive during the festival’s crazier times. When I met with Coombes later on, I was quite impressed by her ability to stay sane and keep a sense of humor amid all the chaos. Plus, she rocks outfits a lesser woman wouldn’t dare to attempt.

The movie itself was incredible. Set in the sacred Israeli city of Safed, The Secrets centers on the bond and eventual romance between two women studying at seminary school, and their quest to aid a repentant dying woman. While this may not exactly sound like a wild time, the movie had tons of heart, a great story, and a few genuinely funny moments, keeping it from being the downer it sounds like on paper.

The audience was quite lively, gasping and murmuring at appropriate points. At one quiet moment, I even heard a heated discussion in Hebrew erupt from two older women in the back of the theater. At another, my seating companion was humming along to one of the traditional songs on-screen.

Unfortunately, an appreciation for poetic, moving films doesn’t necessarily translate into a love for a good party, and the gala was a bit of a — shall we say, sausage fest. Still, groups of younger women sauntered around the Maxine’s chic living room-meets-bar-meets-royal palace atmosphere, Absolut beverages in hand.

I called it an early night, knowing full well that the real celebrations were just around the corner, with the networking-happy Fuse party the next night and the Tru Loved screening’s open bar on Friday.

Scene 2: Fuse After-Party
Vino, Miami Beach
May 1, 2008

It was time to bust out the business cards for the Fuse After-Party, held at the casually upscale wine bar Vino. The atmosphere was wonderfully chill, with live music provided by Sol Ruiz as the festival-goers mixed and mingled about the space.

The room was spacious and plush, with vintage bottles lining the walls and intimate lighting — the perfect atmosphere for a little networking. True to its name, Vino kept the wine flowing and the clientele happy with its wide selection and comfy atmosphere, as women lounged on couches and armchairs while sipping on the usual reds and whites.

I met several women who were in town expressly for the festival, and quite a few locals and festival employees who were just enjoying the scene. Though I saw women of all ages and styles, they tended toward the older, the artsy and the well-coiffed. Miami is infamous for being a very image-conscious place, and this was evident among the queer women on hand at the party.

But thanks to the music, the atmosphere was anything but pretentious. Sol set the scene with her bluesy vocals and friendly onstage banter. “Who likes Ray Charles?” she called out just before going into a heartfelt rendition of “I Got a Woman” that set the room on fire.