FEDS International: My time at Outfest Fusion

Posted on June 28, 2022 by Rico Johnson-Sinclair

Categories: FEDS Scheme, Festival Reports

FEDS International offers FEDS alumni the chance to secure a short-term placement with an international exhibition partner, providing an opportunity to develop their skills and understanding of the wider exhibition sector, forge connections with international colleagues and build on their past FEDS experience. Having just returned from Los Angeles where they took part in Outfest Fusion’s inaugural Programming Fellowship, Rico Johnson-Sinclair (Race Equality Lead at BFI and Director & Film Programmer at CineQ) details their experience and how it’s changed the way they’ll approach their own exhibition work in the UK moving forwards.

I’ve been running my own queer film exhibition company for just over five years, but have always struggled with resource and capacity. You see, CineQ is a queer film festival that prioritises queer, trans and intersex people of colour and has had success as a festival. In fact, we’re the only festival in the UK that focuses on championing QTBIPOC voices and perspectives. And the truth is, I have to constantly state this to legitimise my place in the industry, because as a black queer person, my worth is always diminished by the environment I exist in.

However, when the world ground to a halt in 2020, so did CineQ. And after moving to London to pursue a job at the British Film Institute as Race Equality Lead, continuing to run a Birmingham-based festival that took so much of its existence from the LGBTQIA+ community in the Midlands felt somewhat disingenuous.

Additionally, I’d always delivered events for CineQ throughout the year, alone, with help on the festival for short periods during the couple of months it would take place. I worked a full-time job and ran CineQ during my spare time, so I felt like I was perpetually unable to build something more sustainable, something resourced, throughout the year. Add to this my new job taking up so much of my time and living through end days against the backdrop of a pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and it’s fair to say I was stuck.

However, earlier this year, supported by the FEDS International scheme run by the Independent Cinema Office and the British Council, Film Hub Midlands, as well as loved ones and close friends, I was able to travel to Los Angeles to work as part of Outfest Fusion, the largest QTBIPOC festival in the world and one that’s been running for over 17 years.

The outside of a round concrete building with the words Aratani Theatre on the side. A crowd of people stand outside the entrance and a yellow coffee truck is parked outside. Projected on the wall above the entrance is the words OutFest within the number 40.
Outfest Fusion 2022

The experience itself was quite surreal, a feeling only intensified by the fact I’d be travelling across the world for three weeks after two years of barely leaving my apartment. Thankfully, I felt really supported by Outfest and especially the rest of the Programming Fellows I had the pleasure of working with. From December until March we collectively selected from submissions and virtually attended esteemed festivals all over the world, including Sundance, Slamdance and the Berlinale, to watch some of the queer gems buried among the overwhelmingly cis, straight and white programmes.

This isn’t a new experience, but it was particularly formative to be programming alongside others. With CineQ I’d often be the only programmer, selecting from new releases as well as repertory cinema. It was also the first time I’d worked on programming so internationally and had the level of access to prestigious festivals that I did. It was also one of my first times working with so many submissions, trying to pull together cohesive programmes while not jeopardising the quality of the work more generally. This is definitely valuable learning that I’ve taken into my own programming practices.

One of the things I admired most about my time with Outfest is how they use community partnerships, invested audiences and external stakeholders to build tangible connections to the people who stand to benefit the most from the representation it provides. I started thinking about how CineQ could leverage the community more honestly, using incentives to build stronger relationships to film. I also started to think about the fellowship programme more generally and what that would look like for CineQ as a way to build more resource and to hold a wider range of perspectives.

Five people stand in a line on stage, with an image projected on the screen behind them.
The Outfest Fusion 2022 Programming Fellows

I flew out in April, a couple of days before my birthday. My first long haul flight was pretty brutal, but when I arrived I could feel the excitement in the air. It was the middle of a pretty intense heatwave during spring break with 36 degree heat, and I wondered if that’s why the dates for Outfest Fusion had been selected. LA itself seemed to be surging beneath the sweltering heat and, in the evenings especially, people unfolded from cars clumsily parked in unfathomably tight spaces. Not driving was definitely detrimental to my overall trip, but I found it didn’t affect my festival experience at all as all the venues were easily accessible from one another on public transport, despite this not being the reality more generally.

Before the festival, I enjoyed being introduced as one of the programmers and the event for patrons and sponsors, which is when things started to feel surreal. But it was at the launch event, being surrounded by celebrities, skilled filmmakers and internationally prominent community members, where I truly realised the scale of the festival I’d been programming for and was very thankful for my characteristic style and its ability to act as an armour and alleviate my imposter syndrome – which seemed significantly more pronounced due to the pandemic’s anti-social effects.

The festival was very relaxed. I spent most of it getting to know the filmmakers we’d programmed, hear about their future projects, and of course interview them for post-screening Q&As. The vibe was different from most UK film festivals I’d been to, the prestigious audience seemed almost incidental and you could feel that this festival was purposefully more community driven. I was really impressed by Outfest Fusion’s ability to hold space for filmmakers, without hierarchy, something on reflection that I find is also missing from UK festivals.

Four people pose for a photo in front of a blue background. In the middle, one wears a white t-shirt with yellow dungarees, and another wears round glasses, a red bobble hat, and a yellow & blue neck scarf.
Rico with Micheal Rice, director of Black As U R.

All in all, my experience was pretty transformative. I found myself thinking about the future of CineQ often, what it could be and what it needed to become. I haven’t made a decision yet, but I do know that I enjoy existing in specifically queer spaces. The whole team was driven to deliver what they considered to be best for the community they were trying to serve, and there is something about working in spaces with understanding that I feel is lacking closer to home. Not every conversation was a fight, not every decision a compromise. I think the way festivals are funded contributes heavily to that, with most festivals in the UK publicly funded, versus most American festivals relying heavily on corporate sponsorships but often able to use that funding freely outside of agreements made with the sponsors.

It was also a novel feeling to truly be valued by the people that I worked with and the audiences that engaged with the programme, to not feel diminished by those around me while trying to develop my own practice.

I’ll be programming with them again next year and already feel way more confident as a programmer in my work since returning. I’m really thankful to everyone that made this possible for me, I never dreamed I’d be the kind of person that got to work abroad as a black queer person from a single parent, low-income background. I count myself lucky to have been able to access support for this, but also really proud of the hard work that allowed me to get to this position.

Applications to FEDS International are open until Monday 18 July. FEDS International is an opportunity available through the ICO for FEDS Alumni and Trainees, and is supported by The British Council. 

A blue logo with four blue circles on the left and the words British Council on the right.

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