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Lunch With Lydia: Meet the gay film festival's quirky director, Carol Coombes

Coombes For weeks now, folks have been pestering Carol Coombes, director of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, to keep saying ``Itty Bitty Titty Committee.''

It's a gas, the way Coombes, whose funky vintage getups and shocking red hair and lipstick hearken to lesbian pulp-fiction characters of old, pronounces the title of the film that pokes fun at feminist politics.

Coombes is more than happy to work her British accent for the amusement of festivalgoers. She is not one to fear consonants, or rush words.

So it's ''It-ty Bit-ty Tit-ty Com-mit-tee,'' hard on all the T's.

It screens May 5 as part of the ninth Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival (in conjunction with a party to kick off the lesbian beach blowout Aqua Girl, May 10-13) and features lesbian model Jenny Shimizu, Daniela Sea of The L Word and Guinevere Turner, who has worked both sides of the camera on Showtime's girl-on-girl soap, and could be called a lesbian icon, given her work in other required-lesbian-viewing titles such as Go Fish, The Watermelon Woman and Chasing Amy.

Itty Bitty Titty Committee would be an easy sell at any other gay and lesbian film festival in the country, but Coombes isn't so sure about Miami audiences. In fact, ticket sales are slow.

''Then again, Miami audiences tend to buy tickets at the last minute, so it'll be a different story in a week. But I don't know if it speaks to a Miami audience as well as it would speak to a Seattle or San Francisco audience because all the women are kind of rock-chick grungy,'' says Coombes, who calls programming for the unpeggable South Florida gay and lesbian community her biggest challenge.

''Miami's gay and lesbian community is much more mainstream than other places,'' she says over orange juice and fruit at Front Porch Cafe, one of the rare Ocean Drive spots frequented by locals. 'When I first got here in 2001, I was told, `Program Spanish-language films, and everybody will come. Program transgender movies, and nobody will come.' That's true. This is not New York or London or San Francisco where you can program a trans film and the trans community will be rushing to see it.''

But Coombes programs those films anyway, pushing audiences toward uncomfortable or unfamiliar perspectives. This year, the 10-day festival, which opens Friday at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts with a new take on The Picture of Dorian Gray and runs through May 6, features 104 shorts and feature-length films, 15 more than last year. They will be screened in Miami, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. About 13,000 are expected to attend.

The event is considered one of the most important gay and lesbian film festivals in the country by gay filmmakers and distributors who more and more use Miami to launch new projects.

SEASON OPENER

''The Miami festival is basically at the beginning of the gay film-festival season, so it's important because of it's timing,'' says Megan Hammitt, festival and acquisitions coordinator for L.A.-based Picture This! Entertainment, which distributes gay and lesbian films. ``You get a sense in Miami of what's going to play other festivals. And Carol is great. She picks a good variety of films.''

And yet, the festival can drag, playing too many films that seem to scrape the bottom of the gay and lesbian-themed barrel. Is it that gay audiences, seeking to see themselves represented on screen, will watch anything gay, worthy or not? Are they that superficial?

'I do sit through an awful amount of horrible films where it's, `My girlfriend got me a camera for Christmas, and this is what I made,' '' Coombes says. ``With technology today, everybody can be a filmmaker. That doesn't mean everybody is a good filmmaker. But I do believe I program the best of what's out there. For example, we have a really interesting documentary called Boy I Am, which explores what happened to the butch culture, particularly in places like San Francisco and Chicago where it's fashionable to become male.''

But Miami lesbians may not be the quickest to relate, because they are generally ''very femme, very lipstick,'' says Coombes, whose urban/retro look makes her feel like an odd presence in a town where the gay and lesbian crowd doesn't tend to be down with (depending on your perspective) the gay edge -- or ultimately clichéd subcultures.

NO BIG SURPRISE

''I probably fit in more in San Francisco,'' Coombes says. Though she does have the lipstick thing down. She'll be sporting signature M.A.C. colors -- Ruby Woo and Lady Danger -- at the festival. ``I have some fabulous gowns for opening and closing night. But they're a surprise. OK, I'll tell you. For opening night I have an orange vintage 1970s gown. And for closing night I have this kind of Chinese-y, vintage green-and-gold gown from the 1950s.''

The cartoon-red hair has just been freshened, she says, because she's been hyper-sensitive about her roots showing since she got read by a drag queen in Key West a while back.

'This drag queen came up to me and said, `Love your hair, but your roots are bad.' You just don't ever want a drag queen saying something like that to you. And they tend to be taller, so they can always see your roots,'' says Coombes, originally from Manchester, though she spent 17 years in London, five of them working for the London Film festival and the London Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

''She is definitely a character,'' says Andre Perwin, who works in computer systems support and will attend the festival all but one night this year. ``She adds a lot of presence to the festival. And she does a great job of programming for a community that can be very difficult. It's been interesting to watch her grow since she got here. At first she was a little shy, a little self-conscious about her accent. Now she works it.''

``For some reason, this year it's all about me saying Itty Bitty Titty Committee. Last year everybody wanted me to keep saying HBO.''

Hache-B-O, says Coombes, who is still adjusting to Miami.

'I think Miami's gay community has evolved since I got here, but then so have I. At first I thought, they're not very cineliterate. They don't know Pier Paolo Pasolini. But then I realized I didn't know very much about American culture, either. We had Bea Arthur at the festival a while back, and it was such a big deal to everybody. It sounds really stupid coming from a gay film-festival programmer, but I said, `Who the hell is Bea Arthur?' ''

Coombes portrait by Carl Juste/Miami Herald Staff

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I can't believe you described the community here as "the unpeggable South Florida gay and lesbian community". "Unpeggable" is not an apt description of the local gay community. Many guys I know would eagerly line up for a pegging. (Yes, I know it's juvenile; no, I didn't just get out of high school.) Seriously, I hope to attend the festival, but I'll probably get tickets at the last minute.

fringe........really far out

Gay? Lesbian? Bisexual? Community? Ok there are gay and lesbian people in South Florida. There are even bisexual people (not that the "Community" accepts bisexuality over even acknowledges bisexuality exsists).

Community? Like the "community that sold out South Beach for the y and moved to Wilton Manors? The GLBT community is what I call the gentrification troops of the colonization of Florida on behalf of the dominant society. Is that what Carole means by the "community" is more mainstream in Miami?

Mainstream isn't the word. Shallow, self serving, elitist, detached, narcissistic, colonialistic, and mobile.

The majority of queer folk I know are not rich, property investors, fabulous, or happy. THe majority of the queer "community" isn't invited to the party. We are lonely, broke, insightful, spectators, prostituted, and detached.

The "community" includes Mark Foley and many other wealthy users of other humans, some out, some not, depends on the money strings. They (and I know because I listen to them) are racist, laughing at the poor, feeling no commitment to the survival of any community at all.

The "community" just sold out Key West to the highest bidders. Any minute now there will be a ,ass migration into Palm Beach County, Martin, and then Saint Lucie once they develop more cosmopolitan digs. Wherever they can flip property after holding a few years.

Meanwhile the HIV rate is off the charts in poor immigrant communities like Belle Glade. Does the "community" care. "Honey that place is depressing".

Community? No one in South Florida has any community. Queer folk here for the most part wait on the fabulous, blow the fabulous, are pushed out by the fabulous, and really despise the fabulous.

Is Carole insinuating that women who love being women are somehow behind the times for not being butch? I think in the end the "Boy am I" West Coast will lose this argument in the court of cool. One day women will be allowed to love women who like being women. Soft ball jerseyed, mullet wearing, overweight, bois will be remembered for being trendsetters in their time (the 80's?) but will be pitied in the long haul for being cheated out of their womanhood by a stereotype embodied by them but imposed by the expextations of others. Nothing against butch or lipstik but I disagree with the insinuation that one is more fashinable or "in" than the other.

I shot Carol at the Glaad Awards this past week.
For only A Few seconds that I stood in front of her,I sensed she is a very strong women..
Almost asking me "Why I didn't know who she was"
Actually she asked "do you know who I am"
But she meant.."Why don't you know who I am"..
Anyways..we excannged business cards..And took the photo snap..
I won't forget who you are now Carol
Great to have her in Miami on our home team..


~Paris Hernandez
www.myspace.com/parishernandez

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