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Gay films at Sundance reveal more equality, fewer stereotypes

People wait in line in the early morning to buy tickets to films at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 18, 2014. REUTERS
People wait in line in the early morning to buy tickets to films at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 18, 2014. REUTERS

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - While politicians and judges in Utah tangle over whether same-sex marriage should be legal, filmmakers at the state's famous Sundance Film Festival found inspiration in the growing equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

The Sundance festival, long a top venue for gay-themed film, this year offered a documentary on the legal battle over gay marriage in California and a drama on a girl coming to terms with her mother's transition to a man. And in the alternative Slamdance festival, a popular documentary looked at conversion therapy practiced by some evangelical Christian groups, which gay rights activists view as brainwashing and coercion.

The trend in LGBT films shown at Sundance in recent years, festival watchers say, is toward a less stereotypical representation of the community as equality takes hold.

Filmmakers "are making the viewer use their brain more, and it's great," said Lance Bass, a former member of boy band N'Sync who came out as gay in 2006 and is now involved in the film business.

"They're telling stories about LGBT members that happen to be gay, instead of making the film all about being gay."

This year's LGBT films at Sundance include "52 Tuesdays," where a young girl comes to terms with her mother's transition into a man. "Love is Strange" follows an older married gay couple forced to live apart when one of them loses his job, a film exploring the effects of the economic downturn as much as it does gay marriage.

The legal fight for same-sex marriage is what captured the attention of "The Case Against 8" filmmakers Ben Cotner and Ryan White, a contender in the U.S. documentary competition.

The film explores California's controversial Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage. The five-year ban was lifted by a San Francisco appeals court in June 2013 after a judge declared it unconstitutional.

Cotner and White focused on the judicial process that led to Prop 8 being lifted, profiling the two same-sex couples who filed a lawsuit against the ban, and the two litigators from opposite sides of the political spectrum who came together to lead the fight against Prop 8.

"We wanted to show people what it's like to take a lawsuit to the supreme court because I don't think it's ever really been seen in this way before," Cotner said.

Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and is now being debated in socially conservative states like Utah, home to a large Mormon community.

This week, four same-sex couples sued the state of Utah over Governor Gary Herbert's refusal to recognize gay marriages performed in the brief time when same-sex marriage was legal, after a federal district judge ruled in December that a state ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. His ruling was then put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before about 1,400 gay couples in the state had tied the knot.

"The Case Against 8" will air on premium cable channel HBO later this year, and the filmmakers said the documentary fits into the larger battle for marriage equality across the country.

"It's not about being conservative or liberal, it's about how it affects people's families and people come to the film with that, and not the divisiveness that surrounds the issue," Cotner said.

'KIDNAPPED FOR CHRIST'

Bass is the executive producer of "Kidnapped For Christ," a new documentary that explored an unregulated Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic.

Parents can hire companies to "kidnap" their children - or take them against their will to a reform school for various reasons, such as bad behavior, drug use and homosexuality.

"Kidnapped For Christ" was made by young filmmaker Kate Logan, who stumbled upon the reform school on a trip and started interviewing subjects. The main subject of the film is David, a gay teenager who was signed over by his parents to the reform school after they refused to accept his sexuality.

Bass said he was "flabbergasted" by the "culture-shock therapy" and torture and abuse used in reform schools that he saw in the raw footage, and felt "compelled" to throw his support behind it.

The documentary, which has received $34,000 in funding from crowd-source website Kickstarter, picked up the audience choice award at Slamdance, an underground film festival that runs for a week simultaneously alongside Sundance in Park City. Slamdance has launched the careers of filmmakers including Christopher Nolan and Jared Hess.

(Editing by Mary Milliken)

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