When Robby Kendall heard from a mother who had brought her non-binary child to his film festival last year, he knew he was on the right track.
Fishnets and Film, which showcases the works of queer filmmakers, had just held its premiere event in San Jose. At the time, it had been many years since there had been a similar fest in the South Bay, and the day’s events offered a beacon of light for queer kids and adults who had become increasingly targeted by anti-gay politicians and terrorists.
“That was her first time in a public setting with her child [where] her child was able to wear what they wanted to wear. It was their first LGBTQ-plus experience together,” Kendall says, describing the email he received. “The message brought me to tears. It just empowered me to schedule and produce more events for this purpose.”
Fishnets and Film returns to San Jose this Thursday, with an event at the Westminster Presbyterian Church on The Alameda. The fest includes five films and a Q&A session with three filmmakers.
At a time when politicians are demonizing queerness generally and drag performers especially, the decision to be visible carries weighty implications for gay people across the identity spectrum. For those who were here in 2008, it feels like only yesterday that California’s Proposition 8—which stipulated that only straight couples could marry—was overturned.
Just last year, the poorly named Proud Boys terrorized a drag queen story hour held at the San Lorenzo Library, slinging homophobic slurs and accusing the drag performer of raping children. Closer to home, members of the Los Gatos Town Council were barraged with anti-queer hate speech two years ago. Los Gatos High School was also vandalized by racial and homophobic slurs that year.
The need to push back against this thread of anti-gay propaganda is part of what motivated Kendall to create Fishnets and Film in 2021. But he also had a more fundamental goal: to increase the representation of queer creators in cinema.
“We need more engaging, more real stories that reflect our community,” he explains. “Many times, there are films or queer stories that are told by non-queer people. I believe that we need more opportunities to share more of our stories that accurately represent our community.”
Kendall began his artistic career as a playwright, which led him to his ongoing performance as a drag queen known as Ms. Sweet Nothing. Drag shows led to variety shows, which led to film, a creative spiral enabled by an important trio: Kendall’s mother, partner, and former partner.
“They’ve always been very supportive of my creative endeavors, and doing what they can to help me out and keep me focused and organized,” he says, ”and on budget.”
This four-person team now runs Fishnets and Film, which is organized as a non-profit. Kendall says this form of incorporation makes it easier to attract sponsorships and other partners. For example, the film screening at Westminster Presbyterian Church is partly sponsored by the Billy DeFrank LGBTQ+ Community Center on The Alameda in San Jose, as well as San Francisco’s Frameline film festival.
Following the festival’s first event in San Diego two years ago, the drag and film show has since appeared in San Jose, as well as Emeryville, Oakland, Portland and St. Paul, Minnesota. The precise format of each event is highly dependent on the venue, Kendall says. In a crowded bar, for example, Kendall’s team emphasizes drag performances over film. But in a church, attendees are able to sit and appreciate cinema in a much quieter setting.
Though the festival began as a way to showcase queer art and help queer artists find like-minded peers, Kendall thinks it has grown more important as the rhetoric and violence against gay and trans people become ever more visible.
“We need to remind our mainstream community, as well as ask for support from the mainstream community, about the value that the LGBTQ-plus members bring to our society,” he says. “We need more uplifting and queer entertainment, now more than ever.”
Thu, 7pm, $6+
Westminster Presbyterian Church, San Jose