Shaz Bennett is coming home to Salt Lake City this week, bringing the movie she’s worked on for six years.
Her coming-of-age story “Alaska Is a Drag” has played the film-festival circuit over the past several months and will continue that run when it debuts at Salt Lake City’s Damn These Heels LGBTQ Film Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday, July 20-22, at the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts.
“Alaska Is a Drag” is one of the 23 features that will play over Damn These Heels’ three days. (It screens Sunday, July 22, at 1:45 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre, and Bennett will be there for a Q&A after the screening.)
The lineup represents the breadth of storytelling for and by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer filmmakers, said Patrick Hubley, artistic director of the Utah Film Center, which is presenting Damn These Heels for the 15th year.
The festival, Hubley said, has “evolved primarily by how LGBTQ cinema has evolved. … There’s been a tremendous change in our society, about how society as a whole views the LGBTQ community.”
A decade ago, LGBTQ movies often centered on coming-of-age stories, usually coming-out stories, and “portrayed the alienation and lack of acceptance that society had for the LGBTQ community,” Hubley said. Now, “no one makes an issue of a gay couple getting married.”
Coming-of-age stories are still an important element of LGBTQ cinema, just as they are for movies in general — and “Alaska Is a Drag” is one of them.
It centers on Leo (Martin L Washington Jr.), a glam-obsessed young man working in a fish cannery in Alaska, who goes to the only gay bar within miles with his twin sister, Tristen (Maya Washington), for whom he dresses in drag inspired by the aurora borealis. After years of fighting off a bully in his small town, Leo’s punching skills catch the attention of his boss (Jason Scott Lee), a former amateur boxer, who offers to train him in the ring.
The inspiration for the story came from Bennett’s upbringing in Salt Lake City.
“When I lived in Salt Lake, a lot of friends of mine went up to Alaska fish canneries,” Bennett said. “I did it one summer, to raise money to move to New York.”
Once she moved to New York to pursue filmmaking (after studying acting at the University of Utah), she for a time did a drag act with a 7-foot-tall drag queen — who was from Alaska.
“I took a lot of my own experiences in Salt Lake, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery in the world,” Bennett said of her script, which she started working on in 2012. “I liked using the magical elements in Alaska, like the northern lights. I liked the idea of these kids taking the natural beauty and controlling the magical elements.”
In 2012, Bennett made a short film as part of an American Film Institute workshop for women filmmakers, based on a piece of her feature script. She cast both Washingtons (who are not related to each other, though both are half-black and half-Filipino) and infused their life experiences into the characters. “That ultimately made the feature feel more grounded,” she said.
After finishing the short and showing it on the festival circuit for 2013 and 2014, Bennett started to raise money for the feature. A crowdfunding campaign raised some of the money, and she won a competition in Poland that paid for some of the post-production work.
All this happened while Bennett — who had previously held jobs at the Sundance Film Festival and AFI Fest — was working on TV crews in Hollywood. Recently, she worked as a script coordinator on Lifetime’s reality-TV drama “UnReal” and Amazon’s detective drama “Bosch” — where, after writing an episode in season 4, she was promoted to the writing staff for season 5.
Earlier this year, Bennett got her chance to direct for TV for the first time, helming an episode of Ava DuVernay’s prime-time melodrama “Queen Sugar” (on the OWN Network). DuVernay has made a point of hiring only women to direct the show.
“She’s a real champion for all of us,” Bennett said of DuVernay, whom she met at AFI while working on the “Alaska Is a Drag” short.
Bennett said she identifies as queer, though she’s happily married to a man — Jean-Pierre Caner, also a filmmaker, and one of the editors and camera operators on “Alaska Is a Drag.”
“I feel very welcomed by the queer community,” she said, adding that the movie blurs traditional boundaries of gay identity.
“[Leo] runs between all of the labels,” Bennett said. “He’s playing with gender all the time. He’s bisexual, or he doesn’t even know what he is yet.”
Of all the festivals she attends, Bennett said, “the queer festivals are always the most fun. The parties are better. The people are always really supportive.”
Damn These Heels LGBTQ Film Festival<br>The 15th annual Damn These Heels LGBTQ Film Festival, presented by the Utah Film Center<br>Where • Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City<br>When • Friday through Sunday, July 20–22<br>Tickets • $10 per screening; arttix.artsaltlake.org<br>Passes • $70 to $500; utahfilmcenter.org