Carol Coombes: Cinephile, gardener, Manchester United fan


“Every time I go to a movie, it’s magic, no matter what the movie’s about.”

— Steven Spielberg

If you too are bitten by the celluloid bug, then the next 10 days are going to be pure magic. The 17th annual Philadelphia QFest kicked off yesterday and already filmgoers are buzzing about the great slate of LGBT films coming to our town. This week, PGN spoke to Carol Coombes, a veteran of the queer-film scene, about how film has influenced her life and what we can look forward to at QFest.

PGN: Super-sleuth that I am, I suspect that you’re not originally from Philadelphia. CC: [Laughs.] No, I’m originally from Manchester, England. I started off working with the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and then came to the States to work with the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. I’ve been with QFest for three years, making it about 14 years working in queer cinema.

PGN: What is your job at QFest? CC: I’m the managing director, which means that I do a bit of everything, especially in the new economic climate where we have to each do the jobs of four people. I do everything from programming — mostly the lesbian films — and I also manage the talent, which is really exciting this year because we have 90 filmmakers already confirmed to attend — the most ever. I also manage the print shipping and the theatrical load-in and load-outs and overall make sure that everything runs smoothly so that the audience has a great experience.

PGN: Philadelphia has a reputation for rowdy sports fans. What’s different about our film audiences? CC: There’s a huge difference between here and Miami. Actually our audiences here are wonderful. They’re very polite and stay and watch the credits. When we do a Q&A, people will stay and ask questions and are very respectful and engaged. In Miami, I don’t know where they need to go, but the house empties out the minute the film is over, before the credits start to run. If we have a filmmaker there, we have to start the Q&A right as the movie ends or there will be no one there by the time they bring the lights up!

PGN: What was life like growing up in Manchester? CC: Well, I’m one of five girls. The joke in the family was that my dad always wanted a boy — he tried so many times that he ended up with a netball team. I’m the eldest and the only one not still in Manchester.

PGN: What was the result of having six women in the house? CC: That to this day, my dad can’t cook or do housework because he was always taken care of by the matriarchs in the family: first my grandmother, then my mom, then us girls. Like Philadelphia, Manchester is a big sports city and my mother had an initiation rite that at the age of 8, each girl was taken to the hallowed grounds in Old Trafford and pushed to be a Manchester United football club fan. My poor father was the lone Manchester City fan against all us Uniteds!

PGN: What are some of the other city similarities? CC: They’re both melting pots with a lot of working-class people: blue-collar cities where the ships and dock work were once big industries. We also have a lot of red-brick buildings like you do here, so I really feel at home here.

PGN: What was a favorite thing to do as a kid? CC: When I was very young, my mother introduced me to art. She’d take me to Manchester City Art Gallery, which has the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelites in the world. I became obsessed with the women in those paintings with the long flowing hair and the nymphs coming out of the water. My dad was also a great film aficionado and they used to take us to matinee cinema, so that really developed my love of films early on.

PGN: What was a culture shock moving to the States? CC: Moving to Florida and not having any seasons. The first Christmas I spent in 90-degree heat was really strange. I was used to a traditional cold English holiday, so it took a while to adjust to enjoying Christmas with parrots and iguanas all around. I also had no concept of hurricanes, and when hurricane season started, that was something to get used to. It rains a lot in England, but in Miami you’re at sea level, so there’s nowhere for the rain to go. It stays at your feet, which is why it’s so acceptable to wear flip-flops everywhere. And that was another thing to adjust to: the clothing or lack thereof, getting used to the amount of flesh displayed. There was so much of it!

PGN: What was a favorite celebrity encounter? CC: In Miami, I had Bea Arthur come as the opening-night host. She was completely deaf but once she got an Absolut vodka on the rocks, which is what she drinks, her hearing miraculously returned and she did a fabulous job as MC. I think the one that impressed me most, though, was Sharon Gless. At QFest two years ago we screened the film “Hannah Free,” and she was honored with the Idol Award. She came here straight from a cruise in Seattle and, somewhere along the way, she got food poisoning. She was really ill, but instead of going to the hotel or backing out, she came to the theater and did the intro. She was in the wings during the entire film really feeling quite awful, but stayed to come back on stage after the film and did a 15-minute Q&A with the audience. I know how wretched she was feeling and I was really impressed how professionally she acted and how much she did not to let us — or the audience — down. I really respect her as a person as well as for how much she does for the community.

PGN: Shorts, docs or features? CC: I love all of them, but I think my favorite would be feature films.

PGN: What three films would you put in a time capsule? CC: OK, my first would be “The Wizard of Oz.” It was one of the first films I saw as a child. I just really identified with the film: It was so magical and so vibrant, with horses that changed colors and everything. That would have to be in for sure. The second film would be the movie “Fire.” It was a lesbian film from India and it really broke through barriers in terms of stories being told with a global perspective in queer cinema. It was so controversial from an area where we have such images of women being oppressed. The story was really rich and the production values were very high. And the third film … I’m going to reserve for a film that hasn’t been made yet, because I have faith that there will be another brilliant film in the future that I will want to put in the capsule.

PGN: “Fire” is one of my favorite films. One of the reasons I think the film festival is so important is that it shows you glimpses into other people’s lives and gives you a chance to say, “Wow, we really are everywhere,” or perhaps realize that we don’t have it so bad compared to others or perhaps to see people or places even more progressive and find something to aspire to. CC: Yes, and so many of the multiplexes no longer show international films, so film festivals are one of the few places you can see films with foreign-language content or true independent films. You asked me my favorite genre of film and, though I said features, documentaries are so important. We had a film last year that won the Audience Award for best documentary called “Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement.” It’s about two women who have been together for over 40 years and have an amazing story that tells our history. We are going to lose a lot of these people and if we don’t get those narratives on camera, they will be gone forever. And again in terms of global cinema, there are voices that we haven’t heard that may only be heard at an LGBT film festival. Even straight film festivals show films you can’t see otherwise. I am a big champion of festivals because they can take you to places you’ve never traveled to or even imagined in your mind’s eye.

PGN: Random question: What Olympic event would you want to compete in? CC: Funny you should mention that; the Olympics are going to be in London next year and it’s a really big deal for us. If I were to be in the Olympics, rather than being a competitor I’d want to be one of the runners carrying the torch. It’s so symbolic: I’ve always wanted to do that.

PGN: Any tattoos? CC: No. When I first got to Philadelphia, someone asked me if I had any sleeves. In my naiveté, I had no idea what they meant.

PGN: My hidden talent? CC: Gardening. I love to garden. And it was very hard to learn how to grow plants in Zone 10, which is where Miami is. It’s a much different gardening culture than England or even Philadelphia. At one point I took a lot of bulbs from Philadelphia to Miami, tulips and daffodils, etc., and of course they didn’t grow in the heat. But I learned the trick is to put them in the freezer to shock them into thinking it’s winter.

PGN: What three words would your friends use to describe you? CC: Crazy red head!

PGN: What was the last song you sang to somebody? CC: I had to do a presentation at the William Way Center recently for the Silver Foxes. One of them asked me how I got the name Carol and I told them that I was named after the Neil Sedaka song “Oh, Carol” and proceeded to sing the song to her.

PGN: Outside of the film industry, what was your most unusual job? CC: Oh, you will laugh at this! When I was about 17, I was part of the club scene in Manchester. I held down two jobs because I wanted to have the means to go out. I actually got paid to call numbers in a bingo hall for old ladies with silver hair! PGN: You should be a guest caller at gay bingo! Least favorite thing? CC: Dead animals. I don’t like farming practices that treat animals badly. I’m a vegetarian and have been for a long time. My partner, Raquel, says that I came out as a vegetarian before coming out as a lesbian. I think coming out as a vegetarian was harder! Actually, my least favorite thing would be injustices. I get mad at things like pay inequality and all sorts of injustices, big and small.

PGN: When did you come out? CC: When I was in my 20s. It seemed really easy to me, my family was fine with it and there was none of the drama that I know other people have gone through. I feel very blessed that way. And it was odd: When I got to America, a lot of the women I met had been married and had kids before coming out, which was not my experience at all. One footnote: Before I got my green card, I had to get a work permit as an alien and in my passport it states that I work for a gay and lesbian film festival, so every time I went through immigration I outed myself! Some people were weird with it, asking me if that meant I was gay, and some people would start telling me about their son, niece or cousin who was gay or they’d out themselves to me!

PGN: Did you know you were gay before your 20s? CC: No. I wasn’t out to myself. But what’s funny is that my second sister was at university and her roommate was a lesbian and she told my sister that I was gay. I was like, “No, I am not” and my sister said, “Well, she thinks you are.” They called it before I did!

PGN: Do you remember your first kiss? CC: Yes, I met a white witch, which is a good witch — back to my “Wizard of Oz” fascination. I always wanted to know what it would be like to kiss a good witch. So I did and it was my first kiss with a woman!

PGN: Any superstitious rituals? CC: I was taught never to walk under a ladder, so I never ever do. We were talking about cultural differences. It’s interesting, in England, a black cat crossing your path is considered really, really good luck, while here everyone gets upset. It’s upside down.

PGN: Last of all, what can people look forward to at the festival? CC: Well, we are doing a lot of great online social media in conjunction with the festival. Our executive director, Ray Murray, rated his top-10 films and is asking people to comment on them on Facebook. You can sign up for daily e-mails with festival updates, pictures and all sorts of fun things. For me, I really like the film “Wish Me Away.” It’s about the country singer Chely Wright and it’s really powerful. She had a painful time coming out and it’s all on video. “The Night Watch” is another amazing film made through the BBC. I obviously didn’t live through WWII but, living in England, you can’t escape the shadows. This film really shows what it must have been like to live with rubble and ashes and craziness and searchlights in the sky — what it was like to be a woman and a lesbian in that time period. “Break My Fall” is also good, though it focuses on the darker side of lesbian relationships. It features two young women who are part of the drug and club culture and it shows the dysfunctional side of relationships. You never really see domestic violence portrayed in women’s film, so it’s intense, but well done. For the boys, I liked “eCupid” — it’s really clever — and “Gun Hill Road,” which I saw at Sundance and was well-acted about a macho father having trouble accepting his son’s transition. “Leave It on the Floor” is about a boy who is thrown out by his family, and he finds another family in the dance/drag community. It’s very touching. And I have an exciting late addition to the women’s films that’s not in the program! “Dirty Girl” will be given a general release in the theaters in August but we’re doing a sneak preview of it July 9! Juno Temple stars and it’s silly and fun with lots of eye candy. We have a little something for everyone including some great shorts programs and fabulous parties, so I hope Philadelphia comes out to support the QFest and see some great movies.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portrait,” write to [email protected].