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Robert Cano (right) at the 4th incarnation of what is now called QFilms. The photo was taken June 8, 1996 with director and star of the mockumentary Man of the Year, Dirk Shafer.

In 1993, Robert Cano saw a chance for something that he felt was missing from the cultural fabric of Long Beach: a place where the city’s growing LGBT community and its allies could gather to watch films for and about, well, them.

A graduate of Long Beach State, the business administration major was fresh off the heels of the massive marching demonstration in Washington, D.C. in January of 1993. There among what was estimated to be a million people, Cano discovered what was at the time the 2nd Annual Reel Affirmations Film Festival, DC’s own version of QFilms.

“I thought, ‘Why doesn’t Long Beach have this? There’s a theatre right next to The Center,’” Cano said. “I had been having informal get-togethers at my apartment, where we would watch gay films and review them. It was just pure fun. And it just made me think: let’s put on a show.”

QFilms2014 3rdThere is an irony in Cano’s creation of any form of a film festival given his Pentecostal Christian upbringing: the movie theater was often described as “the church of Devil,” according to Cano. Therefore, Cano only discovered film—and the power with which film can help audiences empathize and explore the world—after he had escaped his strict Christian childhood.

The inaugural Long Beach LGBT film festival wasn’t the spectacle it is today—though that isn’t to say it wasn’t immediately popular. The Art Theatre was initially hesitant on the idea of an LGBT-focused film festival, informing Cano that they could return to the venue “once they were bigger.”

Having kept up his ties with CSULB, Cano opted to open his festival with the screening of the now iconic Together Alone, P.J. Castellaneta’s 1991 debut film that explored unprotected sex, AIDS, and the complexities of human sexuality. Held in an auditorium within the student union (complete with an alumni discount rate), the black-and-white film’s screening was immediately sold out, with 200 seats filled and over a hundred flowing in from the outside in an attempt to see the film. With a second screening immediately scheduled, Cano realized he was on to something.

By year three, the festival had grown large enough to be hosted at the Art Theatre, in conjunction with The Center, for its third through seventh years. The growing popularity of Cano’s festival ultimately provided him the moniker of “activist,” since Long Beach, despite its vast LGBT community, had been an overlooked area to screen LGBT cinema. Major gay films like The Sum of Us and Paris Is Burning failed to show within the city, hitting the LA and SF markets before leaving California theaters entirely.

“I was labeled an activist—but I wasn’t doing it for activist reasons,” Cano said. “If it was deemed as political, well, then I guess it is. But I really saw it as a cultural need for our community, an event for them to go to.”

QFilms2014 4thFINThe success of the festival even caused it to briefly show at the Carpenter Center at CSULB but as Cano stepped away from direct involvement during its 8th year, the festival dissolved—as in entirely. Shuttered from 1998 to 2006, it wasn’t until the renaissance of The Center began that the festival was revived.

“At the time, they were doing their Gatsby-themed ball but were looking for other fundraising opportunities,” Cano said. “So I suggested that we put on the film festival again.”

That festival would be dubbed QFilms and would go on to become the event that now draws thousands of filmgoers to the Art Theatre to celebrate, view, and experience the latest in LGBT-oriented cinema on a yearly basis.

This year’s QFilms will run September 12 through Sunday, September 14 at the Art Theatre and LGBTQ Center, both located on 4th Street between Cherry and St. Louis Avenues. To view a full list of this year’s features, click here.