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The Queer Witch Project? The title, which is actually A Bicha de Blair, is a 10-minute video from Brazil, one of 10 short films from that country in the spotlight at this year's Inside Out Toronto Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival. Not the most serious film at the festival, just the silliest title, and perhaps reflective of a conventional idea that a gay film festival would be involved in that famous refuge of the marginalized: parody and camp.

Filmmakers who have gladly identified themselves with the festival are among Canada's more successful directors -- Patricia Rozema ( Mansfield Park, I've Heard the Mermaids Singing) John Greyson ( Lilies) and Jeremy Podeswa ( The Five Senses), who was a programmer for the very first festival back in 1991.

What a difference a decade makes. Back in 1991, when the Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival first started, the highlights included Winnipeg artist Shawna Dempsey's We're Talking Vulva, an educational video. The festival was run by a volunteer collective and openly gay-themed features were still a rarity. Now, in its 10th year, the 11-day festival (which begins tomorrow and runs to May 28) can count itself the second-largest film event of the year in Toronto behind the Toronto International Film Festival. It is also one of the largest of its kind in North America (after San Francisco and New York), with 320 works.

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In the past four years, under the aegis of executive director Ellen Flanders, the festival grew in attendance from 6,000 to 20,000, and acquired a $340,000 budget, a board of directors, a seven-member programming committee, and more than 100 volunteers. This year, there are 25 dramatic features and 29 documentary features -- one-third Canadian, and the remainder drawn from 20 other countries.

Support from the city and mainstream corporate sponsors has been forthcoming (Famous Players, Holiday Inn, Smirnoff, AOL Canada), alongside founding organizations such as the gay and lesbian newspaper Xtra. This year marks the debut of new executive director Rachel Giese, a visible media figure in Toronto (a former Xtra features editor, board member for This Magazine, CBC producer, guest host on the Newsworld show counterSpin, and Toronto Star columnist). She is heading up a film festival that, she agrees, is in excellent shape.

"It's very solid. The corporate support is generous without any meddling whatsoever. There's more good work available all the time; the community support is strong and growing."

That said, the aim isn't to sit still. Giese says she's particularly happy the festival is becoming a year-round event. There's already the Grand Flambé party at the Toronto International Film Festival each year, catering to gay and lesbian filmmakers. During the year, there's also the Queer Youth Digital Project, training young film and video makers, whose works are then shown at the festival (under the Queers To Watch For program). In February, the festival held its first brunch series, showing Queer as Folk, the British soap opera about three gay men. The series will be shown again at the festival, and will be subsequently aired on Showcase television channel.

Giese would like to see more revisiting of gay and lesbian milestone films, such as the 15-year-old Desert Hearts and John Sayles's Lianna from 1983, the first mainstream movie with a positive view of lesbians, which will screen at this year's festival. But she also thinks it's instructive to look at other gay films, such as The Children's Hour or Cruising, which were notoriously not so enlightened. "There are also movies that have a gay following that aren't obviously gay-themed."

Giese also believes the festival has not nearly tapped into the full potential audience for a festival celebrating gay culture. "When you see something like the Gay Pride Parade, which had an estimated attendance of 60,000 in downtown Toronto last year, you know our audience could be much bigger. It's a matter of getting people to try it out, to see how much is going on."

Among the highlights:

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Punks (opening-night gala): First romantic comedy by, for and about African-American men.

Chutney Popcorn (closing gala): Nisha Ganatra wrote, directed and stars in this comedy about a woman in New York whose lesbian lifestyle and Indian background clash.

101 Rent Boys: The filmmakers paid 101 Los Angeles street hustlers $50 each for their time and their stories.

Straightman: A drama about two men who re-examine their lives after one friend tells the other that he's gay.

Revoir Julie: From Quebec, the story of two women who reunite after 15 years and come to terms with the reason they first separated.

Living With Pride, Ruth Ellis @ 100: Portrait of the oldest "out" African-American lesbian.

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Attack of the Giant Moussaka: camp sci-fi from Greece.

The Brian Epstein Story: profile of The Beatles manager.

Man Man Woman Woman: portrait of China's emerging gay movement.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye: Sundance documentary about televangelist Jim Bakker's wife and unintentional gay icon, narrated by RuPaul.

Directors series:

Canadian directors in discussion about their influences and work: Richard Fung, Midi Onodera, Jeremy Podeswa, Patricia Rozema.

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Special presentations:

Beyond Beefcake: A two-hour slide and video show by Thomas Waugh of Montreal's Concordia University, tracing the muscleman as a figure of gay male eroticism. (May 20.)

Funny Felix ( Drôle de Félix): The North American premiere of this French film about a gay man who decides to go to Marseilles to track down the father he never met. The film won a special jury prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. (May 23.) For festival and ticket information: 416-925-XTRA (9872), ext. 2229; http://www.insideout.on.ca

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