“There sure are a lot of straights in fanny packs,” I thought to myself as I boarded the Norwegian Breakaway for my gay film festival at sea. I’d never been on a cruise, but I had been to a film festival – usually fewer fanny packs. As it turned out, six days and seven nights on a luxury cruise liner with water slides, buzzing slot machines, and hot tubs straining under the weight of relaxing retirees, was in fact an ideal setting for discovering the up and coming voices of independent queer cinema.
In its fifth year, Pride of the Ocean is an LGBTQ film festival aboard the Norwegian Breakaway, a cruise ship so massive that Bermuda had to build it its own dock. I was offered a cabin in return for writing about the experience. Roughly 1300 nautical miles, 22 films, and 8 plates of lox later, I give you my seven-day recap of my time at Pride of the Ocean, “the film festival for people who love cruising.”
I was asked if I wanted to bring “anyone, significant other?” Never one to accept discrimination for being single, I ignored the comma and brought a friend. I’ve known Buzz (a family nickname) since middle school, a fellow writer with a boisterous laugh and keen eye for the absurd.
The Sunday we set sail, or “embark”, we are running late. The ship takes off from Midtown, a place most New Yorkers avoid at all costs. We have a laissez-faire attitude about the cruise. We prefer travel by carpool, not floating casino. Is there security? We don’t really have to be three hours early as suggested, do we? We burst into shocked laughter as we pull up to the massive ship, topped with three water slides and a ropes course. The security lady scolds us: “I got a question, why you so late?” We smile at a cute gay couple in front of us before one begins flirting with Buzz. I look around at families in matching Hawaiians. “This doesn’t seem like a gay cruise.” She consoles me, “they probably sold some tickets to straights to fill up the empty rooms.”
Before we have time to unpack, cruise director Julie hustles us to the fire drill over the intercom. We shuffle into drill station 7—an auditorium—surrounded by a distinctly “normie” crowd. No gays, no freaks. We’re not in Kansas, so to speak. I point out two weirdos, a pony-tailed man and his pink haired wife. (She turns out to be a grump. You just never know.) We see one hunky gay across the room—it turns out to be Swedish filmmaker Casper Andreas, whose short—“A Last Farewell”—is playing the festival.
It’s sinking in that I might not be cruising on this cruise (not the way I imagined.) “It’s not possible I got on the wrong ship, is it?” I ask a guy at guest services, who stares at me blankly. I mention, “Pride of the Ocean,” and a second guy runs to get another guy, who tells me there is a cocktail party in ten minutes on deck 16. I hop in the elevator to find the Spice H2O Pool Bar & Grill. I see half naked guys in a hot tub and a projection of Lady Liberty saluting “Our Lesbian Pioneers.” I shudder to imagine butches in bonnets, but breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve found my people.
In addition to screenings of their short films, ten early to mid-career filmmakers were invited on the cruise as part of the Cineslam workshop; which includes lectures from various industry professionals, roundtables on material in progress, and, of course, a free cruise. “Nothing is free,” insists John Scagliotti, Executive Director of the festival, “the program, if they get selected, is free…[but] they work, it’s a scholarship and it’s educational.”
I stumble into the Spiegel Tent, circus themed, for the first screening of shorts by the Cineslam filmmakers. I am tickled pink by Bryan Horch’s deliciously campy comedy, “Spooners,” which puts its uptight protagonist through the most absurd indignities imaginable while mattress shopping as a gay man. I am quite taken with an animated film by Montreal based filmmaker Iris Moore. “Beyond the Mirror’s Gaze” is a whimsical exploration of gender that imagines a dream world where one could open a closet full of body parts and take one’s pick. Moore’s figures dance across the screen with jolly aplomb, swapping bouncy boobs for petite ones, and transforming lips into hearts into roses.
I meet a sweaty Buzz post-Zumba and head up to the pool deck for a swim. The pool is too warm to be refreshing and I think it’s made of salt water, and it’s crowded with fans of a band butchering the Black Eyed Peas. We are surrounded by a vacation crowd of all ages, shapes, and sizes. We exchange bewildered glances amidst buckets of Coors Light, bikini-clad moms dancing with piña coladas, and twenty-five dollar towel rentals. Where are we, and how did we get here?
We head to The Manhattan Room, one of five complimentary dining rooms, for a group dinner with the Pride of the Ocean participants. The Manhattan Room feels like an enormous nightclub sans entertainment, like a cheap imitation of a 1940s supper club my grandparents frequented. We sit with a group of young people whom we learn belong to hunky Swede Casper, including Diane, who winks and says she is newly single. Savvy to the rules of complimentary cruise dining, she orders double appetizers. Danny, impressively sloshed for 5:30 pm, orders three shrimp scampis.
There is a couple at our table fighting in hushed voices, eventually they excuse themselves, leaving behind untouched plates of steak tartare. “Someone asked when they were getting married,” says the boy with braces who looks eighteen but is apparently old enough to be drinking red wine with his steak as he gossips about his friends. He gushes about Casper’s husband, Dr. Turner, who is a fabulous dermatologist and was a great comfort to him when he needed a mole removed near his eye. Diane offers me a taste of her crab cakes.