Out on Screen honours the past while exploring the world of film.
Walking past the sleek gloss of Davie Street's new storefronts, it's easy to forget about the places they supplanted: Doll and Penny's Cafe and Fresgo Inn, where generations of the urban gay community congregated, flirted, debated, bonded, and formed. Yet with their disappearance, some of the stories they fostered of how things got to where they are now were lost or taken for granted.
Like the spectacle of the Pride parade or the glamour of a drag queen, behind the dazzling surface are some mesmerizing stories of rejection and acceptance, of triumph and accomplishment, of heartache and heartbreak. One of the local resources for making these unseen stories seen, both locally and internationally, is Out on Screen's annual Vancouver Queer Film Festival (www.outonscreen.com/). Now Vancouver's second-largest film fest with 19 years under its belt, this year it will run from August 16 to 26.
Capturing and preserving local queer history on film is exactly the objective of Out on Screen's Queer History Project. One of the project's first films will premiere on August 24 (Vancity Theatre). Made by writer Ivan E. Coyote and musician Veda Hille, The Love That Won't Shut Up presents gay and lesbian Vancouverites talking about their experiences of being gay in Vancouver in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Their personal anecdotes and memories of queer establishments such as Faces and the covert Vanport, which was sometimes raided by police, give insight into Vancouver's recent past.
In a phone interview, festival director of programming Vanessa Kwan said she was struck by how easily history can be lost. "Many of those sites and those spaces and those communities, once those sites disappear it seems like the communities disappear. It seems like there is no history if you're younger and don't know about it, but once you talk to somebody who was there”¦then it really becomes clear that there was a really lively activist and queer community here."
Even Asian Canadian queer history will be highlighted. Kwan says Riots to Astronauts: The Anniversaries of Change Project (August 19, Emily Carr Institute), which will focus on activism, immigration, and identity, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Vancouver's anti-Asian riots.
More local history, unearthed from the archives of the Western Front and Video Out, is assembled in Show and Tell: Vancouver Video and Performance (August 25, Tinseltown), a retrospective of queer performance from the past four decades. "So much of queer life is influenced by performance," says Kwan, "whether it's sort of in the highbrow ideas around queer bodies and gender and all those things, or sort of in just really common images of drag, or butch and femme.”¦It's just something that seems to speak to everybody about identity." And it's not all on-screen: unscheduled live performance art will sprinkle the entire festival with spontaneity and flair.
An even broader context for the evolution of queer cinema will be provided by the book launch of The View From Here: Conversations With Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp Press, $26.95), by film critic, reporter, and Concordia University instructor Matthew Hays at the festival's Director's Spotlight screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on August 22 at the Vancity Theatre (which will be accompanied by a live discussion between Hays and director John Cameron Mitchell). The comprehensive volume compiles his interviews with over 30 filmmakers including Pedro Almodvar, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, and Gregg Araki.
With nine chapters devoted to Canadians including Patricia Rozema (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing) and John Greyson (Lilies)Hays, on the line from Montreal, discovered a schism between American and Canadian filmmakers: "One of the things that I really did notice as I wrote this book, as I interviewed everyone, was there was a pretty sharp division between the American directors [and Canadians]”¦and I could just see that the Americans have really been beaten down by six years of living under Bush. There's a lot more pessimism in the American chapters. The Canadians are much more optimistic. I think we can kind of thank a lot of legislative changes we've seen. I think that does have a profound impact on people."
With Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Transamerica at last year's Oscars, it would seem things are getting better. Director Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex), however, offers a different perspective. In The View From Here, he tells Hays that Brokeback Mountain "will probably do us more harm than good, because it will be pointed to as an example of the fact that Hollywood is open and that things are changing, but believe me, on the frontlines they aren't changing, they are getting worse".
Perhaps even more telling about the state of queer Hollywood are those who were reluctant or declined to be interviewed. "I think that the people who are the most reluctant," says Hays, "are often the people who are working in Hollywood, and they were saying to me, 'There's no problem here' but they still didn't want to talk about it, and I think that says something about where we're at. We're still seen as a problem in Hollywood."
Problem or not, The View From Here documents how queer cinema has persevered. "My book is trying to look at how we got here," says Hays, "because I don't think Brokeback Mountain could have existed”¦without all of the work that these independent filmmakers have done over the last 20, 30 years: really fought for representations, and made films with a lot of integrity and honest depictions of gay and lesbian people."
And those are the films that film festivals, like Out on Screen's, showcase.
One film that's already causing a stir is The Bubble (Ha Buah), the festival's opener (August 16, Empire Granville 7). A classic story of love overcoming all, in it, an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian man face a challenge when they fall for each other. Strong interest has already prompted a second screening (August 18, Pacific Cinemathí¨que); Kwan says it's the earliest they've ever decided to do so.
With an anticipated 12,000 attendees, it's no wonder demand has increased. Kwan says the festival's rapid growth is both exciting and "unknown territory". "We started as a really, really small community-run organization, and I think we've been really good about staying with that sense of community.”¦But of course as you grow, you become something different. So we're hoping we can kind of do both: be a big festival, but never really lose sight of where we came from."
Judging by how things have gone thus far, it looks like their vision has remained clear.