Look out upon any gay or lesbian dance floor. Look past the pulsing strobe lights, the mass of bodies throbbing to the thumping bass. Look deeper. Each individual is a story of how she or he got there. There are stories of coming out—of unexpected acceptance or rejection, of being bullied or beaten up, of romantic or sexual discovery, of heartbreak or undying devotion.
It is these stories, invisible to the everyday eye, that the Vancouver Queer Film Festival (www.queerfilmfestival.ca/ ) makes visible. From August 14 to 24, Out on Screen’s 20th annual film extravaganza will showcase 114 shorts and features that reflect the LGBT communities.
Since joining OOS in 2000, executive director Drew Dennis has seen how the festival has grown.
“I think historically, as a community, we’re so used to being marginalized,” Dennis says at the OOS office near Gastown. “I tend to think of it as the basement mentality. We’re used to our places of celebrations being these dark, dingy bars that were once upon a time really relegated to basements, and there was a lot of shame and secrecy. So I think for us, as a community, when we hit a milestone like this, it’s really big in a powerful way.”
The festival’s humble beginnings can be traced back to 1988, when Vancouver’s first lesbian film festival took place at the Van East Cinema. One of the organizers was local interdisciplinary artist Laiwan, who is being honoured this year with the VQFF 20th Anniversary award to recognize her contributions to B.C. queer culture.
Dennis says OOS remains connected to founding members like Robert Rothon, who talked to Dennis about the challenges they faced early on. “At that time,” Dennis says, “they thought, ”˜Oh, there’s no way we’ll get people out of the bar.’ They just didn’t think there’d be interest in the community to pull people away from the bars and to get them to go to an arts event. And of course what we’ve found—and I think the powerful thing over the years is—there is a real interest in seeing yourself reflected on-screen and being able to see a part of yourself when we’re so used to being missing from those stories.”
Along the way, there’s been resistance to face.
In 2006, conservative lobby group REAL Women of Canada launched a campaign to stop the Department of Canadian Heritage from funding the VQFF. They claimed the films were “degenerate and degrading to humanity”. In March 2007, the department confirmed it would continue funding the VQFF.
A few years before, in 2002 , Little Sister’s vs. Big Brother, Aerlyn Weissman’s documentary about local bookstore Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium and its legal battles with Canada Customs, was set to open the festival. Claiming the VQFF lacked the necessary permits, the B.C. Film Classification office tried to shut down the screening. In addition, Dennis says Desiree Lim’s “Sugar Sweet” and a shorts program exploring alternative sexuality also concerned the classification office because the film write-ups suggested pornographic material.
Dennis chalks the attention up to the growth of the festival. “We had almost maybe slipped under the radar with the film classification office, and that was maybe a consequence of the festival gaining much more momentum in mainstream press and becoming a larger event that suddenly.”
In light of current concerns about censorship and Bill C-10, Dennis adds that this year’s screening of Weissman’s film (August 19), which commemorates the 25th anniversary of Little Sister’s bookstore, is a reminder that the gains that have been made can also be taken away.
Beleaguered is a word that Little Sister’s director Weissman uses to describe LGBT communities in a historical context.
Weissman, who will conduct a master class on preserving queer history (Oral History and Living Memory, August 23), says it’s challenging for any independent filmmaker working on any contemporary historical film: access to archival materials is expensive, the legalities of clearances and rights are complex. Weissman adds that the scarcity of materials on the histories of marginalized minorities, however, compounds the difficulty. To protect privacy, Weissman says, cameras weren’t taken into bars, and love letters may have been destroyed.
“The material that you do find,” she says by phone, “are often ones where the history of the community is being told by people who don’t like the community very much, like the police or in some cases the church. There’s always reading between the lines. There’s issues around erasure and there’s issues around the way the sources are biased.”
She also points out the absence of other local historical documentaries. “This [Little Sister’s] is the only one, a long-form piece, that covers this particular era of history in Vancouver”¦.In a way, that’s another comment—that there aren’t more long-form, substantial pieces that you can point to and say, ”˜That addresses a big chunk of our community’s history.’ ”
That’s where Out on Screen’s Queer History Project comes in.
Rex vs. Singh is the program’s second commission. A collaborative effort by directors Richard Fung, John Greyson, and Ali Kazimi, the film sheds light on the little-known 1915 sodomy case of two Sikh millworkers, a year after the Komagata Maru incident.
“It really blows open what we might have understood of this historical moment, and recontextualizes this within a contemporary queer context,” says OOS’s director of programming (and Straight contributor) Vanessa Kwan in her office. “It illustrates really well the point of the Queer History Project, which is that there are these big moments in Canadian history that are documented, but there’s also a million smaller moments of various smaller communities that never really see the light of day.”
Kwan also sees the local emphasis as a way to resist assimilation into the mainstream. “I’ve been to a few queer film festivals over the last few years, and there’s always a discussion around how do we keep our unique identities when there’s huge money in these queer broadcasters or large-budget queer movies. And so people are starting to talk about the homonormative queer media. And I feel like this festival has never suffered from that anxiety in the same way that other festivals have,” Kwan, now in her third year with OOS, says. “I guess I would pinpoint our emphasis on the local community. If you turn to your local community, you’re going to find a huge diversity, a ton of different creative styles, great examples of social and cultural organizing—things that sustain a community. But if you let go of that and move towards a more mainstream sensibility, it kind of collapses a little bit. You can’t really sustain your individuality in that context.”
In addition to the local content, international selections abound, including the opening and closing films. Both address gender-conflict issues. In the gently amusing South Korean comedy-drama Like a Virgin (Cheonhajangsa Madonna), a feminine male teen becomes a traditional Korean Ssireum wrestler to win prize money to pay for a sex-change operation. In XXY, a South American intersex youth is raised as a girl but faces pressure to choose one gender identity. Also there’s a documentary about British queer auteur Derek Jarman (Derek); documentaries about aging (Ten More Good Years) and Cuban queer culture (Two Homelands: Cuba and the Night); screenwriting workshops; performance art; parties galore; and much more.
There’s also some forward thinking. A panel discussion titled Creating Community Through Technology (August 23) will examine how social networking on the Internet is changing LGBT socialization.
“The community that you may look for doesn’t have to be in your town or down the street,” says Weissman, who will be on the panel. “It may be anywhere in the world. And certainly for communities like body mod, trans, intersex—these are communities where individuals would have found it very, very difficult to find or create community in a pre-Internet era.”
With new subcultures arising, the relevance of film festivals like VQFF won’t fade. Undoubtedly, there’ll be a plethora of new stories to project, reflect, and protect.