Unlike many children of South Asian immigrants, Anoushka Ratnarajah did not spend vast amounts of time in childhood watching Bollywood or South Indian cinema. That’s because her Tamil father—born to Sri Lankan parents in Malaysia—was far more enamoured with classic Hollywood films.
One of her dad’s favourites that left a lasting impression on Ratnarajah was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn. It marked the first time that Ratnarajah had seen an interracial relationship on-screen, and it paralleled her father’s interracial relationship with her white mother.
“Even though Sidney Poitier and my father don’t have the same experience, I still felt like I saw some semblance of what my family life and my reality looked like on-screen,” she recalled. “I remember that being a really impactful moment for me because I had never really seen anything like that before as a kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s in a pretty small white town in Ladner, B.C., in Tsawwassen territories.”
As the artistic director of Out on Screen, which produces the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, Ratnarajah takes the responsibility of showing the queer community’s diversity extremely seriously. She noted that when she began as artistic director in 2017, some asked why there weren’t any transmasculine stories.
“It took me until 2021 to really find the kind of content that was made with intention and ethics and integrity, because I don’t want to show films that are going to contribute toward stereotyping particular members of our community,” Ratnarajah said. “And I also really look for films that are filmed through an experiential lens, so the folks behind the camera have similar life experiences to the folks who are being portrayed on-screen, because I think we’ve seen such a rise of tokenism in the arts.”
She also credited the festival's "wonderful programmer, Nya Lewis", whom Ratnarajah described as "an amazing curator in her own right".
"We also have to do our research to see who else is out there who’s not being talked about," Ratnarajah said. "That’s usually where we’ll find those films our community has been asking for."
This year, the Vancouver Queer Film Festival will present a feature film and a diverse program of four short films featuring transmasculine protagonists and transmasculine people behind the camera. The feature, Adam, is inspired by the life of Adam Kashmiry, an Egyptian-born drag artist who found asylum in the U.K. and struggled to gain access to gender-affirming medical care.
In addition, several films at this year’s festival explore the role of kink and leather culture in queer activism and queer history. According to Ratnarajah, these are timely given public debates about folks showing up at Pride parades in their leather and kink gear.
“One is called Rebel Dykes,” Ratnarajah said. “It’s set in 1980s London and it follows a group of leather feminists, performance artists, activists, and dykes who were really active in the social-justice scene.”
By presenting films like Caer (Caught), about trans Latina sex workers, and the documentary Raw! Uncut! Video!, about kink moviemakers in the 1980s, Ratnarajah feels that she’s giving viewers across the gender and sexuality spectrum a chance to feel validated.
“I think those small moments where you see a fraction of yourself represented—like I did with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—sort of cements how important representation is for folks to feel connected to the world around them and feel like you’re a real person,” Ratnarajah said. “And your experience can be shared with other people.”