Turning 21 in some places means being legally able to drink and gamble. Turning 21 for Out on Screen’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival means celebrating youth, hope, culture, and history. From its infancy through to its teen years, the VQFF has outgrown its baby shoes and adolescence to blossom into the city’s second-largest film festival.
With OOS’s expansion of their Out in Schools program, it’s no wonder that one of the main themes in this year’s festival, running from August 13 to 23, is youth. There are a number of G- and PG-rated films, including several from the NO HATE! anti-homophobia youth filmmaking boot camp that took place this past spring.
Watch the trailer for On the Other Hand, Death.
That’s not to say that the family-friendly films aren’t worthy of an adult audience. Take the double bill of On the Other Hand, Death and Ice Blues, two gay detective mysteries directed by Ron Oliver and starring ’80s teen heartthrob (and now out gay star) Chad Allen alongside Vancouver’s Nelson Wong. Based on a series of novels, the film noir–inspired movies are witty, relevant, and entertaining for all.
In On the Other Hand, Death, the romance between two gay teens was purposely included to provide positive role models for young people who may be watching. “I think it’s so important to give hope to gay youth,” Oliver says on the phone from his Palm Springs home.
Hope, as it turns out, is another one of the festival’s themes, with films like City of Borders, a documentary about a queer bar in Jerusalem that unites Palestinians and Israelis, and the Canadian premiere of Her Name Was Steven, the story of Susan Stanton and her very public outing as a trans woman.
A focus on Asian voices is the third ingredient in this year’s smorgasbord. Oliver, whose films have covered all three bases so far, explains how the character of Kenny Kwon, played by Wong in the two movies, developed. “Kenny Kwon came about because of Nelson Wong, absolutely because of Nelson Wong,” gushes the director, who, with Wong, will attend the August 15 screening.
The two met through friends, but when Oliver discovered Wong was an actor, he cast him in the first film. When the audience reacted, he knew he had something special on his hands. “People love him. He’s really made an impact in the movies, and I think it’s partly because he’s an openly gay actor but also as an Asian actor. I think people really respond to the idea that this is a character they haven’t seen before. He’s not your traditional Flower Drum Song tiger lily.”
“This is a no-brainer,” Amber Dawn, VQFF’s director of programming, says over coffee about the inclusion of Asian content. “Living in Vancouver, it’s really important to highlight queer Asian artists, a population that has been invisibilized, including queer Asian directors and queer Asian characters.”
And although most other 21-year-olds might not know much about the community’s history, the festival helps to bring those stories and more to the forefront. In The Queer Nineties, we get a chronicle of the queer-rights movement in Canada from the past decade. In Tarnation, we’re presented with a heartbreaking yet hopeful autobiography from director Jonathan Caouette, who will be on hand as this year’s FilmForward Director’s Spotlight.
Other directors coming to town include H.P. Mendoza, here to support Fruit Fly, and John Greyson (Lilies, Proteus), who brings his operatic documentary on AIDS activism, Fig Trees, to the big screen.
“We really try to not just engage the film community but the arts community as well,” Dawn reveals. In addition to the directors in attendance, she turns the spotlight over to the many events and art installations taking place during the course of the festival, from a ’70s-themed butch/femme party celebrating The Portside—a Queer History Project documentary that relives Vancouver’s lesbian scene from the disco era—to the roaming Queer Speakers Cabaña, “a video community forum where anyone can drop in and share a memory of Vancouver queer history”. There’s also the free Youth Gala event (25 years old and under), workshops for aspiring artists, and a shadow-puppet-meets-burlesque-meets-film hybrid (The Living Screen).
“There are a lot of films that will, hopefully, inspire us and remind us of the intention and the integrity that our community brings to film and to our lives,” Dawn says. “It’s a community festival before it’s an industry festival, which doesn’t mean we don’t play outstanding films and feature wonderful artists, but it’s definitely a festival where the momentum is all about the community.”
In a year when the Academy Award for best actor went to Sean Penn for portraying Harvey Milk, there’s no better time to showcase the various champions and heroes that adorn the landscape of our multilayered community. With something for everyone, it’s clear that the VQFF has only gotten better with age.