The fallout cont-inues after border guards flagged prints of three films destined for a gay film festival in Ottawa Nov 20. Inside Out was able to find screeners of all three movies, although they had to resort to lower-quality watermarked DVDs instead of the celluloid films tied up at the border.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) wouldn’t allow the prints into the country until they watched them and greenlighted the content. The week after the festival was over, they approved the films.
All three movies have been shown in Canada before. Patrik Age 1.5 is a PG-rated film about a gay couple’s attempts ot adopt a child in Sweden. Clapham Junction is R-rated, but by no means obscene. I Can’t Think Straight is a mainstream movie, which had a theatrical release this summer.
“It seems biased at some times, and at other times random,” says St-Laurent of CBSA’s behavior.
“But to me, this time, it is not a random event,” he adds, pointing out that all three movies are distributed by the queer-focused American entertainment company Here! and that they were destined for a gay film festival.
When St-Laurent discovered that the films had been flagged, he had DVDs of the films couriered from the US — but sent to SAW Gallery rather than the gay film fest. They arrived without incident in the nick of time.
“We were ready to reimburse everyone. I’d already gone to the bank,” he says. “I don’t know how to tell you how ecstatic we were when the package arrived.”
Because prints on film — rather than DVD copies — are so expensive, many smaller films only have one or two sets. Prints are shipped from festival to festival around the world, often with only a few days to get from one screening to another.
A spokesperson for the CBSA says that the three gay films were flagged by border officials because of “simple unfamiliarity with the titles.”
After a film is flagged by border guards, the movie must be diverted from its delivery path and sent to CBSA offices for inspection before it is imported.
The CBSA’s Chris Kealey says that the red flag — issued by staff at the Ottawa Air Cargo Centre — didn’t cause the films to be delayed. Rather, he blames a courier company for failing to deliver copies of the film to the CBSA on the festival’s opening night.
The films were flagged earlier that day; CBSA’s offices are open from 8am to 4pm, says Kealey. They’re closed on the weekend. But if the films hadn’t been flagged by CBSA staff, they would have arrived at the festival on time.
Peter Van Loan, the minister responsible for the CBSA, declined to comment.
“All goods entering Canada must be presented to the CBSA and may be subject to a more in-depth examination,” a spokesperson for Van Loan says.
Of course, not all material is flagged for a “more in-depth examination.” So how do relatively tame queer films get flagged in the first place?
Documentary filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman has spent a lot of time thinking about such questions. In 2002, Weissman released Little Sister’s vs Big Brother, a film about the censorship of gay and lesbian material at the Canadian border.
“What we’re able to see in the queer community is at the whim of someone who hasn’t a clue what they’re looking at; it’s outrageous,” says Weissman.
“It’s so arbitrary,” she says. “Books, films, even exchanges of ideas can be completely forbidden.”
The gay community and the CBSA (formerly Canada Customs) have a long and checkered relationship. Border cops harassed gay bookstores for two decades, with shipments of books and magazines delayed by months or even arriving shredded.
Vancouver-based bookstore Little Sister’s took them to court and, in 2000, won a partial victory. At the time, the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged that material was routinely being stopped at the border because of its gay content and ordered the government agency to stop focusing on gays.
“It doesn’t only happen to Little Sister’s,” St-Laurent told the audience on opening night
“How long does this battle have to go on?” asks NDP house leader Libby Davies. “There’s been thousands, maybe millions of dollars spent on litigation [and] court battles by Little Sister’s.”
“It just seems so spiteful, so intolerant,” says Davies. “I’m shocked that still, in this day and age, we’re fighting a government who’s determined to censor material for the queer community. What right do they have to do that?”
The Green Party is the only federal party whose platform currently contains a pledge to reform CBSA’s actions with respect to queer materials crossing the border. Leader Elizabeth May echoed the shock felt by other MPs over the issue.
“Censorship in any form is completely unacceptable. To refuse to show even PG-rated gay and lesbian films shows the creeping level of intolerance.”