Telling queer stories has never been easy and telling them in the medium of film and video involves its own set of challenges.
From the fear that silences our internal voices and the difficulty of getting funding to finding safe public spaces to show our work, queer media makers face a range of obstacles when bringing their productions to the public.
While there are still many places in the world where showing queer films is impossible, here in North America we have an amazing range of venues that have evolved with the explosion of GLBT film festivals over the last 15 years. As well as our own Vancouver Queer Film Festival, which after 18 years is one of the oldest in Canada, there are queer festivals all across the continent.
Audiences are hungry for the latest ideas and images, and though traditional coming out stories sometimes feel a bit passé, transgender issues, the evolution of gender play, the intersections of race and sexuality, BDSM in queer communities and the frontline struggle for queer rights all provide inspiration for the stories we see today.
We’re also seeing more and more feature-length dramatic productions on festival screens. No matter what genre or how contentious the subject, if you can get your piece made there’s a queer film festival that will show it.
This is a huge change from 35 years ago when the first film with queer content I ever saw was Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. Though it was packed with homoerotic imagery, it was always billed as “experimental.”
Remember, The New York Times wouldn’t even print the word “gay” until 1987. It’s tricky to get your queer masterpiece reviewed if the language that describes it isn’t allowed in the public domain. When Lynne Fernie and I started the four-year process to make Forbidden Love, the National Film Board’s 1989 silver anniversary catalogue had not a single listing under “gay” or “lesbian.” Nicole Brossard, the Sappho of modern lesbian poetry, was described in one film synopsis as “a Quebecois poet.” There was not a word about her body of work that celebrated lesbian passion and eroticism.
So, yes, things have changed for the better in many ways. Small format digital video has made queer storytelling much more accessible, particularly for lesbians, who historically have found the same obstacles to funding and support that all women face.
When you do succeed in making your piece, you can get it out to a queer audience and you probably won’t have to deal with the ugly overt homophobia of previous times. Still, the challenges haven’t disappeared, they’ve just taken different forms and there are serious issues for those who want to get their work out there and want the same access and support that straight filmmakers get.
Welcome to tokenism, marginalization and the burden of representation.
When I’m told, “We’ve already funded a film about a lesbian writer,” I wonder why no one ever says, “There’s already a film out about a girl and a guy who fall in love, lose each other but get together in the end.”
No one thinks that the story of a straight male artist represents the story of all straight male artists, but marginalized groups have to contend with whatever representation they manage to get to the screen being interpreted as “their story.” To support and fund a spectrum of queer stories on an ongoing basis requires an analysis and commitment that most mainstream institutions can’t seem to muster.
“That’s so 1999,” the funders say. “We want something more edgy. How about nuns who run drugs?”
We were the flavour last week; this week they want a new flavour. Media thrives on novelty and, since there have already been some programs that address GLBT realities, now it’s old hat.
Many funders and broadcasters believe that gay and lesbian themes appeal only to a niche demographic. They’re not only sure that our stories won’t be of interest, but, even worse, they worry that they may court controversy among a broader audience. As long as television programs are made only to provide life support for advertisements, anything that limits the numbers is avoided at all costs.
If you’re making films about queer history, you will quickly find out that it was, for the most part, documented by people who didn’t understand or didn’t like queers.
Many of the images of our histories exist only in police and court records. The best photos of long gone gay bars are in the archives of liquor control boards because one condition for getting a liquor licence was having pictures on file of the front and back entrances to the buildings.
Using historical material can also involve complicated clearance and copyright procedures and is very expensive.
The CBC can furnish you with the footage you might need for your documentary of the Toronto bathhouse raids, but it’ll cost you 90 bucks a second. How much money can you invest in a seven-minute video?
We couldn’t always do it ourselves either. Imagine how popular you’d have been with a camera in a gay bar in 1962–years before homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada.
When it comes to getting substantial support for our work, we face all the difficulties that any filmmaker does, plus a few that straight folks don’t have to think about. On the other hand, we’ve got a million fresh, original, unheard, and relevant stories to tell.
The answers haven’t changed that much. Make your work no matter what. If you can’t get money from the usual suspects, be creative and find it somewhere else. The community is an amazing resource. Tap into its wealth of talent and knowledge. Be assured that if you get it made, opportunities like Out On Screen and hundreds of other queer festivals will help you get it out to an audience who will appreciate it.