Winter Kept Us Warm was shot in 1965 on a shoestring by then-22-year-old filmmaker David Secter. It went on to become the first English-language Canadian film to screen at Cannes.
It is an innocent, though occasionally awkward, story about two young dorm-mates who fall in love. The hitch? It is a romance between two men. The title is lifted from TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” And the film matter-of-factly recounts the relationship between two undergraduates as they struggle to balance their studies with emerging social lives.
Given attitudes of the time, the sexual element of their relationship is only hinted at. But the film’s themes won’t be lost on contemporary audiences used to more explicit offerings. There’s even a shower scene in which one man playfully lathers the other’s back. And upon the film’s release, industry bible Variety referred to it as a story about homosexuality.
Secter recalls U of T authorities being none too thrilled when he asked for permission to shoot the film on the campus.
“I think some were taken aback by the sheer audacity of us making a movie,” he says. “People in the theatre scene were very enthusiastic. But you had to get permission for a shoot, and some could see through the carefully worded synopsis, which was loaded with euphemisms…. One dean, who I needed permission from, said, ‘There’s nothing like that here! How dare you bring the university into this!’ I was pretty good at finding my way around people like that and simply found another route to get things done.”
Despite its limited budget, Winter Kept Us Warm proved intriguing to the 1966 Cannes selection committee. Secter soon found himself rubbing elbows with such icons as Renoir, Welles and Bresson. He still recalls dining with Sophia Loren, head of the festival jury that year.
Secter says he “still cringes in certain places” when he watches the film now.
“That it seems to resonate with an audience today is very rewarding,” he says. “The other thing that amazes me to this day is plus ça change: so much remains the same: kids grappling with their sexuality. It’s probably not that much different in many respects.”
Secter thanks Montreal-based film scholar Thomas Waugh for keeping Winter Kept Us Warm in the public eye.
“Tom wrote a piece about it in the early ’80s in The Body Politic,” Secter recalls. “Then I got a number of calls from gay film festivals across Canada. The film had made a few waves in the ’60s, but it had really been forgotten. It was great that Tom wrote about it after all those years.”
For years copies of the film were hard to find, but now it’s coming out on DVD.
Now 67, Secter is still a filmmaker. He’s behind the 2009 documentary Take the Flame, about the Gay Games. He says he’s impressed by how far we’ve all come.
“If someone had told me, when we were making Winter, that gay marriage would be legal in Canada within 40 years, I would have wondered what they’d been smoking. It’s amazing that Canada has shown such progress… I’m quite frightened by the influence of the religious right in the US, people who think that the Bible should be read literally. How do you talk to people like that? I can’t move back to Canada, though; I’ve become too acclimatized to California.”