A classic of cultural studies, queer history and Canadiana, Aerlyn Weissman and Lynne Fernie’s NFB-funded documentary Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives is finally available on all digital platforms. To mark the occasion, the Inside Out Film Festival is screening the piece in all its remastered, high-definition glory at the Tiff Bell Lightbox. Originally released in the early 1990s, the film explores the lives of lesbians who came of age before the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s. But not all is interview clips and archival footage: amidst more traditional documentary fare, Weissman and Fernie tell a story of two women hooking up in the style of Hollywood melodramas and lesbian pulp fiction, then at its heyday.
“Lesbian pulp was the only thing that was publicly available,” Fernie says of why they chose this style. “Hollywood was making all those passionate melodramas, but it was illegal to have any overtly gay content. The rare film with gay content tended to be about the innocent young person being taken advantage of by an evil, older, usually more butch character.” And although pulp had similar plots, the lesbians who read it found ways of adapting them for their own culture-consuming purposes. “We were interested not only in the day-to-day lives of these women, but also in what they read, saw and took from popular culture — the lesbian imaginary.”
In the acted segments, a newcomer to the big city is being picked up in a bar and taken home for the night. The dialogues, delivered with a knowingness that never crosses into camp, are in the Harlequin style. “I discovered I had an embarrassing ability to write really bad purple prose,” Fernie says. She and Weissman conceived every scene together, including the carefully stylized and choreographed sex scene between the protagonists. “For the filming of that scene, we practically had a clear set: the two of us, the cinematographer and maybe a couple of other people.” Fernie still has in her possession the blue dressing gown worn by one of the women in the last scene.
The heart of the film are the women from Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, most of them well over 60 at the time, who share their life stories. Approximately 50 women were interviewed for the project, some of whom did not want to be taped (“especially a lesbian policewoman who was in charge of a division here — but she did agree to share her memories”). Weissman and Fernie found most of them the way women found each other in the ’50s: through word of mouth and networks of friends.
Some of the women share stories of going to bars, and the filmmakers tracked down images of the places cited, including the former Continental Hotel on Dundas Street West or Baby Face in Montreal. They were tough places, usually — dive bars that would “take money from anybody.” Another woman recollects renting a room with a piano by the hour above the Heintzmann’s in downtown Toronto and spending time with her date there. But only a small percentage of women who were gay went to bars. “We interviewed Jane Rule for the film, and she was among those who thought the bars were horrible . . . Most people lived quietly in the closet. I had a friend who got all her lovers from the IBM Women’s Softball Team,” Fernie says.
Although some of the stories are melancholy, the film is joyful, lustful, steeped in culture and colour — in a word, unabashedly fun. “I’ve seen many documentaries focusing on the lives of gays that would have this overly solicitous tone, as if they were made by social workers,” Fernie says. “And the interviewed people were put under the framework of tragedy. That doesn’t interest me at all.” The responsibility was to make “the best film possible for the queer community” but in equal measure, Fernie insists, “to have fun.”