Arts & Entertainment
4 min

From set to screen: sharing our history

The Portside captures very personal memories from the lesbian bar scene of the 1960s

Credit: Courtesy of Out On Screen

Ask any of the actors andcrew about their experience making the film The Portside and you’ll find their zeal for the project contagious.

“It felt magical,” says actor Taylor Stutchbury of the Leaping Thespians theatre company.  “It seemed like everybody felt important, everybody felt valued, everybody felt like we were creating art. And we’re creating a story about queer history!”

Such enthusiasm is not only rare but difficult to imagine considering that when you put the words ‘queer’ and ‘history’ together, some community members take a mental cat-nap, preferring to focus on the now rather than what they perceive as ancient times.

When word spread that Out On Screen’s (OOS) Queer History Project had commissioned a film drawing on the talents of respected filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman (Forbidden Love, Little Sister’s vs Big Brother) and Daphne Marlatt (Order of Canada-honoured poet), however, an abundance of Vancouver talent — from actors to costume designers to set directors — offered their help free of charge just to be part of the project.

For three days in May, a team of over 50 hard-working cast and crew came together to film The Portside, a fictional-meets-biographical 20-minute film designed to entertain and prompt discussions about the importance of recalling and commemorating queer history.

The movie — set in a faux bar called The Portside (loosely inspired by a vanguard queer bar called the Vanport) — dips its toe into many topical issues of the 1960s and ’70s, including butch/femme identities, drag queens, feminism, classism and more.

The cast features professionals and non-professionals alike, including a few noteworthy community cameos: Jim Deva sassing bar patrons, Vanport regular Jesse MacGregor defending a drag queen, and Crema and Ilena Lee Cramer making out in a bathroom stall.

The Portside is the third film in a four-year series initiated by OOS’ Queer History Project. According to Vancouver Queer Film Festival executive director Drew Dennis, the previously commissioned films — The Love That Won’t Shut Up (by Ivan Coyote and Veda Hille) and Rex vs Singh (by Ali Kazimi, Richard Fung and John Greyson) — were the results of collaborations designed to bring together respected artists who traditionally work in different media.

In the case of The Portside, Dennis feels Weissman and Marlatt not only created a great film, but also present a striking dialogue about the way history is remembered differently from person to person.

“What I really like about The Portside — and what Daphne and Aerlyn set out to accomplish — is that idea that memories are subjective, they vary from one person to the next. The accuracy is not so important as the memory itself,” Dennis notes.  “I think that is what their film does best: it reflects on very personal memories.”

Weissman and Marlatt are not only respectful of each other’s work but immense fans of each other. According to Marlatt, the creative connection with Weissman was almost immediate.

“Right away, I felt that she was someone that knew about and respected creative process, no matter what medium. On that basis, I suggested that we might try and do a little drama based on this two-page narrative prose poem I had written in the ’70s about one visit to the Vanport,” she recalls.

The Vanport, a ’60s and ’70s bar on Main St was home to “loggers, longshoremen and lesbians,” Weissman explains.

“We talked about setting her [Marlatt’s] poetry to performance art, or a musical element,” she recalls, “but we pretty quickly decided to do something about the bars. Both Daphne and I are of a generation where those were our only public spaces. People led very different lives then. To be seen at a gay bar with another lesbian, you risked losing your job, your housing, your family, your civil rights. In many parts of North America it was a felony for two people of the same sex to dance together. We hope that this piece brings to life something that some people in our community have experienced, bringing alive a world that doesn’t exist anymore.”

The excitement emanating from the cast and crew was palpable on set — and inspiring, says Marlatt.

“There was a sense that this was an important piece of history and it needed to be told. The sense of community spirit and solidarity that was present in that tiny little bar, there was such an amazing feeling during those three days,” she continues. “Everyone was so willing to do whatever it took to get this thing together.”

Actress Luisa Jojic (from Bard On The Beach), who plays one of a trio known as the femme table, says she was initially drawn to the project because of the film’s director and writer. She didn’t anticipate the deeply empowering experience the filming process would have on her.

“That became evident right from the first people I met and the stories that I was lucky enough to hear on set,” she says. “Because of the environment and the subject matter, people just started sharing perspectives, personal experiences — it was this huge exchange that was so interesting, so very heartfelt.

“It was like simultaneously being in the presence of a lot of history but also feeling that you were a part of creating and chronicling future history, which was very exciting.”

“Our history as queer people has been, over centuries and centuries, consistently erased,” says Weissman. “When Lynne [Fernie] and I were doing Forbidden Love, there was a sense that we could make this film and make so many copies of it that it can’t be erased again, it can’t be silenced.

“We can’t be put back in the closet so that literally a generation, a young gay person, would know nothing of their heritage, their heroes, their pioneers, their poets, their leaders.”

For those who also want to recount their own history, the Queer History Project will also present an installation entitled Speakers’ Cabaña, featuring award-winning filmmaker Gwen Haworth (She’s a Boy I Knew) who will attend several festival screenings to record people telling their own queer stories.