An award-winning film, on its way back to Canada from an international gay and lesbian film festival in October, was held up at the Canadian border for more than a month.
On Nov 24, Edmonton filmmaker Trevor Anderson received a letter from Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) informing him that his short film DINX had been detained on Oct 21 and was being investigated for obscenity. A few days later, the tape was returned to him in the mail.
When Anderson phoned CBSA to ask why his film had been flagged, he was told that a customs official at the border in Emerson, Manitoba, had not known what it was and decided to investigate it.
“I guess the fact that it was called DINX and coming from the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival was enough for them to check the obscenity box,” says Anderson.
DINX is about a bar waiter in a men’s burlesque club who is thrown back in time to relive a day from his childhood. In 2008, it won the Audience Award for Best Short Film at Fairy Tales, Calgary’s international gay and lesbian film festival.
Anderson’s films have screened at festivals across North America and in Europe. He says it’s embarrassing that one of his films was held up at the border of his home country.
“If a tape coming from a mainstream gay festival is enough for an individual border guard to think that’s obscene, then I think there’s obviously a problem with the system,” says Anderson. “It concerns me that the determination of what gets into our country is in the hands of individual border guards.”
Lisa White, a spokesperson for the CBSA, said she could not comment on the specifics of Anderson’s case. Nor could White comment on why a customs official might flag something as suspicious.
“I can’t get into specifics as to why we would refer something for further examination, because that undermines our security and operations,” says White. “But, generally speaking, our officers are always on the lookout to make sure that goods and people coming into Canada are compliant with our laws and that includes the sections of the Customs Act that deal with obscenity.”
When Anderson asked a CBSA official why the investigation took more than a month, he was told that his tape — in Digital Betacam format — had been sent to Ottawa because the border services office in Manitoba didn’t have a Betacam player. Once the tape was deemed appropriate to re-enter the country, it was sent back to Manitoba before being returned to Anderson.
“We have to make sure that what’s on the package is indeed what’s inside the box,” says White. “If it’s in a format that can’t be read, that can’t be accessed at the border, we need to send it away to our experts who have the appropriate equipment to view it.”
But Anderson says 30 days is “overkill.”
“A Google search on that title should’ve been enough,” he says.
This incident is the latest in a string of actions by border agents targeting gay films. On Nov 20, CBSA officials flagged three films destined for the Inside Out film festival in Ottawa. The films — I Can’t See Straight, Clapham Junction and Patrik, Age 1.5 — are gay and lesbian titles distributed by a gay entertainment company. All three films were eventually approved by the CBSA, but not until after the Inside Out film festival was over. Festival organizers were able to find replacement copies at the last minute, but had they not, the festival could have lost up to $12,000.
Jessica Dollard, programmer and director of Fairy Tales, has been following these incidents closely and is worried.
Outraged by CBSA’s targeting of gay and lesbian films at the Canadian border?
“For them to be flagging the work of Trevor Anderson, who is an award-winning artist… is absolutely terrifying for film festivals,” says Dollard. “If we have ordered a film, and it doesn’t get to us because customs is holding it up, that could potentially be a very big hardship for a festival.”
Dollard says many of the people who attend Fairy Tales are film gurus and enthusiasts. They study the festival’s program and choose very carefully which films they want to see.
“For us to pull a film — not only does it look bad, but we might lose audience, we might have to do refunds, it would make us look unprofessional and disorganized,” she says.
Dollard says she gets more concerned each day as next year’s festival draws nearer. She says she may have to speed up the selection process in order to ensure that films arrive on time for the festival at the end of May.
Anderson is also taking precautions.
“Usually you book these tapes to go from one festival to another so that you don’t have to spend the money to have many copies made,” he says. “Now, whenever I’ve got a tape returning from outside Canada into Canada, if it’s needed at another festival, I’m going to have to strike another tape and send them that one. I can’t rely on it getting to its destination with the possibility of a random detention.”
This is the first time that one of Anderson’s films has been flagged, but he’s not surprised. Anderson has followed the Little Sisters’ cases for years. In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada chastised the CBSA (then Canada Customs) for targeting gay material, but the ruling upheld Customs’ power to seize and detain material.
“Of course, I’m not happy that [my tape was held], and I don’t think that it’s something that should be happening, but at the same time I feel like I’m part of the stuff I was studying in university about the long story of problems at the Canadian border with gay material,” says Anderson.
If there’s one good thing to come out of this, he adds, “It made me very glad that I named the film DINX, because now I can say, ‘the border guards held my DINX for a month.’ “