Inside Out’s Hogtown Homos shorts program brings together the wide expanse of queerness in the Toronto film and video universe, where artfags, experimenters, agitators and bon vivants rub elbows and walk the Toronto talk. Michèle Clarke and Aleesa Cohene are just two of the talents making a splash this year at home and abroad.
If you don’t recognize local gadabout Michèle Clarke then you’ve probably been trapped under something large for a long time. A health promoter for Sherbourne Health Centre, a tireless member of the Inside Out board and now, nouveau filmmaker with her video Black Men And Me, Clarke is quite simply one hot, butch queer.
Not only do the ladies know it — the men do, too. Especially straight ones. Black Men And Me talks about Clarke’s complex relations with straight black men and how they intriguingly accept and even make passes at her.
Straight men that hit on butch dykes? Run that one up the queer theory flagpole and see what you get.
Clarke’s work offers an interesting slice of queer dynamics. She notes that gender cues are different across cultures: “A shaved head on a woman means particular things for white people, and is often taken as a cue for having a particular sexuality,” she says. “But there are many straight black women who shave their heads or have really short hair so when black men look at me, they don’t automatically read me as queer.”
Originally from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, Clarke moved to Canada when she was 19. There was always an identification with the masculine. “Like many dykes, I was a tomboy and for a long time I really wanted to be a boy,” says Clarke. “People often mistook me for a boy, which I loved, and my mother was very supportive and allowed me to cut my hair short. She didn’t force me to wear dresses or anything like that.
“When I got a little older, I stopped feeling like I wanted to be a boy but I still felt more comfortable expressing myself in a masculine way. But I think some of that is due to living in Canada and some of that is due to getting older and just generally caring less about what other people think. I mean, I wore a tuxedo to my high school graduation in Trinidad so my gender expression has been quite masculine for a long time.”
In Black Men And Me, Clarke goes back to a familiar barbershop, gets a haircut and ruminates over her unique situation. Clarke both mimics the men around her while finding herself sometimes flirtatiously responding to the men’s advances.
Similarly, her video opens up stale impressions around homophobia. “I think homophobia manifests in different ways and is expressed differently in different cultural contexts,” says Clarke. “Class is also a very important determining factor when it comes to homophobia in the Caribbean. So as a middle-class person, I have experienced almost universal acceptance from the men in my life.”
Next up for Clarke is a short on her “supposed resemblance to Tiger Woods” and a possible screening of her film back in Trinidad.
aleesa Cohene is arguably one of the most innovative video editors working in Canada. The in-house editor for Charles Street Video, Cohene has had her work shown all over the world and has received several awards. She still contributes locally by mentoring and supporting many artists and training programs throughout the city.
Her own work is a creative response to the glut of images that surround us daily. Cohene’s signature is her pillaging of 1970s and ’80s movies to reconstruct new narratives that are fiery and challenging. “My work aspires to understand why we live in a poverty of emotion and how it can change,” says Cohene. “We live in a society that mistakes cohesiveness for political action and sameness for power. Most movies at their ideological core perpetuate this. But I think the emotion we take away from movies overrides their plots.”
Supposed To is her latest fare and is a mesmerizing account of being trapped and losing oneself in the nine-to-five work grind. Cohene notes the video is different than her other works from the same trilogy. “It feels like a transitional piece from my current videos into my future projects which will attempt to construct narratives that are less linear and more intertwined.”
In a world where copyright supporters enforce their corporate laws, Cohene is unphased about using found footage for her artistic pursuit. “I would argue that everything is made by reshuffling. A building is built based on parts of other buildings. Medicine is based on new combinations of chemicals. Nothing is without multiple origins. Origins can be hidden or exposed and I’m not interested in hiding what I edit. My creative tool is editing and without footage my art is not visible.
“Every experience and emotion cannot possibly be photographed, that’s why I use found footage. The realms of experience and emotion are infinite, yet so many of us choose familiarity and stability over risk and the unknown.”
Cohene utilizes an intricate system of gathering and cataloguing various images and sounds. “Like all my videos, Supposed To is structured through intuition. I’ll write scripts prior to editing, or elaborate paper edits to structure the argument I want to make. But it always changes during editing. Each shot has its own rhythm and each edit its own metre. So no matter what I want to say conceptually, I’m led primarily by mood.”
But for whom is she rejigging these movies? Cohene notes her own relationship to her audience is strange. “I have a lot of fantasies about who my movies are for and where they could show. I feel like they are trailers for our problems. I think about what it would take to offer art as a public service. I imagine an advertisement: Feeling anxious? So are we. Watch this movie. If you feel worse, that’s good. If you feel better, that’s good.”
Cohene’s success is quite evident this spring: Supposed To is currently part of a touring exhibition entitled Conscious In Coma in Istanbul and she is now in an artist residency in Banff.
Clarke and Cohene’s politically charged videos are screened alongside other notable works by Liz Singer, Moynan King, Natalie Wood, Nico Stagias and Evan Tapper, making Hogtown Homos a gem-filled lootbag for those attending the festival this year.