Gary Varro is no stranger to controversy. The new director of programming with the Inside Out festival has dealt with his share of it in the past, including angry MPs and rightwing sign-waving zealots.
Varro started up the Queer City Cinema fest in Regina 10 years ago. In 2000, he decided to launch a program dedicated to porno-graphy. “I wanted to explore how to we felt about pornography as part of our sexual identity,” he says. “The term homosexual implies sex, after all.”
The program, called “Pornography And Community,” came complete with a screening, a panel discussion and real-live porn star Sam Crockett. “It was meant to be an analytical look at our sexualized identity not something gratuitous or titillating,” says Varro.
This didn’t sit well with some of the local yokels, among them Canadian Alliance MP Jim Pankiw and Christian Truth activist Bill Whatcott, especially since the fest had received a nice chunk of cash from the Saskatchewan Arts Board that year. Varro showed up to the screening with programmers and artists from around the world in tow to find an angry though relatively small group of protesters holding placards. “There was a mix of religious leaders, politicians and families, some with children,” he says. “It’s disturbing to see children holding signs that they don’t understand.”
Despite that, Varro sounds remarkably unfazed by the whole event and was mostly just pleased that the festival attracted national media attention. “We got into Reader’s Digest,” he laughs. “That was definitely a publicity highlight in my career.
“Some people were embarrassed by the media attention because it reflected a backward mentality about the city,” he says. “Others were worried that it might threaten future financial support for the festival.”
Ironically, the protests only helped increase the profile of the festival with ticket sales breaking records that year; the following year their funding was increased.
“I think some people viewed the festival as a political act, but for me it was more about bringing a cultural event to an area that might not have access to it,” he says.
As the new programming director at the Inside Out festival Varro’s unlikely to encounter similar situations. His biggest test will be reflecting Toronto’s diversity. “I’m a white male and that can be a big challenge when you’re trying to program for such a diverse community,” he says. “Our community includes people from such a wide range of ethnicities and identities. I have to try to program with those audiences in mind, even though I’m not part of them.”
This year’s fest reflects Varro’s concerns with two Mexican programs, Mexican Artfag and Latin Trash, guest curated by Toronto’s own Eugenio Salas, and a Brazilian program curated by Suzy Capo, programmer at Mix Brasil, Latin America’s biggest queer culture fest (see story on the cover of the Hot And Buttered supplement). The fest also has a strong trans presence this year.
As far as new controversies? “Enough has happened in pop culture that I don’t know if anything is really controversial anymore,” Varro sighs. “Usually when it does arise, it’s just because artists are expressing a point of view that’s misunderstood.”