3 min

Insidious censorship

The case of Aerlyn Weissman and the trap doors

Being a much honoured and richly awarded documentary filmmaker can still land you in hot water.

Director Aerlyn Weissman has directed or co-directed three renowned and praised queer films-Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives; Fiction and Other Truths: A film About Jane Rule; and last year’s Little Sister’s vs Big Brother.

For Forbidden Love she won a 1993 Genie, the audience choice award from that year’s San Francisco queer film festival, as well as a best documentary award from the US media group, GLAAD. For the Jane Rule documentary, she won a 1995 Genie. For Little Sister’s vs Big Brother’s, Weissman has so far picked up the audience choice award from Vancouver’s Out on Screen film festival. In 1997, she also won Woman of the Year from the Vancouver Film and Television Awards.

“History is what gets remembered,” says Weissman, explaining why her documentaries rank among the very best queer films ever made. “Gay history gets erased. There was a thriving gay culture in the 12th century and it got erased. There was a thriving gay culture in the Weimar Republic and it got erased. This time, they must not be erased. Our stories, our history, the documentation of our struggles-my project overall is to say, ‘this is our history, not just gay history, and we’re part of it.'”

Weissman has also been praised for her work as co-director of the 1989 Canadian feature film, A Winter Tan and has won two Gemini Awards for sound recording, her career before she turned to directing.

Despite all her acclaim, Weissman is $35,000 in the red for the Little Sister’s documentary. The story of how she got there is intriguing. Equally noteworthy is that Weissman is now turning to Vancouver’s queer and arts communities to ask for help in paying that down.

Some $20,000 of that debt suddenly appeared when Weissman’s international distributor backed out of the Little Sister’s vs Big Brothers project, claiming that the story of a Canadian bookstore fighting government censors would have limited appeal.

There were other hassles, each costing money. Weissman’s production company, Producers on Davie, had to buy errors and omissions insurance for the documentary, at a cost of $10,000. Even worse, they had to cut certain satirical scenes from the documentary to avoid legal problems-including a brilliant iconic photograph by Vancouver’s Daniel Collins showing a Mountie being spanked with a canoe paddle by a First Nations warrior. Reworking the film and making deletions cost more thousands.

The irony is not lost on Weissman. Her other films have had few hassles. Then she films a documentary about censorship and gets hit by hassle after hassle herself.

Even the Supreme Court of Canada did its bit to throw curve balls. Weissman wasn’t allowed to use any footage from the Little Sister’s trial unless she used the entire six hours.

And while Canadian gays love to snicker about our comparatively advantaged human rights standing compared to our southern neighbours, Weissman notes that neither the Mountie hassle nor the Supreme Court hassle would have happened in the US. That nation protects commentary and satire, and recognizes that court proceedings are in the public domain. Neither does US Customs stop books from coming into that country.

“We’re highly regulated in Canada,” says Weissman, who came to Canada in 1970 after getting into repeated legal troubles while working for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on anti-Vietnam War issues.

Though most Canadian queers have come to understand the horrors of direct government censorship, thanks largely to the Little Sister’s case against Canada Customs, Weissman notes that there are other forms of censorship, many of them subtle, hidden, but nevertheless pervasive.

One is economic censorship, something that she’s experienced with the mounting debt of her Little Sister’s documentary.

Another is self-censorship, believing your voice isn’t important or that you don’t have the right to put your voice into the stream of discussion.

Then there’s not having your work published, a particular problem for all kinds of minority voices who are not taken seriously as part of the intellectual life of society.

“Those are insidious, terrible, soul-destroying forms of censorship.”

Weissman notes that one anti-censorship activist compared censor-happy people with now-extinct dinosaurs. The brain of the larger dinosaurs didn’t notice a static landscape, but only things that moved. Similarly, government pounces on new ideas, new perspectives, new images.

And it’s queers in our society who tend to bring forward these new ideas and perspectives, especially in relation to a societal discussion about sexuality, says Weissman. So, we’re singled out.

“Straight artists, with few exceptions, have not taken up the challenges of explaining sexuality and questioning their world. It’s fallen on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and kinky artists to challenge this. We do not have the luxury of living unexamined lives. The artists from our community are the ones who put out the challenges, the alternatives to how we view the works. It gets pinned on us that we’re troublemakers. But to a great extent it’s because the straight community, on the whole, won’t address these issues.”

* Weissman and Producers on Davie are having a Mar 19 fundraiser to help pay off the deficit for Little Sister’s vs Big Brother. Tickets for the special event are $100 at Little Sister’s.