Tensions were running very high the day before the Out on Screen Queer Film + Video Festival’s opening night in 2002.
A Film Classification Office agent had just told the festival that the film Little Sister’s vs Big Brother could not be shown because the right permits weren’t in place.
The news came as a body blow to the staff, the seeming destruction of weeks of work. The atmosphere in the festival office was bleak and gloomy.
But the film’s director, Aerlyn Weissman, was laughing.
“The irony of a film about censorship being censored —this attempt to censor is crazy,” Weissman recalls with a chuckle. “My second thought [was], ‘This was brilliant. They have handed it to me on a silver platter.’ I knew the media would go crazy.”
And they did.
The pile of interview requests grew and grew, and news camera crews were showing up constantly. The attempt to censor Little Sister’s vs Big Brother made the festival national news.
Outgoing festival society president Jeff Rotin’s wish that the festival finally make it into the Globe and Mail before he left the board became a reality.
The film chronicles the then 19-year history of the Little Sister’s fight against Canada Customs’ book seizures and censorship.
Weissman’s cameras follow the bookstore’s co-owners, Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth, manager Janine Fuller and book buyer Mark MacDonald, as they battled bombings and the courts, and faced the disappointments and victories that ultimately changed the way Customs operates, at least somewhat.
Though the battle did not convince the Supreme Court of Canada to rescind Customs’ authority to screen books at the border, the court did tell Customs to stop discriminating —giving the queer community easier access to the texts and images that reflect its realities and sexualities.
The attempt to censor the film encapsulated all the issues in the film, Weissman points out.
One of those issues was bureaucratic ignorance, she says. “Homophobia at work on the taxpayers’ dollar. We paid for our own oppression.”
The issue of the community’s right to have images of its sexuality remains a battleground, she continues, as does the concept that bureaucrats are not accountable for applying obscure regulations.
With the celebrated store so central to the history of Vancouver’s queer community, Weissman’s film will be revisited at a special screening to mark the 20th anniversary of the queer film festival. Weissman plans to attend the Aug 19 screening of the film with Deva and Fuller.
Little Sister’s vs Big Brother is this year’s FilmForward Director’s Spotlight event, and Weissman says she’s honoured to be part of the show.
“I was delighted, humbled and nervous,” she says. “It’s really fantastic to be recognized in that way.”
She recalls making the store staff wait until opening night to see the film back in 2002.
“It [was] one of the most memorable nights of my life,” Deva reminisces. “Absolute magic.”
“It’s become part of Canadian gay history,” he says of Weissman’s documentary, adding that it’s vital for queers themselves to document queer history.
“She saw it clearly right from the beginning. It’s really rare footage, it’s so densely packed. Even a well-intentioned straight filmmaker wouldn’t have the visions she has,” Deva believes.
“She’s a blessing to our community.”
For her part, Weissman feels having someone like Deva there to so articulately capture what those books and art mean is what gives the film its extra punch.
She says it’s great to have the film spotlighted as Out on Screen celebrates its 20th anniversary, Little Sister’s celebrates its 25th birthday and Pride turns 30.
It’s an opportunity to look at where we’ve come from, she emphasizes. It’s also important to keep looking fearlessly at our sexuality, which is “such an important part of our lives,” she adds.
“There’s no magic wand that guarantees that we’ll never have this problem again.”