3 min

Never too rich nor too young

A very new generation will soon fall under Lynne Fernie's spell

APPLES & ORANGES. New NFB animated film tackles bullying and homophobia in elementary schools. "I didn't want it to be one of those educational films," says director Lynne Fernie. Credit: Xtra files

A couple of years back, at the closing night of the Images Festival Of Independent Film And Video, a panel of art world experts elected Lynne Fernie as the supreme “Art Dyke For Life.” No one is more deserving of the title. A celebrated filmmaker, songwriter, artist and curator, as well as a tireless champion and mentor to other artists, Fernie has had an unparalleled influence and impact on Canada’s lesbian art scene. And, as anyone who knows her can attest, she’s simply one of the most fabulous women around. With her quick wit, trademark platinum shag and perpetually lit cigarettes, Fernie elevates daily life itself to an art.

She’s probably best known for her collaborations with Aerlyn Weissman, the two highly acclaimed documentaries Forbidden Love and Fiction And Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule. Both are smart, sexy and groundbreaking explorations of lesbian history.

Her latest film is a bit of a departure. Produced by the National Film Board, Apples And Oranges is an animated short, geared towards elementary school students. “I went from making documentaries about the history of older women for a gay and lesbian audience to a film for kids and the hetero-normative classroom,” Fernie says. “It seems sort of strange, but I think the common thread is that they are all about confronting fear and fighting invisibility.”

Cutting back and forth between two animated stories about children confronting homophobia and a lively classroom discussion about name-calling and stereotypes, Apples And Oranges deftly manages to raise awareness about intolerance, without ever resorting to preachiness.

“I didn’t want it to be one of those educational films,” Fernie says. “I hated those in school, you know the ones that were brought to you by the lumber industry and Health Canada. I wanted this to be a lot of fun.”

She embarked on the project four years ago, after completing School’s Out, a short video about TEACH (Teens Educating And Confronting Homophobia), who Fernie calls, “an amazing group of queer youth who talk to their peers about homophobia.

“I was so struck by their bravery. It was impossible not to respond to it. One experience that came up again and again was that all of the kids started experiencing homophobic bullying and name-calling in elementary school. The youth in TEACH kept telling me, ‘We are not starting early enough to reach these kids.’

“When I started doing the research, I realized the kind of hateful intolerance we were up against. I’d go into some schools and think, ‘I’d rather come out at Hockey Night In Canada than tell this roomful of kids that I’m gay.'”

Fernie hopes that the film will make it into classrooms in Canada and abroad to begin to challenge not only homophobic bullying, but also fears around discussing homosexuality at all in the classroom. “One of the obstacles for anti-homophobia education is the misperception that it involves recruiting children, or talking explicitly about sex. There are a lot of teachers who would love to deal with this in the classroom, but feel like they just don’t know how.

“But we have to start dealing with it. Even very young kids are using or being called ‘faggot,’ ‘dyke,’ and ‘queer.’ So the words are already out there. If we don’t begin to educate about homosexuality, bullying and intolerance in schools, we are abandoning all kinds of children to the cruelties of the schoolyard.”

Still in the throes of launching Apples And Oranges, Fernie isn’t working on any new projects yet. “Usually I just thrash around and wait until something captures my imagination. It takes me about two to four years to make a film, so it has to be something I’m willing to be involved with for that long.

“I’ve always been a very political filmmaker and I’ve always felt my job as an artist was to be engaging. If the work doesn’t have a deeper meaning, I’m just not interested.”

* Apples And Oranges will screen in the Here’s Looking At You , Kid shorts program at 2:45pm on Sun, May 18 at the Cumberland 2. The 20-minute film also screens at a free family fun day at the NFB Mediatheque (John and Richmond St W) on Sun, May 25 at 1pm; call (416) 977-6847 for reservations. Lynne Fernie will be present for a question and answer session; cake and lemonade will be served.