According to Winnipeg filmmaker Noam Gonick, Pride is becoming a “military parade” that glorifies fascist imagery of cops, conformity and corporatization. And this summer, he’s taking his message — and a short film on the subject — to Pride events in Vancouver and London, England.
It all started last year, when Pride Toronto organizers asked Gonick to make a one-minute film on the subject of human rights, to be broadcast on big screens at the 2008 event.
His mind turned to the subject of military torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In particular, how men use hoods, electrocution, wires and even watersports (in the form of waterboarding) to degrade other men. The military, says Gonick, “uses homoerotic, aggressive acts to harm victims and act as a contagion to society in general.”
And, he says, it turns us on. “Conquest is not only about territory, or oil, or puppet dictatorships,” he says. “It’s sexual, too.”
Gonick’s first challenge was to think of a way to catch the attention of Pride-goers. “It’s hard to compete with the beautiful people and the floats and the nudity,” he says.
He turned to the University of British Columbia’s football team for help. Gonick asked the Thunderbirds to imitate waterboarding techniques on each other, with players’ faces covered in rainbow-coloured underwear. They also performed hazing rituals.
“I didn’t even have to direct them,” the filmmaker says. “It took off on its own.”
Gonick and animator Dennis Tam edited the football player footage with graphic text ‘scorecards’ recalling military dictators like Adolf Hitler and Augusto Pinochet. He also gave his film a name: No Safe Words. In SM culture, a safe word is what a slave says to a master to force them to stop. “In human rights abuses,” says Gonick, “there are no safe words.”
Finally, Gonick jetted off to Toronto Pride to watch his work on the big screens. “I’ve always been a bit scared of the crowd,” he says, “so I wanted to ask the crowd to question itself. I was hoping my work would shock people out of their Pride reverie for one minute.”
Instead, Gonick was the one who was in for a shock.
He watched in fascination as more than a dozen police cars blazed through the parade, with sirens blaring and crowds cheering. Firefighters turned their hoses on the masses, and the big story of the day was the arrival of Canada’s Armed Forces, as recruiters and marchers.
Gonick found the display “chilling.” Considering the police’s checkered history with the queer community, including bathhouse and sex club raids, as well as arrests at Pride itself, Gonick says, “I can’t think of a more perfect example of co-optation than police presence at Pride.”
He was also disturbed by the conformity of the crowd, particularly in the way parade-goers were dressed. “Instead of going against the flow,” says Gonick, “Pride was going with the flow.”
This year, London, England’s Sketch Gallery has asked Gonick to screen a longer version of his project during that city’s Pride week in July. He’s re-editing No Safe Words to include images of soldiers and police at Toronto Pride, as well as muscle daddies with bank logos. In August, he’ll take the same director’s cut to Vancouver’s VIVO Media Arts Centre.
With the new footage, Gonick feels the focus of his film is even clearer. “It’s about us and who we’ve become,” he says. “We’re willing to do anything to get the approval of the state.”
Long known as the “bad-boy filmmaker of Winnipeg,” Noam Gonick burst onto the scene in the late ’90s with a black-and-white short about the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, set in a bathhouse. He quickly followed it up with two provocative feature films: Hey Happy!, about a DJ who tries to sleep with 2,000 men by the turn of the millenium, and Stryker, about a 14-year-old arsonist who gets caught up in a gang war.
Gonick is also the producer of two cult TV hits, Psychic Saturday Night and Kink. Just prior to completing No Safe Words, he directed a short called Wildflowers of Manitoba which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as a video installation called Commerce Court, Precious Blood for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche.
Watch the clip that was broadcast at Pride Toronto 2008 (a new, extended version will be shown at London, England’s Pride in July, and at Vancouver’s VIVO Media Arts Centre in August):