Bathhouse Raids & Riots
4 min

Small-town gay boy

FEATURE / Canadian filmmaker Malcolm Ingram lights a new flame

The Continental, a legendary bathhouse that was both a social space and a hotbed of culture in the 1970s.

Filmmaker Malcolm Ingram describes his career as “a lot of lucky stumbling.”

“I was one of those people who knew what they wanted to do. I always knew I wanted to be in film; I just didn’t know where I was going to fit . . . I didn’t have an agenda, but I was given a lot of lucky opportunities.”

In his 20s, while working for the Toronto International Film Festival, Ingram crossed paths with American indie auteur Kevin Smith, who was in town promoting Clerks. The two became fast friends, and with the filmmaker’s guidance, Ingram (alongside fellow Canadian Matt Gissing) went on to direct the film Drawing Flies, a wilderness-based comedy featuring Smith’s well-known stable of actors, including Jason Mewes, Jason Lee and Smith himself.

The project was enough of a success to guarantee Ingram a second shot at the helm, this time on his own. His second feature, the Denise Richards-Breckin Meyer vehicle Tail Lights Fade, was the filmmaker’s first foray into true commercial cinema. Still, for all the talent and money involved in the project, the film was panned by critics and failed to turn a profit. “That experience was very humbling because it was one time when I actually realized that a lot of people had put a lot of faith in me on a lot of different levels, and I disappointed everyone.”

Shaken, Ingram stepped away from the craft for a few years, vowing to return only if he found a worthwhile project that would require more of a personal investment. After a few years of self-described “floating,” he came across an article in Fab magazine about Zig’s, a small gay bar in Sudbury that had been plagued by homophobic attacks. The story resonated strongly with Ingram, and the idea for the documentary Small Town Gay Bar was born.

Working with a compact crew, Ingram travelled to the American South and shot the film, which focuses on the lives of a handful of gay men in two rural Mississippi communities. Although the project took him far away from his hometown, he still sees common lines that can be drawn between the lives of the film’s subjects and his own. “I grew up in Oakville, which is kind of a rich, dopey suburb, but it does have a small-town mentality. The high school I went to wasn’t the most tolerant place in the world . . . Being gay wasn’t part of the program. So I felt as alienated in that environment as I imagine someone in the South would have felt being gay, without the inherent danger that is present in the South.”

The project also solidified for Ingram his personal responsibility, both as a filmmaker and a documentarian. “I was sitting down and interviewing a kid whose brother had just been brutally murdered. And I had never made a documentary before. And at that point, you’re just like — the responsibility that I am taking in making this guy have to tell his story, it is my responsibility. I become the keeper of his story, and it is my job to pass the flame to as many people as possible.

“So in making documentaries, I felt it was my duty as the flame holder to fucking light the world on fire with his story.”

Not long after Gay Bar’s completion, Ingram found out that it had been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, which was the achievement of a lifelong dream for the filmmaker. American queer channel Logo soon approached him about creating another documentary — this time about the burgeoning bear culture. Ingram was initially skeptical, concerned that he was too close to the movement to do it justice. Still, he went ahead with it, and the final product — Bear Nation — met with a decidedly mixed response.

“I couldn’t win because the bear’s journey is such a personal journey. And I can never make that perfect documentary, and it was something that so many people had criticisms of — saying things like I made the wrong movie, that essentially I didn’t get it. Bears be bitches, man. And the claws came out.”

The subject matter of Ingram’s latest documentary, Continental, came more easily to the filmmaker. Ingram had always wanted to tell a story about gay history, and the famous bathhouse where Bette Midler got her start had always fascinated him — especially when considered as both a social space and a hotbed of culture. “Everything that appeals to me in the zeitgeist is really rooted in the ’70s. And the Continental was such an essential part of things like Studio 54, of house music, of really interesting creative things. It was very much ground zero for a lot of that stuff.”

Beyond historical specificity, the topic of bathhouses is also of particular personal importance to the filmmaker. “I actually kind of had my introduction to gay culture through bathhouses . . . When I first came out, there was this place called the Barracks, and that was where I discovered bear culture. And that was a very social experience.”

So what’s next for Ingram? Having told the stories he wanted to tell, he is taking a break from documentary filmmaking and plans to pursue creative projects in reality television — a genre he views as having considerable potential. “The great thing about reality television is that there’s a spoonful of sugar with your medicine. You can impart knowledge, you can represent voices that haven’t been represented before in an entertaining way, and that’s an interesting challenge for me.”

For all the turbulence in his career up to this point, Ingram approaches both his past and future with an admirable sense of calm. “I’ve had the privilege of knowing what I wanted to do since I was five years old, and I did it . . . Once I got into Sundance, everything else was gravy. I have that peace where I’ve done the thing that I’ve set out to do, and I got to do it before I was 40. That’s such a privilege.”

Opens in Toronto as part of Hot Docs
Sun, April 28, 9:15pm
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
506 Bloor St W

Also playing Tues, April 30, 4pm and Sun, May 5, 8pm
Scotiabank 4
259 Richmond St W