3 min

Snapshot of a lesbian uprising

Remembering the Claire et l'obscurite mini-riot

If Christopher Isherwood could write that he was a camera, then I might as well too. This month’s column is devoted to an event to which I was an eyewitness: the great lesbian movie uprising of 1992.

Click. By the early ’90s, the film world had discovered gay and lesbian filmmakers, with the Sundance Film Festival leading the way in programming their oeuvre.

The Vancouver International Film Festival was not slow in following this trend, and in 1992, among other queer offerings, programmed the by now classic documentary Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives by Aerlyn Weissman and Lynne Fernie.

I covered that year’s festival for Radio-Canada, and was looking forward to reviewing the premiere of what promised to be an important Canadian film. The program also included a 35mm short by Montréal lesbian filmmaker Anne Crépeau, Claire et l’obscurité, to which I paid little attention. I should have.

Forbidden Love premiered at the Ridge Theatre Oct 11, a Sunday night. It is a big theatre as local Vancouver readers will know, and that night it was full: full of women, many of them ready-to-party out-of-town delegates from a convention of what appeared to be social workers if the footwear (sensible), outfits (natural fibers, amply cut) and accessories (handcrafted silver and turquoise jewelry) were anything to go by.

There can’t have been more than a handful or two of men in the audience that evening and we instinctively huddled together in the middle of a centre row, strangers though we were to each other.

For once the tired old cliché of there being electricity in the air was appropriate. This crowd was thrilled at the prospect of seeing a film about them, a film that promised to deliver a serious message presented with high dyke wit. A good time seemed practically guaranteed.

But first we had to sit through Claire et l’obscurité. Well, it was only 16 minutes long; how painful could that be?

Plenty, as it turned out.

Claire et l’obscurité is a rather artful adaptation of a modern dance performance denouncing male violence against women. There was a palpable sense of audience dismay within the first minute or two of the film as a man bound a woman to a chair in slow, stylized movements.

Then, when in extreme close up, his hand began pushing, shoving, manipulating her head, the audience snapped.

From somewhere to my right, a woman stood and screamed, a great big, gut-wrenching scream trailing off into a heartbreaking sob. Cries of “no, no” and “stop the film” began to be heard from several points in the theatre.

That same terrible scream rang out a second time, joined by that of another woman. Women left their seats and gathered in the aisles. Many began yelling and making noise, any kind of noise, drowning out the soundtrack. A small knot of women ran out the theatre into the lobby, leaving the doors swinging behind them.

Then, without warning, the film stopped midway and the house lights went up. The audience cheered.

One woman yelled, “Community censorship is good censorship.”

There was some applause at this.

We men huddled tighter. I began thinking about Jim Crow.

Then, as suddenly as they had gone up, the house lights went down again and Forbidden Love began to run. The audience settled down and 84 minutes and 35 seconds later, filed out of the Ridge chatting animatedly, happy, happy, happy.

The following morning, the producers of Forbidden Love and I were invited to attend a post-mortem organized by Festival director Alan Franey and film programmer Alison Vermee.

The latter were commendably calm about the entire affair, but truly puzzled by the events of the previous night, including, we learned, an attempt by a group of women to rip Anne Crépeau’s film out of the projector. This was foiled by the quick-thinking projectionist who managed to lock the projection room door in time.

“I wonder if she’s getting a raise for that?” someone joked.

But as various theories were aired and recommendations made, I began to grow uneasy. Were we not telling the festival in so many words that, if they insisted on programming for a community not their own, they were doing so at their own peril? That only lesbians could program for other lesbians? It felt as if we were blaming them for being heterosexual.

Not that any of this mattered in the long run. An ever-increasing number of queer films made it into subsequent festival programs and the community flocked to see them.

After the post-mortem, I went to Radio-Canada to file my report. When I came out of the studio, my producer was waiting to congratulate me, or so I thought. After all, it’s not every day a drive-home radio show gets an exclusive about a near riot at the movies.

Instead, he demanded to know if my coverage was going to be only about homosexuals: “You have to talk about normal people too, you know.”

“I ought to throw you to the lesbians,” I sneered. Click.