After four years as the Vancouver Queer Film Festival’s director of programming, Amber Dawn is stepping down to write her second novel, a memoir entitled How Poetry Saved My Life, inspired by the “brave voices” from the stories she brought to the festival’s screens and audiences.
Xtra sat down with Amber Dawn on Aug 28 to chat about the achievements of the last four years; the state of queer film; and the accusations, levelled against festival organizers and their educational arm, Out in Schools, last fall, of introducing children to “homosexist politics and pornography.”
Here’s an excerpt from that interview.
Xtra: How would you describe your tenure as Out on Screen’s programming director over the last four years?
Amber Dawn: Arriving at Out on Screen, I had many experiences as an audience member and as an artist who has shown short films and also performed at the festival. So I already had the affection and the ambition. What I didn’t realize is how actually competitive the world of film and film festivals is.
Every festival these days shows queer film. In fact, queer cinema is considered to be the most avant-garde, thoughtful cinema of all time.
What I needed to learn the most is to be aggressive and to be always an ambassador for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, to make sure that artists and major film industry professionals knew that the Vancouver Queer Film Festival is a contender, and that they should show work with us.
Community building is huge. One of my bigger personal motivations was making sure that trans and genderqueer community understood very clearly that I am programming with gender diversity in mind, and I was really interested in quality films that would speak to them.
What’s your sense of the quality of films now available that speak to queer experiences?
I think the quality has gone up. Since I became a queer cinema viewer in the early ’90s, actually, I’ve seen the quality of films continually rise.
There are some big projects that are getting funding, which allows filmmakers more opportunity to produce better quality work. But story is always important, too.
You’ll always see very experimental work, low-budget work at the festival, so long as there’s a message or there’s a thread that links our community to the film. The Falls, which was the gay Mormon film by Jon Garcia, is a good example. It took $7,000 total to make that film. That’s rock bottom for a feature production, and it sold out. It really spoke to our audience. Amateur actors, first-time filmmaker, and yet it still resonates.
It’s important to appreciate new filmmakers who maybe don’t have those financial resources to show the highest quality just yet. There’s places that we were able to show for the first time this year: Ecuador, Sri Lanka . . .
Are you finding there is a growing pool of non-Western films to pick from?
Absolutely. And they’re not always the easiest to access. Two years ago, we brought Madame X from Indonesia. Indonesia has a queer film festival there called Q! Fest, which is constantly under attack. They have to announce their venues almost in secret, or else they will have too much threat. To have a queer film come out of Indonesia . . .
How did you feel when you heard Kari Simpson’s accusations last fall?
It’s heartbreaking to me. Of course, I’m going to feel protective of all of Out on Screen’s programs. But the Out in Schools team, in conjunction with myself, all of our various committee volunteers, the school board, look so closely at what films are brought into the high schools. They have to go through a very rigorous screening process to be adopted into an Out in Schools workshop and are not only screened but endorsed by Vancouver School Board and many educators, so it’s hard when someone flings mud. We had to become very nimble and wise with how we responded to those attacks. It wasn’t a time to have a knee-jerk response. It wasn’t a time to mirror the hateful language. It was a time to be very strategic. In essence, I learned a lot about how to respond to hatred.
Did you feel intimidated?
I did. I did feel intimidated. You know I’ve had many experiences in my life where people have questioned my life choices or who I am — anywhere from family members to media — but I’m so protective of the folks that I feel an alliance to, and youth I certainly feel a huge alliance to, and like many people who support the Out in Schools program, I think, ‘Oh god, if I would have just seen anything like Out in Schools when I was in high school, it would have radically changed my experiences as a young person.’ So to have someone attack something that to me feels so necessary and valuable, yeah I felt intimidated.
As programming director, did you feel any pressure to tone down the content of the film festival as a result of those accusations?
I didn’t change my selection. But I was perhaps very careful with how I worded things in the guide. I’ve used racier language in the past.
So there was a bit of a chilling effect?
Like I didn’t cuss in the guide. You don’t see the word “fuck” in the guide, for example. Fortunately, we’re a community that loves synonyms, so I think that regardless of language the intention of each film was conveyed. I tried not to say “fuck” onstage when I had the microphone, but I don’t know if I was always successful.
Has the film festival suffered at all because of these accusations?
I don’t think so. I mean, I think our staff team was fatigued having to respond to the accusations, but I don’t think the programming has been altered whatsoever.
Have you faced funding losses because of the situation?
Oh, I don’t think so. I think the shift in public funding is occurring for many reasons, and in particular, what the current government values. So I think public funding is something we understand is not what is going to sustain our festival.
I can tell you now that none of our public funders withdrew support based on Kari Simpson and her political group, Culture Guard. In fact, the feedback we get from jury members, who sit on the jury for public funders, it’s very positive. We are held in esteem with the various arts councils.
How do you think the festival should respond to threats from the Christian right?
I think it’s important in the face of hatred, but also just as a practice, for community groups to be very upfront, visible and transparent about what they do. Our community is one that asks for accountability. They want to know what their community organizations like Out on Screen are up to.
Over the last four years, you’ve had the opportunity to bring a diversity of queer stories to the film festival. Which ones are you proudest of?
That’s so hard. That’s a really big question because each one, I feel like I have a little relationship with.
That being said, my first year I had our opening gala film be a film called I Can’t Think Straight, which is about two South Asian women who fall in love, set in London. It was very important for me to have a women’s film with South Asian women.
In documentaries, there’s a lot of South Asian queer folk, mostly who are facing tremendous challenges internationally. This was a romantic comedy. I thought it was a breath of fresh air to see two South Asian women in a romantic comedy with a big budget behind it. I kind of used that to hallmark what I might do as a programmer.
Diversity is also very important to me, but also what haven’t we seen as an audience, aesthetically and culturally.
Mia is another example. In some ways, you know that a trans woman character living in a squat village is going to go through incredible hardships, and the film doesn’t shy away from that. It’s a beautiful, human story. The acting is flawless, she’s captivating, it’s dignified, there’s hope throughout.
And I think that with Mia, similar to I Can’t Think Straight, it’s just a very dignified refreshing look at an under-heard voice in our community.
Queers Against Israeli Apartheid would like the film festival to stop showing Israeli-backed films and have called for a boycott. What do you think of that?
Feedback is extremely important to us. We always look closely at all feedback, and not just once. Not just someone reading the email and saying, “Okay, I’ve received it.”
We do have several festival debriefs. The letter was read in the screening, as well as it’s been circulated now. We also have feedback from folks that were in the theatre that night, and also folks that weren’t in the theatre but are just starting to hear about the letter, the call for the cultural boycott, and are responding.
So we will be looking at all of that. To us, the most important part was that there was dialogue, that our audience was made aware of the various discussions that were happening. Again, that we were transparent, that we didn’t take the letter from the Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and sort of hide it away so only the board looked at it, but we gave people the opportunity to hear it and to respond themselves. The dialogue is really important.
So you are not going down the boycott road?
What I can say is many film festivals have been asked. Again, Frameline is an example, but many film festivals play films from Israel every year, and many have been asked, so it’s a very large conversation.
What would you say you’re most proud of achieving overall as programming director?
I don’t necessarily know how it happened, but somehow I feel like I very much gained the trust of my audience, that people were able to share very personal feedback with me, and I feel very proud I was offered the opportunity, again and again, to connect on a personal basis with our audience. That’s generic, too, but that’s the truth.
So, why are you leaving?
Why am I leaving? Why am I leaving? I am very inspired by the festival, the sharing of stories, and sharing stories from some very brave voices has really inspired me to reflect on my own story, and I am lucky to sign a new book contract with my publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, which is a memoir.
I’m realizing the time, energy, also the emotional work that writing a memoir will take. I’m not a half-asser. I do throw myself into the work before me, so right now it’s time to throw myself into my own story, and make sure by next spring when that book comes out, I’m emotionally present and ready to do readings, to connect with audiences, to deliver workshops around the book as well.
Are you focusing on a specific —
I am, I am. The book is called How Poetry Saved My Life, and it’s collected memoirs with some memoir poetry, and it is a look at how I went from a street-based sex worker to — not present-day because that would be too much of a chunk of time — but basically how creative writing encouraged me to invest in myself as a storyteller, but also invest in myself as a person that deserves to be alive and tell their story. It looks at some more at-risk, vulnerable years in my life. You’ll see some of the things that I wrote when I just first started writing until — probably it spans about 10 years of my life.
Any message, parting words for your audience?
Oh, it kills me. I don’t have parting words because I don’t think of it as parting. Folks will see me next year; they’ll see me in the audience.
I don’t want to be like a backseat driver, so whoever the new director of programming is, I want to empower them, but I don’t want to influence them. But if I’m given opportunities to do some guest curation, or just suggest some films or filmmakers that might continue to be really good for our festival, I hope to do some of that.
I love film. I’ll stay in love with film. I have travelled a lot to LGBT film festivals, and I feel like we have a lot to be proud of. We’re an excellent festival. So I’m not leaving. I’ll continue to be a donor and I’ll volunteer, so I’ll be here. I think at the heart of our festival is what we bring as an audience, and for people to remember that it is their festival, that we do want feedback, we do want community dialogue, we do want to keep creating these opportunities for connection.