3 min

‘We won’t be bullied’

Telling our stories without fear

I left the opening of this year’s Queer Film Festival feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the film fest and I delay the start of my vacation nearly every year to catch at least its opening.

Competent, courageous and consistently breaking new ground, Out on Screen has been our community’s best-run organization for years. But this year’s opening seemed to lack a little something. I think it was the youth.

After last year’s winning anti-homophobia short played to a packed opening-night house, a standing ovation followed its student creators up front, where they were embraced by a flock of diversicorn. This year, the winning team was absent. People loved their short, clapped like crazy and looked to the front expectantly. But the evening moved on, the moment unfulfilled. And I wondered what went wrong.

Nothing went wrong, the fest’s executive director, Drew Dennis, assured me a few weeks later.

The youth were simply unavailable that night, Dennis says. They chose to attend one of the youth nights instead.

So you didn’t deliberately tone it down after last September’s ridiculous accusations of introducing children to “homosexist politics and pornography”?

“No,” Dennis says; if anything, the festival and its educational arm reached more students this year, expanded its anti-homophobia competition, and launched a We Won’t Be Bullied fund.

“I think this festival is an example of people not toning it down,” agrees Paul Nixey, its public relations consultant.

“Of course the attack and the accusations, particularly when they first happened, [were] a big deal,” Dennis acknowledges. “We’re a small organization. We put our heart and soul into Out in Schools.”

“It was a bit of a drain on energy and resources,” Dennis admits.

But it was also an opportunity to review the organization’s youth policies, programming and practices — and to see them “stand up under scrutiny,” Dennis says.

“So you didn’t pull back?” I ask.

“We really didn’t,” Dennis says.

I wouldn’t blame the organizers if they did pull back. It’s a rational impulse to act more cautiously in the face of attack, to try to preempt the next round of pain. Not that it’s the best course of action in the long run, but the short-term appeal, conscious or not, is entirely understandable.

“I don’t see that as a driving force,” Nixey insists.

“It’s not the first time they’ve faced criticism from the outside,” he points out. “I would give them more credit.”

Dennis remembers REAL Women’s failed attempt in 2006 to target the film fest’s federal funding.

It doesn’t feel like last fall’s attack is “lingering or casting shadows,” Dennis says now.

Remember, I missed all but opening night, so I have little more than a limited gut feeling to go on. That, and the exiting programming director’s recent revelation that she toned down her language in the film guide, though the films themselves were not affected by last fall’s accusations.

The guide is public, Dennis says when I ask about Amber Dawn’s reticence to say “fuck” this year. “It’s not a matter of, oh my god, suddenly things got edited.”

I’m not trying to disparage the film fest. I completely understand the urge to be overly cautious when someone attacks an organization you love and help run. It casts a chill. I sympathize, and I have nothing but respect for the film fest’s organizers. I would simply encourage them to always stay true to themselves, to take a deep breath and move forward with their mission without compromising their core values.

Dennis points to this year’s Lovers and Fighters slogan as proof that the film fest doesn’t need my pep talk.

“If we consider our behaviour and our actions and the choices we’re making every time someone criticizes them, then where are we?” Nixey asks. “That doesn’t preclude us from taking a look at how we’re doing the things we’re doing. But it doesn’t mean you go into existential crisis every time someone questions what you’re doing.

“Telling the stories in an unabashed way, without fear,” he says. “To me that boils down to, ‘We won’t be bullied.’”