cultures and controversies: a quirky cocktail of a queer film symposium

“The climate of queer filmmaking has definitely changed. Savvy and hungry audiences you are, and your demanding viewership has altered the presumed course of history.”

– Katharine Setzer, Director of Programming, opening address to the 20th edition of Montreal queer film festival Image+Nation, Imperial Theatre, November 15, 2007


I just sent in my freelance CV to Inside/Out, the Toronto queer film festival, in the hopes they need a writer. It would appear I seem to have films on the brain, and since items 2 and 3 on my recent Sex Geek To-Do List are about Image+Nation, the recent Montreal queer film festival, I figure now’s probably as good a time as any to launch into my personal, quirky and highly biased report on that.

Image+Nation ran from November 15-25, and it kicked off with a film symposium on the 16 and 17, with a whackload of super-cool panels and talks. That’s the piece I’m going to focus on here. In truth, while I very much enjoyed a lot of the films I saw, none of them were earth-shattering in the way that a couple of them were last year. I think the strength of the festival this year, for me at least, was in giving me many fascinating glimpses into the lives of individual queer pioneers – artists, dancers, writers and activists – who were featured in the very well-curated documentary program. But to me that’s about drinking in my history via some of its major figures, rather than about challenging my thoughts about the present. In short: I got a lot out of the films I saw, but I don’t have much to say about them.

So: the film symposium. It bore the unfortunately drab (though fully accurate) title “International Workshop on Queer Festivals,” but luckily it was anything but drab.

What I did, see, as a true sex geek, was take notes throughout the symposium, and because of that I now have in my possession a glorious mishmash of jotted-down half-sentences, notes about my own partly formed thoughts, quotes with a word or two missing, and miscellaneous facts gleaned from an array of presentations. I am going to endeavour to present them here in some semblance of coherence, but because certain themes kept popping up throughout the symposium even in wildly different panel presentations, I’m going to mix this particular cocktail around those themes rather than with any pretense to chronological order.

“We don’t have access to fact. We have access to text – photos, films, etcetera. History is our memory of an event, and so is necessarily partial.” – Joanne Lalonde, UQÀM (Montreal), answering a question in response to her presentation “Figures de l’altérité dans la vidéo canadienne des années 80,” during “The 1980s” panel, November 16

Ms. Lalonde’s words are a fitting way to begin my report because indeed, I only have access to text – my own, the festival program, and a few other bits and pieces. But she was in fact contributing to a discussion about queer history, and more specifically, the history of queer film and queer film festivals.

This particular panel touched on the early AIDS-related films but it also covered some of the controversies and adventures surrounding the screening of certain films at past festivals. Michael Lumpkin of San Francisco’s Frameline Festival spoke about the lesbian riot that took place when, 23 years ago, they screened a short film by Canadian filmmaker Midi Oneira, 10 Cents a Dance, as part of a lesbian short film program.

I saw the film a couple of years ago, and it is indeed very thought-provoking. It presents three short yet eloquent vignettes: one of two women talking over a romantic dinner, one of two men having anonymous sex in a bathroom, and one of a heterosexual pair engaging in phone sex (presumably of the paid variety, if I remember correctly). It brings up all sorts of questions about the nature of sexual connection, gender differences in relationship, and so forth. The story here is that the San Francisco lesbians were so upset that male-on-male sex was being shown as part of a lesbian film program that they actually stormed the projection booth. Hell hath no fury like a woman porned?

Nowadays, the event almost seems funny, but identity politics in the mid-80s were venomous, not to mention it was a time of rampant lesbian separatism and smack in the middle of the “all penetration is rape” sex wars to boot. No wonder a little penis action was a bit much for the gals to handle.

“There’s a long history of audience discontent at gay and lesbian film festivals. (…) Tensions occur around representations of realities for which there is not a consensus. LGBTQ as a singular entity is a utopian wish that gets exposed as fiction when this sort of failure of consensus occurs.”Ruby Rich, University of California (Santa Cruz), comment following “The 1980s” panel, November 16

The parallel was drawn between 10 Cents a Dance and this year’s big shit-disturbing short, The Gendercator by Catherine Crouch. The I+N festival program describes it only as follows: “Using the Rip van Winkle model to extrapolate from the past into a possible future, The Gendercator is a short satirical take on female body modification and gender.” Sounds relatively innocuous to me, but apparently the FTM community in San Francisco got up in arms about the film, saying that it was transphobic. They apparently put significant pressure on Frameline to pull the film from their program. And Frameline caved. In Lumpkin’s own contribution to the panel, he gave all sorts of justifications for the decision, but more or less it seemed to come down to the festival not wanting an FTM riot like the lesbian one back in 1984.

Oh, groan.

“We need to be able to cross this. We will not communicate through identity categories.” – Chris Straayer, NYU, in hir presentation “Re/Presentation by Transsexuals (focusing on FTMs)” during the “Gender/Transgender Dynamics: Then and Now” panel, November 16

The answer to this sort of controversy is always incredibly simple, in my humble opinion. Screen the fucking film. And deal with the consequences. If needed, put warnings before it, take a public position that the film festival organizers do not agree with the film’s message, have a media plan prepared, provide a panel discussion before and a facilitated community dialogue afterwards, be ready to refund tickets if people are upset, call in a few beefy bouncers for potential crowd control, have an army of therapists at the ready to help people deal with their trauma upon watching it, and renew your insurance policy in case they trash the theatre. But above all, do not pull a film once it’s been programmed. Why? Because that’s fucking censorship and it is not okay

“As soon as you begin to move out of identity niches, you come up against all kinds of challenges, but I think leaning on these pressure points is exactly what we need to do.” – Ruby Rich, closing keynote address, November 17

Haven’t we learned anything, people? Dialogue is how the community moves forward. We don’t get anywhere by suppressing people’s voices when we disagree with them. We get places by arguing, debating, learning, taking a stand, opening up, reading and watching and listening. Not by pulling an artist’s controversial work (once it’s already been judged of high enough quality and artistic or cultural merit to be screened at a gigantic festival in the first place) so that the public doesn’t have the chance to engage with the questions it brings up. As it stands now, there’s a ton of bitching out there on either side of the argument, and anyone who actually wants to get to the root of it will have to track down the film on their own to see how they feel about it, rather than being able to do so in the company of their fellow community members. I don’t care if the film says all FTMs are pathological freaks – let it! As long as it’s not encouraging violence and the systemic acting out of hatred, press play. And then let’s talk about it, analyze it to death, tear it apart and trash it to our hearts’ content.

“I think we have to sit at a table and scream at each other, if we need to. As it stands there’s a standoff between the old-school lesbian feminists and the trans community, and how do we move through that standoff?” Kathleen Mullen, independent programmer and filmmaker (Toronto), in her presentation “Artistic Vision, Community Participation and Identity Politics” during the “Queer Cinema(s): New Contexts, Images, Forms” panel, November 17

Ever heard of Catherine Millot’s book Horsexe: Essay on Transsexuality, published in 1990? I’d seen the book around a couple of times here and there over the years, but given the first few sentences in the jacket description – quoted below – I can see why I never bothered picking it up; it sounds like just one more ivory-tower academic’s misguided and misleading musings about gender realities they’ve never experienced. To wit:

“The male transsexual, who claims to have a woman’s soul imprisoned in a man’s body, and who often demands correction of this “error” through surgery, is perhaps the only believer in a monolithic sexual identity free of doubts and questions.  The female transsexual reverses this equation, seeking to identify with the prerogatives – and even organs – of male power.” 

Yah. You get what I mean. Horsexe is a load of horseshit.

I did have a rather memorable encounter with the book though, which is why I bring it up now. I was at Bluestockings, the feminist bookstore in New York City, a few years ago. The book was on the shelf; I picked it up and opened it, and noticed that a note was clipped to the cover. The note explained that the staff of the bookstore did not agree with the points made in the book, and that if a potential reader were looking for more accurate representations of transsexuality, they would be happy to recommend other books in the store instead. With the simplicity of a few words on a post-it note, they were effectively allowing the discussion to continue, and having their say in it too – which was to trash the book even while not removing people’s access to it. Brilliant.

“Film festivals are a place of bravery. You have to defy governments, defy your own audiences! In order to do your work, you have to bring out interesting work.” – Ruby Rich, comment on November 16

Granted, a large-scale response to a film screening might require considerably more resources than a post-it note, but nonetheless, I firmly believe that’s the sort of response that’s necessary. The only other acceptable option would have been for the festival directors to decide the film wasn’t up to their quality standards or did not promote a message the festival wished to showcase, and to decide not to have screened it in the first place – I don’t dispute their right to choose what to screen, but the time to make that call is not once a work has already made it through those filters and been advertised.

Anyway. Thankfully, Image+Nation did screen the film, and I haven’t heard of any riots – though Montrealers aren’t known for those, unless they’re really happy about a hockey game or really pissed off about government policy. I unfortunately did not get to see it, so I can’t make any informed comment about the film itself. But you can be damned sure I’m going to want to see it now, just to understand what the fuss is all about in the City by the Bay.

Moving along. Well, sort of.

“Our identities are constituted as much in the event as in the films themselves.” Kathleen Mullen, comment on November 17

An interesting point indeed. Last year after I+N, I spoke on Dykes on Mikes about how the experience of a queer film festival is in large part determined by its audiences, and that it’s not simply a question of the films as stand-alone works. I said much the same when CBC-TV interviewed me this year. And it would appear that people far more qualified than me also think so.

By far my favourite panel of the symposium was the last one on the schedule, bearing the weighty title “Current Challenges and Solutions: Funding, Gatekeepers, New Technologies, Politicians. Why Is It Still So Tough?” (Henceforth it will be known as “Current Challenges.” Crikey.)

“The context is different [now compared to 20 years ago], but queer film festivals are still informed by desire: intellectual, cultural, erotic, and for friendship.” – Maureen Bradley, University of Victoria, in her presentation “Beyond Queer: Do We Still Need Queer Film Festivals?” during the “Current Challenges” panel, November 17

Desire. Thank you, Maureen, for bringing up desire. Sometimes I think we get so wrapped up in the politics and the logistics and the commercialism that we forget the whole reason we’re queer in the first place, and that is our desire – whether it’s a desire to be a certain sort of person or to fuck a certain sort of person. No kidding that desire is going to be an important part of what we both put into and get out of film festivals that celebrate and question queerness. And no kidding that will inform how we experience those festivals. But of course, identities change (both individual and community), and desires change, and so festivals change. What a gorgeous interplay that is. Not without its challenges and growing pains of course, but such is the nature of evolution.

“Gay and lesbian film festivals have outlived their mission. If that mission is visibility, then it’s obsolete.” – Ragan Rhyne, Hunter College (New York), in her presentation “Promoting Gay and Lesbian Visibility: Film Festivals’ Obsolete Mission” during the “Current Challenges” panel, November 17

It was fascinating to hear someone say that out loud, and though it’s a bit shocking I think it’s pretty much true – at least in a progressive North American urban context. We queers have got a lot of pop culture visibility these days; it would be quite a stretch to say otherwise. Who that visibility is focused on is perhaps another question. Certainly there’s a lot of white TV-standard-beautiful gay men and lesbians, with the occasional evil two-faced bisexual character or monstrous trans person thrown in for flavour. So the state of visibility is hardly ideal. But yes, I can say that I agree that if a film festival’s purpose is solely or primarily to increase visibility, it’s kinda missing the boat. There’s so much more for these festivals to do. Fortunately, in many ways I think they’re doing it, though of course there are always more ways in which this can continue to happen.

Hmm. Now that’s a fun thought. If I were in charge of a queer film festival, what would its mission be? Lemme think… “To screen entertaining and thought-provoking films in a queer-positive setting, to showcase the current state of queer cultural development, and to promote wide-ranging inter- and intra-community dialogue among LGBTQ(+++) folks of all stripes.” Yup. That’s about where it would be at.

Then again, one could always opt for simplicity.

“We want people to meet, get wet and think about it.” – Marie-Hélène Bourcier, Université de Lille III and organizer of a porn film festival in France, in her presentation “Post Porn in the City” during the “Current Challenges” panel, November 17

Now that’s a mission I can understand. Woo-hoo! Three cheers for the no-nonsense French.

On a completely different note, Ruby Rich provided another perspective which I found intriguing, as it was informed by several decades of her own work in the field:

“I think festivals still have their importance, because of the way in which so much of our lives are becoming privatized, atomized. Coming together in a movie theatre is becoming a progressive act.” – Ruby Rich, closing keynote address “From ID to IQ: New Queer Cinema Then and Now,” November 17

What a thought. In a time where so much of our cultural and personal lives and connections take place online, it is amazing to think of hundreds of people coming together in person. I hardly think film festivals are the only place this happens, but it’s true that in the age of YouTube and videoconferencing and Facebook FunWalls and personal digital video recorders and cell phone cameras that can record moving pictures, there’s far less mystery and community created around the idea of a film. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue against the relevance of the in-person connection that grows when people congregate in a theatre, sharing snacks and settling into plush seats, laughing and groaning and falling silent together, and then going off to think about – and hopefully talk about – what they saw.

As is typical of what’s said about queer culture, though – and, in an interesting parallel, also typical of what’s said about feminism – people are really gung-ho about the idea that it’s unnecessary. That cultural creation around themes of sexuality and gender are somehow passé, been-there-done-that, yesterday’s news, now you can get married so you’re just like everyone else so get over it already. And stop having Pride parades while you’re at it.

“1992’s Sundance festival was the first time people said we don’t need gay and lesbian film festivals anymore, and they have been saying it ever since. GLBTQIA (etcetera) film festivals are the only ones who’ve constantly had to defend their own existence, and I wonder what that means.” – Ruby Rich, closing keynote address

What it means is that like any progressive movement, queer culture is constantly questioned by those who don’t like it, and because we’re progressive, we also constantly question ourselves. Yes, it sucks that we have to defend our existence so often, but at the same time I’d much rather see us forced to re-articulate our worth every week and pay constant attention to that question in order to make sure we remain pertinent than see us become boring, predictable, and ultimately irrelevant to the progress of society and culture. Sometimes it’s in moments of defense that we find our strength most readily. And we all know, in the end, that no matter how much transformation takes place within and outside our community, and no matter how technology morphs as generations blur, queers aren’t going to die off – and neither are our images.

“Why do we keep asking ourselves the question of whether we’re relevant or not? It’s like saying, ‘well, there are movies on TV so we no longer need Cannes.’ Duh!” – Maureen Bradley, comment following the closing keynote address, November 17

Of course it’s challenging to move forward with cultural production and showcasing in a context where the community is increasingly diverse and disparate, or perhaps more accurately, where it’s becoming increasingly clear that we are in truth multiple overlapping communities with concerns and cultures that are not always compatible. But in my humble opinion, that’s the fun part. It’s certainly what keeps bringing me back into the theatres year after year – precisely to see the latest instalments in the ongoing discussion that is queer culture. That’s what feeds my brain, that’s what entertains me, and that’s most definitely what gets me wet. I hope the discussion continues to take place for a long time to come.

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