DocLit

DocLit: ‘Forbidden Love: A Queer Film Classic’

Analysing how pulp fiction met lesbian art in a groundbreaking documentary


Forbidden Love
By Jean Bruce and Gerda Cammaer
(A Queer Film Classic, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015)

Jean Bruce and Gerda Cammaer’s monograph Forbidden Love: A Queer Film Classic arrives in the wake of the National Film Board’s (NFB) 2014 re-release of Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s 1992 documentary-fiction hybrid Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives. (Rent the film here from the NFB.) Readers who may not be familiar with the film are quickly immersed in its text, subtext, and paratext. Bruce and Cammaer thoroughly unpack the film’s clever composition of interviews with ten women speaking about their personal experience including lesbian pulp fiction author Ann Bannon, fictional vignettes parodying the conventions of lesbian pulp fiction itself, and archival footage.

In four chapters, the authors explore Forbidden Love’s place within the archive of Canadian queer history and its complex engagement with the archival process itself, the critical implications of the film’s unique production process, the peculiarities of the documentary and melodramatic forms the film employs, and finally the film’s colourful history of distribution and re-release. As Bruce and Cammaer guide the reader toward Forbidden Love from one angle before changing gears and approaching the film from yet another, one gets the sense s/he is privy to an ongoing dialogue between the filmmakers, the film itself, and the authors of this book. Such a reading experience coincides with the model of history (re)making upon which the film insists. Here we see how Bruce and Cammaer’s book and Fernie and Weissman’s film are fundamentally complementary—the book makes explicit what the film perhaps cannot.

Bruce and Cammaer deal dexterously with the film and the historical discourse it both participates in and disrupts; in their care Forbidden Love becomes more than a film about history and emerges as an historical act itself. By alerting the viewer to Forbidden Love’s singularity within the documentary tradition of the NFB, the book is very much in keeping with the film’s efforts to disrupt patterns of erasure in “official” history by reinserting into the record the marginalized lived histories of lesbian women in Canada throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.

Stephanie Morgenstern and Lynne Adams in Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives
Photo by Ann Pearson, courtesy of the NFB


Bruce and Cammaer take care to update the film’s historical position in order to relaunch Forbidden Love into contemporary discourses of queer history and theory as well as the evolving role of the NFB as an investor and gatekeeper of film history in Canada. While Forbidden Love was eventually, if unsatisfactorily, digitally remastered and made available online, a subtle indictment of the NFB lingers upon the book’s conclusion. One wonders to what extent a detectable apathy towards the recording of lesbian histories pervades the archival process and the practice of history (queer and otherwise) more generally. What becomes clear is that Forbidden Love —and its insistence on a kind of constant vigilance in (re)reading and (re)making history—is as indispensable as it ever was.

The third chapter stages a particularly persuasive argument for the film’s elevation in Canadian documentary history. Following test audiences’ wide array of responses to the documentary’s parallel development of the pulp-style fictional storyline—between Laura, a naïve newcomer to the big city and her eventual lover Mitch—Bruce and Cammaer employ both primary evidence (e.g. interviews with the filmmakers) and lively textual analysis to stabilise our understanding of this unconventional technique. Situating the melodramatic vignettes within the realm of parody (even if the move is missed by some viewers), the authors argue convincingly that parody itself is the film’s Swiss army knife. In a particularly strong moment in the book, Bruce and Cammaer contend that the film, through parody, performs a double act of engagement and distance: the viewer is confronted with the “rules” of lesbian pulp fiction (arguably extendable to portrayals of lesbians in popular media more generally) as they are simultaneously upheld and cheekily undermined. That being said, at times the radicality of the film’s break from documentary traditions is perhaps overstated. The point about parody, like others of Bruce and Cammaer’s larger claims and mini-theses along the way, is generally compelling, though it could be strengthened by explanatory examples.

Though the film does not escape critique, Bruce and Cammaer conclude that the documentary-fiction hybrid constitutes a worthy model for something of a rebirth for the NFB. Only time will tell. Ultimately, Forbidden Love makes for a refreshing read. We can perceive the labour of love that it is; the project is clearly very dear to the authors and their enthusiasm for the material fosters the reader’s own engagement. The book serves as an excellent companion to the film, recontextualizing Forbidden Love’s re-release with rich production detail, pithy formal analysis, critical theory and provocative cultural commentary.

Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives by Lynne Fernie& by Aerlyn Weissman, National Film Board of Canada