The queer connection to documentary filmmaking is longstanding and unmistakable. Around the world, fiction filmmakers have had to deal with a long history of censorship and repression, meaning images of LGBTQ characters were often diminished or simply deleted, rendering the queer community invisible.
But non-fiction filmmakers could often bypass this rule by the very fact that their mission was one of representing reality; thus we see glimpses of LGBTQ people in landmark documentaries at times when fictional representations were either obscured or non-existent. Canada has a long and proud legacy of queer representation and authorship of documentaries that reflect the complexities and challenges of living lives that have often been marginalised. These entries are wide and varied and impossible to distill into one article, so I have chosen to focus on four key points of documentary representation, made about queer people by queer filmmakers.
Sex Work and Gender Outlaws: Hookers on Davie (1984)
In 1983, the queer filmmaking team of Janis Cole and Holly Dale set out to research various sex worker milieus. With travel funding from the NFB’s Studio D (the legendary and now-defunct women’s unit), they visited Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Boston and San Francisco. But it was Vancouver that would ignite their imagination, as they met a tight-knit group of women (both trans- and cis-gender) and gay men who were working the street in a pimp-free zone. When Cole and Dale presented their proposal to Studio D, it became clear they were not on the same page. “We described a few of the people we would be focusing on, including Michelle [a trans woman who was in the process of transitioning] as our main character,” recalls Cole. “Their response was to say they were hoping for a film on prostitutes working to get through school or as single moms, to get somewhere else or to get through something in their lives. There were no hard feelings; it just was not the film we were looking to make.”
Cole and Dale scrambled to pull together $70,000, spending several weeks observing the lives of the Vancouver sex workers and, using a combination of interviews, observational direct cinema and hidden camera, created Hookers on Davie. The film stands as one of the most illuminating and invigorating films about sex work ever made, showing us the emotional reality of its subjects’ lives. It is also astonishingly ahead of its time in terms of trans characters: Michelle’s story becomes the narrative thread that drives the film, and one woman discusses the solidarity between the trans and cis women and gay men on the strip.
One of the most striking elements of Hookers on Davie is the way in which the events in the sex workers’ lives are presented so matter-of-factly, even the violence, which threatens their existence. “Their lives are melodramas from the moment they get up until they go to bed,” says Dale. “Whether it’s the drama of getting into a car and not knowing what is going to happen, or the violence, or trying to score drugs, and the sickness and withdrawals. They live extremely dramatic lives, yet at the same time it is very mundane, day-in, day-out.” Hookers on Davie is also a vital time capsule, capturing a pre-internet period when sex workers walked the street. I still screen the film every year in classes at Concordia and Marianopolis, and the students marvel at the brutal honesty of the documentary and admire the resilience of the sex workers. The film’s many revelations are matched by the inescapable sense that Cole and Dale cared deeply about the people whose lives they were reflecting.
Youthquake: The Devil’s Toy (1966)
In The Devil’s Toy, Claude Jutra, who had just three years earlier released the landmark gay fiction film À tout prendre, aimed his camera longingly at a group of Westmount skateboarders. Jutra’s lovingly made doc is astonishingly ahead of its time, looking almost like the latest Gus van Sant feature. The film is noteworthy for how it immediately assumes the perspective of the youth: it opens with a POV shot, seemingly through the eyes of one of the skateboarders. Jutra then cuts to a brief workshop on what, precisely, the devil’s toy is—a skateboard, then an exotic and new plaything. And then Jutra gives new meaning to the word runway, as a series of beautiful pubescent youths glide through parks and streets, showing us their moves. Some are boys, some are young men, and there’s even a girl who skates barefoot, but they are all in that coming-of-age moment, when innocence meets adulthood. The Devil’s Toy is an early indicator of Jutra’s ability to capture the contradictory fragility and strength of youth.
It is also a reflection of how much fun it is to be young and to be experimenting with something new and, in this case, taboo. The police show up by the midway point, ready to charge kids who use the Satanic skateboards. Some have them confiscated, while others throw them into the park, hoping to retrieve them later. The cops read them the riot act as it relates to skateboards. The police response in itself is so utterly Canadian: the kids are told that if they go down to the skate rink, they will have their skateboards returned, and can use them there.
Including this doc in this context will raise the inevitable question: what is a gay documentary? Many would interpret The Devil’s Toy as a simple reflection of some kids having fun in a park and raising a bit of heck (hell would be too extreme a word). But Jutra is clearly casting his eye on the boys in a playful but longing manner. The film gains so much more powerful resonance now, after the Jutra scandal of last year, in which posthumous charges of pedophilic rape led to defrocking of the godfather of Quebec cinema. The film ends with a dire (and hilariously tongue-in-cheek) warning that “For the moment, we are safe. But beware—the youth of the world is on the move, and their aim is to take over.” We hear Geneviève Bujold’s voice singing over the ultra-relaxed musical score, and are reminded that Jutra dedicated the film to “all victims of intolerance.” It’s a fitting end to Jutra’s cinema verité ode to erotic emancipation.
Screening the epidemic: No Sad Songs (1985)
Watching Nik Sheehan’s 1985 doc No Sad Songs is one of the saddest experiences I can recall. And that makes the film incredibly accurate, given that it is a snapshot of the beginnings of the horrifying AIDS epidemic. People had no idea what they were facing, but the facts the gay community did have at the time were unsparing in their cruelty: once diagnosed with AIDS, people were pretty much handed a death sentence. And with the onslaught of AIDS came a spike in homophobia and racism that was often as alarming as the disease itself.
So Sheehan, given $20,000 in funding from the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), set out to capture the voices of the burgeoning epidemic. His approach can best be described as eclectic: there are observational scenes (a visit to a meeting of the editorial board of the famous gay and lesbian newspaper The Body Politic)), talking heads (doctors and front-line activists discuss the struggle) and performances of artists who offer their raw creative energy in response to the plague. And then there’s a narrative thread, as Sheehan focuses on one character’s story: Jim Black is grappling with the impact of the disease, including night sweats and sharp weight loss. He’s also dealt with rejection from family members and facing down his own mortality. Black emerges as heroic, saying he’s done his very best and that he doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him. This was part of a strategy that was ahead of its time, with Sheehan making sure to include someone who did not regard himself as a hapless victim. “But of course, it was terribly, horribly sad,” says Sheehan now, conceding the film’s title is deeply ironic. “There was no way of getting around it.”
Sheehan still remembers premiering the film at the Festival of Festivals (now TIFF), and recalls a Toronto Star critic asking him what his film was about at one of the cocktail parties. Upon telling the reporter he had made a film about AIDS, “he literally turned and ran away,” Sheehan recalls. The early days of the epidemic were filled with “so much panic and misunderstanding.”
What’s brilliant about No Sad Songs is the way it hasn’t aged. Like the best docs, it captures a moment in time perfectly, but still resonates to this day. Like much of the activism of its time, it is invigorating and inspiring due to the resilience and solidarity it reflects. But it’s also devastating, especially when one considers that this was at the dawn of the epidemic, and it would be a full decade before drugs would be developed that would transform HIV from a death sentence to a manageable disease. The film stands as a crucial document and an ode to those who were fighting on the front lines, just as the gravity of what was to come was sinking in. [ Watch No Sad Songs here thanks to the Hot Docs Library. ]
The Pope, Michael Jackson, and Queerbec: Passiflora (1985)
Passiflora stands as one of the strangest—and most beautiful—mashups in Canadian film history. In their meditation on the visits to Montreal by the Pope and Michael Jackson (their appearances were simultaneous but they were not on the same ticket, it must be noted), filmmakers Fernand Belanger and Dagmar Teufel employ take-no-prisoners, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink strategies. As Tom Waugh notes in his exhaustive 2006 tome on Canadian queer film and video, The Romance of Transgression in Canada, Passiflora features glimpses of and interviews with “sex/gender transgressors, including gay men, transgendered characters, abortion seekers, refugees from psychiatry and from domestic violence, and alienated young people with great haircuts.” The film was gleefully anarchic in style and tone, with very little in the way of a narrative thread, and a reflection of the burgeoning graffiti culture of the time with nods to the agit-prop, ideologically loaded montage employed by previous filmmaker rebels.
Passiflora was so irreverent that it led to repression from NFB brass, who were undoubtedly put off by its brazen queerness (not to mention the repurposing of various clips of the Pope himself, at one point repeatedly shouting “bow down and obey!” in an artful remix). The Board’s repression of the film was passive-aggressive but unmistakable: when it screened at the Festival of Festivals in 1986, the print was not provided with English subtitles—a clear way to censor the film, given that the vast majority of those lining up to see the film almost certainly would not be able to understand it.
That such a trailblazing, strikingly transgressive work was sidelined was a cultural crime, and Waugh used the suppression and neglect of the film to attack the NFB for its barely veiled homophobia, both in letters to the institution and in media diatribes. The NFB vigorously denied the charges, but the fact that Passiflora remains unreleased by the NFB and unavailable on its streaming web site is both telling and depressing (Waugh writes that the film is stranded in “Canadian film Siberia”). It’s time for the Board to re-release this often-overlooked experimental documentary masterpiece, a film decades ahead of its time.