NFB Marks Queer History with Five New Short Docs

Reviving the Roost

By Pat Mullen

Updated with full videos! (Nov. 13)

They’re here and they’re queer. The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) celebrates a milestone anniversary in LGBTQ+ Canadian history. 2019 marks fifty years since Canada passed Bill C-150, the omnibus act that partially decriminalized homosexuality. But in the five decades since Pierre Elliott Trudeau declared, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” how much has changed?

With the new release of the 5@50 short docs, the NFB offers a quintet of windows into the queer community to confront these questions. Stories of love, anger, progress, and frustration echo throughout the five diverse films that highlight but a few of the experiences to be found among queer Canadians.

In Handmade Mountain, Michèle Pearson Clarke offers a personal account of same-sex marriage and asks if the hard fought victory was truly the ultimate celebration of equality and freedom some thought it would be. Clarke reflects on her own marriage, a happy celebration that sadly ended in divorce. Through conversations with friends and other queer couples, Clarke expresses how she can’t shake the feeling that the end of her marriage signals a sort of failure for same-sex couples across Canada. Celebratory stories of gay marriage aren’t new to the movies, but Clarke’s film asks what kind of happily-ever-after exists in the fight for marriage equality when fifty percent of marriages nowadays end in divorce.

Handmade Mountain, Michèle Pearson Clarke, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

A much different reflection on filmmaker’s relationship appears in Tiffany Hsiung’s The Bassinet. The Apology director offers a bright and warmly playful consideration of her longtime engagement to Victoria. The couple encounters a baby bump of sorts when a crib arrives on their porch and invites questions of commitment, parenthood, and family. Hsiung looks back on her traditional Chinese family’s attitude towards relationships with a cautious eye and self-deprecating humour. While looking at this bassinet and acknowledging the joy it brings to their friends’ lives, she asks how one can bring a child into a world when her own family can’t be honest and direct about love and relationships. It’s one of the more provocative films in the series as it confronts the progress that still needs to be done changing attitudes and outlooks on the personal level. As with Clarke’s film, it considers to what extent the idea of the nuclear family remains a marker for success.

The Bassinet, Tiffany Hsiung, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

An experimental approach to the series comes as Cree filmmaker Thirza Cuthand injects Woman Dress with the power of oral storytelling. Her aunt Beth recounts a story passed down through generations about a character named Woman Dress. Cree, as Auntie Beth tells, doesn’t have gendered pronouns. Her story plays on the fluidity of gender by using the terms “she” and “he” interchangeably as Woman Dress dances atop archival images of the running buffalos. The androgynous figure embodies this progressive vision of fluidity that escapes labels and lives freely.

Woman Dress, Thirza Cuthand, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The series jumps from the history of oral storytelling to the contemporary trend of app-based dating as Michael V. Smith captures the shift from cruising to matching among gay men in The Hookup. The film introduces a chorus of prospective matches from different generations who share their hookup tales in interviews (another kind of oral storytelling, if you will!) and reflect upon what’s changed as gay sex moves from bathhouses and discos to Grinder. It’s a candid reflection on the impersonal nature of the contemporary dating scene, which is as funny as it is depressing.

The Hook Up, Michael V. Smith, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The standout of the series, though, might be Vivek Shraya’s insightfully hilarious animated essay Reviving the Roost. The author/artist/filmmaker pays tribute to an Edmonton gay bar that fuelled the queer scene until it closed in 2007. Using a palette of striking fluorescents on a black canvas, Roost paints a flamboyantly playful ode to a dive bar that allowed for self-discovery. Shraya reflects on the role of the Roost in creating a safe space for queer people to be open and free among stale beer and skuzzy furniture, but the film looks to the evolution of the scene outside the single bar as our narrator ventures to Toronto and encounters a city with a diversity of queer spaces that are much gayer and glitzier than the Roost. But these metropolitan spaces can also segregate the community, reinforce labels, and put people into boxes. With this tongue-in-cheek salute to the Roost, the film asks audiences to confront the self-censorship and dynamics of inclusion/exclusion created that fragment the idea of a community.

Reviving The Roost, Vivek Shraya, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

5@50 screens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Nov. 12 with filmmakers in attendance
and on Nov. 18 at the Kelowna Campus of the UBC Okanagan Pride Resource Centre.