Summer Qamp Review: A Bubble of Queer Joy

TIFF 2023

5 mins read

Summer Qamp
(Canada, 80 min.)
Dir. Jen Markowitz
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


“Queer joy! Queer joy! Queer joy! Queer joy! Queer joy!” chant the campers at Camp fYrefly. Summer Qamp transports audiences to an idyllic camp in Alberta where LGBTQ+ youths unite in a safe and unabashedly queer space. This warm and effervescent film by Jen Markowitz lets the kids do the talking. They invite a chorus of young people, mostly trans and non-binary youths, to reflect upon a week = in the company of fellow queer people. For audiences a few years older than the teens at Camp fYrefly, Summer Qamp may prove emotional when only recently “gay camp” meant a place where one could be anything but one’s true self. The film offers a window into the positive mindset that empowers the next generation.

The campers share with Markowitz their journeys through gender identity. There are tales about coming out, and coming out again when some of them realize the elusiveness of labels and the fluidity of gender. Young campers like Ren share how they have no gay friends in their small town and simply don’t know how to interact with people or how to be comfortable around them. Ghoul, meanwhile, tells how they don’t understand the binary at all. They simply prefer fluid identity through cosplay and make-up. Camp veterans Isaiah, Alex, and Oliver give the frosh campers hope: the kids see the confidence they exude and know they can be just like the trio with a few more years of camp.

Stories of Self-Love

Especially effective is Kingston’s story. The 16-year-old camper has yet to tell his parents that he is transgender. It’s painful to watch the pre-camp scenes as Kingston helps his dad install a shelf. Kingston’s dad continually misgenders him in ignorance throughout the conversation. Kingston’s fair in the interview: his dad can’t correct what he doesn’t know, but the camera captures the teen’s discomfort. Perhaps more than any of the campers, though, Kingston flourishes at Camp fYrefly. He even musters the bravery to tell his mom about coming out as trans to the campers. Her response is something worthy of Seinfeld. It’s an “I’m hungry, let’s get something to eat” to George’s “I love you.” It fuels lots of debate and emotional support among the campers.

Markowitz captures the exercises that let the campers explore gender identity, but also learn to celebrate queerness. They lipsync, they share pronouns, and they offer one another guidance about how best to respond if one is misgendered in conversation. (Simply correct the other party and move on.) For many of them, the exercise in self-love is a new experience. It’s touching to see campers like Manessa, a Black queer Haitian-Canadian camper, meets another Black queer person, counselor Grace. They receive refreshing affirmation.

Easygoing Summer Fun

The doc is nice and light, but it’s also admittedly slight. While these positive images are refreshing, Summer Qamp largely limits itself to coming out narratives, albeit through a useful queer lens of affirmation and love. This is, however, the youths’ reality: Coming out can still be a life-changing event in 2023. Additionally, the doc presents a fairly idyllic, enclosed environment. While campers mention the struggles of growing up in Alberta, Summer Qamp doesn’t give a sense about the neighbours. As an insular story, though, it’s a bubble of pure joy.

With an upbeat tone and a warm eye as cinematographer Lulu Wei harnesses the summer light, Summer Qamp is a positive portrait of queer youth experiences at a time when the rights of LGBTQ+ youths are under renewed scrutiny. Anyone with opinions about schools telling parents about a kid’s preferred pronouns should probably see this film. Ditto the importance of educating young people about the diversity of gender identities. For a lot of the characters in Summer Qamp, and in the audience, learning how to identify was a project of self-directed research. One can only watch the film and immediately grasp how many young people will be both seen and saved by this documentary.

 Summer Camp premiered at TIFF 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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