QUEER FILM AT THE CANADIAN FILMMAKERS’
DISTRIBUTION CENTRE (1965–1985)
THIS ESSAY BEGAN with research on queer subjects in the collection of the Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Centre (CFMDC) in Toronto. It is part of a larger project on the pre-history of “identity politics,” a term usually associated with the 1980s and 1990s and the medium of video. However, I have been curious about the kind of work that was made on 16mm film before questions of racial and sexual identity burst across the experimental and documentary film worlds in the late 1980s. I begin with David Sector’s canonical 1965 feature Winter Kept Us Warm often described as Canada’s first recognizably gay film. It tells the story of what used to be called an “ambiguous friendship,” in Tom Waugh’s words, between two young men in mid-1960s Toronto that grows into something more.1 As Waugh notes, it’s a miracle it got made at all given that David Sector’s applications for “finishing grants [for Winter Kept Us Warm] were predictably refused by the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the National Film Board.”2 I end twenty years later in 1985 with Nik Sheehan’s release of No Sad Songs (1985), one of the first Canadian films on the subject of AIDS that was produced in a very different funding environment. No Sad Songs was the result of an unusual invitation, made when “Sheehan got a call from the AIDS Committee of Toronto’s Kevin Orr, who said the organization had $20,000 in grant money that had to be used for an educational audiovisual project soon—or be returned.”3 No Sad Songs ushered in an explosion of AIDS-related film and video production in the ensuing decade, as a community attempted to process these questions. The two films, Winter Kept Us Warm and No Sad Songs, made twenty years apart, point to changes in the structures and AIDs and gay identity that came about in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Canadian Filmmakers’ Distribution Centre was founded by a group of student filmmakers at the University of Toronto, filmmakers from Hamilton, including John Hofness, and others in 1967. It was nurtured on the grounds of the experimental Rochdale College, where a number of film and arts organizations also found a home.4 In this period, marginal and experimental forms of filmmaking burgeoned as forms of alternative expression among youth across North America. Like other nascent alternative film “institutions” such as the Film-Makers’ Co-operative (New York, 1962) and Canyon Cinema (San Francisco Bay Area, 1967), CFMDC accepted any films submitted and worked to distribute them to a range of art cinemas, campus film societies, classrooms, and individuals on both sides of the border. Amongst the narrative, documentary, animation, and experimental work acquired by CFMDC were films with queer content that were deemed subversive at the time. In 1984, former Ontario censor Michele White noted the hypocrisy of some of her colleagues on the Ontario Censor Board, saying, “Some men who find lesbian sex between Playboy bunny types just fine are appalled by male homosexual sex acts” in film, whether pornographic or explicitly artistic in nature.5 Committed as CFMDC was to showing marginal, experimental work, it, along with a number of other arts organizations and book stores, not only rallied but litigated against the Board’s growing censorship in the early 1980s, protesting its seizure of film and printed material with gay and lesbian content at the borders.
Between the years of 1967 and 1985, most queer work that found its way into CFMDC’s collection was short in form and either made with personal resources or funded under other banners of identity and genre. It appeared via diverse genres, topics, and claimed identities, although it most often spanned experimental forms of documentary and avant-garde film. The conjunction of “queer” and “Canadian” I use to describe these films may be a misnomer, for many were made before the term queer was reappropriated. Many of these filmmakers would neither explicitly identify as queer, nor would they identify as Canadian. Rather than take queer as a noun that designates the identity of either a person or a film, I understand it here as a verb form—“to queer”—a form that suggests queerness as a practice or mode of reading that attempts to shift our perception of the world. As Jose Muñoz writes regarding the power of queer futurity, “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”6 The filmmakers examined here were often doing exactly that, whether or not they articulated their projects in that way. As is often the case, the experimental filmmakers in CFMDC’s collection articulated issues about sexuality that came from their own lived experience in a cultural context in which people were actively thinking about gender, sexuality, and the politics of representation. While this was long before what’s come to be known as “queer theory” took hold in the academy, questions of representation and aesthetics appeared in gay and lesbian journals like the Canadian Body Politic in the 1970s, as well as texts like Richard Dyer’s Gays and Film (BFI, 1977), Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet (1981), and a special section on “Gays and Film” in the US-based film journal, Jump Cut (1977).
The act of queering also applies to the way we look back at films that may not be explicitly queer, but might be read that way, such as Raphael Bendahan’s Black & White/ Noir et Blanche (1971). On the surface, the filmmaker claims a formalist mission in his framing of the body of his subject, a young black man who disrobes and dances around a stark white-walled room with a black floor. There’s a distinct sensuality to the young man’s dancing, which is captured and interpreted through the filmmaker’s employment of a variable speed camera, and use of in-camera editing. Certainly, Bendahan examines the tones of whiteness in the room, as well as the contrasts between the the room’s walls, the blackness of its floor, and the tones of the young man’s clothing and skin as captured in black and white film. However, Black & White/Noir is far more than a formal, “experimental film poem,” as the film’s description suggests, for the film captures the sensuality between the young man, the camera, the filmmaker, and the film’s spectator, as the film builds and dissipates the tension of the dance via freeze frames and slow motion.7 The queerness of Black & White/Noir et Blanche rests in its conjunction of “et” or “and,” which like the shades that join blackness to whiteness is never entirely exclusive or fixed.
I would also claim a queer reading of Barry Greenwald’s Metamorphosis (1975), which has been described as “A satiric parable on non-conformity and the rat race,” in which a man begins by fully undressing and dressing in the moments it takes for his elevator to reach the ground floor.8 These activities expand to include an increasingly elaborate series of tasks, which while ordinary (e.g. drinking tea, cooking a meal over a camp stove), seem like a perverse expression of personal freedom when enacted within the semi-private, liminal space of the elevator as it moves between the rigid floors that make up the structure of the building. While not an explicitly queer film, Metamorphosis gestures towards the labour needed to maintain and contain a secret construction of selfhood that explicitly challenges societal norms. As CFMDC’s catalogue text suggests, there is a sensuality and transcendence that comes from the character’s metamorphosis: “his comical secret life transforms his existence from banality to oblivion.”9 While very different from one another, Black & White/Noir et Blanche and Metamorphosis both suggest the habitation of a queer space of private “oblivion” that transcends country, city, or societal expectations in the early to mid 1970s.
To queer the term “Canadian” a bit, I also consider queer films by US filmmakers that entered CFMDC’s collection and circulated in Canada between 1965 and 1985. These films screened at alternative film exhibition spaces like The Funnel (1977–1989) and the Innis Film Society, begun in the early 1980s. Many of those films were made by New York City and San Francisco-based filmmakers, not surprising given that even in Toronto, those cities were associated with sexual liberation—and yet even so, all employ contained interior spaces that evoke the containment of queer sexuality. Among those New York films that circulated in Canada were Tom Chomont’s lyrical Oblivion (1969), an early film with an explicitly queer gaze that combines a beautiful layered solarized effect (produced through the contact printing of colour against high-contrast black and white film) of images of a young man’s body, hands lighting a cigarette, shots of interiors of a New York City room, and the play of lights outside this interior reverie. Likewise, Michael Wallin’s The Place Between Our Bodies (1975), often described as a pre-AIDS film, might be seen as an early form of the experimental identity politics documentary that burst on the scene in the 1980s. In it, a young Wallin describes his search for sex and love in San Francisco, first in porn shops, ads in magazines, and random sexual encounters, and then with his boyfriend in a series of exchanges both explicit and tender. These encounters are depicted as occurring on the fringes of mainstream life and in the private space of one’s own room.
Similarly, Su Friedrich’s Gently Down the Stream (1981) draws on Friedrich’s private dream journals over a period of years as part of an exploration of her coming of age and to sexual awareness. Fragments from those journals are scratched into the film in conjunction with images optically printed in different parts of the film’s frame. These gradually move from scenes of repression and containment to increasingly animated and ecstatic expressions as language turns into a poetry of fluttering scratches and dots across the film’s emulsion that exceeds the containment of the frame. A number of Barbara Hammer’s films also first come into the CFMDC’s collection in 1970s, including Schizy (1968), X (1973), Dyketactics (1974), and Sappho (1979). Perhaps the most widely-screened, Dyketactics envisioned a lesbian utopia in which women make love outside in the natural world, away from the constraints of heterosexual domestic life. No doubt these widely-screened experimental films made an impression on many young Canadian artists and filmmakers at the time and contributed to a growing queer imaginary.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a number of queer Canadian works engaged with the worlds of literature and theatre as spaces of reclaiming past queer expressions of alternative worlds. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s questions of sexuality, gender, and history were being explored through the reclaiming and celebration of queer, sometimes feminist, literary figures. In these films, unarticulated queer sexualities were made legible and visible in the present. For example, filmmaker, curator, and scholar Kay Armatage’s Gertrude and Alice in Passing (1978) is a playful take on the car as time machine that enacts Gertrude Stein’s notion of the “continuous present” in its bringing together of a modern-day female couple and the now famous literary couple of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas along a stretch of grassy road. Shot entirely out the passenger’s side window of their car, the two women come across an old-fashioned jalopy in which two ladies in historical garb are chatting and teasing one another. Over the course of the film’s duration, the two cars take turns passing one another, each pass suggesting the passing of time over the course of Gertrude and Alice’s relationship. We hear the two modern-day women speculate about the other two, passing snippets of conversation between Gertrude and Alice, and the exchange playful greetings and gazes across the decades that separate them.
Kay Armatage, Gertrude and Alice in Passing (1978). 16mm. Image courtesy of CFMDC.
Mike Cartmell’s Prologue: Infinite Obscure (1984) enacts a similar form of historical reclamation. Prologue is comprised of long takes of a man seated before the camera, his image obscured by the film’s textures as he reads the homoerotic sections of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that had been excised in John Huston’s 1956 film, as well as a few found snippets of grainy ethnographic footage. The missing text is printed as subtitles, which reclaimed and taken out of the larger context of the book’s narrative, appear as disconnected fragments. Something similar is happening in regard to the images of found footage, in that they both attempt to reinsert the historical specificity of the time with images of island warriors, even as they point to the inability to fully re-imagine their context. While initially imagined as a “remake” of Huston’s film, Cartmell writes that over the course of its making, “A number of other issues began to take precedence however: the politics of the translation process; the relation of filmic to hieroglyphic writing; the possible intersections of (auto) biography and fiction; the articulation of (filmic) writing and (homo) sexuality.”10 In both Armatage and Cartmell’s films, there seems to be a reclaiming and making visible of the historical gaps in the stories told about these literary figures. Rather than “personal films” of sexual awakening happening in private spaces, they are pointed towards structural forms of absence and omission that structure the larger culture.11
Mike Cartmell, Prologue: Infinite Obscure (1984). 16mm. Image courtesy of CFMDC.
By far, the largest body of film in CFMDC’s collection that explicitly deals with queerness might be described as experiments with documentary form. While some involve articulations of sexual identity, that identity, and the ways in which it is expressed, is neither simple nor direct. Armatage and Lydia Wazana’s verite style documentary, Jill Johnston: October 1975 (1977), is primarily a document of celebrated feminist critic and writer Jill Johnston’s speaking tour in Toronto at the height of the feminist movement. In it, the camera follows Johnston, author of Lesbian Nation (1973) and Gullible’s Travels (1974), through the city as she goes to parties with groups of other women, holds hands with her girlfriend, espouses her ideas to the camera, gives public readings, and spars verbally with a combative man at one of those readings. While Jill Johnson may be a portrait of the writer who happens to be a lesbian, it also captures the larger milieu of Toronto’s feminist and lesbian community in the 1970s. While it makes no overt declarations of sexual identity, Sarah Halprin’s Keltie’s Beard (1983), frames a young woman who tells her story in a single take, recounting her family’s shame over this common trait and her own pride in maintaining the beard that has come to be an aspect of her identity. Jeremy Podeswa’s David Roche Talks to You About Love (1983) is a cinematic document of an autobiographical, one-man show for the camera that is written and performed by the eponymous David Roche. As he moves around an ordinary-looking Toronto apartment, Roche speaks in a highly stylized, philosophical mode that only gradually reveals the source of his anguish and cynicism as he moves from general observations on love to his love for one man. Only Bruce Glawson’s Michael, A Gay Son (1980) deals explicitly with “homosexuality” as identity. It frames itself as a documentary, beginning with “Michael” addressing the camera and then showing the interactions between he and his family as they navigate a difficult counseling session. The film’s genre seems to hover between verite and educational film as Michael and his family express supportive care, discomfort, hurt, anger, and a strong desire for connection. Yet ultimately, as the film’s closing titles reveal, everyone except the family counselor is an actor playing a role. While all documents of a sort, these films negotiate versions of societal roles, the stories we tell ourselves about those roles, and various levels of selfhood.
Jeremy Podeswa, David Roche Talks to You about Love (1983). 16mm. Image courtesy of CFMDC.
Operating in a trajectory parallel to and intersecting with the themes of the documentaries described above, Janice Cole and Holly Dale’s documentary work from the mid-1970s through mid-1980s reveals a notable intimacy between the camera and their queer subjects, who often hail from the filmmakers’ own friend group. Notably, these films are not explicitly about queerness as identity; rather the people who they feature happen to be queer. Minimum Charge No Cover (1976) has become a queer classic, in which “We meet transsexuals, homosexuals, hookers, transvestites and female impersonators” who make up the filmmakers’ extended social circle.12 There is an ordinariness to these subjects’ encounters with the camera that can also be seen in the less widely viewed Cream Soda (1976), in which the filmmakers hang out at a body rub parlour with a number of beautifully done-up cis and trans women, some of whom we recognize from Minimum Charge No Cover. They talk candidly about the job as they wait for male clients to arrive. Cole and Dale also made two notable features in the early 1980s that suggest authentic relations of care between the filmmakers and their subjects. P4W: Prison For Women (1981) focuses on the lives, loves, and friendships of five women in the Kingston, Ontario prison for women in the early 1980s. These include their often long separation from their children, lovers, and other family members. However, perhaps P4W’s most poignant story follows the impending separation of two female inmates, one sentenced to decades behind bars and the other due to be released within weeks. In the course of making Hookers on Davie (1984), Cole and Dale befriend and follow a range of people, including transsexuals, transvestites, and cis men and women who turn tricks on Vancouver’s Davie Street. Strikingly, nearly forty years after these films were first made, Cole and Dale continue to be protective of the people they captured in these documentaries, guarding against their potential exploitation by limiting the purchase of their work to educational institutions, and even requiring express permission for any screening.
1985 marks the beginning of the proliferation of queer experimental documentary films and videos, one strand of which explores and complicates racial, sexual, and gendered identity, and the second of which explores the overlapping effects of HIV/AIDs. The two films in CFMDC’s collection from 1985 point in these two directions: Nik Sheehan’s No Sad Songs (1985) and Midi Onodera’s Ten Cents a Dance (Parallax) (1985). In the mid- 1980s, the growing HIV/AIDS crisis changed the position from which queer sexuality comes into view. As noted above, No Sad Songs was the first Canadian film in what was to become a wave of films and videos on HIV/AIDs that combined personal questions of sexual identity with the political context in which they were emerging. Focusing on the Toronto community near the beginning of the epidemic, No Sad Songs interweaves documentary footage in which people with HIV and family members offer raw personal reflections on impending premature death with satirical dramatic interludes, including a performance by David Roche, among others. Via shifts in genre and tone, the film captures the ever-changing mix of pain, humor, anger, despair, and absurdity that accompanied the diagnosis in the mid-1980s. It stands as the first of a deluge of films on HIV/AIDS that filmmakers deposited at CFMDC between 1985 and 1996.
Onodera’s Ten Cents a Dance (Parallax) is a double-screen work that juxtaposes three couples, each of which are contained within their frames even as they occupy the same diegetic space, as they negotiate self-containment and connection to one another. In the first segment, two women (one who has mostly been with men, and one, played by Onodera, who has mostly been with women) are shot in profile separated by a table over dinner; the sounds of other diners and Japanese music plays on the soundtrack as they flirtatiously negotiate a one-night stand that they hope will leave neither one hurt. In the second segment, shot from directly above, two men anonymously inhabit separate bathroom stalls, initially making contact through a glory hole before meeting in one stall for a furtive encounter that ends in an awkward exchange of phone numbers. In the third segment, a shirtless man lounges on his bed against a bright red background on one screen as he talks over a sex chat line to a woman propped against a blue wall; she paints a false picture of herself as the Playboy pin-up fantasy she imagines he wants her to be. Reflecting on the film’s title and shifting formal and sexual relationships, Onodera writes that the term “Parallax is the apparent change in position of an object resulting from the change in direction or position from which it is viewed.”13 Queer experimental forms of documentary and narrative attempted to do just that.
Midi Onodera, Ten Cents a Dance (Parallax) (1985). 16mm. Image courtesy of CFMDC.
This essay has offered a rough sketch of some of the formal, conceptual, and personal concerns that animated a cluster of “queer Canadian” 16mm films made between 1965 and 1985 that are currently housed in CFMDC’s collection. It suggests that the roots of the exponential growth of queer film production in the mid 1980s (and again in the mid 1990s), and video production have a history that both grounds and challenges the parameters of the terms “queer” and “Canadian,” but which articulate important outlines of identity and experience that bear on the fluid histories of gender and sexuality in these and subsequent decades. Ten years later in 1996, CFMDC’s catalog of queer work sees another burst of growth and begins to range more broadly in subject matter. This occurred in conjunction with the increased availability of smaller, cheaper video cameras, the arrival of consumer-grade non- linear editing programs, and a resurgence of interest in filmmaking on 16mm and 8mm formats. However, there were other reasons for this expansion as well. Scholar Jordan Arseneault confirms the same dates of proliferation of queer film that I note (1986 and 1996) in his research in other Canadian archives. He also suggests that queer filmmakers may have shifted away from HIV/AIDs to other subject matter in 1996 due to the new availability and spread of HIV retroviral drugs, a development that opened new questions and possibilities.14 Today, CFMDC functions not only as a distributor, but as a de-facto archive of over 50 years of widely-ranging “queer” work on various stocks of film, video, and digital formats. Its challenge for the future lies in preserving these disparate works and keeping the history of queer life, expression, and artistry in circulation for present and future generations.
- 1 Thomas Waugh, “Uncovering a Forgotten Canadian Gay Film — From 1965,” The Body Politic, no. 83 (May 1982): 36.
- 2 Waugh, “Uncovering,” 36.
- 3 Michael Hays, “Doc Classics: No Sad Songs: A Look Back at Canada’s First Documentary on AIDS.”
- POV: Point of View, no. 80 (November 1, 2010). http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/no-sad-songs
- 4 For a detailed discussion of the founding of the CFMDC, please see Ilinka Mihailescu, “No Judgement:
- A History of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre,” Local Film Cultures: Toronto (blog), November 11, 2014, https://localfilmculturestoronto.wordpress.com/no-judgement-a-history-of- the-canadian-filmmakers-distribution-centre/
- 5 Quoted in Mary Janigan, “Confronting Pornography,” Maclean’s, October 29, 1984, http://archive.macleans.ca/article/1984/10/29/confronting-pornography
- 6 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Sexual Cultures. (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1
- 7 “Black & White/Noir et Blanche.” CFMDC Catalog. http://www.cfmdc.org/film/142 (accessed March 15, 2018).
- 8 “Metamorphosis.” CFMDC Catalog. http://www.cfmdc.org/film/790 (Accessed May 2, 2018).
- 9 “Metamorphosis.” CFMDC Catalog. http://www.cfmdc.org/film/790 (Accessed May 2, 2018).
- 10 Mike Cartmell, “Prologue: Infinite Obscure.” CFMDC Catalog. http://www.cfmdc.org/film/1027 (accessed April 15, 2018).
- 11 Like Armatage, Cartmell was a filmmaker and programmer, a common joining of roles that hooked him into a larger community of alternative filmmakers, artists, and musicians. As John Porter writes, Cartmell ran “Zone Cinema in Hamilton from 1981 to 1984, then moved to Toronto and joined the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre and The Funnel,” a place that embraced and actively screened all manner of alternative visions. Porter, John. “Mike Cartmell.” Super 8 Porter (blog), April 14, 2018. http://www.super8porter.ca/FunnelFilms187.htm
- 12 “Minimum Charge: No Cover.” CFMDC Catalog. http://www.cfmdc.org/film/801 (accessed April 5, 2018).
- 13 Midi Onodera, “Midi Onodera: Ten Cents a Dance (Parallax).” Super 8 Porter (blog), April 16, 2018.
- 14 Conversation with Jordan Arseneault. Skype, March 28, 2018.