The State of LGBT Film in 2015
This year, the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival has fewer coming-out stories and more "post-gay" movies – but queer cinema remains a vital, vibrant scene.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
David Gold is a former child star and an alcoholic, broke, failed adult actor. When he's fired from his latest job doing self-help voiceover work, he cons his way into a gig as a guidance counsellor at Grusin High. He's an actor after all; he can do anything. He's also a closeted gay man. But in Guidance, Pat Mills's hilarious first feature, David's sexual identity isn't the sole focus of the film. It's not shied away from or ignored in any way—he's fired from the voice-over job because "female customers want the voice of a heterosexual man feeding them their affirmations"—but it's also just one aspect of his character.
"I wanted to make an anti–coming out film—that story that we're all so familiar with," Mills explains over the phone from Seattle, where Guidance was screening at the Seattle International Film Festival.
Mills describes Guidance as a film about a "weird guy who's kind of fucked up" who encourages teenagers (often with shots of vodka) to be themselves—even if that's not who society wants or expects them to be. And in doing so (but in none of the usual, cliched ways), he learns about himself. In that sense, then, Guidance, which is screening at the upcoming Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival, is more of a coming-of-age than a coming-out story.
And as Andrew Murphy, Director of Programming at Inside Out, explains, many queer films today are telling stories that aren't driven by characters' sexuality or gender identity.
"You're getting stories [where] LGBT people have just worked themselves into the narrative. There's stories where the person's sexuality, or however they identify, is just incidental," says Murphy. "It's more about telling a good story."
The Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival launched in 1991, around the same time that the New Queer Cinema was emerging. Film critic B. Ruby Rich coined that term in 1992 to describe a wave of radical, energetic, and acclaimed films that eschewed "politically correct" or "polite" images of the queer community. (Todd Haynes's Poison, Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, and films by producer Christine Vachon are just a few examples.) Fresh out of the Reagan era and in the midst of the AIDS crisis, the New Queer Cinema was made in reaction to the political disenfranchisement, social ostracization, and stigma the LGBT community was facing.
"These movies were getting created because there was that sense of urgency and there was a need and an outcry to have their voices be heard on screen, because they just weren't seeing their stories reflected in the Hollywood fare that was out there. And so, I think, they started to push back and create these [films], [in] what became a movement of sorts," says Murphy.
Scott Ferguson, Executive Director of Inside Out, attended the first Inside/OUT Collective Toronto "Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival" in 1991. Back then, he says, "There wasn't any place for the community to gather together and access queer film."
One of the films he saw at that festival was Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. "It was at the Euclid Theatre at the corner of College and Euclid, which is now a Starbucks with a condo on top of it. I remember getting there and climbing the staircase and entering just a big room that wasn't really a cinema and there were just fold-out chairs, and when the fold-out chairs were full, everybody sat on the floor," he recalls. "It was a totally different festival from what it is today."
Twenty-five years later, the festival calls the swanky TIFF Bell Lightbox home, features nearly 150 films from around the world, and draws tens of thousands to its screenings. And just as the festival has evolved, so have the films it screens. Whereas New Queer Cinema celebrated the outsider and marginalized communities, in the last few years, Murphy says, "post-gay" films have moved to the forefront.
"You have films where the LGBT story or the character, it's all part of—it's not a coming-out story any more. Even if there is a coming out within that, the film isn't seen as a movie about coming out," he explains.
In many queer films today, sexuality and gender identity are reflected as just one aspect of a character's life. "It is not like, 'I work in the gay store, and have gay friends and I'm gay 24 hours a day,'" says Ferguson. Murphy adds that while those stories used to be celebrated within the queer community, "Now it's like, 'No, we're all part of a larger picture here.'"
Of course, for some, "coming-out stories" are still vitally important and need to be told, say Murphy and Ferguson. Because, depending on who is telling these stories, or where they're from, coming out can still be an extremely dangerous decision. In North America, transgender women and queer people of color face much higher rates of hate violence than the white queer community, for example. The latest National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) annual report on hate violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities in the US found that there were 18 anti-LGBTQ murders in 2013. Of these homicide victims, 89 percent were people of color and 72 percent were transgender women. And in other countries around the world, queer filmmakers are still struggling for their rights. For example, the art collective behind Stories of Our Lives, a film from Kenya playing at this year's festival, has been prohibited from exhibiting, selling, or distributing their film in Kenya because of its queer content.
Overall, activism still plays an important role in queer cinema, but as many countries creep toward a more equal society, the issues in queer films are changing. "A lot of the same things that were prominent or important back then are still important today, it's just we've diversified in terms of what's being produced, how the stories are being told, how we're representing our selves and our identities and our lives, but within all that, activism [still] plays as big a part," says Ferguson. "You see just as many films about whatever issues are topical at the moment. In the States right now it's gay marriage. You see a lot of documentaries coming out about that. In other parts of the world it's about human rights struggles.
"Like any art, it's kind of a reaction to the time we're living in."
Many countries might be inching toward legislative equality too, but that in no way means all people are treated equally—and this is something queer cinema continues to highlight.
Erica Tremblay's beautiful documentary In the Turn, which is also screening at Inside Out, tells the story of Crystal, a ten-year-old transgender girl living in northern Ontario who is not allowed to participate in sports teams because of her gender. While there are many devastating aspects to this story—by age five Crystal was voicing suicidal thoughts, she's bullied relentlessly at school—Tremblay focuses mainly on the positive effect that the Vagine Regime, a queer roller derby collective, has had on Crystal's life.
"I think that in LGBT film, we've seen and we've heard a lot of sad stories—and especially for trans individuals. I think it's kind of started to change when it comes to your lesbian story or your heteronormative gay story, but in terms of trans cinema, I think we're all really used to seeing that story of someone really depressed in their mom's basement," she says. "I think those stories are super important to talk about because we have to talk about the sadness, but we were really hoping with our film to talk about some of the celebration as well."
Tremblay says that, as a cisgender queer person, she didn't see full representations of herself on screen when she was growing up. But, she adds, "certainly not to the extent that I think a lot of trans people don't see themselves represented in an accurate way in the media."
So she brought on several trans filmmakers and editors, and in doing research for the film and in conversations with trans colleagues and friends, Tremblay says she was overwhelmed with requests for her film to show everyday things like "going to the grocery store."
In one scene in the film, Fifi Nomenon, a member of the Vagine Regime, says, "There is a very boring life at the end of the rainbow."
"That strikes true to so many of us who are not represented in the world that we see outside of ourselves," says Tremblay. "We felt a really strong responsibility to show that side."
Many filmmakers today are working to bring more queer stories to audiences. And Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and even the occasional cable TV show are making strides in terms of representation on television. But, in mainstream Hollywood cinema, LGBT stories are still largely ignored. GLAAD's 2015 Studio Responsibility Index report found that, of the 114 films released by the seven major studios in 2014, only 20 (17.5 percent) had lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender characters. Furthermore, of those 20 films, ten contained fewer than five minutes of screen time for their LGBT characters.
Statistics like this prove why festivals like Inside Out are so vital—to the LGBT community seeking more of their stories on screen, and also to the broader community as a whole.
"Film is such an easily accessible medium for people and a populist medium for people and, again, you have that opportunity to, within a film, to both entertain somebody and to inform and educate and raise awareness," says Ferguson. "There aren't many things that are that accessible and have that ability. You can have a really light, easily digestible film, but it might introduce you to a trans-person or a trans character that you've had no real-life experience with."
Believe it or not, there are films out there that aren't about "some white guy with pecs in a superhero suit," as Mills says. While your local multiplex might not always reflect this, there are alternatives. But you have to look. Audiences still have to seek these stories out.
"I feel like all we can do as queer storytellers," says Tremblay, "is to keep telling our stories because they're gripping, and they're wonderful, and they're beautiful, and they are honest, and have soul and they are stories that need to be told."
The Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival runs May 21 to 31 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Scott and Andrew's top picks for the festival:
Andrew Murphy: Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Peter Greenaway; You're Killing Me, Jim Hansen; Monster Mash, Mark Pariselli.
Scott Ferguson: Butterfly, Marco Berger; The New Girlfriend, Francois Ozon; Guidance, Pat Mills.
Follow Regan Reid on Twitter.