I have been reviewing Ottawa’s Inside Out Film Festival with Apt613 since 2014 and this year marks the festival’s best year to date. I am impressed by the selection of quality films and the representation of gay, lesbian and transgender filmmakers, actors and themes. In addition, the festival’s support and showcase of Canadian filmmakers was excellent, including Bobbi Jo Hart’s Rebels on Pointe, as well as seven short films by emerging film makers. The 30 minute documentary, Picture This, by Jari Osborne, was a gem among a brilliant selection of shorts.
It follows the lives of Andrew and Stella (with an emphasis on Andrew), two sex-positive activists with disabilities and confronts audiences with the beautiful, intimate and vulnerable realities of the sexual lives of people with bodies outside normative frameworks. I was pleased to find out it received the Best Canadian Short award given by Inside Out. Supporting local talent ensures LGBTQ artists are getting the funding and attention necessary to produce movies that speak of the “Canadian” queer reality.
However, I was disappointed that no Aboriginal artists were featured. Indeed, this land we call Canada might have been framed under a more critical gaze had we had the privilege of seeing a two-spirited point of view. The typically white, settler, queer gaze seems to be unaware to the ongoing colonial violence in this land we call Canada. Perhaps the Festival could start a fund or a bursary to support emerging two-spirited filmmakers?
So many of the long features were extraordinary this year and I want to congratulate the festival organizers for bringing us such a diverse bouquet of narratives, cinematographic aesthetics and cultural themes to Ottawa. I did not go to all the movies, but the ones I saw were jam-packed and I was told that some had even sold out, including the closing feature, Call Me by Your Name. I will list but a few of the ones I saw that struck me as aesthetically stunning and/or politically urgent, including God’s Own Country, A Fantastic Woman and the documentary that was pulled out of the festival, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Other movies deserve notable mention including Tom of Finland and Novitiate, however, I believe that the latter, although an excellent film, did not belong in an LGBTQ film festival. The main character’s lesbian encounter with another nun, shown in the last few minutes of the movie, did not seem terribly relevant to the film.
I want to dwell on the documentary that was pulled out of the festival, David France’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. David France is a cis white queer man who has allegedly stolen footage from Reina Gossett, a black transgender activist that has been working on a documentary on Marsha P. Johnson since 2012. Gossett’s documentary, Happy Birthday Marsha!, will come out next year, and I expect the Festival will feature it.
At the height of the gay movement, Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera fought and were brutalized for all of us and they deserve our most profound respect and gratitude. I quote this bone-crushing passage from Gwen Benaway’s address at this year’s Queer Canada Conference, in which she references Sylvia Rivera’s speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Rally:
“I have been to jail. I have been raped. And beaten. Many times! By men . . . But, do you do anything for me? No. You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not put up with this shit . . . What the fuck’s wrong with you all?”, I hear the voices of every transsexual woman I have known resonate with that pain. Her question—“what the fuck’s wrong with you all”
What the fuck is wrong, indeed, to think we can appropriate footage from trans, black activists who work day in and day out for free, that is, who are experiencing states of poverty that make research and the production of film prohibitive, yet labour nonetheless, against the odds, to celebrate the life and work of one of their own? Sylvia Rivera was booed in 1973 by white, middle-class queers, those lesbians and gays that did not seem to care about bodies that do not fit normative gender binaries.
I do not suggest that France’s documentary does not honour the life of Marsha—in fact, I would argue the opposite. The film is timely and important; it is brilliantly executed and frank in its depiction of the last moments of Marsha’s life, just before she was killed. But it cannot come at the expense of the lives and the work of trans people, including Gossett’s, especially Gossett’s. It is sad to see the admiration, care and love we all have for Marsha turn into an “us vs. them” argument, one in which white cis queers are still, almost half a century later, in an arena of power imbalance that oppresses trans people, people of colour and those experiencing poverty.
We watch these movies because we want to engage in the larger conversations they’re part of. So why keep the important things in the closet? Bring them out into the open next time, please.
The Festival did not make mention of this in their opening remarks to the selection of trans short films that replaced The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. I would have liked a space in which the community was allowed to express their views in regard to the controversy and its effects. The continued rifts apparent in the LGBTQ community and the power imbalances that Sylvia Rivera was crying out loud about are a persistent reality for trans folk, people of colour and those living in poverty. How many middle-class, white, cis, movie-goers have taken the time to check their privilege? To not talk about these issues openly was a missed opportunity at this year’s festival. We watch these movies because we want to engage in the larger conversations they’re part of. So why keep the important things in the closet? Bring them out into the open next time, please.