Dispatch From Inside Out: Toronto LGBT Film Festival

In the early summertime in Toronto,  the floor of the entrance of the  TIFF Bell Lightbox was covered by a pink, not red, carpet. The Inside Out festival was happening and the place was crowded with audiences there to see new queer films. An inarguable fact of the contemporary film landscape is that much of the most interesting work is from queer filmmakers and/or about queer stories. Just in the past year, Alain Guiraudie‘s startling Stranger by the Lake and Xavier Dolan’s compelling thriller Tom At The Farm (also screened at Inside Out) were some of the most captivating work I saw. Other films, like the divisive Blue Is The Warmest Color, reached larger audiences and moved to something like mainstream acceptance. Increasingly work which would formerly not receive release or recognition beyond festivals like Inside Out has gotten mainstream attention. Still, this year’s Inside Out offered a chance to see some deeply idiosyncratic, hilarious, telling and radical queer films.

From Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian LivesUnearthed from the National Film Board Of Canada’s archives was Forbidden Loves: The Unashamed Tales Of Lesbian Lives, a wonderful documentary about the perhaps hidden stories of lesbians in the forties and fifties. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another, more recent Canadian documentary released by the NFB Stories We Tell which showed the director Sarah Polley looking into her family’s past and the many different versions there were, using recreations of old footage. In a similar device, the directors of this film, Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman choose to use the pulp paperbacks which were some of the few cultural representations of lesbians available at the time, always with a death at the end. We see women talking about how they read these books voraciously for the rare representation they provided. and incorporate a  kind of fantasy film made from these kind of stories but without any of the punishment usually implied, unashamed.  This choice to visually represent something almost unseen, hidden in our local culture is similar to Polley’s illustration of her family’s secrets through created home footage and is quite valuable. The film is quite entertaining and alive with the stories of these women and their lives, never at a remove. These are stories which should be told and heard from a time in which they were all too hidden.

Midway through Nancy Kates’ new documentary, Regarding Susan Sontag, Terry Castle says that the cover of Sontag’s book of stories I, Etcetera of Sontag wearing all black and looking out at the reader “was a kind of pin up for every graduate school lesbian I knew.” Not unlike the covers of the paperbacks in Forbidden Loves, Sontag’s alluring image provided an almost guilty draw for lesbian readers. Sontag was from the same era as the women in Forbidden Love, bisexual and having most of her relationships with women but loosely closeted for her whole life.  As Fran Lebowitz says in the documentary in defense of Sontag’s decision “why is it a private thing? Because for someone my age, for most of your life it had to be a secret thing.” Her sexuality can be said to be something coded, hidden  in her work and this argument is made in the film (Wayne Koystenbaum asks “does the author of Notes On Camp have to come out?”). The two films, Forbidden Love and Regarding Susan Sontag, make surprisingly good companion pieces about the time in which lesbian relationships were hidden. They claim a history through these tattered paperbacks lying on lesbian bookshelves.

Speaking of camp, another one of my favorite films at Inside Out was Cupcakes by the Israeli director Eytan Fox about a ragtag group of friends entering a singing competition not altogether unlike EuroVision. This film was joyful to watch, full of color, humor and life, just like a good pop song. That Fox, usually regarded as a director of far darker fair, can make a film as pop as this one is wonderful. We cannot underestimate the worth of good kitsch. The Foxy Merkins by Madeleine Olnek was also amusing, showing an unlikely prostitute and pimp’s life stationed outside that hotbed of hooking…Talbot’s clothing stores. Lisa Haas gave a particularly good performance as Margaret, full of uncertainty as she makes her way in the world.

But my favorite film of the festival? That would have to be the last one I saw, Me, Myself and Mum by Guillaume Gallienne, about not conforming to the expectations of society about gender and sexuality. Gallienne gives a remarkable performance, both as his young self and the mother who he grows up imitating. He is a true performer, a master of the gesture which shows character. The film had perhaps the most wonderfully shocking ending for a film at Inside Out–which I won’t spoil here. The film is also absolutely hilarious. A must see, if you ask me, and well worth checking, well, out.

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